An oral history of Friday Night Lights
By Robert Mays
POSTED JULY 13, 2011
Tomorrow night, after five terrific, unlikely seasons, the clock will run out on NBC's Friday Night Lights. Inspired by the legendary Buzz Bissinger book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, and the 2004 Peter Berg movie based on it, FNL told the story of a high school football coach from Dillon, Texas, whose improbable victories mirrored those of the critically beloved — but disastrously rated — show itself. In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of our Country seemed most in doubt.
Gone too soon. Appreciated too little. Treasured by those who followed it. That was Friday Night Lights. So with clear eyes (and full tape recorders), we present the complete oral history of the defining network drama of the past 10 years.
I. "We're going to demolish him."
Brian Grazer (chairman, Imagine Entertainment): I was so proud of the Friday Night Lights movie — that I couldn't really imagine doing a sequel or a series. There are so many details in the TV series that you could never put in the movie. All the interpersonal relationships that go on. It makes complete sense now, but at the time, I couldn't imagine putting a microscope over every one of the lives the way the series does.
Peter Berg (creator, executive producer): I truly felt that there was a lot more meat from the book that we weren't able to put in the original film. And I just wasn't ready to leave the world. I fell in love with Austin. I fell in love with Texas. I fell in love with Texas football. And I wanted more.
Kevin Reilly (former President of Entertainment, NBC): I loved the book and tried to buy it, but it had already been optioned for the movie, so we couldn't get it. We ended up doing a show on NBC in 1993 called Against the Grain that was "inspired" by the book.
David Nevins (former head of Imagine Television): It aired on Friday nights and lasted [less than one season]. QB1 was played by a young actor named Ben Affleck.
Reilly: I saw the movie and loved it. When I heard Pete was willing to do it as a series, I was just like, "Oh my god. This is coming full circle."
Sarah Aubrey (executive producer): In making a television show, tone is one of the most difficult things. You can explain the genre — cop show, lawyer show — but execution is everything, and we had an entire movie that explained what the tone and execution of the TV show would be.
Berg: I remember I went to NBC, and there were about 10 people in the room. [Kevin Reilly] and I looked at each other, and he said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him. His biggest decision in life was whether he was going to take a full ride to UT or Notre Dame. He's got the hot girlfriend. He's got the loving parents. And he's going to break his neck in the first game. We're going to create this iconic American hero, and we're going to demolish him."
II. "You look like a Texas high school football coach."
Berg: I couldn't find a coach. The only actor I liked was Dwight Yoakam. He seemed interesting — kind of a flawed, messed-up Southern boy who wanted to act. I met with him a couple times, but then he started making demands. He would need eight weeks off to tour. He'd only be able to give us eight days of filming. And he wanted a ton of money. He made it impossible for us to say yes.
Linda Lowy (casting director): Pete and I talked a lot about who was going to play Coach Taylor. He had ideas for people who were Billy Bob Thornton-like. Kyle Chandler couldn't be less like Billy Bob Thornton.
Berg: I said, "Kyle Chandler?" I only knew him from [late-'90s CBS drama] Early Edition. I was not a fan of that show, and I was not a fan of Kyle Chandler.
Aubrey: I think Pete was concerned that Kyle was too pretty. But a couple weeks later, Pete met him for lunch.
Berg: He rode up on a motorcycle. He'd been drinking for two days with his buddies. He had a beard and bags under his eyes. He was clearly hung-over as shit. I was really surprised, because I remembered him as this fresh-faced, boyish, charming young man. And here he was looking like one of the Baldwin brothers after a hard weekend.
Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor): Pete said, "Kyle, what the hell's wrong with you?" I said, "I apologize. I was out with my friends." We had been consuming a considerable amount of alcohol, smoking cigars, and playing poker. I'd been up all night.
Berg: He looked like a mess, and I just said, "You look like a Texas high school football coach!"
Chandler: He said, "Whatever you did last night, I want you to do that every night. I want you to look exactly the same you do right now when you do the show." A big Cheshire Cat grin came across my face, because I envisioned telling my wife that that was part of the job.
III. "A marriage of equals"
Berg: [In the original Friday Night Lights movie], Connie Britton's role was sort of Pretty Wife Clapping in the Stands, which is about the shittiest job an actress can have. At least Talia Shire got to own a pet store and go ice-skating with Rocky.
Connie Britton (Tami Taylor): When Pete got in touch with me and said, "We're going to make a Friday Night Lights TV show. Why don't you come play that part?" I was like, "No way!" The only thing worse than playing a nothing part in a movie is [playing it] for years and years on TV.
Berg: She said, "Are you fucking kidding me? You think I'm going to spend 10 years sitting on a hard-wood bleacher getting splinters in my ass and cheering on Kyle Chandler? You're out of your mind." I said, "I promise. We'll create a character. We'll give you a job. We'll give you dimension. We'll give you a real voice."
