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'Friday Night Lights' pilot recap: Winning isn't everything

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Pilot” | Aired Oct 6, 2006

Hey, y’all!

Welcome (back) to Dillon, Texas! For those of you on your maiden voyage to Panther Country, I am so excited to be with you on this incredible journey (and I’m SO envious that you get to experience all the glory of FNL for the first time). For those of you returning for a stroll down this magical memory lane, thanks so much for joining me as I look back at some of the greatest characters and stories of all time. First up: the pilot!

As I watched the first episode of Friday Night Lights for the first time in several years, I was immediately struck by one thing: the constant talk of expectations. Win, win, win. It is clear from the get-go that football means everything to this town—the football coach is a more revered local figure than the mayor. But as I watched with the clarity of hindsight, I was nauseated by the fact that it never dawned on anybody, in those days leading up to Friday night, that there was anything more important than beating Westerby. The tragedy of what happens to Jason Street is set up so painfully by the perceived invincibility that seems to cloak every person in Dillon. From Slammin’ Sammy Meade on the radio to Jason Street himself, everyone agrees that the worst possible outcome of the game is a loss. The fact that the Panthers win the game but suffer such a horrific loss is a gut-wrenching kind of irony.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the big game on Friday night, we have four days to get to know the coach, his family and his players. We learn that, though Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has been a quarterback coach for some time, this season is the first year he’ll be filling the head coach position. He has been working with his star player, QB Jason Street (Scott Porter), for several years, and they both feel it is fortuitous that Coach Taylor was promoted to lead the team as Jason is stepping into his senior year. Jason Street is the ultimate All-American boy. He is a handsome, kind, Christian quarterback. He is humble. He is faithful to his girlfriend, Lyla (Minka Kelly). All he wants to do is make his parents, his coach and his community proud.

Other members of the team include Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a sweet, shy boy who splits his time going to school, attending football practice, and taking care of his grandmother. Matt appears to be the kind of kid who is uncomfortable in his own skin, barely capable of speaking without tripping over his words. He spends all of his time with his one friend, Landry (Jesse Plemons), whose social awkwardness does not help ease Matt’s discomfort in social situations. Though Matt is officially on the football team, as the backup quarterback to the legendary Jason Street, he spends most of his time (all of it, really) on the bench. Matt, we discover, has a slight crush on Coach Taylor’s daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), though approaching her at the local burger joint is a step he’s not ready to take. With Landry basically pulling him by the arm, Matt stumbles through a conversation, only to learn she has no interest in associating with anyone on the football team, even someone who never plays.

Drawing a sharp contrast to Matt’s timidness and Jason’s humility is running back Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles). Smash is loud and obnoxious, and has an ego the size of a planet (telltale signs of an oversize ego: talking about oneself in the third person and putting the word “the” before one’s own nickname). Smash seems even more certain of his future football success than Jason, though it is Jason whom scouts have confirmed is one of the best they’ve ever seen. People, for the most part, put up with Smash and his loud mouth, likely because he performs on the field. The only person who openly can’t stand him is …

… Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). Full disclosure, folks: The heart of this recapper has, and will forever, belong to Tim Riggins. It may be difficult to understand why at this juncture. Currently, our #33 fullback is nothing more than a drunken mess who can barely stand up, let alone make it through practice. But there is something refreshing about seeing someone call Smash out on his blathering. And you have to figure Tim has some redeeming qualities to have Jason Street as a best friend. One of the best moments of the pilot episode is Jason, Tim and Lyla sitting around, drinking beer, reflecting on the dream future they are sure to have. Tim tells Jason he’s perfectly happy to do nothing more than he is doing at this very moment—just as long as Jason passes on 1 percent of each NFL paycheck. They are young; they are hopeful. They have their whole lives ahead of them and there are wonderful things on the horizon.

Since the focus of the pilot is football—win, win, win—and the people who play football, the characters we learn less about are the ladies. Tami (“Mrs. Coach”) Taylor (Connie Britton) dreams of moving to Alaska, where they can live a much more relaxing lifestyle. Or, short of that, to a bigger house, particularly one with his-and-hers closets! Lyla is the perfect girl to match Jason Street’s perfect boy; in all of Jason’s plans for his future success, Lyla is standing by his side. Julie is Coach Taylor’s daughter and the object of Matt Saracen’s affection, but she does not like football players. And Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) is Tim’s girlfriend; she has no problem flirting with Smash even though she knows how much Tim hates him. Mark my words, these women are important and multidimensional, and as the season goes on, we will get a chance to explore each of them further.

As Friday night approaches, the energy in Dillon is, as Sammy Meade exclaims, electric. The whole town is fired up, ready to see their team destroy the competition. With their new coach at the helm and their prize QB on the field, it is a new dawn for Panther football. No one is expecting Westerby to put up a fight, but when they head into halftime tied 14-14, people are starting to worry. Jason, for the first time, seems shaky. Whatever pep talks happen in the locker room fail to turn things around as the Panthers give up 10 more unanswered points to Westerby in the second half. As the time is winding down on the clock, the misery in the stadium is palpable. “This can’t be happening,” the collective Panther fans seem to be thinking. “We can’t lose this game.” And then, as so many quarterbacks in desperate situations do, Jason throws an interception. Should the Westerby defender run the ball in for a touchdown, the game is as good as over. Jason can’t let that happen. He’s the only one in a position to make the tackle. He runs toward the ball. He collides hard with the Westerby player. He’s down on the ground. And then, as an entire stadium looks on, he doesn’t get up. He doesn’t move. Suddenly, Win win win isn’t the most important refrain; it’s Get up, get up, get up.

But he doesn’t. The trainers come out; Jason is loaded onto a stretcher. He arrives at the hospital and is brought directly to an operating room. As we watch the surgeons cut off his helmet with a saw, we realize that back at the field, the game must go on.

So Matt Saracen steps in, taking his first snap in the history of his Panther career. The pressure that’s been building leading up to this game now rests squarely on the shoulders of someone who has no business carrying it. First down, he botches the play. Second down, he throws the football directly into someone’s helmet. Third down, shovel pass to Smash, first down! Panthers still alive! There are 57 seconds left to play. Pitch to Smash … Touchdown Williams! Onside kick … recovered by … Riggins! Saracen has one final chance to make a play for the win. He fakes a handoff to Smash then throws a bomb toward the end zone. It’s caught! He’s in. Panthers WIN!! Panthers WIN!!

And this moment, this win, which everyone has been salivating over all week, barely has time to sink in before the town of Dillon is on its knees in prayer. Smash Williams, who thinks of nothing but himself, leads them all, asking the Lord to make Jason OK. The celebratory parties are traded in for a team trip to the hospital. Smash and Riggins shake hands, united in their shared horror. Lyla sobs in the hallway and finds comfort in Julie, a virtual stranger. In his hospital room, Jason is recovering from spinal surgery, with a traction device immobilizing his neck. The future that moments ago looked bright and definite has come crashing down into the bleakest darkness. No one in Dillon is untouched by this.

Where do they go from here? How does each of these characters respond in the aftermath of Jason’s accident? Let’s find out when we chat about episode 2 next week! And in case you’re not incredibly pumped up already, here’s the FNL theme song, composed by W.G. Snuffy Walden, which does not play in the pilot. But knowing how iconic this music is to the Friday Night Lights experience, I wanted to leave you with it. It never fails to give me goosebumps.

Tell me your thoughts! Leave a comment below—but no spoilers, please!


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