"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." These words, which Coach Taylor says to his football team right before they take the field, underscore the bittersweet premise of "Friday Night Lights" -- that even with vision and passion, well-meaning people still fail and flounder and fall apart. But the words also hint at the nuanced blend of realism and romanticism that make "Friday Night Lights" such a unique, unforgettable show. From wheelchair-bound injured quarterback Jason Street to entitled rising star J.D McCoy, from self-destructive wild boy Tim Riggins to earnest but reserved Matt Saracen, from Coach Taylor's wise but flustered wife, Tami, to their headstrong daughter Julie, the show explores how regular people pursue their dreams and sometimes sell those dreams short. The show offers up a road map of the heartbreaks and disappointments and injustices that lurk in small towns, but it also presents a glimpse of the redemption that can come from an old-fashioned mix of optimism and hard work.
Although "Friday Night Lights'" popularity suffered an almost career-ending injury in its second season when Tyra and Landry accidentally killed Tyra's attacker, then hid the guy's body in a river (typical high school high jinx!), the third and fourth seasons of the show (which premiered on DirecTV and then on NBC months later) matched the breathtaking sweetness and authenticity of the first.
Now that the fourth season is about to premiere on NBC (8 p.m. on Friday, May 7) it's the perfect time for those who abandoned the show a few years ago to get up to speed. Coach Taylor is faced with starting a whole new team from the rubble of the resurrected but underfunded East Dillon High School, and many of the show's original characters (Tyra, Jason Street, Smash Williams) have graduated high school and left the show. This leaves room for the introduction of a whole new slate of characters, from Vince, the troubled kid who also happens to have startling talent on the field, to Luke, the kid whose parents, unlike everyone else in the town, don't understand or support his decision to play football.
Even with the departure of some great characters, "Friday Night Lights" continues to present transfixing, dynamic episodes that, without fail, include at least one scene that will have you reaching for that box of tissues. Peter Berg, Buzz Bissinger, Jason Katims and the other writers encourage the actors to move around and improvise as needed in order to create scenes that feel spontaneous and electric enough to give you the chills. Sounds impossible, yes, but like "The Wire" or "Six Feet Under," you have to dive right in to understand what you've been missing.
At the start of Season 1, we meet the new coach of Dillon High School's football team, Eric Taylor, and his wife, Tami. Immediately we see the intense pressure on Taylor, who's confronted by rabid football fans everywhere he goes in Dillon. During the first game of the season, star quarterback Jason Street is injured and sent to the hospital on a stretcher as a horrified crowd looks on. Jason can't move his legs, but his girlfriend, cheerleader Lyla Garrity, is sure that he'll recover if they both have faith in God. Meanwhile, Coach Taylor must turn to backup quarterback Matt Saracen, a soft-spoken, slightly geeky guy who lives with his grandmother while his father is away in Iraq. Matt practices throwing the ball with his buddy (and comic sidekick) Landry but it's unclear how he'll ever fill Street's shoes. Meanwhile, Street's best friend and teammate Tim Riggins finds himself falling for Lyla despite his better intentions. Brian "Smash" Williams, the star running back at Dillon, starts doing steroids so that he'll be recruited and will eventually be able to support his mother. Matt falls for Coach Taylor's daughter, Julie, despite her parents' protests.
Lyla's father, Buddy Garrity, a used car dealer and Dillon Panther booster, has an affair that's discovered by her mother. Buddy is thrown out of the house and moves in with Coach Taylor temporarily. Jason discovers that Lyla and Tim are involved, and he tries to move on with his life despite being confined to a wheelchair. Toward the end of the season, Coach Taylor is offered a job as quarterback coach at Texas Methodist University, a dream job for him, but his family has no interest in moving to Austin now that their lives are firmly established in Dillon. In the season finale, the Panthers win the state championship, and Tami springs the news on Coach Taylor that she's pregnant.
At the start of Season 2, Coach Taylor is working at TMU in Austin while his family is in Dillon, but he comes back to see Tami, who's in labor with their baby. Taylor's college position isn't really as satisfying as he might like, and eventually he quits to be closer to his family. Tyra and Landry accidentally kill Tyra's attacker when the man comes at them outside a gas station. They dump the body in the river at Tyra's urging, but they both walk around freaking out and regretting their decision for weeks after that, and eventually Landry confesses to the police. Somehow, they escape prosecution (and the show escapes this terrible sensationalistic subplot).
While Lyla gets involved with an evangelical Christian group and develops a crush on its charismatic young leader, Jason looks into experimental surgery in Mexico that might restore his movement in his legs, but the doctors look like scam artists and he doesn't go through with it. Meanwhile, the Dillon Panthers are struggling under their new coach. Eventually, Taylor is asked to replace him, but there's still trouble: Tim misses practice and is kicked off the team; Smash gets in a fight with a white teenager who's harassing his sister in a movie theater and recruiters start to look the other way, assuming he's a troublemaker. But he's not the only one who gets lost this season: Matt falls for his grandmother's nurse and the two have an affair until she decides to move away, and Jason discovers that he got a woman pregnant. At the end of the season, the Panthers fail to win a second state championship under Coach Taylor.
Coach Taylor has a hard time deciding whether to start Matt or his new freshman quarterback, J.D. McCoy, a rich kid whose family moved to Dillon just so their son could play for the Panthers under Taylor. Matt starts for a while, but eventually his playing is too uneven so Taylor puts in J.D., much to his annoying father's delight. Smash is struggling with a knee injury and working at the Alamo Freeze full-time, thinking that his lifelong dreams of playing college football are about to die. But with some guidance from Coach Taylor, he starts to pull himself together, tries out for Texas A&M, and joins their team (and leaves the show). Tyra's told that she'll never get into college with her GPA, and she starts to blow off Landry in order to spend time with a cowboy named Cash, but by the end of the seasons she gets into the University of Texas (nice turnaround!) and leaves the show. Jason struggles with various get-rich-quick schemes and ultimately decides to leave Dillon for New York City to become a sports agent and spend time with his baby boy. Tim's ne'er-do-well brother gets engaged to Tyra's stripper sister, and Tim reunites with Lyla but she still has problems with his inability to take responsibility for his life. Matt isn't sure whether or not to allow his estranged mother back into his life, but eventually rebuilds a relationship with her. Matt considers moving to Chicago for art school but worries about leaving his grandmother behind. Despite having a great season, Taylor learns that there's talk of replacing him as coach, a movement led by J.D.'s meddling father, who wants his son's coach to take over Taylor's position.
Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler)
Coach Taylor epitomizes the bossy, bellowing coach that's also, sometimes reluctantly, a sensitive mentor. He's the pig-headed husband who's also, occasionally, a sweet and caring partner to his wife, Tami. Scenes between Eric and Tami are so genuine, perfectly encapsulating the dance between bickering and compromise and eye-rolling exasperation and kindness that makes up a marriage. Chandler has the perfect, natural Southern drawl to imbue Eric with believable Texan warmth, and the actor brings so much charisma mixed with bumbling awkwardness to this role that he steals every scene he's in.
Tami Taylor (Connie Britton)
Tami started out as the reluctant coach's wife, but she's far too independent and outspoken to play that role the way fans and boosters might expect her to. She began life in Dillon as the school's guidance counselor, but she becomes more ambitious over the years. She takes over as principal of Dillon High and tries to keep wealthy boosters from dictating how their money is spent (on a Jumbotron for the football field, for example) when the school needs new books and better pay for its teachers. Tami has guided Tyra and other students to improve their lives despite having very few role models to show them what's possible, but sometimes the stresses of the job are overwhelming for her, particularly with a baby at home. Britton brings Tami to life as a snappy loose cannon whose mix of easy confidence and vulnerability makes her impossible not to root for.
Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden)
Julie is the stubborn and occasionally rebellious daughter who has a good relationship with her parents, but sometimes clashes with both of them. Likewise, Julie alternates between wanting to follow her heart and make a relationship with Matt work, and thinking she's way too young to settle down.
Jason Street (Scott Porter)
Quarterback Jason's hopes and dreams were dashed when he was injured in the first game of the season his senior year. Although he was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, Jason's optimism and work ethic have seen him through some terrible times, and watching him rebuild his life without compromising his ideals has been one of the highlights of the show. Street leaves the show in the middle of its third season to become a sports agent and to be close to his young son in New York City.
Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford)
Matt Saracen is the second-string quarterback who was forced to take over once Street was injured. Matt lives with his grandmother because his dad is away in Iraq. He's been alienated from his mother, who left when he was younger, but rebuilds a relationship with her in Season 3. Matt is eminently likable -- there's something sweet and sad and lonely about him -- and he tends to lead the team to victory on the field through sheer force of will rather than raw talent. Hardly a "Rudy" type of pugnacious, happy-go-lucky team mascot, Matt sometimes seems depressed, and he's often at odds with the other members of the football team. At the start of Season 4, Matt has graduated from high school but he can't quite figure out what to do with his life.
Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly)
Lyla was in love with Jason Street and never questioned anything in her life, and then Jason had his accident, she cheated on him with Tim Riggins, and her father and mother got divorced. She briefly dated a nice Christian boy who was very active in his evangelical church, but then found herself back with bad boy Tim again. She's never quite gotten over Tim, and she's with him at the start of the fourth season, but she's got major problems with his persistent inability to get his act together and get serious. Lyla isn't the most compelling character on "FNL" and Kelly may have been the show's weakest cast member in its first season, but her acting chops have improved dramatically since.
Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch)
Tim is the bad boy of the team and of the show. He's got a coy, Southern-boy swagger that seems to appeal to every woman he meets, from the thirtysomething mom who lives next door to him to Lyla to Tyra to many, many others. Tim is a good kid at heart and tends to rally around any well-meaning underdog no matter how unpopular he or she might be, but he's also got the self-sabotaging gene that makes him drink, engage in random crimes, and screw up big-time with clock-like regularity. Just when things are starting to look up for Tim, he messes it up. This makes him one of the most repetitive and predictable characters on the show, but thanks to that swagger, we don't mind so much.
Tyra Collette (Adrienne Palicki)
Tyra is the female version of Tim -- wild, irreverent, sly -- but she's troubled by her mother's erratic behavior and her sister's job at the strip club. Thanks to some encouragement from Tami, she tries to do a little better in school so she can break out of Dillon and pursue a real career beyond stripping or waiting tables. At the end of Season 3, Tyra is accepted to the University of Texas at Austin.
Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles)
Smash is that odd blend of passionate and self-aggrandizing that you often find in athletes; he has an insatiable hunger for victory and loads of talent, but that same hunger can lead him to make bad choices in his personal life. Smash is at once infuriating and heartbreaking: He has a close relationship with his mother and tries hard not to disappoint her. Underneath his bravado we see, time and again, that he simply wants to do right by his family and make enough money to take care of his mother. His mom just wants him to be happy, above all else. Not surprisingly, Smash and his mom are responsible for some of the most tear-jerking moments of the show. After experiencing a bunch of major setbacks in his quest to land a football scholarship at a powerhouse school, Smash departs in Season 3 to join the football team at Texas A&M.
Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons)
Landry is just Matt Saracen's sidekick until the second season, when his crush and subsequent relationship with Tyra lead him down a twisted path indeed. While their fantastical murder subplot was widely blamed for wrecking the show, his alternately stunned, stoical and panicked response to the pressure of his and Tyra's crime always rang true. At the start of the fourth season, Landry is one of the only students who ends up at East Dillon High, and he becomes a kicker for the football team.
Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland)
Buddy is an alternately jolly and pitiable booster for the football team who's either rallying to Coach Taylor's side or screwing things up for him by applying too much pressure or voicing the sentiments of the booster/fan mob. In the first season, he has an ill-advised affair with Tyra's mother when she comes to work for him, and although he begs his wife for forgiveness, she dumps him and quickly remarries. Buddy always puts a chipper face on things, but he has a hard time finding his footing in the wake of his divorce.
J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter)
The classic entitled rich kid, J.D. starts out vaguely sympathetic as the talented quarterback son of an overbearing overachiever dad, but during the fourth season, J.D. replaces his humility with contempt for other kids. J.D. is easy to dislike, particularly in contrast to the unassuming sweetness of Matt Saracen.
Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan)
New in the fourth season, Vince is a troubled kid who's forced to choose between juvenile detention and football. Although he's inexperienced and his home life is a wreck, we see immediately how Howard will benefit from some mentoring from Coach Taylor.
Why was the first season of this show so good?
Well, if you watch the show you can see immediately what makes it so different from other shows: The camera moves around a lot and the actors improvise their lines around a general theme, resulting in strange, stuttered dialogue that feels a little more authentic than the dialogue on most typical dramas. Beyond those two obvious style choices, there were a bunch of great decisions that contributed to the show's quality straight out of the gate: The cinematography was always fantastic, the music selections were great but not too obtrusive, and each episode offered a new angle on the town of Dillon, its people, its high school kids and their football team. Most of all, though, the show had obvious heart and soul. It's hard to quantify that sort of thing, of course, but it was apparent in every scene. The emotional center of each scene was always explored more thoroughly than any plot device or gimmick.
Why was the second season of this show so bad?
The second season wasn't horrible overall, but the subplot with Tyra and Landry throwing a dead body into the river was really, truly terrible for a number of reasons: 1) It went against the entire premise of the show -- ordinary people, struggling against ordinary circumstances, 2) the scenes in question were neither all that well performed or that compelling despite their sensational nature, 3) the attempt to try to make covering up a murder appear to be an understandable mistake that any well-intentioned teenager could make not only failed, but it was a really bad choice to even try to pull this off in the first place. Unfortunately, instead of accidentally killing Tyra's stalker, Tyra and Landry almost accidentally killed one of the most promising dramas on TV in its sophomore season.
Why should I watch this show after it sank so low?
Even the second season was worth watching, as long as you tried to ignore the bad scenes. And ever since that mistake, the writers have remained totally focused on stories that feel organic and authentic and don't stray too far outside of the realm of regular folks. This is the strength of a show like "Friday Night Lights," after all -- instead of trotting out the most gruesome crimes or most horrific surgeries, this show traffics in the hopes of everyday people. On top of that, the fourth season is new in so many ways -- new characters, new situations -- that it won't take that much work to catch up at this point, and the payoff is a truly original drama (which I don't need to remind you is painfully rare on the small screen at this particular moment).
I don't watch football at all. Why would I want to watch a show about football?
"Friday Night Lights" isn't a show about football. While there are episodes, every now and then, that focus on a game, most of the time games are quick and dirty affairs that have everything to do with the plot of that particular show. For example, when Coach Taylor begins his new job at East Dillon High at the start of Season 4, we can see he has his work cut out for him with these ramshackle facilities, this brown scrubby field, these undisciplined, untrained kids. Yes, we've seen this story before elsewhere, but the show's writers take it and make it all new for us, so much so that, by the time the first game rolls around, we're dying to see how these kids will fare. The game serves as the personification of the challenges that the show's characters are facing. That said, there's not a lot of football on the show, all things considered. What matters far more than football, to these writers, is capturing the thrills and disappointments of high school, how all of your ups and downs feel so dramatic and important in that setting. This show manages to reveal high school as more than a punch line or a battlefield; it's a place where young people find themselves, really, and align themselves with each other (and against each other) based on what they find.