Nevins: I had to convince her that the wife was going to have a much more significant role, and that the marriage would be the heart of the show. But you never know if that's going to be true. I tried to convince myself so I could convince her.
Britton: It really was a leap of faith, initially, because I only had three scenes in the pilot script. So I remember even going into the pilot and saying, "OK, Pete, just so we're clear: What's here on the page in the pilot, that's not what we're talking about, right?"
Chandler: I'd never met Connie. I didn't know her from her work either, and I don't think she knew me from mine. But it didn't take long — probably 25 steps on the way to go get brunch — that I had an idea that she was going to be a lot of fun to work with.
Berg: I was really worried. Connie and Kyle developed a very flirtatious, precocious relationship right off the bat. And Kyle, of course, is married. They announced they were going to drive to Austin together from L.A. to move out, and I threw myself in front of that bus. I said it was a horrible idea for multiple reasons. They ignored me. Connie dismissively told me she knew what she was doing and she didn't need my advice. I was convinced they would be having some torrid affair by the time they reached Santa Fe and Kyle's marriage would be over by the time they got to Austin. I was wrong about that, thank God.
Jeffrey Reiner (producer/director): The first time I met them, they were so comfortable with each other. I was even kind of like, "God, are these two sleeping with each other?" Then you come to know Kyle and Connie, and that would never happen.
Bridget Carpenter (co-executive producer, writer): I felt like as actors, they both met their match. It was a marriage of equals.
Aubrey: There's a great scene where they have the entire team over, and Kyle's given Connie no notice that this is happening. They have the huge fight, and they're whisper-fighting under the table. They're so furious with each other, and it's so real. Even though they want to rip each other's throats out, you know they love each other. It's all there.
Britton: We met on set the first day of shooting and we just started talking about how we envisioned it: the marriage, the characters, and we just absolutely agreed, a hundred percent across the board.
Lowy: For the kids, we were looking for actors who were fearless but weren't big stars and didn't have gigantic résumés. The word "raw" comes to mind.
Aubrey: We saw basically every young actor. I remember the one person we wanted to see, but didn't get to, was Blake Lively.
Berg: Linda Lowy did a really good search. She brought in girls like Minka Kelly, who, prior to doing the show, was working at a plastic surgery clinic, prepping girls for lip jobs and boob jobs.
Minka Kelly (Lyla Garrity): I was working as a scrub nurse. I was an actor — I was auditioning — but I was always embarrassed to say I was an actor because that's not how I was paying my bills.
Scott Porter (Jason Street): Before Friday Night Lights, I was singing and beat-boxing in an off-Broadway show and sleeping on my buddy's couch. I had auditioned for a Disney musical and their casting director asked me to be an understudy for the lead. I didn't want to do it unless I had an out in my contract for TV. He said, "We're not going to do that for you. You don't want to TV anyway. As green as you are, you'll just be the fourth handsome boy from the left on some WB show for a couple of episodes."
Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen): I was working at [a sporting goods store], folding clothes. I'd been out of school for a little under a year, and it was my first pilot season. My manager and agent said, "There's this project, and this project, and this Friday Night Lights one, but we don't know if you'd be into that." I was like, "Wait, Friday Night Lights the movie? The book, Friday Night Lights? You don't think I'd be into that? Do you know me?"
Porter: I auditioned on tape. I tore pages out of my script and did a different scene than the two they had picked out. Later, Pete told me he wasn't really paying attention to the audition tapes, and he heard a scene come on that wasn't one of the usual ones, so he looked up and he watched it. The same thing happened with Gaius [Charles]. We took chances. I guess he took a chance on us.
Gaius Charles (Smash Williams): In my audition tape, I said something Smash would have said. Something like, "Hey, Pete. You're looking for me. You're looking for me."
Aubrey: I remember Taylor [Kitsch]'s audition in particular. He auditioned on tape from Canada. He had two tall boys of beer, and he was already referring to himself as Rigg.
Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins): I brought in a cooler, put a big, black blanket behind me, and my agent filmed it. I found this Texas beer — Lone Star beer — and I was chugging those, just in my introduction.
Nevins: I first got a sense of how good Pete was as a director when he would sit in on auditions. Generally, actors come in and they get no direction, and they're the same after the fourth take as they were in the first. Pete had an amazing ability to help actors find the character.
Aubrey: He throws a lot of curveballs. He'll say, "Do it like you haven't slept in a month." That's the G-rated version of what he'll say.
Kelly: He said, "Do it like you're on heroin!" I did it, and he said, "No, no, that's cocaine!"
Adrianne Palicki (Tyra Collette): I was like, "Well, Pete, let me just tap into those days …"
Aubrey: I think that's why we got great kids. Pete was able to get under and see who had potential, not just who was perfect in the room in the moment.
