Greatest TV Pilots: Friday Night Lights’ pilot spotlights middle America with specificity and grace

Friday Night Lights title card

Friday Night Lights, “Pilot”
Written and Directed by Peter Berg
Aired October 3rd, 2006 on NBC

The opening images in a pilot are usually incredibly specific ones. They’ve been chosen as the very first thing viewers will see, what will introduce them to this series and help them decide whether to tune in or flip to something else. In Alias, it’s Sydney Bristow’s face, her head held under water. In Battlestar Galactica, it’s a ticking clock. In Justified it’s a man in a cowboy hat and boots, heading to a duel at high noon. In Friday Night Lights, it’s Texas. This is a series that, more than any one character, is about a community. It’s about the people who fill that community, from all walks of life, and what ties them together or tears them apart. Friday Night Lights and Dillon, Texas are at once diffuse and distinct, an analog for so many of the small towns across the Midwest and a story that could only be set here, in this particular corner of the world. This blend of universality and specificity is what makes this pilot, and the series that would follow, so memorably and compellingly come to life.

The opening shots of the Texas landscape are gorgeous. Writer/director Peter Berg knows this part of the country extremely well and he takes full advantage of it throughout the pilot, putting viewers inside a car, looking out the windows at the surroundings and, as in the first minutes, listening to the radio. It’s fitting that the very first bits of dialogue are of the Dillon community expressing hope and fear about the coming game. If there’s a central character, it’s the Dillon Panthers’ new head coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his relationship with the town is demonstrated elegantly through the constant buzz of debate and pressure about the opening game of the season. Eric is a man of few words. By using the radio, random townspeople, and of course Chandler’s performance, Berg holds true to that while still telling us reams about our lead.

Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights

The pilot very quickly and efficiently introduces audiences to each of the main characters. Coach Taylor and his players are interviewed for local news outlets, and in some cases are seen briefly at home, and we get a sense of the female cast through brief interactions cleverly spliced with the interviews and buildup to the game. The dialogue is easy to follow and shows a clear understanding of who these characters are. Though the series would later struggle with how to expand the journey of a couple of its characters, everyone is fully formed here, down to the tease for Landry’s eventual Christian speed metal band. With only a few glances, we have a sense of the backstory between Lyla and Tyra. An understated scene early on tells us all we need to know about Matt and his Grandma. Smash is brash and cocky, with a hint of the personal tragedy that inspires his dedication and focus, and a natural opposite to underachieving screwup Tim. As for star quarterback Jason, he’s introduced very carefully; he’s confident and likeable, but relatable. An athlete, but not necessarily the stereotypical jock many viewers may have less than fond memories of.

The build to Friday’s game is constant and deliberate. By the time we get there, the stakes are easily felt, not only for the students, but most pointedly for Coach Taylor and his family. The shooting of the game is energetic and fun and, in a brilliant move, announcers call the game, providing play-by-play and color commentary to help those viewers less familiar with the sport keep up. For those football fans watching, though, the voiceover feels natural and helps add to the aesthetic. A show centered around a town as football-obsessed as Dillon, with a coach and team as most of its main characters, needs to execute its games well or lose credibility. Berg succeeds here with flying colors and with Coach Taylor’s mantra, “Clear eyes, full hearts. Can’t lose”, he perfectly encapsulates not only the philosophy of his main character both on and off the field, but of the show itself.

Landscape shot of Dillon, Texas from Friday Night Lights pilot

Other aspects of small town life are wonderfully portrayed as well, from the local diner, The Alamo Freeze, to that dreaded aspect of so many Americans’ lives, faith. Television skitters away from conversations about or depictions of faith constantly. There’s little exploration of it in any meaningful way and often the tiny bits we do get are either saccharine schmaltz-fests or comedic dismissals. In Dillon, faith is a part of everyday life and if a moment of crisis occurs, it’s completely natural for many of the townspeople turn to it for comfort. This, along with the relaxed, beautiful cinematography, spot on music, and recognizable dialogue and relationships make Friday Night Lights and Dillon feel more like an actual, living place than just about any network series in recent memory.

Spoilers for the end of the pilot follow. If you’ve read this far and haven’t seen the episode yet, stop here. Also, do yourself a favor and watch Friday Night Lights. You won’t regret it.

Though most of the pilot plays very straightforwardly, setting up the world of the series, in the final moments we realize that we’ve been watching somewhat of a premise pilot all along. We think we’re being set up for a fairly standard last minute, dramatic victory high school sports story, and we are, but there’s a terrible twist- a bad tackle by Jason leaves the star athlete motionless on the field for what feels like an eternity. Watching the pilot again, knowing what’s coming, the moment looms, almost in slow motion. The first time through, it seems like a familiar ploy emphasizing the Big Play that’ll turn the game around. Every time after that, it feels like a dreaded inevitability. We want it not to happen, we want every moment we can get of Jason on his feet, his future gleaming ahead of him just as he’s envisioned. It’s a testament to Berg’s direction that we feel the power of this moment on every viewing.

Screencap from Friday Night Lights pilot

There is tremendous power in this scene, and those that follow it. From the simple length of time spent before anyone even moves to the deathly silence that passes through the until recently raucous crowd, no one on that field or in those stands are breathing, and the audience isn’t either. There’s a clear understanding of the significance of what’s happening, both to us and the characters, and it’s haunting to see both teams utterly still, on their knees on the sidelines, silently praying for Jason to stand up, or at least move. We then realize why we’ve spent the few scenes earlier watching backup QB Matt throw around a football and his best friend Landry talk about how he’s practically not even on the team. Rather than the story of collegiate hopeful and rising star Jason’s climb to future success, we’re about to watch underdog Matt get thrown into the deep end.

The final plays are appropriately confusing and sloppy and while the last-second-amazing-pass-to-win-the-game is cliché, it’s one we’ve earned as viewers- we don’t want to see these kids lose the game right after seeing their friend and leader carted away to the hospital. This pilot could be criticized for its lack of an ending, and accurately- it all but ends on a cliffhanger, but where it closes feels appropriate. Where do you close the curtain on this part of the story and do so honestly? The game-winning play would be missing the point, the group prayer, though powerful, would be unsatisfying, and at the hospital with Jason’s family receiving the news of his condition would sacrifice the communal element of the story. Instead, we see the team, and a significant portion of the town, pour into the hospital to wait, as we must, while we listen to Coach Taylor’s beautiful and honest words. It’s an emotional end to a powerful, impactful pilot, one that stands up with the best television has to offer.

Kate Kulzick

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

Ray Donovan, Ep 1.01 “The Bag or the Bat” is stylish yet uneven

Greatest TV Pilots: Mad Men’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” a smooth, deceptively dark blend of style and substance