In the second part of our farewell to Friday Night Lights, producers and cast talk about the show's controversial storylines (murder! abortion!), the show-saving fan campaigns, sending the Taylors to East Dillon and (unbelievably!) hating on the Panthers.
TVGuide.com spoke to stars Kyle Chandler (Eric Taylor), Connie Britton (Tami Taylor), Aimee Teegarden (Julie Taylor), Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins), Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen), Matt Lauria (Luke Cafferty), Michael B. Jordan (Vince Howard), and executive producers Jason Katims and David Nevins about the long road to that final Texas sunset. The series finale airs Wednesday at 9 pm on DirecTV.
The show emerged victorious, scoring a renewal even after being clobbered by American Idol at the end of its first season. But critics were not immediately as in love with Season 2. In particular, the decision to have the lovable Landry (Jesse Plemons) kill Tyra's (Adrianne Palicki) attacker did not sit well. At the time, Katims said that story had been planned since Season 1 as a way for Tyra and Landry to become deeply connected.
Kitsch: I want to tip my hat to Jesse for making that sh—so real. It was incredible what he did with that. Just both him and Adrianne playing it... story aside, he was just unbelievable.
Teegarden: I kind of throw that whole thing under the rug.
Britton: It didn't feel off to me as we were shooting the way it did for people who watched afterward. Here's my feeling: I feel like because of the reality and honesty of our show, it can pretty much handle everything. Adrianne and Jesse gave fantastic performances in those scenes.
My only complaint would be not that the storyline was inherently bad, but that because of the nature of our show, because it's an ensemble and there's so many different stories being told, that we weren't able to really tell that one with the depth it needed. If we could have really focused in and showed what happens to this teenage kid who is trying to save his friend and inadvertently kills this guy, if we could have showed what it would do to the town... Because the idea that it would happen and nobody in Dillon would know is, like, absurd... It was maybe a little too ambitious for us.
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The second season was then cut short because of the writers' strike. For the cast, it was just another wave of uncertainty about the series' future.
Teegarden: The strike put not only the actors out of work, but also the crew and so many businesses. We went from being able to make this amazing show to, "Uh oh, should I keep my apartment? Do I move back?" ... Plus, we had been trying to get through the whole murder thing, and it just didn't quite work out. It was a hard time to go through.
Britton: The hardest part of this whole thing has been those times where we didn't know whether we were coming back. Meaning, we had grown to love each other so much. Having to leave Austin and not be sure we were going to come back together, it just sucked.
Kitsch: I don't know that I was really conscious of what was going on. But what are you going to do? I just thought, "You know what, man? I'm going to enjoy it. I love Austin. I love playing this cat. If we get to go, we're going to just keep knocking it out." That's as simple as it was for me... And you know, I'm actually glad the show didn't become this massive thing. It let us keep our head down and just keep going to work.
The fans had always been vocal bunch, but their passion saved the show from being canceled after two seasons. They launched a campaign to save the show, raising cash for charity, DVDs for the troops overseas... and the purchase of more than 18,000 mini footballs (many of them sent to NBC in a show of support.)
Kitsch: It was nothing but flattering. And I think it actually worked, that it's the main reason we're still talking.
Britton: You could never hope for something like that to happen. To see how passionate the audience was, it was just so wonderful. And we were so grateful because it demonstrated that people were really being impacted by this thing that we love doing ourselves.
I have to say, we really started referring to the show as the little engine that could... I know it sounds goofy, but I'm telling you, there was something that just felt so special about it and we kind of knew that it would always work out. It felt kind of miraculous that way. Magical.
It didn't hurt that not only the critics but the executives liked it, too.
Nevins: I was coming off Arrested Development, so I was used to doing a show that's not in the mainstream. But sometimes in network television, it helps to be good. I always like to make shows where you're almost daring the network to cancel you. If you can actually be the network's favorite show, they sometimes keep you on.
With a third season secured, Katims made the gut-wrenching move to graduate some of the Panthers. Peter Berg had initially told the cast that this wasn't going to be a high school show where the kids didn't stay in high school forever. So in the third and fourth seasons, the show sent beloved characters Street (Scott Porter), Smash (Gaius Charles), Saracen, Lyla (Minka Kelly) and Tyra out of Dillon. (Oh, the tears!)
Katims: I've always felt that one of our important recurring questions is "Am I going to live a life that goes beyond Dillon?" Many of the characters are asking themselves, "Am I going on to bigger and better things, or is high school football the pinnacle?" When you think about Tyra's story or Smash or Jason... this has always been the struggle. With Tim, in the final two seasons, you see it's really his ongoing struggle. So he graduates, but he doesn't leave like the others, which was an interesting story to tell.
Also, up until the third season, we had kind of avoided putting an age or grade level on anyone [laughs]. That had to change.
Kitsch: It wasn't like my final episode, but the state game where Riggs hangs up his cleats, it was such a big moment for me. Being taken out of the football stuff, I just missed it immediately.
Gilford: Letting go was weird. I loved what I did in Friday Night Lights. I would have done it forever on that show.
Chandler: Of course, you're sad because some of the actors are leaving, but to be fair, Pete had always said, "You guys aren't going to be in high school for eight years." Watching Smash go, that was hard one.
Teegarden: Pete did tell us when we were doing the pilot that this would be like real life. People will come in, and people will go out, and some will come around again. I don't think we comprehended it until the third season and all of a sudden, people were leaving. I was like, "Oh my god, oh my god... Is Julie going to come back?"
Fans also had to wrap their heads around a new team of players when Coach Taylor was fired by the Panthers — curse you, McCoy! — and forced to start over with the East Dillon Lions at the beginning of Season 4.
Katims: The idea was basically Bad News Bears. This time, Eric would have to build a franchise out of nothing.
Chandler: When we were nearing the end of Season 3, the show was about to get canceled, it was going off the air, I had no doubt. Then Jason delivered that final episode that left off with the move to the new school — that was the first time I thought we could come back. It was so enticing. They basically found a way to recreate the show ... It could have been a jump-the-shark moment, but it wound up being bold and brilliant.
And it really was great to do a story about the underdogs because that's not what the Panthers were. The Lions were the kids who couldn't do anything right. It's quintessentially American, rooting for the little guys.
Britton: It was a full-on reboot. Pete even flew in to give us a pep talk. It felt like exciting though, like we were taking our show and giving ownership to these aggressive new actors.
Matt Lauria was already a huge Friday Night Lights fan when he got cast as Luke Cafferty, one of the only promising players for East Dillon. Both he and Michael B. Jordan, who would play badly-in-need-of-a-break Vince Howard, said the roles were a gift (even though Jordan first had to learn to, uh, play football.)
Lauria: I had just signed with a new manager who used to represent Gaius. I didn't watch much TV at the time, and he said, "Look, you have to watch Friday Night Lights. It's the most awesome show..." and I was like, "Whatever, okay, okay." I pop in the DVD and my wife and I were immediately hooked.
I was also livid, like "I should have been on this show!" I was so jealous. Then, right when we were finishing Season 3, I get an audition. I couldn't believe it, I was such a psycho fan.
I think there's an implicit courage that goes with writing that show. It's not Hollywood. It's grainy and choppy and fast, it's like we're breathing right on these characters, everything is living and dying in the moment, white hot, right there. As an actor, you yearn for that kind of danger, you know?
Jordan: I had thrown a football maybe five times my entire life before I went down to Austin. So 6 am mornings, waking up to practice with the stunt coordinator? It was a blast. I liked going the extra mile. What I loved about watching the show — just from a straight viewer perspective — was feeling like you're a fly on the wall. They just keep things subtle, they keep it real. I loved that less was more.
Lauria: I remember my first fitting, I came in and they had me in one of those worn-out Panther T-shirts and I was taking pictures of myself and e-mailing them to my wife, like, "Check me out!"
Jordan: I got to be a little more badass than I probably have the balls to be in person. I'm a little shy, so when Vince starts to let everything go to his head, it was cool.
Suddenly, the Panthers were the enemy.
Katims: It was such a big gamble, the idea of literally switching teams, changing our allegiances. I kept thinking, "Is this idea going to work? Is the audience going to believe it?"
I remember watching the second episode of that fourth season, the episode where Tami basically gets booed off the stage at the Panthers pep rally [because Eric's with The Lions at that point], and it was amazing: I was in the editing room, watching the episode as a viewer would and thinking to myself, "I hate the Panthers. I hate them!"
The crew quickly followed suit. In fact, they ditched the Panthers blue entirely.
Katims: The switch didn't just happen on the show, it happened with the entire culture in production. You never see anyone in a Panthers T-shirt, or wearing blue, period. They're all wearing red. That really is true.
Chandler: The paraphernalia that I have left over? I think I've maybe got two blue hats and four or five red and black ones. Also, here's something I'll say, finally: I never liked that Panther blue. At all. When we got red, I thought, "Well, the red is cool, but on camera, it's too much. Why can't we just have black?" I started scheming, trying to find a way to get the Lions to use black shirts instead. Finally, we did. Now you tell me: Did it not look great?
The show finally — finally! — got some major Emmy recognition in 2009, when Chandler and Britton were both nominated in the lead acting categories. Britton, in particular, had a meaty storyline in which Tami advised pregnant student Becky (Madison Burge) of her options and in so doing upset the town.
Britton: The abortion was such a big issue for us to tackle and it was really important to me to make sure that we were true to Tami's behavior in the situation, but also to the external argument in the town of Dillon. I didn't want to depict these Southern fundamentalists who were anti-abortion and completely irrational and just have that be it...
We wanted to show the complexities of the situation, and not have it be, "Oh, an abortion comes up in small-town Texas, so they're going to drum the principal out of town." ...I wound up calling around to see what the facts were in terms of how a principal could be removed or couldn't be removed and what the protocol was in terms of what Tami's position would have been. I didn't want it to be some sort of TV-ified abortion story.