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Good Letters

Earlier this month, one of the best shows on television aired its final episode.

A few friends and I huddled on a sofa to eat hamburgers and watch the series finale of Friday Night Lights—and I won’t lie, I grabbed a few extra napkins to use as tissue, just in case.

Before the episode began we re-watched the pilot. I had forgotten that it closed with something rarely found in television nowadays—a prayer.

And not just any prayer. Not an offhand prayer, a saccharine prayer, or a prayer recited by rote. This prayer is difficult, and delivered under exacting circumstances. It is directed not only towards God’s ears, but to a group of young men who desperately needed to be led, and at this particular time, led in prayer.

Those young men are the Dillon Panthers—a high school football team in Texas, where high school football teams are taken very seriously. In fact, the Panthers are what unite the town of Dillon—talk of the team and their odds of making it to the state championship are heard on the radio, in the bars, from the mayor.

No one is more aware of this chatter than the new head coach, Eric Taylor. Played to perfection by Kyle Chandler, whose slightly squinty eyes look like they’ve been staring too long into the Texas sun, Coach Taylor is under enormous pressure to deliver a victory in this first game, while also fending off boosters, and managing a wife and teenage daughter at home.

Not the least of his worries is the team itself. While in subsequent episodes Coach Taylor will prove himself to be a maker of men, what we find in the series opener is a group of boys. Strong, attractive, arrogant boys made celebrities in Dillon, revered and coddled by its citizens.

Running back “Smash” Williams is boastful and mouthy—the reporters love him. Fullback Tim Riggins shows up to practice drunk, and says he “just likes to hurt people,” but his full lips and long hair hint at an inner sensitivity, and make the ladies swoon.

The golden child of the team is quarterback Jason Street, whom a scout from Notre Dame calls “maybe the best I’ve ever seen.” Jason isn’t merely a good arm, though—he’s a natural leader, wholesome and good-natured.

That’s why, when Jason takes a hard blow in the first game and is carried away on a stretcher, unable to move or feel his limbs, we know more has been taken from this team than its quarterback, or its chance of making it to state. These boys have lost their moral center. Their heart.

The questions that will be addressed over five seasons have been set up in the first hour. What does it mean to be a community? Or to be a family? When life isn’t fair, as it so often isn’t, how can we find the strength to suit up and go back onto the field? Why should we be good when others aren’t? What does that earn us, in the end?

For each of its five seasons, Friday Night Lights fought a battle of its own. Ratings were consistently low, and critics continually named it one of the “Best Shows You’re Not Watching.” The second season was cut short by the writing strike, and storylines suffered. NBC eventually dropped the show, but DirecTV picked it up, and carried it through to the end zone of the fifth and final season.

Touchdown, DirecTV.

It isn’t hard to see why Friday Night Lights had a hard time gaining street cred. In the 90s, prime time shows about families and high schools dwindled, replaced by shows about friends and their urban lives, and then by shows about crime. Top-rated shows have moved from the family dinner table to…everywhere else.

The Wire gave us gangs in Baltimore, Dexter shows a serial killer working as a blood spatter analyst in Miami, while Breaking Bad features a cancer-ridden science teacher who cooks and sells meth. And these are the good shows. For each, there are many, many others where violence and sex are gratuitous, characters are flat, and thrills are cheap.

But those who tuned into Friday Night Lights knew that, while rarely thrilling, something special was happening. The Taylor family, the football players and their families, and the town of Dillon as a whole struggled to live together, play together, and ultimately love each other. Easy enough in concept, forever difficult in practice.

Friday Night Lights emitted a feeling of expansiveness. The expansiveness of the flat Texas land and the big Texas sky, passing by as if viewed from the rolled-down window of a pickup truck. The expansiveness of the crowds gathered in the stands each Friday night, illuminated by tall stadium lights.

Even the soundtrack, from the highly emotive Texas-based band Explosions in the Sky, added to a sense of expanding space, a feeling that the universe will always be bigger than we can comprehend.

But the series showed that we decide how to fill that space, and what we send out into it, like the prayer Coach Taylor sends out in episode one:

Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile.
We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall.
We will all fall.
We must carry this in our hearts—that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and that when it is taken from us, we will be tested.
We will be tested to our very souls.
We will now all be tested.
It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.

Amen and amen. Friday Night Lights, you’ll be missed.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Dyana Herron

Dyana Herron is a writer and teacher originally from Cleveland, Tennessee, who currently lives in Seattle. She is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.

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