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TV Review: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

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It may be July in the real world, but it’s Christmas time in Dillon, Texas on Friday Night Lights, as the five-year series comes to a permanent end with “Always.” Knowing the Lions will soon be no more, the team still faces one final game – the state championship. Eric (Kyle Chandler) is pressured to sign a contract to coach the Panthers “super team” next year before leaving for the game, but wife Tami (Connie Britton) goes cold every time he brings it up. Matt (Zach Gilford) finds it easy enough to propose to Julie (Aimee Teegarden), however, getting a blessing from her parents proves far more tricky. Tim (Taylor Kitsch) ponders his future. And eight months later, life goes on.

Friday Night Lights spends most of the series only covering football seasons, so it is not unusual for fans to have to imagine what happens during huge gaps in the characters’ lives. Yet, the final scenes, set eight months later, or what would have been the beginning of a sixth season, should there have been one, are the last glimpses viewers will ever get. It’s bittersweet, seeing how things continue, but already missing those people so many have grown to love. Even with only a few brief cameos by some long departed series stars, seeing the current crop’s stories come to an end, along with the Taylors’, is a moving finish.

The transition is brilliant. Just before the skip ahead, the Lions are playing in their final game. Little ambient sound is heard, but a series of plays are shown over trademark music. The faces of the Lions’ fans as they cheer are panned over. In stereotypical sports drama fashion, the favorite team is down by a touchdown, and there is only one play left to win the game. But between the musical strains and the camera constantly switching perspectives, the minutes spent on the field are anything but typical. Even more surprising, as the final pass goes for the player’s hands, no resolution is shown. Sure, soon enough there are indicators that the Lions won, seeing the championship rings on their hands in the future. But choosing not to air the game winning catch is a bold choice that really pays off.

Happy endings do come true. The interesting thing about Friday Night Lights is that the happy ending is merely a temporarily stop as lives continue on. Only five brief seasons play out, and despite learning all of the characters’ back stories, little of their futures are shown. Many of the principal players are just graduating high school, or early into college. There is no completion. The only thing that ends is the Lions football team, and the Taylor’s residence in Texas. So to sum up the entire show, Friday Night Lights, it’s about when the Taylors briefly move to Texas and change many kids’ paths for the better.

And they really do. Whatever else can be said about Eric and Tami, they help children. None of Tami’s connections are shown in “Always,” though there are many. But Eric gets a scene each with Jess (Jurnee Smollett) and Vince (Michael B. Jordan), letting his two latest projects know that he loves and respects them, and will do anything for them, anytime they need it. He leaves them both in great places, much better than when he met them. Jess moves to Dallas and helps coach a high school football team, and Vince switches to the Panthers. But both owe much of their future careers and accomplishments to Eric Taylor. Vince also owes Eric for helping begin a healing between him and his father (Cress Williams).

Besides mentorship, the most important element of Friday Night Lights is the marriage between Eric and Tami Taylor. It has been discussed at length in many a review, but never has their bond been tested like it is in “Always” and the episodes leading up to the finale. Tami is offered a huge career opportunity, and after following Eric around for years, thinks she deserves the chance to have a turn dictating the family’s living situation. Eric likes things as they are, and has trouble seeing any future but the one he leads in building. The couple’s give and take virtually disappears over this argument, and things between them take a very dark turn, even as their love is still evident.

It’s not the problems that arise that define a marriage, but how bride and groom deal with them. The climax of this arc comes as Eric lectures Matt and Julie on successful marriage. Tami is shocked at the hypocrisy in Eric’s words, and Eric realizes, for the first time, how deeply it hurts Tami that he’s ignoring her career. Soon after, she gives in, not seeing a way out of the argument if Eric persists on being stubborn. Even through her grief, she chooses her man. But she shouldn’t have to choose, and eventually, Eric makes the right decision, telling Tami it is her turn.

Eric’s sacrifice comes late in the game, almost too late. There is plenty of reason to be angry with him for not capitulating sooner. It isn’t fair how he treats Tami. But his apology, asking her so politely to take him with her as she accepts this great honor she has worked so hard to earn, makes up for it, somehow. Maybe it’s the sincerity, or the knowledge that Eric knows he screwed up royally. Still, fans are just as apt as Tami to quickly forgive Eric. He has already won the battle, but forfeits anyway, because some things are far more important than getting your way. Tami’s happiness is one of them to Eric.

It’s not hard to see how Julie and Matt may end up being a similar couple to Eric and Tami. The personalities in the four do differ, but facing trials and finding undying devotion is present in both instances. Eric and Tami are better people than Julie, but she is still a kid in many ways, and still has a lot to learn. Not the best written character on the series, it’s still gratifying to see the Taylor daughter find such a romantic notion as the series comes to a close. And Matt does deserve her. In time, Eric will appreciate his son-in-law in time, whom he already cares for, but stumbles upon the shifting roles.

Besides the Taylor family, many other characters come through Friday Night Lights over the years. Most get satisfying endings, whether they happen in earlier seasons, or in “Always.” Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Grandma Saracen (Louanne Stephens) are two characters that are brought back, but do not get focus, in the final episode. Both are shown in brief scenes, typical for their characters, but not particularly special. Which is OK. As mentioned above, the show only covers a period in the lives of the characters. It isn’t time for something large to happen to either of them, so the writers don’t force it. But they are involved with characters who do need them, so they are present. Buddy (Brad Leland) is along those same lines, but with a bit extra screen time.

Hastings (Grey Damon) alone gets no closure. Perhaps he has the unfortunate luck of joining the cast too late in the game, and disappears into the background almost as soon as he appears on the show. It seems likely, had the series not been ending, Hastings would get more to do. With other loose ends to tie up, he gets the short end of the stick.

The final season of Friday Night Lights develops Mindy (Stacey Oristano) far better than any previous year. Her relationship with Becky (Madison Burge) is sweet and lasting. Even though Becky’s mom (Alicia Witt) returns in “Always,” and Becky moves home, Mindy and Becky’s relationship cannot suffer. They are family, as sure as any blood relation. Thank goodness, for Mindy’s sake, the young woman comes along, so that a long-time supporting player finally gets her due.

Luke (Matt Lauria) gets the only confusing ending. He is shown, eight months later, leaving for the army. As Friday Night Lights winds down, Luke is trying to decide between football and farming, leaning heavily towards the latter. Military service comes out of nowhere. It’s a believable path for him, but one that needs some sort of set up that never happens.

Finally, there’s Tim. More than any other character, Tim has to fight to overcome who he is. For nearly four years, Tim struggles with this, and then makes a heroic sacrifice. But after that act, Friday Night Lights still follows the young man, as he tries to figure out where to go from there. Seeing Tim sit on a hill with brother Billy (Derek Phillips), sharing a beer while they build Tim’s dream house, is an absolutely average life, and a huge step forward from where Tim begins. While Tim has no romantic resolution with Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), there is hope there, too. His future is so much brighter than his past, it’s astonishing. Guess who Tim should be thanking, besides himself, of course? Yep. Eric Taylor.

Friday Night Lights has come to an end, but it will be sorely missed. Words cannot express the gratitude owed to everyone involved in the production of one of the most memorable, highest quality television series of all time. Thank you.

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com