Left for dead after a problematic, reductive marketing campaign torpedoed its rookie-season ratings, Peter Berg's loose adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's 1990 bestseller traded on a small but fanatical fan base to endure for a half-decade on two different networks. Adored by pundits but largely ignored by wider audiences, FNL's critical mass culminated Thursday with Emmy nominations for Best Actor (Kyle Chandler), Actress (Connie Britton) and Writing in a Dramatic Series (Jason Katims for tonight's series finale) and -- for the first time -- the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama.
But the overdue awards-season vindication arrives long after FNL secured its place among the all-time great TV series.
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FNL was more than a high school soap opera about a football team from the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. It was an unflinching look at a town where sports touches everything, offering a tableau of Middle America with a realism and introspection seldom seen on network TV.
Shot in Austin in real-life locations rather than antiseptic soundstages, often with hundreds of locals populating the fringes as extras, the show benefited from a rare authenticity. Untraditional methods reigned: Three cameras tracked each take, with actors free to alter their lines. The result was an organic experience that consistently elevated the show throughout its five-year run.
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Football quickly became the least interesting part of the show -- almost a MacGuffin -- thanks to a steady diet of compelling story arcs and well-drawn characters inhabited by one of the deepest benches of acting talent in the business. An arsenal of simple but powerful storytelling elements -- like sports talk radio jock Slammin' Sammy Meade and the play-by-play announcers who oversee the action like a Greek chorus -- gave FNL a timeless yet modern feel.
Choosing a list of the best moments from the series is a thankless assignment, but here are 10 of our favorites:
"We will be tested." (Season 1, Episode 1)
The last eight minutes of the pilot deliver a cascade of indelible images, all expertly cross-cut into a tapestry of pain and wonder: the buzzsaw cutting open Jason Street's helmet in the ER, second-string quarterback Matt Saracen leading a fourth-quarter comeback, cheer captain Lyla Garrity crying in the hospital corridor, the Smash Williams-led prayer circle dovetailing into Coach Eric Taylor's powerful speech: "It is this pain that allows us to look inside ourselves." The unforgettable closing sequence set the stage for one of the best self-contained seasons of television ever produced.
"Champions don't complain." (Season 1, Episode 3)
With selfishness and excuse-making pervading the Panthers in the wake of an upset loss, Coach Taylor buses his players to a remote location in the middle of the night and makes them run wind sprints uphill in a driving rainstorm. Lather, rinse, repeat ... until Smash invokes the team's motto -- "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" -- in a galvanizing moment that saves the team from disarray. It's one of the most memorable and symbolic scenes of the series.
"Why don't you take your Members Only jacket off and hang it on the coat rack?" (Season 1, Episode 9)
The entire sequence of Saracen's first date with Julie Taylor is one of the show's best, capped by the poignant scene of Saracen getting called home prematurely to lure his grandmother out of a locked bathroom by imitating his grandfather singing Mr. Sandman. ("It was the first time I got to see the real Matt Saracen," recounts Julie in a post-date debriefing with Tami.) But it's the moment when Chandler opens the door for Matt and prods his jacket, with a blend of incredulity and thinly veiled anger, that captures the disarming, wrong-footing humor that made Coach Taylor such an unforgettable character.
"There's nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with you at all." (Season 2, Episode 14)
Spurned by Julie, seemingly forgotten by his father abroad and wasting away on the Panthers' bench, Saracen shows up to school directionless and drunk. When Coach grabs the quarterback and tosses him into the shower, Gilford delivers a scene of raw catharsis, asking why everybody in his life abandons him. It's an emotionally stripped-down scene that helped restore faith in the series after an uncharacteristic sophomore slump early in a season abbreviated by the Writers Guild of America strike.
"I'm goin' to college, Momma." (Season 2, Episode 15)
As FNL progressed from year to year, the producers did an excellent job of integrating new characters as old ones graduated and moved on. When Smash's fate is jeopardized after he loses his scholarship to the prestigious TMU because of a race-related fight in a movie theater, a deus ex machina comes in the form of an unlikely scholarship offer from Whitmore College, an HBCU whose coach has scouted Smash since middle school. Smash's tearful exchange of the news with his mother is one of the series' most satisfying payoffs.
"It's not that I think I'm going to get all these things, I just want the possibility of getting them." (Season 3, Episode 13)
When Tyra Collette reads the college admissions essay to the University of Texas she worked on with Landry Clarke during the drive up to Austin for the state championship game, it offers a pleasing farewell to one of the series' most beloved characters. The entire episode -- written as a series finale during one of the show's multiple cancellation scares -- is golden, capped by a powerful speech from Coach Taylor after a Saracen-led rally (following freshman phenom J.D. McCoy's halftime benching) comes up short.
"I'm just having a moment here." (Season 4, Episode 5)
Saracen's pent-up grief over the recent death of his father in Iraq bubbles throughout this powerful episode, climaxing when he breaks into a funeral home to see the face of his father, gruesomely disfigured by an IED and hidden within a closed casket. The compulsively reserved Saracen finally breaks down during a dinner at the Taylor house, confessing that he hates his father and wishes he could say so to his father's face -- only he doesn't have one. Critics everywhere hailed it as the consistently strong Gilford's finest work.
"I did it. I did it all. You did not do anything." (Season 4, Episode 13)
From the moment we're introduced to a half-drunk Tim Riggins at the Dillon Panthers' media day in the pilot, we know we're dealing with one of TV's all-time great self-defeating antiheroes, whose days and nights of heroic drinking uncannily never affected his conditioning. By agreeing to take the fall for his brother's chop shop to ensure Billy's unborn son won't grow up fatherless, a character dogged by a state of arrested development manages to achieve manhood on his own difficult terms.
"We're getting there. Slowly but surely, we're getting there." (Season 5, Episode 5)
When the Lions set off for a rematch of a game they forfeited early in Season 4, it's a scene from the hotel on the night before the game that shows how far these East Dillon outcasts thrown together by circumstance have come. Luke Cafferty joins Vince Howard on his hotel balcony, and they're soon joined by Dallas Tinker and Hastings Ruckle for a late-night bull session about porn and fried food, memories and hopes. All the while, Coach Taylor sits in the shadows eavesdropping from his own patio -- listening with satisfaction as a palpable camaraderie forms between these boys who would be a team. The touching, understated moment is among the high points of the East Dillon years.
"Eighteen years..." (Season 5, Episode 12)
The Taylor marriage was always the heart of FNL, particularly the brilliantly wrought arguments and discussions that captured the depth of their friendship. At no point was that more evident than in the finale, when Tami is weighing an offer to be Dean of Admissions at Philadelphia's Braemore College while Eric contemplates the future. "I have been a coach's wife for 18 years," Tami says. "I don't see why we can't look at something else beyond football."