My Immortal: The Eternal Life of 'Friday Night Lights'
Despite being about high school football, "Friday Night Lights" somehow garnered a cult following across social spheres. On the tenth anniversary of the series, we explore FNL's obsessive fans and the emo universe of the Dillon Panthers.
Collage by the author
If you've seen Friday Night Lights, you love it fanatically, and you're probably surprised that you do. To many post-athletic millennials, the basic plot synopsis sounds deeply uninteresting: A new coach takes the helm of a small town high school football team, and together they confront life's difficulties. However, since its original airdate in 2007, the show has hypnotized people across social spheres and ages.
At the time, I was an emo kid with dyed black, flat-ironed hair. It made me proud to intentionally eschew sports, so I was personally offended when my friend informed me that I had to watch Friday Night Lights. It's good, she said. Trust me.
Somehow she was able to convince me, despite my initial misgivings. When I first saw football players on my television screen, my mind instinctively dissociated from my body for a moment. But when that psychological reflex relaxed, I regained consciousness in a dimly lit small town so perfectly hued it could have been on Instagram—and Instagram hadn't even been invented yet. Soon I realized that Friday Night Lights was the perfect show for me, as a person on constant watch for overly emotional media to cry over. (Whatever your doubts of Friday Night Lights may be, never question its obsession with tearful drama. According to GQ, the most emo band of all time, Bright Eyes, would not allow their iconic cover of Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town" to be used in the show's first season finale. The producers eventually found someone else to do it, but never forget: They wanted Bright Eyes.)
It has been ten years since the series debuted, but it seems only to grow in people's hearts as time passes. Months may go by where the series slips from my mind, but then I hear the show resurrected by someone else who is self-proclaimed obsessed. There is seemingly little connecting us together—people of all walks of life express their devotion to FNL—but something immaterial binds the FNL fandom. "The storyline is really raw," says Corinna, a twenty-something college student who ardently loves Friday Night Lights. She's not what you would call a TV person, and yet she became a Dillon Panthers fangirl as soon as the show first came out. There was just something about Friday Night Lights, Corinna insists. Other shows were just too "unrealistic."
According to media historian Dr. Katie Ellis, the series also came at a pivotal moment for TV production. In the mid 2000s, Ellis says, the television industry began to compete against the film industry, producing work that could contend with the high production value and well-crafted stories of the silver screen. Friday Night Lights is the perfect example of that industry-wide transition of quality in television—which is perhaps best exemplified by the show's rich characters, Ellis says.
The characters on Friday Night Lights are so complex and compelling in part because character development is possible in television in a way that isn't possible—or at least more difficult to achieve—in the short timeframe that a film provides. Ultimately, Ellis believes that "Friday Night Light's contribution to popular culture is really in its representation of diverse and complex characters."
The storyline is really raw.
Much of the writing on Friday Night Lights' greatness foregrounds the marriage between Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami: As a New Yorker review from 2007 put it, "there is no better depiction of married life and married love on TV right now." Their love, as depicted on the series, is eternal and unbending, but their relationship is built on respect and compromise. Whose career should the family relocate for? How can Coach Taylor best prepare the boys in his command for manhood, and how much time can a husband possibly give to football? These questions, and so many more, structured the series, but it was the deeper questions—questions about the uncertainty of the future, of missed opportunities and isolation in your hometown, of death, loss, and failure—that connected to viewers on a human level.
One can't discuss the character development Friday Night Lights without mentioning Tim Riggins. The show's central heartthrob, played by a 25-year-old Canadian former model-turned-actor pretending to be a teenage football star, Riggins embodies an archetype of masculine teenage glory. There are young men like him in high schools across the country: teen kings ruling court on football fields and in pickup trucks. But these figures can also be tragic. No one can really be as glorious as Tim Riggins seemed to be. His life on the edge of extremes made his social presence larger than life, but it also kept a stable future always out of reach.
