“Friday Night Lights”: Top Ten Episodes

There’s a scene in season one of Friday Night Lights when Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has dragged the Panther team out of their homes in the middle of the night to teach some discipline. It’s pouring rain, the kids are exhausted, and Coach makes them run sprints up a muddy hill until they get sick. All the while, he’s yelling at them, “Champions don’t give up.” The players are downtrodden, exhausted, and can hardly breathe. But they’re in it together, and they’re in it to win. Smash (Gaius Charles), the biggest ego of them all, starts shouting the team motto: “Clear eyes, full hearts…” and his fellow players chimes in with “can’t lose.” The chants grow louder, more impassioned, until the team runs up the hill once more, invigorated, determined to earn their status, and better men for it.

Moments like these, moments of character building, heart, determination, and spirit, are what have captured our hearts for the past five years. And what we will sorely miss. This week we say farewell to one of the best dramas on television. The show was the epitome of phenomenal writing, an impeccable cast, and gut-wrenching storytelling. There’s no better way to pay homage to the show than to look back at the episodes that made our hearts swell, our spirits soar, and our eyes blurry. Here, Scott and I count down our favorite episodes of the past five seasons, before the lights go out forever.

“Leave No One Behind,”  Season Two

Season two of Friday Night Lights was flawed (Coach Taylor left for a college team; an ill-advised murder plot), but it righted itself by season’s end. One reason was this emotionally charged episode that saw Matt (Zach Gilford) reaching his breaking point. His father has redeployed to the war in the Middle East, leaving Matt alone, again, to care for his ailing grandmother (Louanne Stephens). Desperate to just be a regular kid for a change, he goes on bender with Tim (Taylor Kitsch) in the middle of the afternoon. After taking a break for team practice, the good times continue on into the night at the local strip joint, the Landing Strip. When Grandma Sarecen ends up in the hospital while Matt is out, it’s Coach Taylor who’s called in to take control of the situation. At the Sarecen home, Coach tosses Matt in the bathtub, turns on the shower, and lays into him. Matt finally cut loose, in one of the finest moments in the show’s series run. He screams that everyone important in his life has left him: His father, his mother, Julie, even the Coach left him to go coach at the college. “What’s wrong with me?” Matt cries. In that instant, coach becomes father figure and quietly tells him, “It’s not you.”

That scene packs a whallop, as Zach Gilford turned in a star making performance so strong that I barely remember the other plots in the episode. –SM

“It’s Different for Girls,” Season One

For a show centered around a high school football team and its coach, it’s natural for the boys to be center stage. But “It’s Different for Girls” focused on what brings all the boys to their knees: the girls. From Smash brushing off his hoards of followers to go after Waverly (Aasha Davis) to Matt awkwardly standing up to Coach to say he won’t stop seeing Julie (Aimee Teegarden), their softer sides were showing. And a little bit of leg when they cross-dressed for the pep rally.

But in addition to Eric desperately trying to keep his little girl innocent and Tim and Jason (Scott Porter) both in a tizzy over their confused feelings for Lyla (Minka Kelly), the girls were given their chance to shine. In light of the cheerleading championships, the football team stepped off to the sidelines and supported the girls. Lyla, in particular, needed it. After the truth about her affair with Tim came out, she was chastised in every possible way. From Jason, the cheerleading team, random students, and internet posts, she was constantly beaten down, to the point of quitting the  team. It was Tim who still stood by her side and reminded her of the thrill of competition, and that nothing-else-matters feeling that they share when doing what they love. Lyla may have been unfairly judged for her mistakes, but she came out on top, returning to the team, facing her tormentors, and finally smiling, enjoying her time to shine. –ER

“I Can’t,” Season Four

The series never shied away from controversial subject matters and in this gut-wrenching episode, Becky (Madison Burge) must decide whether or not to have an abortion. At first she confides in Tim, but he doesn’t know what to say, so he takes her to the one woman he trusts for sound advice: Tami. Becky pours her heart out and Tami presents the 10th grade girl with all of her options. Incredibly, all of this happens before the opening credits. The remainder of the episode shows how Becky’s dilemma affects the lives of both women. Becky tells her mother (Alicia Witt), who then berates her daughter and begins pressuring her to have the abortion. Meanwhile, Tami evaluates her relationship with Julie and starts to ponder how she would react if her own teenage daughter were in a similar predicament. Becky and Tami meet up again late in the episode, with Becky asking for more advice. Becky has thought about the possibility of keeping the baby and being a better mother than her own mom was. But then she says, “I can’t take care of a baby. I can’t.” Britton and Burge are both stunning in this quiet scene, with Burge doing most of the talking, and Britton, the consummate actress, complimenting her young co-star by listening and expressing. Sometimes Friday Night Lights could lift you up and fill you with optimism. In this episode, the show broke your heart and left you weeping long after if faded to black.–SM

“It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy,” Season Three

No matter how small a role, or how big of a jerk a character becomes, Friday Night Lights always gives them a moment of humanity. Socially awkward, tunnel-visioned, buttoned down, and later the embodiment of Panther arrogance, J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter) was never one of the most beloved citizens of Dillon. But J.D. had his sympathetic moment when he finally breaks from the tight supervision of his father and has some drunken fun (with a little help from Tim, naturally).

But what really makes this episode stand among the best is one short scene toward the very end. After Matt and Julie rekindle their romance during a visit to the lake and have sex for the first time, Matt drops Julie off early in the morning. Nuzzled against each other, they’re shy, in love, and wishing they didn’t have to part ways. After a lingering farewell kiss, Julie heads inside. Still wearing Matt’s sweatshirt, she stares at herself in the mirror and smiles with slight embarrassment. There’s so much told in this sequence, but it doesn’t include a single word of dialogue. All told through the close-up shots, moody music, and half-lidded glances between the actors, the moment capitalizes on the show’s unique style and strong cast to tell it’s story. It was a movie moment on the small screen, and a breath of fresh air for network television. –ER

“Pilot,” Season One

The first episode of Friday Night Lights quickly established the tone of the show and introduced us to who we thought were the main characters. At the center of everything were Dillon High School football head coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton).  Immediately, we saw that the Taylors were going to mirror a real working marriage and not just be some fabricated television version of married life. Just when you think this is going to be just another sports show (albeit, a beautifully crafted one) the writers pulled a devastating reverse by paralyzing star quarterback, Jason Street. Matt Saracen was thrust into the spotlight and the young man with a difficult home life entered our hearts. The producers had announced that this was not just another sports show, but a show about community and family. The final sequence, when the whole town of Dillon mills about in the hospital waiting area, drives this point home. Enemies Tim and Smash unite, strangers Lyla and Julie comfort each other, and Coach Taylor decides that he must set an example of strength as he holds the hand of his broken pupil. One of the best television pilots ever. –SM

“Kingdom,” Season Five

Humor may not be one of the first words that come to mind when describing Friday Night Lights, but “Kingdom” was full of light moments (my personal favorite was Eric cooking bacon in his office). The happier tone that overtook this road trip episode paved the way to some of the best bonding moments of the East Dillon cast. United against their adversaries and away from the troubles back home, the team became brothers, and literally branded themselves permanently with Lion pride.

But when the boys weren’t stirring up trouble, it was clear how much they’ve grown. In a scene late at night outside the hotel, a few members of the team reminisce about their different backgrounds and lightly poke fun at one another. But as they solemnly reflect on their upcoming game, they turn to Vince (Michael B. Jordan) for guidance. He’s come a long way to be the leader from running from the cops in his first episode. Coach secretly listens on, no doubt proud of his Lions. They were no longer the delinquent, or the farm boy, or the newbie. They were a team. –ER

“New York, New York,” Season Three

Loyalty and friendship have been at the core of Friday Night Lights since the beginning, especially as explored through the relationship of Tim and Jason. In this, Scott Porter’s final episode, the two friends travel to New York City where Jason pursues a slim lead at a sports agency. His mission is two fold: Not only does he see a future for himself as an agent, but he wants to relocate to live closer to Erin, his ex-girlfriend, and their infant son, who have also moved to New York. Tim rides along and together the guys have one last adventure together in the Big Apple. Jason gets shot down by the agency, but Tim won’t let him give up and suggests they go see a major college player (who also happens to be a former Dillon Panther) to convince him to commit to the agency. The plan works and Jason is given an entry level position. Tim looks on with pride as he watches his Texas brother’s dreams coming true. Throughout the series, we’d seen Jason go through so much, that his farewell was bittersweet. It was wonderful to see him finally catch a break after so much turmoil. Yet, like Tim, saying goodbye to Street was hard to do. Credit Kitcsh and Porter for making the episode everything you could hope for. “New York, New York” is funny, sentimental, and pulls all of the right heart strings as only Friday Night Lights could do.–SM

“The Son,” Season Four

“The Son” was arguably the best TV episode of 2010, let alone one of the best of Friday Night Lights. In the aftermath of Matt’s father being killed in action in Iraq, the community bands together to support Matt’s family in the dark times. There were so many moments that contributed to making the episode great: Matt slamming the door in the face of J.D. and the boosters; Eric wordlessly knowing that Julie was worried about him dying and comforting her. The look on Matt’s face alone when he gazed into his father’s casket was enough to earn Zach Gilford an Emmy for his performance.

But the one moment that only could have been done on Friday Night Lights was when Matt finally breaks down and cries at the Taylor’s dinner table. These writers know every facet of their characters, and it shows. Matt losing his cool over something so small as not liking carrots on his dinner plate, and fumbling over staying polite while having a complete breakdown was perfect. Matt has always tried to be the good guy, and he’s been successful so far. But in his grief he’s angry, at his father and at himself for not keeping it under control. For once, Matt wasn’t okay. That moment could have been no one else’s, and it wouldn’t have belonged on any other show. That realism, that empathy as we cried along with him, and understood how his whole life led up to that moment, that was the heart of Friday Night Lights. –ER

“Mud Bowl,” Season One

When a train accident derails the Panthers from having their next home playoff game, all signs point to the team having to accept an offer from the opposing team and hold the game in enemy territory. Coach Taylor has too much pride, and damn it, his boys were promised a home game. In a stroke of Field of Dreams genius, he decides to build a football field in the middle of a pasture. The scene between Coach and Tami where he pitches his idea is priceless. As she pokes fun at his idea, cows wander in the background. The coach directs his players to help him with his scheme, unifying the team in the process. The night of the game, a thunderstorm creates a sea of mud and one of the most memorable games in Texas football history. “Mud Bowl” is funny (Coach and Tami), inspirational (Jason teaching Matt how to be a better quarterback), scary (Tyra nearly gets raped) and ultimately encapsulates everything that was great about the series, showing how great television can and should be.–SM

“Underdogs” Season Three

In the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor said that at some point in our lives, we will all fall. After three seasons of fighting an uphill battle with ratings, although strong in critical favor, it seemed as though the show was done (it was later picked up by DirecTV, who made a partnership deal with NBC for the final two seasons). In “Underdogs,” there was that underlying sense of defeat. The Panthers made it to the State Championship once again, made an incredible comeback post half-time, gaining the lead on the mighty Titans. Only to have it all taken away in a victory kick.

It was a heartbreaking loss, set against a farewell to the Panthers team as the majority of the original cast graduated on to bigger things. The final moment, with Tim symbolically leaving his cleats behind on the field, was touching. But despite the fall and farewell, this episode was among the most inspirational. From Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) pouring her heart out into her college essay, ruminating on how Jason Street’s injury pointed out that life isn’t fair for anybody, to Coach telling his players and their closest family and friends that he’s never been prouder of a team, it didn’t matter whether they won or lost the game. The game changed them, and as Coach points out, it was one they would talk about for years to come. The parallels of the on-screen struggle with the off-screen drama are obvious, and it felt like Coach was comforting us, the fans, as well. And he was right, we’ll never be the same. –ER




  • JonCummings

    Thanks, guys. It’ll be interesting to see whether another cable channel decides to offer FNL an afterlife. (It’s already been tried, and pulled for low ratings, by ABC Family.) Reading your descriptions of these 10 episodes brings a flood of memories of the show’s other great moments. It’s astonishing to think that so few people have actually had the experience of following this show.

  • Matthewrhawker

    I’m having a a hard time remembering a particularly poignant interaction between Street and Coach. It would have been either the 2nd seasonwith Street quitting coachin or during the third season with what would probably be Coach/ Street’s last interaction. Street expresses an apology to Coach about quitting and Coach replies with something along the lines of ” You’ve got nothing to be sorry of son, You lift up everyone around you.”

    So many great moments with this show.

  • http://headshotsbylevi.blogspot.com Maxingout

    Thanks for that recap – really brought back a lot of memories. After watching the finale last night I feel like I’m in mourning today. My heart is very heavy. I’m not sure if it’s Coach’s inpsiration, Tami’s quiet strength or their marriage that made me feel safe – but I was SO pleased after last nights finale – how in the world can such an amazing show go so unnoticed while “The Hills” can be SO popular. I guess times have changed.