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  • Writer's picturecasey

Friday Night Lights episode 1.01 "Pilot"

When I first watched this show, I started it completely on a whim. It just happened to come up on Hulu when I was looking for a new show, and I didn’t know anything about it. I full-cried the first time I watched this episode, and I still do every single time. Not only is it a good pilot- it’s a great episode of TV overall. It’s a rock-solid, deeply moving, and involved 44 minutes, and it does it all with people we’ve never met before. Every pilot I watch and write now, I hold up against this one, and it all has to do (as always) with character, theme, and pacing. Let’s talk about it!

Kyle Chandler, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Porter, and Gaius Charles in "Pilot". Image courtesy of IMDb.

We can all agree the 90s/2000s were just cozy right? The Friends, Gilmore Girls, The West Wing era is synonymous to me with a warm blanket on a cold day. Friday Night Lights might just be the coziest of them all, but its inviting nostalgia is far from coincidental. Like the other shows I just listed, Friday Night Lights achieves its warm friendliness through what I’m coining right now as ‘atmosphere-building’.

World-building in its typical sense means defining the logistical ‘rules’ of the story. In this case: high school football is very important in Dillon, Texas; scholarships, careers, and reputations are on the line and winning or losing a game will have meaningful consequences. Our engagement in the story is dependent on understanding and believing these stakes- as soon as you’re saying, “but it’s just football”, it’s lost you.

However, equally important is establishing the emotional rules. Once we’re invested in a story- we know where we are, how it works, who’s there with us, and how they feel- the last promise a show is making to its audience is how it’s going to make them feel. When the credits roll, are we going to be sitting on the couch feeling touched? Motivated? Dazed? Shocked? And can we count on being served that feeling every week? When characters are feeling one way, resulting in you feeling another, is when a show becomes an entity of its own. It becomes more than a collection of people and events and can itself be called things like cozy.

Atmosphere-building is especially important in a pilot as this episode sets the precedent for the series. Everything you’re seeing and feeling is what you can expect to see and feel week after week. Friday Night Lights does some serious atmosphere-building by creating a character out of the town itself. Dillon, Texas becomes a major player in the show, imposing stakes and catalyzing events so we’re not just taking the team’s word for it that football is this important. The pressure on our characters isn’t self-imposed, but the way they respond to it as individuals is what really brings out the heart and kindness that’s at this show’s core.

The episode takes place over the course of the week leading up to the first game of the season, and it fast-tracks us into getting to know the characters by leaning into the stereotypical dynamics they all hold. Through radio station commentary, field interviews, and snatches of characters’ home lives, we meet underdog coach Eric Taylor, beloved, NFL-bound quarterback Jason Street, his cheer captain girlfriend Lyla Garrity, deadbeat fullback Tim Riggins, arrogant and troublemaking running back Smash Williams, and the comparatively under-performing second string quarterback Matt Saracen, who spends more time taking care of his grandmother than the other way around.

Kyle Chandler in "Pilot". Image courtesy of IMDb.

In a pep rally hosted by the mouthpiece of Dillon, car salesman Buddy Garrity, the turnout reveals the extent to which this town cares about high school football. These players feel pretty good about themselves, but they’re not putting themselves on this pedestal. They introduce themselves to thunderous applause, while Coach Taylor endures whispered tips and ominous comments about the consequences of losing the opening game. While we realize their importance to the town, some of their interpersonal dynamics come to a head as well, like the rivalry between Riggins and Smash.

Riggins’ girlfriend Tyra flirts with Smash, vying for Riggins’ attention, but only succeeds in further inflaming the conflict between the boys. They exchange some harsh words but allow themselves to be separated before a real fight breaks out- this is the South, after all, and everyone, even Riggins the high school drunk, knows when to mind his manners (Street, meanwhile, is firing off one “yes ma’am” after another as adoring moms line up to give him QB advice).

The next day the team visits the pee-wee team in a kickoff event, and the little kids clearly worship the older boys. In closing, Street leads the earnest kids in the Lord’s Prayer. Before they begin, a boy raises his hand and poses a genuine question: “Do you think God loves football?” Street doesn’t think very long before he replies, “I think everybody loves football”. The boy nods seriously and bows his head, satisfied with the answer, and they pray. The sincere sweetness of this moment is what the show is all about. The way it feels to watch these boys join hands and pray over their love of football- which becomes synonymous with love itself- is the real point of Friday Night Lights. And this moment is just a precursor to the emotional climax that turns every stereotype on its head and sends the show spinning in a whole new direction.

It’s game night, and one of this show’s greatest strengths has got to be the football games themselves. As someone who feels pretty neutral about football, Panthers games are my favorite football games to watch. They know exactly where the action is and how to keep you invested and informed in the gameplay. Even without the defining moment that elevates this show to something so much more, I would have been sold on this show and readily started the next episode.

But then it happens. Street makes a tackle after throwing an interception, and he doesn’t get back up. It never fails to make my breath catch in my throat, just like everyone in the stands, and the other team kneeling hand in hand is when the tears start to flow. It’s serious, and everyone is treating it as such, but once Street is lifted into the back of an ambulance and driven away, the game must go on.

The opposing team in "Pilot". Image courtesy of IMDb.

It’s Saracen’s time to shine. He’s caught completely off-guard and is clearly overstimulated, but he walks hand in hand across the field with the other captains to resume the game, and the love that’s in the air empowers him to land a pass to Smash, who scores the winning touchdown. As soon as the game is over, though, the outcome is out of everyone’s mind as they’re preoccupied with the only thing more important to this town than football: the community’s wellbeing.

On the field, Smash leads both teams in prayer: “Right now, it’s not really about who wins or loses, Father, we just all wanna be with Street right now, God. We know that you work in mysterious ways, and we just wanna send our spirit, our presence, our love, just to heal him in whatever way, Lord, whatever may be broken, Lord, just fix it right now, Father. Jesus, in your name we pray. Amen.” The team echoes an “amen”, and Coach Taylor takes over with a more somber prayer reflecting on our mortality in this world. We fade out over his rumination that “we are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall”.

Zach Gilford in "Pilot". Image courtesy of IMDb.

I have yet to have any less of an emotional reaction with every viewing of this pilot, and I’ve realized that it’s the simplicity of the characters in this episode that actually contributes to their complexity later on. The way this one event changes things for every character at their core and puts them in a position they would never have expected to find themselves in, challenges them all in incredibly revealing ways.

Street and Lyla were easily able to look ten years into the future and see themselves happily married with NFL money coming in. Now not only is this future obviously in jeopardy, but his best friend Riggins has some soul-searching to do too. Earlier in this episode Riggins had made clear that he often rides on Street’s coattails, not having the drive or passion of his friend. He rose a beer before the big game saying, “here’s to ten years from now, Street, good friends livin’ large in Texas. Texas forever, Street”.

Lyla and Riggins’ futures are far from the only ones impacted by Street. Street was Coach Taylor’s golden ticket, and his relationship to the talented quarterback as his former pee-wee coach was a big factor in his scoring the job. Dillon has already established how important a winning season is for Taylor, and he’s now facing it without his key player. Coach Taylor now suddenly has a lot more riding on QB2 Matt Saracen than he would like, and while Matt really does love football, his home life demands a lot of him, and he doesn’t have the natural born gifts of Jason Street.

Wondering how all of these seemingly simple characters will handle these unforeseen circumstances is what really brings them all into their own, and the love and passion with which they face these challenges is what we can rely on to fill our hearts week after week. If there is such a thing as a perfect pilot, I think it’s this, but if you think I’m snubbing someone, let me know in the comments!

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