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 TV.com and elsewhere:

+ Mathematical Proof that Fridan Night Lights' Eric Taylor is the Best Football Coach in History (TV.com)
+ 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
(ESPN)
+ Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg's Friday Night Lights podcast (Hitfix)

Comments (20)
Submit
Sort: Latest | Popular
It's tough enough to find/make decent TV without making it even worse with short schedules; then every network would need to find twice the amount of good, 'watchable', TV to fill their schedules, something they can't do now.
Reply
Flag
This is a great point - the success rate for new network TV shows is not good.
Reply
Flag
I'm on the fence about this one. My friend and I talked about this the other day. I love the shorter like 13-episode seasons, (only drama's - comedy the more the better), as the pace is really quick and things happen. Season 4 of Lost will always be my favorite for that reason. He says he'll take 1 or 2 filler episodes for a longer season so he has a lot more to watch of the shows he loves. I think we both have a solid point.
Reply
Flag
i don't think every TV show should do short seasons, but i don't think they should be specifically 22-24. some shows would work best when they can't meander along and just try to hit specific necessary episodes and lose itself along the way (Desperate Housewives springs to mind, among lots of other i'm sure), but loose storyline shows like Psych and Community and Parks & Recreation have found themselves while they wandering through the and became two of the funniest shows on TV. this is only a problem with the main channels though, most basical and pay cable have never did many episodes in a season for whatever reason, it's always been around 13, but that may be because they seemed to primarily be during the summer. i hope no show ever completely goes to the 6 episode format like British tv, that's never enough. While i admit it scared me off at first and had me thinking it was a "sports show", Friday Night Lights was an amazing lightning in a bottle once in an existence show, whatever stars had to align to make it come together will never happen again. NBC Universal is releasing a complete series later this year, i wish they were smart enough to release it on Blu-ray as well, as much as i love this show, I won't buy DVDs anymore
More+
Reply
Flag
I wish more network would give shows a lesser season but expect greater quality like HBO and other cable networks do. It just works better. Hope Friday Night Lights does do that because even with a 13 episode season, it was one of the best seasons on all of tv.
Reply
Flag
It makes you wonder what Friday Night Lights would have been like if it aired on HBO...
Reply
Flag
I'm so glad that fate, uh, or was it Direct TV intervened to let these people tell their story. Although I'll miss it I beleive they got 'er done with class and style. Loved the finale and the last long pass fading into a content future for everyone - and they all lived happily ever after. I will rewatch this series from time to time - moreso than Lost which went out feet first on its shield and pretty much ruined the previous 5 seasons. Sorry, gotta say it till you believe it. FNL - one hell of a ride, thanks for being there...
Reply
Flag
watched this show for the first time a month ago all five seasons and rewatched it three times it was that good!!!
Reply
Flag
shame it ended sooooo soon, shame
Reply
Flag
Staff
Loved FNL. When a show like this hits on all cylinders, its a natural reaction to try to find something wrong with it (TV will never be the same). I whole heartedly agree that the 1st season of FNL is the best and never found myself asking "When is this season going to end?" No one wants less episodes of their favorite show, so maybe restructuring is the next logical solution. While FNL had a catalyst in the movie that was released years prior to the TV show, I found it to be perfectly paced. Don't forget to include the FNL soundtrack as an all time best. Explosions in the Sky FTW.
Reply
Flag
Though I do think calling Jason Street's rehab story problematic is in itself problematic, I do tend to agree that, to a CERTAIN degree, shorter can be better.

Now, I'm certainly not advocating a 6-episode season for ANY show. Any writing staff that can't come up with a substantial plot that can sustain itself for more than six episodes should, well, not be writing for television. However, I do think that several shows often stall in a 22-episode arc; they often DO have filler episodes, and while a filler episode CAN be good for giving valuable character insight and thematic richness, they often don't. Notable series that were/are able to pull this off most of the time include Fringe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, maybe 50% of the time, Lost (let's be honest, "Stranger in a Strange Land," clearly a filler episode, was Lost's inability to be good while spinning its wheels rearing its ugly head). Several non-network shows, however, have amply demonstrated that something in BETWEEN 6 and 22 episodes allows a writing staff to create a tight, well-constructed, thematically rich, psychologically complex story line without fizzling out 2/3 of the way through.
Reply
Flag
I definitely took a chance criticizing what was a very well handled storyline in Street's rehab. But that certainly didn't make it anymore entertaining.



I think they chose to go a lot further into the story than they would have in a shorter season, which I'm willing to wager would have been stronger as well. (And again this comes from a person who loves the show as a whole).
Reply
Flag
I agree with just_a_name. To argue that the first season of FNL in any way "wandered" is asinine. It was pretty much a perfect season of television, and virtually every critic would agree. Now I agree that the second season had some missteps, but it had nothing to do with the length of the season. In fact, the second season only ended up being 15 episodes long. To use the first season of Friday Night Lights as a reason to cut down on episodic television is just stupid.
Reply
Flag
Thrilled for all 5 seasons and that it was rewarded with 4 Emmy deserved nominations for it's final season. Indeed, TV has a lot to learn (one recent example: cancelling Lonestar after only 2 eps.).
Reply
Flag
Yes! I also thought Lonestar had a ton of promise. And it would have given Adrianne Palicki a much better character than Wonder Woman.
1
Reply
Flag
I will miss FNL so much, the character development was amazing and you get to know this people like there were part of your life. Every cast did a really great job and the show deserves to win at least one Emmy this year!!! RIP FNL, miss u forever!!!
Reply
Flag
I registered just so that I could comment on this ridiculous analysis. First of all, most fans consider the first, 22-episode season to be the best of Friday Night Lights' five seasons. To say that a weak point of the first season was "a painfully extended look at Jason Street's rehabilitation" in just flat-out wrong. That aspect of the show was one of the finer points of the first season, as it tackled a sensitive and difficult issue with realism and sympathy.

Basically, the main argument of this article is that "instead of wanting 22 episodes of your favorite show every year with one or two dud episodes, you should hope to only have two-thirds of that content every year. In fact, we should really cut back to only six episodes per year! I like waiting nearly eleven months every year for my favorite show to come back!"

I mean, really? "Shorter is always better?" Imagine if Lost or Battlestar Galactica had only had six episodes per season -- how much of those stories would we never been able to see? Or what about Bones, Supernatural, Castle and The Good Wife? No more runs of solid 20-plus episode seasons for any of these shows, because shorter is always better!

Honestly, who roots for less of their favorite television show? The rest of us get about two weeks off per year from work. But people involved in televisions shows should only work about two months every year when making a show? To argue that a show would be at its best only making six episodes per year is simply ludicrous.
More+
Reply
Flag
Appreciate the feedback. I do agree that Street's rehab was treated with respect and realism. But I did find it far less entertaining than the rest of the season. Even for a show that makes life tough on its characters, it was hard to watch sometimes.



I do believe that shorter is nearly always better... maybe not 6 episodes for most dramas, but I think a 12-13 episode season forces writers to focus on the most important plot lines they are hoping to execute.



While I also enjoyed the majority of Lost and Battlestar, I would have gladly taken less episodes to avoid the convoluted plot twists that weren't appropriately paid off.
Reply
Flag
Watched this show from the beginning. If you don't, you're missing out on one of the best programs in years. I know its three big Emmy noms this year are all long shots, but if Kyle Chandler or Connie Britton win their categories, I'd have a tiny bit of respect regained for the awards show again.
Reply
Flag
Best program I ever seen! Watched the finale last week! I'm still dealing with it! Congrats FNL on the Emmy nod!
Reply
Flag

Like TV.com on Facebook