V. "I don't know how we're going to sell this."
Chandler: It was the best pilot I've ever seen for a TV show. Arguably, it may be one of the best pilots ever.
Patrick Massett (co-executive producer, writer): The cut from the field to the sawing of the helmet to Minka Kelly crying.
John Zinman (co-executive producer, writer): The voiceover …
Massett: "We will all be tested."
Nevins: It was gorgeous. Beautiful filmmaking.
Angela Bromstad (former President of Primetime Entertainment, NBC): At screenings for pilots, you have a pretty eclectic group of people — high-level executives and development people, research, scheduling, and publicity people — all of them very tense. At the end of the Friday Night Lights pilot you had people cheering and clapping. But the minute the lights came up, our head of marketing, John Miller, walked up and said, "This is a great pilot, but I really don't know how we're going to sell this."
Nevins: I knew what I was in for the first time I saw the pilot — this was never going to be easy.
Carpenter: It wasn't upbeat. Not everybody was likeable.
Reilly: I remember just sort of choking up. There was never a question in my mind whether it was going on the air.
Chandler: I was out driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, on my way home from getting some beer and clams from [seafood restaurant] Neptune's Net. The phone rang and I pulled off to the side of the road on the ocean side. My manager told me that it got picked up and I just remember pumping my fist in the air. I was in a convertible going, "Yes! Yes!"
Berg: Right from the get-go, I was like, "We're filming in Texas."
Aubrey: It's the antithesis of sitting on an airless sound stage for 18 hours where everything is hermetically sealed.
Nevins: I remember telling the studio, "No, we're not going to build any sets. Pete doesn't think he needs sets." "Well, what are you going to do about the coach's house? You've got to build that." "No, we're going to rent a house, and we'll make sure it's a house we can get back into whenever we need it." These were fairly radical ideas.
Reiner: The Riggins house was a shithole.
Kitsch: It reeked. There was mold. The pool was filled with sludge. One of us got sick and we had a doctor come to set. He was like, "You guys shouldn't be shooting in this house."
Derek Phillips (Billy Riggins): We were maybe eight episodes in, and I was chilling out, waiting to shoot a scene, and there was this national championship ring sitting in one of the rooms. I was like, "Dude, this is a real national championship ring! Whose is this?" Somebody said, "Oh, it's probably the guys who live here." And I was like, "People live here?"
Palicki: I would walk out of that place with bites after sitting on the couch.
Kitsch: Maybe it's just me, but I loved being in there. It was the Riggins brothers in a nutshell.
Reiner: The first scene we did was in a church, and I said, "Let me meet the pastor." We met the pastor, and he was great. So I said, "OK, you're going to be in the show."
Liz Mikel (Corrina Williams): He got up and said a prayer. It was an actual prayer; it wasn't anything scripted.
Reiner: [Showrunner] Jason Katims was there, and he didn't even know we were filming. We were these two Jews from New York so immersed in this Baptist service that we were just glowing. We shot 25 minutes for 45 seconds of footage, but what we were doing is creating an environment that would inform the next five years.
Reiner: We shot in a jewelry store, when Matt's looking for a ring for Julie. I get in there, and I see this hot 25-year-old extra behind the counter. I said, "What's she doing here?" I wanted the old woman that worked there.
David Hudgins (executive producer, writer): We researched a lot. All the writers did their own research independently — reading about paralysis, reading as much as we could about the condition and what it was like. We decided that if we're going to have this kid in a wheelchair, we have to be real about it.
Aaron Spivey (Coach Spivey): They really took the time to ask questions. You know how they always say football is X's and O's? That statement is not true. It's circles and squares and numbers. So when we were at the chalkboard writing things down, that's one thing I was telling the director: "If you really want it to be authentic, this is how it looks."
Berg: I think the episode the show sort of found itself was the mud bowl, when they couldn't play in the stadium, so Kyle's character went out and found that field. There's a great moment where Kyle and Connie are just alone in the field, and he starts walking it off, and there's these wild bulls around them. We're sitting there thinking, "This is why we do it. This is what it should be." That's when something inside me clicked.
VI. "Don't let anybody push you around."
Ian Ellis (camera operator): We never did rehearsals, ever.
Aubrey: Pete says as an actor, one of the worst things on a set is when someone yells, "Cut!" You just freeze. You feel like, "What have I screwed up? What did I not do right? What are we cutting?"
Ellis: It was just "Roll camera." We wouldn't cut. The actors would just go back to the beginning of the scene and we'd keep shooting.
Michael Waxman (producer/director): We took the three-camera style, which Pete used on the pilot, and we shot it with cameras that were relatively small and mobile. It allowed us to shoot a scene many times with multiple cameras shooting different directions.
