Friday Night Lights premiered on NBC 15 years ago this week. I was hooked from day one. Though the show had mediocre ratings and almost wasn’t renewed for a second season, stellar critical reviews and a devoted fanbase propelled the high-school football drama to run for five seasons. By the time the final episode aired in 2011, it was not uncommon for critics (me included) to declare FNL one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
Though there have been flashier and more viscerally gripping “prestige” TV shows in the last 15 years—an era widely considered a golden age for television—I think history will treat FNL kindly the more time passes (and not only because it launched the careers of Michael B. Jordan and Jesse Plemons).
Why do we love FNL so much? Obviously the compelling characters and dramatic plotlines are part of it (sometimes too dramatic: I’m looking at you, season two). And the centerpiece marriage—between Coach Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton)—remains one of the most realistic, refreshing portraits of familial virtue I’ve seen on TV.
But for me, the enduring appeal of FNL is on a deeper, more existential level, and it’s captured in the two-word catchphrase often heard from the mouth of Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch): “Texas forever.” Each half of the phrase is significant in capturing the show’s heart.
Texas: Longing for Place
The fictional small town of Dillon, Texas, is a central character in FNL. Like most of small-town America, the “stickers vs. boomers” dynamic looms large as the show navigates various character journeys to and from Dillon. At various times and in various ways, characters love Dillon and hate it. “Greener grass” opportunities elsewhere beckon, but so does the existential drive to know and be known in a place. Rootedness has its perks—but also painful history that can be hard to escape.
For all its tensions and imperfections, however, Dillon as a place is beloved by its inhabitants. Viewers come to love it too. Like all the best narratives, FNL evokes a highly specific sense of place that somehow stirs up nostalgia among people who have never and will never be in that place.
Whether Tolkien’s Shire, Wendell Berry’s Port William, or countless other fictional geographies, a well-rendered place holds immense power. That’s because it taps into our existential ache for home. As pilgrims and nomads through a lonely and tenuous world, the idea of being rooted and embedded in a local community appeals. As we read the book on which the show is based (about the real place of Odessa, Texas) or watch FNL (about the fictional version), we long to flourish in a community like that—shaping and being shaped by the ragtag band of others God has placed in that plot of land with you, for better and for worse, for a certain time.
And yet the appeal of place is always at odds with our human finitude. We grow, graduate, age, die. We move on or are called elsewhere. A patch of fertile ground in a place is a wonderful thing, but the ground is always there longer than the plants. A place outlives our place in it.
A patch of fertile ground in a place is a wonderful thing, but the ground is always there longer than the plants. A place outlives our place in it.
When the Riggins brothers sit together in the final moments of the series finale (episode title: “Always”) and toast “Texas forever,” it’s against the backdrop of a changing community—though Tim and his brother are building a house and appear to be setting down roots in Dillon.
Various character have left town for various reasons. The high-school football glory days have passed. The close brotherhood among certain squads of Dillon and East Dillon football teams has faded. They’ll never be on the same field, under the same Friday night lights, together again. Yet Texas will go on, for a new generation, and new glory days will be had on the field and off.
That’s the hopeful side of what “Texas forever” suggests. And yet behind the statement is a clear recognition that even Texas is not forever. All glory—whether that of a Texas state-championship football team or the Lone Star State—will eventually fade.
Forever: Longing for Permanence
Impermanence is a constant theme in FNL from the get-go. The pilot episode starts with hype and expectation for the Dillon Panthers football season, led by star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter). But by the end of the first episode, Street is paralyzed by an injury on the field. Just like that, his football days are over—and, seemingly, the Panthers’ prospects for a championship.
Whether dating relationships, athletic performance, family dynamics, or employment status, little is static in the course of FNL’s five seasons. Things are always changing. New challenges always emerge. This is true of any drama because it is true of life. Life is dynamic. And while this is often tragic—things fall apart—it can also be inspiring. We change. Wounds heal. Failure gives way to growth.
Shows like FNL resonate because they express our longing for a power and a glory that will not fade.
Yet even as life’s impermanence makes for compelling and fun televised drama, there is still a sense of longing evoked as we watch. As pilgrims and nomads in a world slipping away, we long for home, permanence, peace, shalom. A better country (Heb. 11:16). An everlasting kingdom (Ps. 145:13). Coach Taylor himself hints at this in his pregame prayer before coaching the East Dillon Lions for the last time: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever, amen.” He prays these words about God, not a legendary football team, knowing the power and glory of the East Dillon Lions will fade. Shows like FNL resonate because they express our longing for a power and a glory that will not fade.
When Tim Riggins says “Texas Forever” at the end of the series, is it a mantra of nostalgic reverie and pride of place? Or is it an expression of eschatological hope for a “forever” that will somewhere, someplace, actually halt the agony of time? I think it’s both. We are wired for place and made for eternity. Of course we want Texas forever.