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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What TV Can Learn From Friday Night Lights


Last Thursday's Best Drama Emmy nomination for Friday Night Lights was a particularly special moment for fans of a show that has long deserved accolades. Perhaps Emmy voters really did watch Season 5 and determine it worthy. Or maybe the nomination stands purely as an achievement award for the little show that could. Having survived five years, two networks, and a writers' strike, Friday Night Lights learned on the job. It boasted great highs and suffered a few curious lows. But along the way, the particularly unique challenges it faced provided some great lessons for TV networks and viewers alike.

The most important one? Network TV should never again greenlight a 22-episode drama.

When Friday Night Lights began its TV incarnation in 2006, it seemed almost natural for the show to build each episode around an upcoming game. With high school football seasons lasting somewhere in the 10- to 12-game range plus playoffs, there would be plenty of time for football action each and every week. But as the first season progressed, it became clear that the show's greatest strength was its characters. Beyond the pilot, football served primarily as a vehicle for bringing characters together. The best scenes happened off the field—in the lead-up to or the aftermath of a big game—as the writing staff clearly knew high school drama better than X's and O's.

But despite some great early storylines (Matt and Julie, Landry and Tyra, Coach Taylor and TMU), Friday Night Lights did a good deal of wandering in Season 1 (22 episodes) and Season 2 (15 episodes due to the writers' strike). From a painfully extended look at Jason Street's rehabilitation and pursuit of a wheelchair sports career to a much-maligned murder plot, few would have faulted NBC if it had axed the show after two seasons. Instead, the network made a wise decision to give the show another chance, albeit with a shorter season.

Usually, when a network cuts down the episode order, it's a death sentence. But Friday Night Lights found itself. The writers quickly cut failed characters (remember Santiago?), forgot about unpopular plots (Landry's dark secret), and focused on what worked (relationships, a QB controversy, and the Taylor family). The accelerated drama provided more than enough quality television to let the viewer forgive an exaggerated number of big hits and late-game theatrics. And as each of the final three seasons wrapped, the show left us wanting more instead of making us feel like it'd worn out its welcome.

Thankfully, in the short time since FNL's debut, the 13-episode season has come a long way toward becoming the new television standard. With HBO, AMC, and FX adopting this schedule, few recently great shows have faced the same challenges that hurt Friday Night Lights early on. And if you think back to before Friday Night Lights, even great dramas like The West Wing struggled with 22-episode seasons—there's simply no escaping a clunker episode or two with that many hours of television to fill (there are Native Americans in the lobby and they won't leave until they see the president!).

Here's hoping more networks will wise up to the benefits of making their shows work harder over fewer hours. Eventually, we might even see more six-episode seasons, in the vein of many British shows. Eastbound & Down, The Walking Dead's first season, and mini-series-turned-full-on-show Downton Abbey certainly make strong cases to support the practice. In television these days, shorter is always better—even when it leaves you missing Dillon, Texas.

Related stories from both and elsewhere:

+ Mathematical Proof that Fridan Night Lights' Eric Taylor is the Best Football Coach in History (
+ An Oral History of Friday Night Lights (Grantland)
+ How Friday Night Lights Made It to Five Seasons (The Atlantic)
+ Bill Simmons Friday Night Lights retrospective podcast with Hitfix's
Alan Sepinwall
+ Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg's Friday Night Lights podcast (Hitfix)