Matt Lauria (Luke Cafferty): It's miraculous what these little camera ninjas were accomplishing because half of the time, you didn't even know where the camera was. It was hidden somewhere between a trash can and a bush, and then another cameraman is sitting in the backseat of a pickup.
Nevins: The mode in television at that time was, "No changes to the script on the set. Any changes must be discussed beforehand." But Pete and Jason set a standard, which was that sometimes things happen on the set, and you have to allow for it.
Charles: I had always been taught, "Say the lines on the page. Hit your mark. Find your light."
Chandler: There was one scene where a character had assaulted another player. I went to the jail to talk to him, and he told me it wasn't his fault. I said, "You look me in the eye and you tell me that." And he did. Well, it turns out it was a lie. Later on, he came into my office, and I was supposed to say, "You lied to me, you lied to the community. You lied to everyone. If you go to my wife, the guidance counselor, and you talk with her, maybe you can come back on the team." Well, I couldn't say that. There's no way any self-respecting man or coach or father or anyone would ever do that. I had a problem because the director at the time got a little spooked. He said, "You have to say it." We had our conversation, and by God, I didn't say it. And it was the right thing to do for the character.
Charles: Pete wanted this world to be so organic and natural that he gave us the authority and the opportunity to be co-creators of the characters and the world.
Chandler: Pete's given me a few different gifts over the years. One was a KA-BAR knife with a six-inch blade. And on the knife it says, "Don't let anybody push you around." Another year, he gave me a sledgehammer with a little plaque that said, "Don't let anybody push you around." I'll get letters or cards from him that say, "Don't let anybody push you around." He's given that advice to all the actors on the show. A lot of these actors had never worked before and he gave them permission to fight for what they want.
VII. "Just stick to acting."
Charles: You probably heard from other interviews that football, for me, wasn't a natural thing.
Spivey: We told Gaius, "Just stick to acting." He's a hell of an actor, but he's not a football player. At all.
Justin Riemer (football coordinator): Smash was supposed to be the dynamic, over-the-top running back with the moves. That's kind of hard to fake. It doesn't matter how good you are.
Gilford: I know how to throw a ball. I know how to catch a ball. I don't look an idiot when I run.
Riemer: Saracen wasn't a guy that was supposed to have a rocket arm, so it worked. We could put him in there and he didn't need to be John Elway.
Porter: I played high school football for a pretty solid team. I had three future NFL players on my team.
Spivey: Mr. Jason Street, Scott Porter — that guy can play football.
Porter: And I was in a wheelchair.
Waxman: Michael B. Jordan was a great athlete.
Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard): It was all quarterback drills — getting that throwing motion down. Keep your elbow high, rotate your shoulder, follow through. Throwing a football is a little more tactical than it looks. It's an awkward motion. How do you get that zip? You have to make it look as real as possible.
Lamarcus Tinker (Dallas Tinker): I would truly say he could be somebody's quarterback.
Tim Crowley (Coach Crowley): By far the best athlete overall was Taylor Kitsch. He grew up in Canada playing hockey.
Kitsch: I played for a good 20 years.
Riemer: In the first or second episode of the first season, Taylor comes flying through the hole, hits the quarterback, and helicopters himself like a maniac. I was like, "Hey, you don't have to do that." He said, "No, I want to do it." I said, "Yeah, I understand, but I don't need some dude calling me because you broke your arm on a close-up running around like a crazy person."
Kitsch: It's Riggs. That's a piece of his character. And I'm a physical cat, anyway. Maybe you get a bit carried away, but that's what it's about, you know?
Riemer: Making the endings of the football games more realistic was a constant battle. We won every game with two seconds left. We'd come back from 30 points down. We always tried to push back on that.
Hudgins: My own kids would say, "Another one?! God, they always win on the last play of the game!"
Berg: People weren't reacting to the football. It was expensive, but people weren't reacting to it. How many 40-yard bombs can you throw? It was probably the least interesting part of the show. Watching Buddy Garrity try to stay sober and get a JumboTron named after him was much more interesting to me. I don't get a lot of kids coming up to me to say, "Oh, the football rocks." The show will be remembered more as one about a marriage than one about football.
VIII. "Nobody even turned it on?"
Brad Leland (Buddy Garrity): The moment that critics from New York to L.A. loved the show, I knew we were doomed.
Porter: Nobody wanted to admit it, but everyone was waiting for the ratings. My family was in town. I had flown them out, and I remember where I was when I got the ratings. We were going to the Paramount Theater. I got the e-mail, and we got real scared.
Berg: They put us against Dancing with the Stars and American Idol. We just got demolished.
Reilly: There was a lot of debate. "Well, you can move it, but it's not going to do any better. Why go to another time period with a show that has limited upside?"
Carpenter: The marketing was frustrating. Not only did it seem misguided, but there was very little of it.
