You Should Be Watching: “Friday Night Lights”

“Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t Lose.”

If you already know what those three short phrases mean, then you know what this column is about. For those who don’t, however, it’s about Friday Night Lights, one of the best dramas currently on the air, and as some would say, ever.

The fifth and final season of the drama, starring Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, premieres tonight (Friday, April 15) on NBC, and the full season — which already aired on DirecTV — came out this month on DVD, making the complete series available for mass marathoning.

But why start watching FNL now? Where do I begin? As one writer recently noted, being a fan of critically praised and underrated TV fare like FNL is comparable to dating in your 20s when the people you want to see again don’t want to see you and would rather watch something immediately disposable like American Idol.

The drama, which aired 22 episodes in its first season and, after fans sent cases of footballs to NBC, returned for a truncated second spin. Its third, fourth and fifth seasons first aired on guardian angel DirecTV, which stepped in to save the series by partnering with NBC and splitting the costs of the Texas set drama.

Getting a sense of the underdog yet? Good, because that’s just what Coach Eric Taylor is — he’s a “molder of men,” according to Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips), whose character turns to Coach Taylor after he decides to clean up his act when he allows his brother, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), to take the fall for him after he’s busted for an illegal chop shop.

Chandler’s Coach Eric Taylor and Britton’s Tami Taylor bring out the best in everyone around them: their daughter, Julie, the students at Texas’ Dillon High — and later East Dillon — and yes, football players. While they first reject the madness of the town that’s so over the top about high school football, they begin to rub off on its residents, forcing everyone to up their game when it comes to character and heart.

An old friend from Texas used to rave about this show and I put off checking it out until it was in its fourth season because I don’t care about football. (I know, shocker!) After picking up Season 1 for $10 at Amoeba and watching the pilot, I spent the rest of the week devouring all 22 episodes of Season 1 and staying up until all hours of the night the following weeks catching up on subsequent seasons. The pilot is one of the best you’ll ever see: Characters that you want to root for after mere minutes together. Stellar acting performances, and yes, football. But the game is not the core of the series — it’s really a family drama with a football backdrop.

Still not enough? Consider the magnitude of star power that has come out of the FNL factory: The new Wonder Woman, Adrianne Palicki, who played Tyra Collette, the townie who falls in love with the lovable nerd who in turn changes her life; one of the new Charlie’s Angels in Minka Kelly, who played cheerleader Lyla Garrity, whose plan to marry the Dillon Panthers’ star quarterback Jason Street (The Good Wife’s Scott Porter) is changed forever within the first few minutes of the pilot; Off the Map’s Zach Gilford, who won scores of critics over with his portrayal of the backup quarterback Matt Saracen who ditches football for art school — and the Coach’s daughter; and Taylor Kitsch, who played bad boy with a conscience Tim Riggins and is quickly becoming the next young box office superstar with roles in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the upcoming Battleship. And don’t forget Chandler, who next appears this summer in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi thriller Super 8 and Britton, who is set for Ryan Murphy’s upcoming American Horror Story for FX.

Adrianne Palicki and Minka Kelly

Season 5 sees Coach and Tami struggle with seeing their daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden, Prom), leaving for college and coping with her growing pains as well as the team’s struggle when quarterback Vince’s father returns and brings out the worst in his son, who has cleaned up his family’s life under Coach’s tutelage. Many of FNL’s favorites return and tie up the series perfectly: Palicki and Kitsch as well as Gilford reunite and Coach and Tami continue to fight the good fight in the way that only they can. The duo together creates the most realistic depiction of a married couple on TV.

The writing is some of the best you’ll find. Peter Berg (who adapted the H.G. Bissinger novel into a big-screen feature starring Britton and Billy Bob Thornton) has a penchant for creating a safe place for your heart and slowly but making you fall more in love with each and every character on the series, including a new batch of players — like Matt Lauria’s Luke Cafferty — that at the start of Season 4 you found yourself disliking because they weren’t Saracen and Riggins.

For those who need a little gay, the series has had its share of lesbians: the mayor and Julie’s friend Devin (Stephanie Hunt).

Like Coach says in this promo for FNL‘s fifth and final season, “You love the game of football, you just don’t know it yet.” Trust me.

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Watch this show.