Although “Friday Night Lights” has portrayed high school football life on television for five years, Matt Lewis could not tell you whether any of his McClintock players are fans of the show.
“At certain times of the year, I’m sure they’ll watch anything having to do with football,” Lewis said. “But it never comes up in casual conversation or as a team for us.”
That is typical of “Friday Night Lights,” a critically-acclaimed and award-winning show that has never been a ratings winner. The entire fifth season has already been broadcast on DirectTV and is available on DVD, but the official end is tonight, when the final episode airs at 7 p.m. on NBC (Channel 12).
The show about prep football in fictional Dillon, Texas, is based on a 1990 book of the same name that detailed three seasons at real-life Permian High in Odessa, Texas. The book was turned into a 2004 movie.
Higley Unified School District athletic director Art Wagner was a senior two-way lineman at Permian when the book’s author, H.G. Bissinger, began following the team.
“I’m quoted in the book somewhere,” Wagner said. (It’s on page 54 of the 10th anniversary paperback edition.)
While Wagner said that “Friday Night Lights” is generally an accurate depiction of high-school football in Texas, he said that liberties typically taken in Hollywood can make the show hard to watch for someone who actually lived it. Wagner cited the paralysis-causing injury suffered by the star quarterback in the series’ pilot episode, which was based on an incident during a 2003 high school game in Texas.
“To see how they set it up and portrayed some things on the TV show was difficult,” Wagner said. “They’re doing TV, I get it. But we didn’t go through all of that. …
“Texas football was and still is very popular. The portrayals where players are taken care of, where people know who you are, that’s (accurate). Football is at a different level there. Kids in the stands want your autograph, since at that time in their lives, you are their professional athlete.”
However, football is actually is small facet of “Friday Night Lights.” Much of the show’s praise is for its portrayal of how youths, families and educators deal with life’s challenges:
Star player Tim Riggins growing up without a father. Quarterback Vince Howard using football as a way out of a life of gangs and crime. Coach Eric Taylor and his school-counselor wife, Tami, navigating marriage and parenting through the prism of involuntary polygamy — being married to football, as well as each other. Faculty and staff dealing with a shoestring budget and no shortage of at-risk students at East Dillon High on the poor side of town.
Through the years, issues from abortion to alcohol, drug addiction and murder have been handled deftly by the show, without being overly preachy or cliché. Lewis said that “Friday Night Lights” provides a window on how coaches get involved in their players’ lives off the field.
“It’s rewarding in the sense that parents should watch it, because not all of them understand what (coaches) do,” said Lewis, who was coach and athletic director at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, in 2004-06. “That all gets lost — the role that we play in kids’ lives. They don’t get to see how close we get with their children, and how much time we’re away from our own children. That aspect of it has been portrayed well in the TV series.”
A key theme of the series, particularly during the last two seasons, has been pulling for the underdog. That dynamic culminates in tonight’s episode, when the East Dillon Lions vie for a state championship.
That is fitting, as “Friday Night Lights” has been an underdog, barely avoiding cancellation after its second season thanks to a production deal between NBC and DirectTV. The show lives on in reruns on ESPN Classic, with two episodes airing on Thursday nights.
Hanging in Lewis’ office at McClintock is a “Friday Night Lights” movie poster signed by Peter Berg, director of the movie and executive producer of the TV series. “Be perfect,” Berg wrote.
“I have it there to remind me of the goal, for our team to be perfect,” Lewis said.
For much of its 76-episode run, “Friday Night Lights” was, too.