Chandler: I never had any sour grapes about it, but I scratched my head quite often trying to figure out why, certain times of the year, we couldn't have gotten a plug here and there.
Zinman: On the first-year poster, two out of the three panels were football. That was the problem in the marketing of the show. People thought, "Oh, it's that football show."
Reilly: There were quite a few skeptics [at NBC] that felt the sports theme was going to hold the show back commercially.
Britton: It's not a show about football. It's a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other. And how do you just whittle that down into a teeny-tiny poster?
Jason Katims (show-runner, head writer): Sometimes we would get these great reviews, and we'd joke about them in the writers' room. They'd be comparing us to a prose poem. They're comparing us to an opera. Just say it's sexy and raw! Say it's hot!
Britton: Brian Williams came up to me on a plane and he was like, "Your show is the best show on TV, and it's the only thing my family watches together. I told [NBC's] Jeff Zucker that they had better keep it on the air."
Phillips: I was out at a bar with Kyle Chandler, and this group of girls comes running over saying, "Oh my god!" I was thinking, "Oh, surely they recognize him. He's Coach." Then she says, "You were on Grey's Anatomy!" You've got to be kidding me. He's the lead on the best show on television right now, and this chick is recognizing him from Grey's Anatomy?
Berg: We had Ben Silverman take over at NBC. It's a classic problem. We were green-lit under one regime, and that regime got fired while we were already up and running.
Reilly: When I left, or was forced out, the network went from bad to worse.
Aubrey: Friday Night Lights wasn't [Ben Silverman's] show. It wasn't his baby. It was Kevin Reilly's baby. You don't really care about someone else's baby, especially if it's ugly, in terms of numbers. [Ed. note: Ben Silverman did not return calls for comment.]
Berg: I thought we were dead in the water. But then weird shit started happening.
Alex Blagg (former Bestweekever.tv blogger): I was the managing editor of VH1's Best Week Ever blog. I thought it would be funny to send light bulbs to Ben Silverman [in support of the show], because, theoretically, after a light bulb would go through the mail, you'd basically be sending him broken glass — a symbolic and also vaguely threatening gesture.
Reilly: All the shows that were marginal performers — Friday Night Lights included — that Jeff Zucker didn't really like got to stay on the air for four more years because [all of NBC's other shows] were such a disaster.
Berg: I know Jeff Zucker. He's a fancy, Upper East Side guy. Fifth Avenue, beautiful kids all going to the best private schools, high-society wife. He gets into that elevator every day, and he's judged. He runs into his neighbors, and they're not going to be like, "Hey, dude, love The Biggest Loser." I can't remember what else they had on at the time, but it was some pretty low-rent programming.
Aubrey: Ben Silverman said, "I'm picking my own horse." But at the same time, he let us live. And that's kind of the theme. A lot of people let us live, and we just kept cranking down and figuring out ways to survive.
IX. "What's up with the murder?"
Jesse Plemons (Landry Clarke): I never imaged Season 2 to go like it did, with the storyline about Landry murdering Tyra's attacker.
Hudgins: We were coming to the end of Season 1, and the show was critically well-received, but the numbers. … So we thought, let's do something big, something shocking and titillating and provocative.
Massett: I kind of felt there was some pressure from the network.
Berg: It was a disaster. I went crazy when I read that. That opening episode, you've got a murder.
Zinman: In retrospect, I think we would all say, "That was a bad call."
Carpenter: The writers' strike interrupted Season 2. When we were on the picket lines, everybody would always ask us, "What's up with the murder?"
Katims: When the writers' strike ended [on Februrary 12, 2008], I talked to the people at the studio and the network and said, "We're ready to finish the season." They were like, "Oh, hold on one second. You're not doing any more episodes this season." We were essentially canceled.
Kitsch: I think that was the moment of "Oh, shit. I think we might be out."
Katims: Rumors started to spread that the show wasn't coming back. That motivated everybody involved to flood the network with calls. It turned out there was more truth to the rumors of our cancellation than we were comfortable with. Then the possibility of a deal with DirecTV to keep the show going came up.
Eric Shanks (former Executive Vice President of Entertainment, DirecTV): We were at the Sundance Film Festival. Tom Arnold, me, and Ben Silverman were having Chinese food somewhere. Ben was talking about how Friday Night Lights was on the bubble, and that the audience was passionate but not huge. He didn't know if it could support a network audience anymore. We just kind of cooked up the idea of DirecTV and NBC partnering on the show right there over Chinese food. Actually, Tom Arnold gets all the credit because he was the guy that set up the dinner and put everybody together.
Berg: For all of Ben's craziness, there's a certain out-of-the-box thinking there — an inconsistent genius to the guy that I really liked.
