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If I asked you what your favorite TV drama was, current and/or all-time, what would you say?

What’s mine? Oh, thank for asking, loyal reader! A few months ago, I’d have been ready with my oft-repeated answer: HBO’s The Wire and AMC’s Breaking Bad. These were my 1 and 1a.

Yet recently another show has emerged that has earned its share of a three-way tie in my TV drama Mount Rushmore: NBC’s Friday Night Lights. The series centers around a high school in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and its students, its football team, the team’s first year coach, Eric Taylor, and his wife, Tami Taylor. The Taylors are played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.

What’s strange about this addition to my list is that the Friday Night Lights hasn’t been on the air since 2011, when it wrapped up an improbable five-season, 76-episode run. I say improbable because like The Wire and Breaking BadFriday Night Lights was critically acclaimed but low-rated, and was always on the verge of cancellation due to lack of viewership.

My wife and I binge-watched the final four episodes of the series this past Memorial Day Monday and I’m still pretty amped after the finale. But I’ve been thinking about FNL’s place on my list for a while now, so we’re outside the PH zone when I say it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

FNL1Netflix-recommended, wife-approved. Friday Night Lights came highly recommended via Netflix’s aptly named “Recommended for Bobby” section. I figured it would become one of my shows, like Louie, to watch when my wife was not home (this, rather than one of our shows, like Orphan Black, which I’m forbidden to watch without her).

One night my wife came home to me watching FNL and realized she’d actually seen the episode I had on. It turned out she’d already seen the entire first season when it had originally aired on NBC. From that point on FNL was officially an our show.

We were, of course, tempted to speed through seasons 2 through 4 in a week or two because we couldn’t get enough. But really there was no time crunch to catch up before the next season started—the supposed “Netflix Effect”—because the show was already off the air (this also effectively eliminated the possibility of reading spoilers online). So we took our time and only watched a few episodes a week—a true test of our collective willpower.

How the hell did I (almost) miss this show??? The one gripe I have with FNL is NBC’s marketing of it back in 2006. When I first heard there was a new show coming out called Friday Night Lights based on the eponymous book and movie (which I saw and enjoyed) I thought, “Now it’s a TV show, too? Haven’t they already squeezed enough out of this one story?” I didn’t know the show would be fictional (i.e. inspired by but not based on the actual 1988 Permian Panthers high school football team from the book and movie), would take place in present day, and would be, well, really freakin’ good.

When the show came out I was 24 years old and exactly the sort of person who would have watched Friday Night Lights—had I known a little more about it. In fact in Grantland’s terrific oral history of Friday Night Lights, co-executive producer John Zinman mentions the lack of clarity of the promotional posters, which made it seem like a football show rather than a drama with football in it.

Gloriously in-your-face product placement. Sometimes product placement on TV programs is seamless, and other times it’s uber obvious. On FNL, two brands’ product placements stood out, but each was pulled off in a way that I didn’t mind as a fan of the show–or as an advertising professional.

The characters on FNL spent a lot of time at Applebee’s. When a scene opened at the leading “neighborhood” family restaurant chain, the external shot always clearly showed the Applebee’s signage. My favorite Applebee’s placement within the placement was Coach Taylor’s quip, “Did they change this menu or what?” (They did, Coach Taylor. Thanks for bringing this to America’s attention.)

Coach Taylor’s teams wear Under Armour uniforms and accessories. There is no mistaking the UA logos that are EVERYWHERE. In season 4 when Coach Taylor’s team is strapped for cash, his friendly Under Armour sales rep is willing to work with him on deferring his payments a while. (And your friendly local Under Armour rep would be willing to work with you as well, America.)

For the record I found product placements far less distracting than the fictitious colleges constantly referenced on the show: TMU? Braemore College? Oklahoma Tech? The Chicago Art Institute?

FNL3

Tough love from Coach Taylor.

The Great Coach Taylor. We’re led to believe that Coach Taylor knows the X’s and O’s of the game better than anyone, but to me it always seemed that he was no better an on-field coach than the next guy (though his play-calling was certainly ballsier than most). What makes him The Great Coach Taylor is his ability to work with teenagers, often whom are inadvertently sabotaging themselves for reasons they don’t entirely understand. As his wife tells him in a moment of self-doubt, “You are a molder of men.”

(Mancrush alert: I became so enamored with the Coach Taylor character that most of my time watching the show I was terrified he would do something “bad” and I’d have to find a new idol. Spoiler: That didn’t happen, and my new mantra is WWCTD?)

Tami Taylor. In that same Grantland piece Connie Britton said she wasn’t willing to reprise her role as the “coach’s wife” (she was Billy Bob Thornton’s wife in the movie version of FNL) unless her character had more depth than simply rooting for the Panthers from the stands.

Talk about ballsy play calling. Britton wasn’t working a ton at that point and could have used a steady gig, even if it was glorified extra work. But she was right: her role on the TV series turned out to be as important as any character’s, including Coach Taylor himself. The balance the character provides as Coach’s counterpart both inside their home as a wife and mom and as a fellow molder of young men and women as a guidance counselor makes the show. As much as I love Coach Taylor (see above), the show just wouldn’t be as strong if he didn’t have Tami to support and challenge him (more on that in the next section).

(Britton’s stellar work on FNL no doubt helped her score her next two TV series, FX’s American Horror Story and ABC’s Nashville.)

Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden play mom and daughter, Tami and Julie Taylor.

Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden play mom and daughter, Tami and Julie Taylor.

Mr. & Mrs. Taylor. Part of me is glad I missed the boat when FNL originally aired on NBC and I was still in my twenties. Now that I’m in my thirties and married I have a much stronger appreciation for Eric and Tami Taylor’s relationship.

If the show is about a handful of subjects—perhaps least of which is high school football in Texas—one such subject is Taylors’ marriage. They negotiate every minor disagreement (Eric invited the entire team to a barbecue at their house and didn’t tell Tami until the last minute!) and major family decision (no examples here as not to spoil!) with mutual respect and are never intentionally hurtful. Coach Taylor: “Marriage requires maturity. Marriage requires two people that will listen, really listen to each other. Marriage most of all requires compromise.” This friggin’ guy.

Football is dangerous. While I respect the fictional Coach Taylor (and the men like him who I’m sure exist in real life) it’s tough to reconcile the ideas that 1) football is a team sport that at its best can build an individual’s character and bonds among teammates that few other activities or sports can, and 2) football at its worst can be extremely dangerous and in some cases deadly.

Many questions about the safety of football have arisen in the last few years since FNL went off the air. I can’t help but wonder whether growing criticism, particularly as it relates to head injuries, might have marred the show’s positive depiction of football in some way. A critical scene in the pilot addresses this—a player is paralyzed as a result of an on-field collision—but rarely again in the series are we reminded how dangerous the game can be.

Needless to say I recommend FNL to anyone who has Netflix and loves compelling stories and great acting. Have you seen FNL? What’s your all-time favorite TV drama?

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