Friday Night Lights has closed out its run through the heart of Dillon, Texas. Five years after its start, the show boasts a small but hard-core fan base, lots of critical praise, several Emmy nominations, and even a couple of State Championships.
The TV show followed Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, and the 2004 Peter Berg movie based on it to fill out the triumvirate that chronicles the (at times) mythical tale of Texas High School Football. Robert Mays of Grantland has an outstanding piece that uses interviews with key participants from the program to paint a wonderful first-person picture.
As Texans we were of course more than mere casual observers to the unfolding of the show. There is a lot to like and a little to bitch about with the program – and I hope all will leave your thoughts here. I’m taking this opportunity to put down a few of my reasons for caring so deeply about a TV show.
I had the opportunity to spend time around the set of Friday Night Lights the first couple of years and it gave me a real appreciation for everyone involved. I have been on enough sets over my life that I understand the difference between working on a project and being fully invested in that project. That starts from the top down – which means it started with Peter Berg.
After directing the movie Berg didn’t want to give the story up. "I truly felt that there was a lot more meat from the book that we weren't able to put in the original film," Berg said. "I fell in love with Austin. I fell in love with Texas. I fell in love with Texas football. And I wanted more."
Peter Berg respected the story – and the culture behind Friday Night Lights. The show is as much about football as The Sopranos is about the mob. He was more interested in telling the story of how the culture of High School football affects a community and the individuals wrapped up in it. In the Grantland article he talks about just what he wanted to set up in the pilot.
"I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero," Berg said. 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."
The pilot episode works brilliantly as a vehicle to set up everything that follows. It establishes how important an event Friday night football is in certain communities, and it helps to confirm that when something dominates a community like that it can bring as much pain as hope.
When Berg pitched the idea for the TV show, he also insisted that it be shot on location. He understood that the building of studio sets would be counterproductive to the mood he wanted to create, and he could get more out of his budget by filming in Texas.
Berg selected Pflugerville as his base for several reasons. First of all, they are the Panthers, and the stadium setting was easy enough to sell as being in West Texas, while also allowing Berg to use Austin and its well-stocked TV-movie production worker pool. He paid the Pflugerville Independent School District a fee to use their facilities and old uniforms.
Location shooting added authenticity to the show.
Berg used locals whenever possible, and he put out a call for football players to shoot the practice and game sequences. Emotional manipulation was obviously a part of the game sequences -- this is TV after all -- which meant dramatic license would have to be taken to appease network officials ("down by 30 points? Need to go 75 yards in less than a minute? No problem.")
But again, respect for the culture meant to Berg that attention to detail was key for shooting the football sequences. Lots of former college and high school players got to stand around in the Texas heat for hours and then run the same play 20 or 30 times in a row. Former Longhorn James Brown participated in the 1st year of shooting.
Location was also a key component for a lot of the actors in terms of understanding the hold of high school football on a community. As I said, I was around the set early on, helping a local production company with shooting footage for promotional purposes. Most of the actors who portrayed football players were not from Texas, and while a few had played football, most had been active in other sports. They had read the book or seen the movie and were intrigued by the subject matter. But almost to a man they pointed to the same moment when the full weight of what high school football meant in Texas really hit home.
It came when they filmed a road game at the Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex in Round Rock, AKA "The Palace on Parmer."
The location played crucial part in the building of trust and respect among the cast and crew as well. Berg used the three-camera film technique he had used in the film. That meant quicker set ups, less lighting and more freedom for actors to improvise.
Berg’s favorite expression was "Don’t let anyone push you around," and he welcomed input from everyone. The writers and actors became collaborators on the characters and the arc of the storyline. Filming outside a studio was so important to Berg that after the first couple of years, the production company took over the old Del Valle High School and stadium, where they could have total control over the environment.
There was also another pleasant unintended consequence from shooting documentary style and on location. The ratings were low enough to almost kill the show several times, however one reason it was able to survive for five seasons was it was more expensive to produce whatever might replace it. That and a distribution deal with DirecTV saved the show.
Eric & Tami Taylor
For me, above all else,Friday Night Lights was character driven. People who were complex, somewhat flawed, but fully formed and always interesting, starting with Coach Taylor and his wife. Theirs was as complete a relationship as could possibly be developed in an hour long TV show.
Anyone who has been in a committed relationship KNOWS that look.
They didn’t always like each other, or what was going on between them, but they understood the commitment to themselves and their family. Amazingly they have their struggles in the relationship without either resorting to alcohol, drugs or a scandalous small-town affair. It is one of the few relationships seen on TV where the art of compromise is actually practiced.
If Eric and Tami were the lynchpin couple then Tim Riggins was the anchor. Played by Taylor Kitsch, Riggins started out as the "bad boy" fullback who was either drinking or womanizing. He rarely crossed over into a cliché, and he established a strong individual code of ethics that spoke to the Texas myth. He was the one character that wasn’t looking for a way out – he accepted who he was and where he was, and he was determined to make the best of it. It wasn’t by accident that Riggins talked about "Texas Forever" in the first and last show.
Tim Riggins was one of the few players to appear in the show all 5 years.
While being far from perfect (remember the murder story arc in season 2?), Friday Night Lights worked harder, and succeeded more often, than almost any other TV show to stay true to its culture.
For five years we cared about the people of Dillon, Texas, and we cared about them more than just on Friday nights.