Shanks: Peter Berg wanted to make sure we were serious enough about supporting the show that the production budget would stay high enough to pay for the show they wanted to produce.
Katims: The DirecTV deal was only for Season 3.
Reiner: At the end of the third season, we thought it was over. That last shot of Connie and Kyle on the football field. I was convinced it was over. I thought, "This is a great way to end this show."
Aubrey: I was on location in San Francisco, and we were shooting the pilot for another show called Trauma. I got a call that was basically, "There isn't a deal to be done between NBC and DirecTV, and there's going to be a press release saying that the show is canceled." That was it for me. That was the full cardiac-arrest moment.
Shanks: There was an economic discussion with Pete and NBC again.
Berg: We'd developed a system of shooting that was so cheap that we were coming in at half the price of other dramas, and that gave me confidence.
Reiner: I think we cut a half-million dollars out of the budget.
Shanks: We listened to where Jason Katims and Pete thought the show could go in its final two seasons, and how they could wrap it up. I think we were excited about where the creative was going. We were able to do another deal with NBC.
Chandler: [Moving the setting of the show] was like dangling a piece of meat in front of [the networks]. It was saying, "This is what the show could be." I always thought it made them say yes just for the hell of it, to find out what they were going to do next.
X. "I was nervous about the red."
Katims: At the time it was nerve-wracking, but one of the things that turned out to be a really good decision was to have Coach Taylor fired and move the show from the west side of town to a new high school in East Dillon.
Chandler: I hear people use this word all the time about the silliest, simplest things, but I'll tell you what — that was brilliant.
Katims: It was the scariest thing I've done on a show. Because you could envision people saying, "Well, I don't like those guys. I don't like them wearing red. Coach doesn't look good in red." It could have failed.
Berg: I was nervous about the red. But Kyle, God love him, just took that red hat and made it his own.
Katims: There was a ton of pressure on those casting choices. We were giving up so many of our series regulars, so many of the characters that the fans really came to love.
Porter:[In the beginning] Pete told us, "This is not going to be 90210. This is not going to be a show where you guys stick around forever. I don't know if we get picked up and go to series how long any of you will be around."
Berg: I directed that first episode and cast all those actors. I brought Taylor Kitsch back, and I made all the actors improvise with Taylor Kitsch. He was the biggest star, and they were all scared of him. Whoever could hold their own with Taylor, we cast.
Nevins: I watched Taylor Kitsch, who was this guy from Canada who had come down with a pretty thick accent, slowly turn into this hard-living Texas teenager. It was amazing to watch that transformation.
Lauria: I walk into the room, and he's sitting there. I'm like, "Dude!" I shook his hand and was just really stoked to meet Tim Riggins.
Berg: Michael B. Jordan was supergood. He was probably the strongest [actor].
Katims: He walked into the room and you were like, "There's Vince."
Jordan: I had one of my craziest auditions with Peter Berg because he's really into improv and ad-libbing. He was like, "I want you to act like you're on defense. And I want you to get your team hyped up." And I'm ad-libbing, and he's like, "Give me more." And I'm really letting loose. He pushed me to the point where I ran over to him and just knocked him out of his chair. I was like, "Did I take it too far? Am I getting arrested now?"
Lauria: We went out with a lot of the [remaining cast] for dinner right when we got to Austin.
Jordan: We went to this Italian restaurant in Austin on Marsh Street. All the cast, producers, everybody was there. Kyle just stood up.
Katims: He had written notes for himself.
Lauria: Kyle stood up and, in Coach fashion, gave a kind of pep talk — brief, specific, and heartfelt.
Katims: He essentially said to them, "This is your show now." It was one of the most generous things I've ever seen an actor do.
Lauria: It was like, "This thing means the world to us. We're giving you some of the responsibility for that. Make sure you know the weight of that responsibility."
Jordan: Once we heard that from the man himself, it was like, "OK, this is what we're getting in to."
XI. "Just give me a good gate."
Hudgins: The show was about Dillon, about the people. And we knew we wanted to end it somehow honoring the idea of Texas Forever.
Katims: When I talked to Taylor about that final image of him on the land building the house, he said, "I want to be with Billy." We end up with Tim, the guy in the pilot who said "Texas forever," and he's living his dream of building on land in Dillon, Texas. That's the beauty of what the show is about.
Aubrey: We pull out there, and it is a beautiful location with rolling green hills, and the sky is that only-in-Texas pink sky as the sun is starting to set.
Phillips: What I was looking at was every person who had ever worked on the show, from producers to writers to actors — everyone made it out, basically. It was really, really tough keeping it together, because that was the final shot of the series. To this day, that's probably the most beautiful, magical moment I've had as an actor. I don't know what could touch that. I said to somebody at some point, "Shit, man, I've been on this show longer than I was in college, longer than I was in high school."
