TV | Ken Tucker's TV

'Friday Night Lights' series finale review: 'Clear eyes, full hearts'? More like teary eyes, broken hearts for fans

Friday Night Lights wrapped up its season and the entire series on Friday night. If I told you how many times my eyes welled up watching the finale, you’d think I was a terrible pushover. But man, that was one fine, emotional, intelligent, and satisfying ending.

It was Christmastime in Dillon, Texas, and Eric and Tami Taylor were still fighting over their conflicting job offers.

At the same time, Dillon’s always surprisingly numerous, active local media were hounding the East Dillon Lions for comments regarding the dissolution of the team due to budget cuts, and the possible formation of a “super-team” – “the best of the Lions, the best of the Panthers” – for the next football season.

Right from the start, we had two plots that formed the bivalve heart of Friday Night Lights: marriage (family) and football (friendship, spirit). Many of us have said that the reason FNL was never a ratings hit was because it was too real, not escapist enough, for a viewer who just wanted to sit back and be amused. But I think the real reason was because the two elements that made this a great, unique series had not been yoked together in this way before on TV. Purist sports fans found the depictions of the games too brief and technically not very believable. Family-TV seekers were put off by the moral complexity of the show. And, overriding all of this: FNL never had the aura of being cool or gritty or groundbreaking; it didn’t court a cult following like Lost or Buffy did; it didn’t often try to test the limits of TV standards and storytelling the way The Shield or name-your-favorite-HBO-show did. Season after season, it fell between the genre cracks, admired only by those of us who loved – loved – its lack of irony and sarcasm and hip knowingness. (The one time the show attempted anything resembling conventional “daring” TV – season 2’s woeful rape-and-murder plot – was its weakest season, generating howls of disappointment by its fans.)

Watching the final episode, I came once again to the conclusion that this was the best portrait of a marriage I’ve ever seen on television. The way Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton choreographed their squabbles, their intimate moments, their partnership as parents – they and the writers helped to elevate ordinary lives to the grand status at which we all know they, and we, live.

I also came to believe more firmly than ever that Tim Riggins was the great lost soul of the series, the character who carried so much emotional weight so lightly, so well. His scenes in the finale, no matter how occasionally funny or frequently wordless they were, were the ones that I found most moving. When he and Tyra, Matt and Julie, danced in the bar to the strains of Conway Twitty’s “Hello Darlin’ ” – well, it was a small moment that was sweepingly romantic. When Tim and Tyra professed their love for each other even as Tyra pulled away from him, their brief exchange (her: “I got plans”; him: “I don’t”) took on the weight of tragedy. And when they sat side-by-side on Tim’s farmland, having discussed Tyra’s plans to go into politics, the scene was alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. That wonderful exchange when Tyra said she was “thinkin’ of politics; don’t laugh”: Tim said, “You mean like Sarah Palin kinda stuff?” and Tyra slapped him softly, snapping, “No, you ass! Out of all the people, I mean really!”

In the many pairings in this extra-large edition of the show, Matt paid a visit to Julie, bringing a ring and proposing marriage. Surprised? You bet I – I mean, Julie – was. Matt decided that Julie’s trip to Chicago “felt right,” and so why not? Eric Taylor vehemently told him why not, when Matt did the backwards-etiquette thing of asking Julie first (she said “yes”) and then went to Eric to ask the father’s blessing. Eric did not give it: “ ‘No’ today, ‘no’ tomorrow, ‘no’ till the sun burns out,” said Eric, which is pretty final, don’t you think? Even in the midst of their own squabble, Eric and Tami agreed that Matt and Julie were too young to get hitched.

FNL did right by Michael B. Jordan’s Vince and Jurnee Smollett’s Jess, taking two fairly recently introduced characters and bringing their characters’ arcs to satisfying resolutions. The series left open the implication that, while as Vince said to Eric, “Coach, you changed my life,” his road ahead (with his past, and in particular, with his parents) will still be a difficult one.

What did you think of Eric’s decision to move to Philadelphia for Tami’s new job? I decided that Tami was right – that if Eric had stayed, he really would have been working for the same people who drove this taciturn, honorable man crazy quite regularly. I felt as though Tami had reached the point in her life where she felt as trapped in Dillon as any of the show’s teenagers had: She had to get out of that place.

The final game for state championship attained an elegiac feeling for being shown mostly in silence until the very end, with the delayed reveal about whether the Lions won both a device for suspense and for delivering the message that on some level, it didn’t matter whether they won or lost: It was the trip the Lions had taken with their new coach that counted.

I’d love to hear what you thought about the final montage, updating everyone “eight months later.” Some of the outcomes were surprising (Luke enlisting?), some were tied-up-bows of satisfaction (Brad Leland’s Buddy Garrity back in his element, overseeing the erection of the “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” sign). Speaking of which, watching Eric conduct a practice with his new Philadelphia team and, out of habit, try to rev up team spirit by saying “Clear eyes, full hearts… ” and being met with silence from his baffled players unfamiliar with the concluding phrase – that was another teary moment. I mean for me, not for Coach, of course – from him, we got a final close-up of that great, pained Kyle Chandler squint as he concluded, “Awww, we’ll deal with that later.”

But of course, we won’t. Game over. All that’s left is to hope that Kyle and Connie win their more-than-deserved Emmys.

Please feel free to post your farewell thoughts to this great series below; thanks.

Twitter: @kentucker

Originally posted July 15 2011 — 11:21 PM EDT

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