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Friday Night Lights: A Fond Farewell

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One of the finest drama series in the history of television comes to an end this week -- and, sadly, most people won't even be aware of it. Then again, that unfortunate circumstance is nothing new for Friday Night Lights, a sublime example of dramatic programming at its best that during its five season run has never received the level of attention it has so richly deserved.

For reasons I will never understand, the broadcast (and, later, satellite) television audience never embraced Lights to the degree necessary to turn it into a hit -- or even an unqualified success. (The inexplicable fact that members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences never saw fit to honor it with any significant Emmy nominations until last year didn't help matters, either.) It's a miracle, in fact, that Lights survived its first season on NBC, a network that did almost nothing right during the last five years, but nevertheless saw fit to renew the show for a second season, and then partner up with DirecTV to further extend its life by another three. What a shame they couldn't extend it for three more.

(Note: Although Lights will have its official series finale tonight on DirecTV, the fifth and final season will run on NBC beginning April 15.)

Where will we be without this one of a kind show; one that, in its unapologetic fondness for small town life as it is lived by millions of Americans, stood apart from so much of the rest of dramatic television? Lights didn't need doctors, lawyers, detectives or crime scene investigators to keep its stories moving. Instead, it focused on the challenges faced by ordinary working class people for whom the simple pleasures were the best: family dinners, time spent with friends, town parades and especially Friday night high school football games. And it did so with so much grace and compassion that it transcended much of its medium - especially broadcast.

In this week's series finale, Lights to the last continues to deliver everything we have come to expect from it since the beginning. Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami quietly and realistically grapple with and work through a very difficult situation that would change their marriage if they let it; one that would have most television couples ranting and raving and weeping and screaming like lunatics. Their scenes together in the final two episodes should be required viewing for marriage counselors everywhere, not to mention scriptwriters. Further, every actor working in television should feel obligated to study the performances of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Together, they made the Taylors' relationship the warmest and most realistic marriage seen on television since that of John and Olivia Walton 40 years ago.

The final episodes are set during the Christmas season, so many of the original teenage characters who left Dillon (and the narrative) to attend college are back in town for the holidays. (Seeing them again really does feel like being reunited with dear old friends.) Tim Riggins is back, too, fresh out of prison (with much time off for good behavior) and determined to make the most of life in his home town, rather than run away from it. Scenes in which Tim and his friends pick up friendships and relationships right where they left off, while revealing that they are all just a little bit older and a wee tad wiser -- but not all grown up yet -- are a triumph of richly insightful writing and uncommonly nuanced acting. Taylor Kitsch, the underrated actor who portrays Tim, should be an Emmy contender for his deeply felt work here.

The new kids who have populated the show during its last two seasons are also well-served by the series finale, especially Vince (Michael B. Jordan), the quarterback who has had to overcome unrelenting family issues while trying to better himself, and nice-guy Luke (Matt Lauria), who has had family problems of his own. One continues to pursue a dream he never thought possible, while the other decides that it's time to quit dreaming and get real. True to form for this always truthful show, their storylines remind us that no two teenagers are exactly alike, and that simple decisions made at that age can reverberate for the rest of their lives.

Lights debuted in 2006, and at the time it proved to be a much-needed reminder that not everyone in America had succumbed to the unprecedented greed and rampant consumer spending that was devouring so much of the country at the time, including the working class. That may be why it didn't register with a large audience. Who wanted to be reminded that ordinary folks like the residents of Dillon were still living in small homes, driving old cars and struggling to pay their bills while selflessly caring for their loved ones -- not when there was so much money to spend and there were so many good times to be had and so many McMansions to be built? Then the economy went into the tank, and Lights in its last two seasons suddenly reflected a newer and broader reality.

Right from the start, something about Friday Night Lights has reminded me of the classic 1971 drama The Last Picture Show, an uncompromising account of life as it was experienced by high school students (some of them on their school's football team) in a dying Texas town in the early Fifties, many of them destined never to go anywhere. Not that Dillon was shown to be dying, but throughout the series it was clearly a town with severe economic concerns. During its second season, when it seemed like Lights was headed for cancellation, I suggested to programming executives at a pay cable network that they consider picking it up, in part because Lights felt to me like a really great cable series struggling to break out of the broadcast mold, and also because I thought the greater creative nurturing that pay cable offers would allow even more realism in the telling of its stories.

Part of me still thinks that Lights could have achieved a level of greatness comparable to Last Picture Show in the pay arena, but it is hard to argue that this singularly enriching show didn't achieve its own kind of perfection against all odds.