Porter: After the final shot, we all stood out there and cracked open a beer. We stood in this field in the middle of Austin, Texas, and Pete very quietly pulled us all in and said, "Every story has an end, and we've really accomplished something. And we think it's time for Friday Night Lights to go ahead and say goodbye. This was something special." To see Pete get very emotional, and very quiet, and reflective about something is a rare sight.
Nan Bernstein (producer): For the wrap party, we went to a honky-tonk place in Austin called Midnight Rodeo. We brought a lot of people in who had worked on the show but had never met each other — writers, casting people, assistants who worked in L.A. and never come to Austin.
Katims: At the end of the night, somebody came up to me and said, "We want to go to the field." I was like, "What?" It was like two in the morning.
Hudgins: We played a touch football game with everyone who wanted to play — actors, crew. We busted out some of the old uniforms and put them on.
Plemons: It was so perfect. You didn't think about it at the time, but it was just so perfect.
Chandler: I was back home in Los Angeles and we wanted to put a gate up in our yard. The fella came over and said, "Mr. Chandler, how do you want me to build this?" I said, "I'm not going to tell you how to build this gate. You just look around at what's here, and you build the best gate you can. Be as creative as you want. Take your time, and just give me a good gate." That gate's probably going to stand for 400 years.
Robert Mays is an editor for Grantland.
Friday Night Lights --> 'Better Person' --> Becoming a Man
Our bro from Hipster Runoff talks about the lessons he learned from TV's most lesson-learningest show.
POSTED JULY 18, 2011
I am often perplexed by the modern desire to consume entire seasons of television shows with services like Netflix, Hulu, or even Amazon Gold Box Deals. No longer are we watching last night's episode of a popular series to talk about it around the water cooler at work. The emotional and intellectual journey you went on with a TV show says a lot about the way you interpret the human condition by simulating it thru the content that you spend your time consuming.
Binging on an entire season of a television show without commercial interruption allows you to completely 'immerse' yourself in the world of your new favorite show. You aren't waiting thru commercials or watching the same annoying network promos over and over again. If you were forced to watch the same show week by week, it wouldn't be as meaningful because you allow the show's portrayal of 'real time' to override your personal version of real time. Cliffhangers would be obnoxious. By binge-watching, you are spending quality time with the characters, forming a deep emotional connection with them.
I went on the emotional journey that was Friday Night Lights, and I believe that I am a better person because of it.
Many of today's critically acclaimed television shows either attempt to create an absurd, hyperreal version of American society in which fans commit to seasons of "laughing along" with sad losers who work in a meaningless workplace, or they just go all-out with the escapism and you end up on some island somewhere. Friday Night Lights was different because it felt real. While the critics who referred to it as "the perfect teen melodrama" may have been right, it resonated with viewers because the real emotions we feel aren't all that different from the intense emotions we first perceived when we got our first taste of teenage free will. Spending hours in front of the TV trying to simulate a fulfilling emotional experience turns us all into teenagers.
These days, the most buzzed-about artistic efforts attempt to portray "reality" in a way that either ends up feeling cheesy or pretentious. This has ushered in an era where we can't even quantify whether or not Tree of Life was 'good' or 'bad.' All we can really do is reflect on the emotions it made us feel, and "find solace" in the fact that it exists. Friday Night Lights probably rates high on the 'cheesiness scale,' but I'm OK with that because I often feel uncomfortable about how cheesy many of my real emotions and feelings are.
Here are some of the life lessons I learned from binging on Friday Night Lights.
Accept the shortcomings of father
One of the ways in which Friday Night Lights showcased cheesy, relatable reality was through its portrayal of its imperfect patriarch. Everyone's dad either messed them up by "not being there" (physically or emotionally) or by offering a false sense of stability and order that eventually crumbles in our disorderly world. When confronted with real problems, we are all Coach Eric Taylor, standing in silence with a confused, overwhelmed look on our face.
Coach Taylor dedicated his life to 'turning boys into men,' but it never really felt like he knew exactly what he was doing. He was a great coach to a series of QB1's, enabling them to achieve their potential on and off the field, but did he ever really provide the perfect support to his wife and children? Over the course of the show, Coach Taylor covered the most emotional ground with Matt Saracen, who actually became his son. Even though Saracen had won his coach a state championship, it didn't turn the act of asking for his daughter's hand in marriage into a natural, open conversation about true love.
Feelings are labels we give to emotions. Grown-ass men will always have trouble expressing their feelings.
"Being a good person" may or may not be fulfilling
As a sophomore in high school, Matt Saracen was more of a man than most of us will ever be. He served dipped cones at the Alamo Freeze, took care of his grandmother with severe dementia, and lived in the shadows of the great Jason Street. Being the quarterback allowed him to achieve relevant social status within Dillon, but his existence was still defined by abandonment and burden. Did he have any reason to be a "good person" when there was no guarantee that life would get better? Eventually, the death of his absent father who preferred an identity as a soldier in Iraq sent Matt Saracen into a cathartic breakdown.
Due to Matt Saracen's series of unfortunate events, viewers built a strong emotional connection to him. The best Saracen moments were when he displayed personality traits that were outside of his perpetually doomed existence. When he went on a bender with Tim Riggins. Or the time he learned how to be loud enough for his team to hear him. Or that time he left Dillon behind without saying goodbye to anyone. It was pretty bittersweet to see him end up with Julie Taylor, because you got the feeling that his happiness existed outside of Dillon.
There is no blueprint for 'becoming a man'
The construction of Vince Howard as a prisoner of the life set him up to be either the greatest character on the show, or he could have disappeared as quickly as Tami Taylor's favorite student, Epic. He gave up life as a gang member, funded his mom's trip to rehab, and built the entire East Dillon football program. He formed a symbiotic relationship with Coach Taylor that allowed Vince to blossom into an important community member. Both Saracen and Vince had someone believe in them for the first time in Coach Taylor. He might not have filled the gaping voids left by their respective biological fathers, but his presence was key to their personal development.
Season 5's addition of Vince's dad, Ornette Howard, tested Vince's constructed identity as another Taylor-guided prodigy and forced him to forgive the man whose absence fueled his drive to escape from Dillon. During a pivotal scene in Coach Taylor's office, Vince made it clear that he didn't know how to be a man. He didn't know why he was supposed to 'be a bigger person' and forgive the man who abandoned him. No one ever showed him how. Both Saracen and Vince had their fathers show them how NOT to live. Individually, we all decide 'the right way' to live on our own.
We will all fall down
Buddy Garrity's character arc followed the deconstruction of his small-town identity, forcing him to find a new sense of self without a family, without the Panthers and eventually without even Garrity Motors. He ruined his perfect Dillon family and lost everything, and you felt really bad when he thought he was going to get it all back to normal. In a world where everyone is supposed to love football, it was sad to see him have to deal with his kids' turning into vegetarian soccer players. Eventually he found meaning in makeshift families involving Santiago, Buddy Jr., and the East Dillon Lions.
Similarly, Jason Street was forced to construct a new identity as a paralyzed ex-quarterback. He had to give up the support system that had enabled his identity for his entire life, accepting that their perception of what he used to be would hold him back from building a new identity on his own terms. Although he was once destined to become an NFL quarterback, you get the feeling that his altered path challenged him to become self-aware. As outlandish as his rise to become a powerful sports agent without a college degree was, he was still a fulfilling character.
Sacrifice defines a family
Dillon, Texas, was a transparent town, and no family's imperfections were on display like those of the Riggins family. (Alright, maybe the Collettes'.) Billy wanted to make a man out of Tim, and probably succeeded when you think about the act of sacrifice and selflessness that Tim undertook by serving time for Riggins Chop Shop. Every time Tim got on my nerves for being such a downer, I had to remind myself that he once wagered on a game of golf against his dad to try to convince him to watch him play football.
So what if Billy married a stripper and Tim Riggins ended up being the jailbird bartender? Their haphazard family was never perfect, but over the years, both brothers pushed each other because they selflessly wanted a better life for each other. Billy and Tim Riggins' final scene was a deserved moment in which their bond was celebrated. Texas Forever.
Both the man and the woman 'wear pants' in a successful relationship
The ultimate resolution of Friday Night Lights meant that Eric Taylor finally let Tami "have her turn" to let a career decision relocate their family. Some dissenters say that this was an unfair move, unraveling some of the themes of the show by letting Eric get 'pussy-whipped' into letting his wife decide his destiny. However, I consider this act of sacrifice to be the ultimate deconstruction of the traditional role of 'a man,' demonstrating that a relationship is a team in which both people are allowed to have a say in the direction of their mutual life path.
If you can't comprehend the beauty in Coach Taylor's selflessness, you are probably still holding on to the obsolete concept of the mighty patriarch. Finally, I know what I have to do to be in a relationship as healthy as the Taylors'.
It is hard to say goodbye to the FNL family, but I have accepted that there will never be another season of football in Dillon, Texas. Now I'm forced to try to find another television series that will not just fill up a weekend, but provide an experience that offers me the chance to develop as a human. Can I really commit to another TV series after that vulnerable experience? I feel like I just got out of a difficult yet fulfilling long-term relationship.
RIP FNL. You were more than just a TV series I 'liked' on Facebook because I wanted to look edgy and 'aware' of buzzworthy TV series. I started to watch you because you were a buzzed-about television series that was available on Netflix Watch Instantly. Somehow, you turned me into a better person.
Clear eyes, full hearts …
Carles created the authentic content farm HIPSTER RUNOFF.