Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!


I’ve now seem all 76 episodes of Friday Night Lights (streaming Netflix rocks) and have been able to come to a few conclusions about it. Foremost, it’s a great show, with characters that you genuinely get to know and care about. It has real heart; there’s not a thing in it that seems like it came from a marketing session or a focus group. There are moments that, even if you can see them coming a mile away, still make a cynical old reprobate like me tear up, because the writing and acting make them feel genuine. Nothing that follows should take away from this: FNL is a wonderful show, it’s a damned shame that it wasn’t more successful, and you should watch it.

As is fairly well-known, Friday Night Lights is set in a small Texas town that doesn’t have much going for it except its excellent high school football team, so that both the series and the town revolve around it. Another show might parody or satirize this. Not FNL, which is an irony-free zone. It’s set in Texas, filmed in Texas (in Austin), and populated by pretty solid portrayals of Texans. We often see the characters in their different churches: a sedate mainstream Protestant one for most of them, an evangelical church for some of the more rural families, a rollicking black church for the black families. All are shown sympathetically and equally so. It’s all played very straight, with no winking at the audience.

The main character, head coach Eric Taylor, believes in what these days are usually called old-fashioned values: family, God, discipline, and hard work. And he believes that by coaching he help instill these values in the young men on his team. He’ll often talk to them in ways that sound like generic coach-speak, but are redeemed from being cliches by the fierceness of his sincerity and how much he genuinely cares about his team. He’s simply a good man; you wish he’d been your coach. Maybe even your Dad.

His wife Tami is a similarly strong personality and high achiever, and they have what’s probably the best-portrayed good marriage I’ve ever seen on TV. Because they’re both strong, they often butt heads and have their share of fights, but always without losing respect for each other, and always understanding that they’ll resolve it, whatever it is, because their love and their commitment to keeping their family together outweighs it.

The other main characters are the high school students, many of whom come from broken or otherwise imperfect homes, and this is handled both realistically and sensitively. They have weaknesses they might not have had with better parenting, and for many of them, their relationship with one or both of the Taylors helps give them guidance they wouldn’t have found at home.

FNL is by no means a perfect show. It began as a network series beset by low ratings, and was almost cancelled after the first season, even though its fairly large ensemble cast included three extraordinarily beautiful young women obviously not cast for their acting abilities. (Two of the three eventually improved greatly.) The second season introduced a number of plot-lines that seem designed to goose the ratings, at least one of which is comically awful and was eventually forgotten. (If you’ve seen this season, you know exactly which one.) It was also cut short by the writers’ strike, so some of the other plot-lines were never resolved and simply disappeared. At this point, the show would have gone away except for an innovative deal with DirectTV, which got the exclusive rights to show new episodes first, with NBC not able to show them until months later, sometimes after the DVDs had been released. The shorter cable season (13 episodes per year instead of 22) often made the storytelling seem rushed, or resulted in some characters being ignored for most of a season.

FNL also faced a problem common to shows set in high school: the actors playing the students were in their 20s to start with and got older every year. This was exacerbated by the fact that each TV season was the story of one football season. Characters who seemed to be seniors in Season 1 were still in school in Season 2, and some even in Season 3. Finally in Season 4, they bit the bullet, had almost all of the original cast graduate, and introduced a new set of students. Unfortunately, they were simply not as interesting as the original cast had been, with one exception, a troubled former gang member played by Michael B. Jordan (Wallace from The Wire. [1].)

But, as I said to begin with, none of this takes away from the strengths of the show: the strong characters, their real dilemmas, their honest emotion, and most of all, that it was made with, as they say, clear eyes and a full heart. And you know what that means.

1. You are not the first person to think to yourself that this is the answer to “Where’s Wallace, String?”

Mike Schilling

Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever.


  1. [1] That’s how I remembered which one Wallace was.

    Question: Other than the graduated characters, was there another big change on the show? The show started off about Dillon High School, but then at some point I read about East Dillon and West Dillon, or maybe it being one or the other. I may have completely misunderstood something, but didn’t want to read about the show for fear of spoilers.

  2. As an aside, you know what impressed me about the show? The characters sweating all the time. That’s what’s supposed to happen in shows that take place in the south (though I don’t know what part of Texas it was supposed to take place in, sweating has also been known to occur in the southwest).

    • The location of Dillon seemed to move around depending on the needs of that week’s plot, but it was shot in Austin.

      • I’ve also noticed that Dillon sometimes seemed to change size, from an largish small town sized town to, sometimes, a smallish city, and back again. (I daren’t say much more b/c I really don’t want to spoil anything.)

          • Maybe. But I was thinking about the story lines, how some sections of town seem to appear almost out of mid-air when the story calls for it (I won’t elaborate, spoilers and all), or how the Applebee’s is the only major restaurant around until people go to a fancy restaurant.

          • 100% narrative consistency is definitely not the show’s strong suit. We used to laugh at our favorite abruptly-forgotten storylines.

          • My favorite was

            Fznfu svanyyl pubbfrf gur UOPH, juvpu qbrfa’g tvir nguyrgvp fpubynefuvcf, ohg gurl’yy tvir uvz na npnqrzvp bar. Juvpu gurl erfpvaq jura ur uhegf uvf xarr.

          • Remember when Ylyn penfurf ure pne vagb Ohqql’f qrnyrefuvc? Be Zngg Fnenpra’f fhcre-ubg ahefr? BE GUNG GVZR YNAQEL XVYYRQ N THL?

            Yeah, me neither.

