I plan on writing in earnest about the final season of Friday Night Lights (the second time around, it’s already aired on DirectTv) and over the next three months or so suspect you’ll be treated to at least 500 instances of me using the term “bittersweet.”Granted, I have no idea how the whole thing ends (avoided internet updates like the plague), and yet I sit here contemplating the significance of the final season, the show’s role in the greater television landscape and how exactly a series chooses to sign off the airwaves once and for all.
There is a sentimental side of me (and maybe everyone) that would like to think Friday Night Lights ends with the Lions (and maybe the Panthers too) carrying Coach Taylor off on their shoulders after a last second championship win. This would of course be after a stunning finale in which the major cast members from Smash to Street, Tyra to the Swede (kidding) came back to pay their last respects in some way to the Coach and family and town that shaped their lives. The writers have a chance to turn the final season into a long procession of memories and homages to a great thing (think: event planning your own funeral) But at the same time, an ending like that would leave me disappointed, because it wouldn’t sum up the show as a whole.
Friday Night Lights has never been about the last second wins (a few too many for my liking as it is), never stuck exclusively to a redemptive ideal for each character’s inevitable flaws, or even necessarily tied the fates of its players to how they performed on the football field. If anything, the show has gone out of its way to emphasize that the characters’ successes, or lack thereof, on the football field holds little to no bearing on how the rest of their lives turnout. Heck, the star quarterback broke his neck at the 50 minute mark of the pilot episode (and then went on to be a sports agent). If that doesn’t send a clear message about relationship between football success and life success, then I don’t know what does.
So it begs the question: What should the final season be? And maybe more importantly, should endings have closure or leave us speculating? Exponentially more popular shows, with wildly anticipated final acts, like Lost or The Sopranos sold the viewer on the idea of finality ** (even if the ends were, to some degree, polarizing) and left little doubt that the show was indeed over. These programs knew their time was up and wrote accordingly instead of scripting for another season of treading water and ultimately limping into the finish (I’m looking at you Alias). And for those shows, closure was ultimately vital.
** Let’s remove the argument about Tony Soprano for a second. He’s dead people.
And while Friday Night Lights has afforded itself the ability to write “The End” after the last scene, it is a wholly different entity than those other shows. The writers of Friday Night Lights have produced something more organic. They’ve created a show about a town rather than about a group of characters. Just like any town there are the mainstays (the Taylors, Buddy), the folks who’ll never leave (Riggins), those itching to get the hell out (Tyra, Julie, Smash to some degree) and those who’ll always just marvel at life in the so-called outside world, only to eventually return (presumably Saracen, Street maybe). This is the unique nature of the show, in that the writers have stuck to a simple rule of: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Characters come and go, games are won and lost and though the faces change (infinitely more than any other show I can think of) the problems remain relatively the same. This is decidedly new ground for television. Just think if Brandon, Dylan, Kelly and company had moved on after season two of 90210 and a whole new group of kids just started hanging out with Nat at the Peach Pit (which Steve now co-managed). And yet Friday Night Lights pulls it off because its grounded in the Taylor family (who’ll never go anywhere) and town of Dillon. Everyone else can come and go as they so please, for better of worse, and that’s pretty much life.
Granted, Friday Night Lights is not transcendent television (although it’s awfully close), but it does reflect a certain, increasingly rare and even possibly cliche’d (in a good way) American sensibility of values and community. And though it never really caught on in the mainstream, the show probably relates to a wider range of viewers than anything else I’ve seen. I don’t have hard proof of this of course, but everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s watched, young or old, has latched on to something within the story’s walls. The sad irony is that just too few folks ever gave it the chance.
But I also suspect the miniscule viewing audience also allowed the show’s writers to take chances beyond the normal scope of television. Namely, they kept the town moving along without having to come up with new story arcs for the same old characters. The hardcore viewing audience (because that’s pretty much all that watches) were there to stay, so the writers simply worked to make the show reflect actual life. No easy feat, and probably something that won’t soon be replicated. Television is much too fickle, fast-moving, and quick to judge. Long story short: Friday Night Lights is in a world (or town, rather) of its own. I doubt anyone else will try to replicate it. After all, it wasn’t too terribly successful.
And so that leaves us rushing downfield towards the endzone and into the locker room once and for all (only two sports analogies used, not bad). I suspect the writers have discussed the idea of closure and what it means for this television show. How will Friday Night Lights end? I suspect much like it started. With expectations on Coach Taylor. With Tammy standing faithfully by his side. With a group of high schoolers seeking something tangible in their lives. And with the town of Dillon waking up for another day of living, breathing and thinking about football. It’s not sexy. There won’t be a cliffhanger.
Instead, think about Friday Night Lights less like a television show and more like a town you’re leaving. Just because you left, does the town cease to be? Of course, this is a television show we’re talking about, but really its something more. We’ll remember the good times, the familiar faces, the heartache, the neighborhood, the Riggins boys causing trouble, the day Matty Saracen’s father passed, what Jason Street could have been, that one Crucifictorious show, the state championship, when the high schools split, the tornado, the pep rallies and the “For Sale” signs on Coach Taylor’s lawn. Because Friday Night Lights isn’t really ending. We’re just moving out of Dillon. Bittersweet indeed.