I grew up in a sports household.

Perhaps this explains why Friday Night Lights has always occupied a rather sizable space in my heart (beyond the rather obvious qualitative reasoning). It amalgamates an incredibly singular storytelling style – taking the “fly on the wall” camera techniques Executive Producer Peter Berg employed on his eponymous 2004 motion picture – with a CW-ready teen melodrama that plays like a heightened approximation of my own experiences. If you transplanted these kids’ struggles in life, love and games into Eastern Pennsylvania, made everyone a little (OK, a lot) less beautiful, and then had them play basketball instead of football, it’d hit so close to home I’d probably have to sue Berg for likeness rights (again, kidding). Playing for teams dominated my formative years, as I was part of a collection of brothers formed through competition.

But beyond all that, what Friday Night Lights provides is an idealized coach and father in Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) – captain of the ship for both the West Dillon Panthers and then (after being forced out by bastard parent Joe McCoy) the East Dillon Lions – who may just be the greatest screen dad of all time.

A career molder of young men, Taylor becomes the embodiment of the American everyman: hard working, stern, decent, and committed to his wife Tami (Connie Britton, expanding upon her role in Berg’s movie) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Above all else, his mission is to provide for these two women, along with their infant daughter, Gracie Bell (who’s born during Season 2). If you looked up “family man” in the dictionary, you’d more than likely find his picture, grimacing while he processes new information regarding whatever small-town dilemma he’s currently facing.

From the earliest hours of Friday Night Lights – most notably Ep. 5 (“Git’er Done”), where smoldering Applebee’s waitress Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) learns just how she’s viewed by a cute outsider – we discover that West Texas is a region most of these characters can’t wait to escape. Yet Coach Taylor becomes a beacon of hope in Nowheresville, and the love the show displays for both Eric and his people is what makes FNL’s five seasons so special. It approaches the limitations of small town American life without ever condescending those who both endure and enjoy it. By the time we reach the end of this saga – the stadium lights extinguishing on a newly relocated Eric and Tami – Dillon has become our hometown, and Eric our father, throwing his arm around our shoulders and letting us know that, no matter how difficult life may get, he’ll always be here, ready to hear us out, while offering some words of tough plainspoken wisdom that will hopefully help us move forward while wistfully looking back.

Kyle Chandler: Acting as Listening 

Kyle Chandler was riding a wave of career momentum by the time Friday Night Lights premiered on NBC in October 2006. While many still knew him from the short-lived psychic newspaper saga, Early Edition, he’d just co-starred as pretty, clueless movie star Jack Denham in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. The next year, Chandler would appear in the underrated, Michael Mann produced, Middle East actioner, The Kingdom (also helmed by Peter Berg). With his deep chestnut eyes and boyish smile, he was a performer on the cusp of full blown movie stardom, requiring only a single role to catapult him to that next level of cultural omnipresence.

Coach Eric Taylor of the Dillon Panthers was that role. Few actors and material have been so perfectly matched in the history of television and film, as Chandler seemed like he’d been born with a blue baseball cap on his head and wrap-around Oakleys over his eyes. Chandler brings his own experience growing up in Social Circle, Georgia (Pop. 4,500) to Taylor, and his lazy drawl adds a layer of authenticity to his portrayal of the field general. We truly buy Coach as a man who’s most comfortable being part of this community, attending church, and sipping beers with boosters like Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) at wood paneled bars as they beat his ear about who’s going to be starting at quarterback on Friday night. It’s a symbiotic melding of personal background with fictional invention, crafting a character that feels truly lived-in and weathered by numerous victories and losses on the high school gridiron.

Yet one of the most remarkable pieces of Chandler’s performance is his how he imbues Taylor with a coach’s greatest asset: the ability to listen to all around him. So many scenes are structured around Taylor being confronted with a problem, or stumbling in on a conversation that should probably concern him (to that point that, by Season 3, these set-ups are exploited to hilarious effect). Chandler’s eyes are always moving, as if he’s researching every option in an instant, and Chandler allows us to see this procedure all over coach’s face. It’s a phenomenal trait, as Chandler continuously externalizes Taylor’s emotions, allowing us to see just how he approaches each situation. We’re often told – via hacky dissections or tutorials – that “acting is reacting”, yet Chandler builds almost an entire performance out of listening, resulting in one of the great screen turns of all time.

Behind Every Great Man…

Though Friday Night Lights is primarily a sports drama, it’s also a rather impressive profiling of a marriage, in which we get to peer in on the deliberations and decisions that Eric and Tami Taylor make together. These range in size from how many hamburgers or hot dogs they should buy for a team cookout at their suburban home, to whether Eric should finally give up football, so that Mrs. Taylor can pursue her career beyond being a high school guidance counselor or principal (making the leap into university admissions). The old saying goes, “nobody knows what happens inside of a marriage except for the two who are married”, but Friday Night Lights looks to break this social idiom by placing us not only in the bedroom, but the kitchen, living room, office, and backyard with the Taylors as well.

Where Chandler is a revelation as Coach, Connie Britton is every bit his equal, challenging him to be a better man. The virtues of patience, understanding, and compromise are espoused, and Britton ensures Tami owns a gorgeous Zen calm that balances Eric’s often bullish, stubborn masculinity. Together, they form a unit that can weather any storm – even QB1 Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) dating and eventually asking for Julie’s hand in marriage – so long as they truly hear one another’s hopes and concerns for the future. The chemistry Britton and Chandler share is palpable; an entire bond built out of shorthand and simple gestures that only those who have spent 18 years in close quarters loving one another can develop.

Perhaps what’s most righteous about the way Friday Night Lights represents the marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the fact that it’s hard. The show never shies away from the fact that finding someone to love and then keeping that person by your side and invested in this union are two totally different tasks, their difficulty equally impossible to measure. However, we believe in Eric because Tami believes in Eric. That’s not just her man, but the father of her child, and the person who she’s entrusted all her hopes and dreams to. Building a life together takes just that: belief; the notion that the individual who you’ve joined hands with for the rest of existence has your back just as much as you have theirs. In an age where the divorce rate is much higher than success when it comes to nuptials, there’s something comforting about a piece of mainstream entertainment depicting love as a constant process that’s truly worth fighting for.

Continue Reading A Tribute to Eric Taylor >>

Pages: 1 2Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: