When the curtain drops on
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,
But the overdue awards-season vindication arrives long after
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.
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
Choosing a list of the best moments from the series is a thankless assignment, but here are 10 of our favorites:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Taylor marriage was always the heart of