It would be unethical to suggest that Panther fullback Tim Riggins was not hot. He was disturbed, muscular, and incredibly sexually confident. Though it was difficult not to smile when Riggins slicked back his dark hair as it fell in his face, or scratched at some hard ledge of muscle under his sleeveless sweater, people loved him primarily because he was Dillon's prince of darkness: incredibly gorgeous, popular, talented, and charming, but doomed by a broken family and alcoholism.
Such anti-heroes are not new to television. Friday Night Lights came out the year that The O.C. ended. Like Friday Night Lights, The O.C. is incredibly good, and it also combined classic TV drama with modern, cool music. Many young people held viewing parties every week during the series' four season run. We downloaded the indie soundtrack, gawked at Mischa Barton's progressive decline into insanity, and basically all fell for the alt-skater-nerd slash sex god Seth. But we were also stricken by Ryan, the disturbed muscular teen from a bad family that came to live with Seth and his affluent family in Orange County.
In ways, Tim Riggins was the Ryan of Friday Night Lights; he was a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks, but he had a good heart and great potential. Riggins' love life shot by like a blazing comet, but his relationships also crashed and burned. He became a local star because of his excellence on the field, but his performance became increasingly negatively affected by substance abuse. It became harder for him to be somebody's boyfriend, and hearts were broken in his wake. As time passed and Riggins' peers began thinking seriously about playing college ball on a path to pro-sports, Riggins rejected it, knowing he could never conform to their standards.
He was very misunderstood.
So though they share some fundamental similarities, unlike Ryan from The O.C., Riggins would never clean up his act or realize his potential. "He was very misunderstood," Corinna said. "He had been through a lot." Riggins was a star for a moment at the end of adolescence. He would wear his state championship ring for the rest of his life, but though we imagined Riggins could be in the NFL, at a certain point, or maybe always, we knew he wouldn't "make it." Until the end, Riggins always seemed to be fulfilled by a hopeful plot of land littered with empty beer cans.
The show has also been extensively praised for tackling difficult and complex subjects in a nuanced, extremely moving way. "The show dealt with really important issues like disability and mental health, but these were presented in an ongoing way across multiple seasons using regular characters, rather than as one-off episodes dealing with a cause of the week, which is what teen dramas were doing in the 1990s," Ellis explains. Jason Street, the quarterback turned paraplegic, centralized the storyline of a disabled athlete in a way that didn't tokenize him, which Ellis says hadn't been done before on television—though she also noted that Friday Night Lights has been criticized for making their groundbreaking disabled character a straight white man.
Some critics have argued that the series oddly underrepresented the Hispanic population of Texas; however, as Ellis points out, Friday Night Lights centered the storylines of multiple black characters, and race became an increasingly important issue in the show as it progressed. Some news outlets praised Friday Night Lights for discussing racism while it was on the air, which one could argue was daring for a series on network television at that time. In the fourth season, internal politics at Dillon High School led Coach Taylor to take a job helming the neighboring town's football team, the East Dillon Lions. While Dillon was largely home to the white middle class, East Dillon was more racially diverse, and less well funded.
Friday Night Lights struggled with ratings during its time on the air; network executives had difficulty attracting women to the show because female viewers assumed it was about football, which is objectively boring. But those who love the program know it's so much more than that. "It's essentially a soap opera," my friend said one day while we remembered the adolescence we never had in Dillon. I scoffed; offended that she would discount the series, wanting to believe it is of a higher caliber. But then I realized that she might be right. There is an emotional core of FNL that taps into experiences that are near universal. Many know what it's like to feel like you'll never make it, or to feel consumed by the years of your youth and the people you loved then. At times it feels like those feelings will never stop, or that you'll be trapped in that small corner of the world forever.
Before each game in the series, Coach Taylor would assume a priest-like authority in the locker room, ritualizing the event by chanting the iconic Friday Night Lights motto: Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose. The series pierced the cultural psyche with that mantra. Spoken like an ancient invocation to unlock internal powers, clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose was a tearful cry for clarity of mind and empathy of spirit in young men who were struggling to survive their adolescence while becoming local idols in the rural south. Friday Night Lights reminded us to tap into something eternal within ourselves, but beyond the limitations of life's circumstances.