            And I tried to find confirmation of this online, but couldn’t, so either I imagined it, or it was resolved plotwise, but I seem to recall that one of the plotlines early on was that (the then-new) Coach Taylor’s family jrag gb gur Pngubyvp puhepu, juvyr zbfg bs gur fghqragf jrer Cebgrfgnag (fb ur jnf na “bgure” rira nzbatfg gur juvgr cbchyngvba). Ohg yngre vg frrzf yvxr gurer’f whfg gur juvgr puhepu naq gur oynpx puhepu.

          • Ylyn penfurf ure pne vagb Ohqql’f qrnyrefuvc had the consequence that Ohqql obeebjrq zbarl sebz uvf ungrq oebgure gb fraq ure gb Inaqreovyg. That second one I don’t remember at all.

    • I noticed the same thing about Dexter. It’s set in Florida and unlike, say, Burn Notice (a guilty pleasure), everyone is constantly sweating.

      Even just sitting around outside.

      • Dexter is pretty much a terrible show that I only watch to laugh at just HOW terrible and implausible this ep will be, but it’s almost – ALMOST – worth watching for the Miami atmosphere alone, which they do capture pretty well, though it does raise the question of why Dexter thinks his hunting outfit – dark/neutral long sleeves/pants/gloves – renders him unobtrusive there.

        He’d be better off in cargo shorts and a guayabera, nobody would ever notice him then.

  3. Nice writeup Lance!

    I tried to sell people on FNL while it was on, but didn’t make a ton of headway; I think it fell into a demographic gap. Football fans thought it looked like a stupid teen drama; drama fans thought they needed to care about football to care about the show. So neither watched in any great number. I think they all made a mistake.

    They let the actors improv a lot – that, along with the handheld shooting, really gives it a documentary-style immediacy. It’s hard for me to believe sometimes that Matt and Grandma Saracen aren’t real people (“Mr. Sandman” – sniff).

    The fact that they never condescended to these small-town, parochial, largely religious characters was something that was really unique. In a weird way FNL is almost a junior partner to The Wire, except it shows how a very different (and yet not so different) American city works.

    And yeah, a lot of the actors either improved, or the writers learned to write to their strengths (I’m thinking particularly Kitsch/Riggins, and whoever played Tara). Lyla never improved though.

    • I don’t know if Kitsch improved as much as they figured out how to write for him: light on the dialog (hide that Canadian accent, eh?), heavy on the brooding. You’re right about Minka Kelly; awful actress, but so darned pretty.

  4. One of my favorite things about it is that it is one of the very very few works of fiction that has as its center a happy marriage, as opposed to an unhappy one, or a single person. Really, I can’t think of many others (excepting sitcoms).

    • You only need one, because happy marriages are all alike.

        • What I wouldn’t give, to be “bored” by Tami Taylor….

          • Who?
            Oh. Not bad, but not really my type.

            Also, I’ll be sure to forward this little exchange to Mrs. Glyph.

          • She knows, Kazzy. She knows.

            And if you watch the show, you will too. It’s not a physical thing, and pictures don’t do her justice. She’s smart and sassy. We’re soulmates, she just doesn’t know it yet.

            [Kazzy then forwards THIS exchange, to Connie Britton’s security detail.]

    • Rose, welcome back. I’ve missed you, and I hope all is well.

      You in the league, that’s as good as a happy marriage.

    • (Smugly noting that Rose came over here to comment on *my* post.)

  5. Mike,

    Do you read Gregg Easterbrook’s TMQ? If so, what do you make of his criticisms, particularly as a sports/football fan?

    Zazzy really enjoyed it, and while she likes and understands sports, she is not a big enough devotee that major improbabilities or impossibilities in the sports sequences would bother her in a way they’d bother me. Then again, if the show isn’t just a sports/football show, I might be able to get past them. But I’m notoriously difficult with such things…

    • I don’t read Easterbrook, because he annoys the hell out of me.

      You’re quite right that the actual football in TNL is one of its weakest parts: there’s an improbable comeback almost every week, the play called often make no sense in that situation, and a player who can barely kick one week might make a 60-yard FG the next. It’s all about character development, so it makes little sense as football. I just live with that, the way I do baseball movies where every at-bat is either a strikeout or a home run (like every one ever made).

      • Cool. I find Easterbrook increasingly annoying. I don’t know if he’s getting worse or if my taste is changing, but I skim his articles where I used to read every word. Even when I agree with him, his tone is frustrating.

        Anyway, to the show, those were his criticisms in a nutshell. Is it far to say that the football is secondary to the broader drama? I can get on board with shows like that… I am much less inclined to when they tell me it is a football or baseball movie when it becomes increasingly obvious that the writer/director/whomever has never seen a minute of the sport.

        • Is it fair to say that the football is secondary to the broader drama?

          It’s as fair as something that’s very, very fair.

  6. Also, how great was the opening credits/theme? I rarely skipped it – that music is so pretty – 45 seconds of epic struggle, smalltown dreams and heartbreak; ending on an unresolved note, floating above the lights and into the endless Texas sky…

    God I loved this show.

  7. “I’ve now seem all 76 episodes of Friday Night Lights (streaming Netflix rocks)”

    My fiancee and I just finished watching the whole series, about a month ago or so. But we did it the old-fashioned way, with actual DVD’s. Not the newfangled “stream-ing” contraptions.

    But yeah, we loved it. Neither of us are really football fans (or sports fans in general), but the show isn’t really a football show. I have many of the qualms you seem to, and I’d write about them in more detail, but I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

    A suggestion: if you haven’t seen it, rent the first few DVD (or “stream” it, if you’re into that sort of thing). If you don’t like it by the time you’ve watched two or three episodes, then you probably won’t like the series. But if you’re like me and my fiancee–we put off watching it for weeks after the netflix came b/c we were rather “meh” about it–we were hooked from the first episode.

    • The faux condescension about “streaming” made me giggle.

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