The author of Friday Night Lights reflects on a long, resonant run
After five seasons, Friday Night Lights will air its final episode on Feb. 9 on Direct TV. (NBC will televise the final season beginning April 15.) SI asked the author of the book upon which the critically-acclaimed series and a 2004 feature film were based for his thoughts on the occasion.
I watched the final episode of Friday Night Lights last week. I had never been a regular viewer after the first season, which may seem strange since my book served as the inspiration for the series. The reasons were complex and personal, probably petty. But I always felt ambivalent toward the TV version.
Still, I felt I should watch. Part of it was curiosity. Part of it was knowing the creators and much of the cast and crew. And part of it was knowing that just as the television series was ending, so was my own journey.
My leg fidgeted back and forth through the entire hour of the advance DVD, and I was glad the only other living presence in my house in Philadelphia was the dog, which like all dogs, was interested only in the Frosted Flakes that I was compulsively eating. I was always nervous when I watched the show. Unlike the 2004 film directed by my cousin Pete Berg, the series was something I had nothing to do with beyond the book's serving as the impetus. I had thought that counted for something, a lot actually. Without what I had written, about the impact of high school football in Odessa, Texas, in the late 1980s, there never would have been a show. But to the executives at NBC Universal it meant nothing. For months they took the position that I did not deserve any on-screen credit. The suits relinquished only after the intercession of the show's creator, cousin Pete, his producing partner Sarah Aubrey and my lawyer David Colden and agent, Ari Emanuel.
So I always felt a sense of alienation. But then I went to Los Angeles to meet with the writers before the first season. I was supposed to give them a pep talk, but they didn't need one. It was nice to see they all had dog-eared copies of the book. But they were creators, not imitators, and the message they had taken from the book was this: Small-town life is intricate and gripping and the glue that holds it together is football.
I was on location in Austin when a segment of the first episode was being shot. The particular scene was wrenching, the star quarterback being loaded into an ambulance after breaking his neck. I knew at that moment the show was not going to be some easy-reach schmaltzy drama but a show with real themes and real characters and as many dreams shattered as realized.
The only real flaw the initial season was cousin Pete's casting me as an extra in the first episode and then dumping me on the cutting room floor. I was crestfallen but not completely crushed, since he had gotten me into the film, even if it was for the shortest screen time ever logged by an actor. I played a booster from Odessa. They put a cowboy hat and a bolo tie on me. I thought I looked transformed from the New York Jew I am—until cousin Pete started referring to me as the Yiddish Kid.
My acting aside, people were shocked when I told them I barely watched the show. But after nearly 20 years I was Friday Night Lighted out. I had persuaded myself that no matter what else I did professionally, the writing of the book, and all that it begat, is what would be on my tombstone. It had become a prison, this feeling that I had become the nonfiction equivalent of the high school quarterback, the peak of my creative life buried in the past, back in 1988, when I began my research at age 33. As my father would have said, it was a nice prison to be in, but I yearned for escape.
And then I watched the last episode. I was absorbed. I was proud of the script by Jason Katims—it was funny, and moving without a hint of treacle. I was proud of the acting, led by Kyle Chandler as coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his wife, Tami. I was touched by the invitation from unit production manager Nan Bernstein Freed to watch the filming of the final two scenes. I was proud of my cousin Pete for creating the show. I was even a little proud of myself.
Without giving anything away, the symbolic Friday night lights do go dark at the end. I awoke the next morning with the image of those extinguished lights still in my head. I admit I felt a shudder of loss. It was hard to imagine that from the kernel of a naive dream, all that happened had actually happened—the trifecta of book, film and television, all of which were not only critically acclaimed but also each distinct.
The goal had never been to write a sports book, per se, but rather to take an ethnographic look at life in an American town in which everything was touched by high school football. The film, gritty and raw, captured the pageantry, chaos and violence of football. The TV series focused on relationships and provided perhaps the most realistic interpretation of marriage on modern network television. Between the three iterations, the phrase "Friday Night Lights" has become part of the American vernacular.
I pondered all that as I lay in bed. But then I felt a sense of relief and knew that with clear eyes and a full heart I could say goodbye to Friday Night Lights.
Because it was time.
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The message was that small-town life is intricate and gripping, and FOOTBALL HOLDS IT TOGETHER.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW