Note: I posted this list right before the Friday Night Lights finale aired for the first time on DirecTV. I’m re-posting it now just in case you’re watching on the NBC schedule. No spoilers, but the finale, “Always,” would be at or near the top of the list had I edited it.
Tomorrow night, Friday Night Lights ends (for the
first second [third, if you just bought the DVD set] time). It’s been a gut-wrenching, roller-coaster ride over the past five seasons. From a glorious pilot to the middling second season to the transition over to DirecTV for the final three years, Friday Night Lights has consistently provided television viewers with some of the best insights into the human condition. I obviously haven’t seen tonight’s series finale but I still wanted to honor the series in some way, so it makes sense to do it in one of the ways I know best: A list. With that said, I decided to rank the top 25 episodes of the series leading into the final effort (this is something I also did with Lost, only I ranked all the episodes for some insane reason).
Friday Night Lights is not a series that’s tailor-made for a list like this because it tends to delve out emotional and narrative pay-offs over time instead of in each individual episode. In that sense, you’re likely to see good amount of episodes from each of the “full” seasons’ final runs — obviously not including season two — wherein the big beats start to come quickly and with a whole lot of impact. I also tried to divvy up the 25 between the seasons as much as possible, but as I continued to comb over the full slate of FNL offerings, I found myself more drawn to the later seasons both because I find them better and probably a bit of the recency effect. So obviously this is just one person’s list, one full of certain biases towards characters or plotlines, but I think overall, this paints a solid snapshot of what Friday Night Lights has been over the past half-decade. And so without further adore, my list of the top 25 episodes of Friday Night Lights.
25. “The Confession” (S2): Hear me out. I know that season two is a complete mess, punctuated by the obviously bad decision to have Landry murder Tyra’s attacker and then subsequently work to cover up said event. Things became too melodramatic and generally television-like in ways that Friday Night Lights did not need to be. But if you actually go back and watch the episodes following the murder and cover up, Jesse Plemons and Adrianne Palicki do some really fantastic work in the aftermath of this terrible situation that they find themselves in. Plemons is particularly strong in this episode where, you guessed it, Landry comes out with the truth about his horrible deeds, but things are eventually swept under the rug thanks to some connections. The events of this episode don’t make up for the mediocre and even bad things that come before it, but I wanted to pay some respect to a much-maligned story that has gotten even more criticism in the aftermath than it ever did when the season aired.
24. “Kingdom” (S5): Though far from terrible, the first few episodes of the series’ final season took a little bit longer to get going than I had expected. However, by the time that the season’s fifth episode “Kingdom” rolled around, FNL was firing on all cylinders again. Taking the football teams out of the small town of Dillon and giving them some perspective is always a good card to play and the strengthening of the bonds between Vince, Luke, Tinker, Hastings and Buddy Jr. helped make the East Dillon team easier to root for. This season has been very heavy on Kyle Chandler’s Coach — as it should be — and he gets a lot of great stuff to do in this one, from dealing with possible recruiting situations to secretly listening to his players become a team right after the big game.
23. “Leave No Man Behind” (S2): I know, two S2 episodes in the first three slots, but know that A.) This is the last season two episode on the list period and B.) This is a fantastic episode for both Kyle Chandler and Zach Gilford. When Coach throws Matt in the shower and they have it out about why Matt’s been acting out so much, it’s heartbreaking. That scene is most definitely the best season two has to offer and serves a reminder that amid all the craziness, there is still some classic FNL work to be found.
22. “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” (S1): There’s a general rule to live by if you’re both evaluating episodes of FNL and perhaps thinking about checking it out for the first time: If Jason Katims wrote the script, it’s most likely a great effort. This episode, the 19th of the first season, lives up to its namesake. It revs up the season’s endgame with Coach possibly taking a job elsewhere, but does so through the prism of the Taylor family and Julie’s personal reaction to the possibility. Her reaction could have been a traditional teen angst/acting out kind of thing, but fortunately, that’s not the case as you can totally feel that the once-jaded Julie has finally bought into what Dillon is selling (most notably Matt Saracen). This episode also introduces the short-term plot with Tim’s older female neighbor, one that I always look back on fondly without much thought. Again, it’s not the most original of plotlines, but it’s well executed and strays away from any sort of melodramatic undertones.
21. “I Knew You When” (S3): After the mild disaster that was the actual narrative of season two and then the writer’s strike, the season three premiere had a lot of work to do in re-introducing the characters, but also filling in the blanks of what happened near the end of the season that we never actually saw. “I Knew You When” succeeds on those levels without hesitation and doesn’t resort to any sort of major twist to make those lost months and games feel more important. Sure Smash got injured and Tim and Lyla officially got together, but there’s still a sense that this world has been carrying on without much major change and that’s the right approach to take. You never want to tell your audience what happened later, you want to prep them for what’s to come in the future.
20. “Stay” (S4): The major emotional setpiece of season four is obviously “The Son,” but the follow-up episode, in which Julie and Matt have one last hurrah with the shared implicit knowledge that he’d be leaving at the end of it, is darn strong in its own right. You’ll see throughout this list that I’m obviously bias towards Matt Saracen and so it’s really no shocker that his initial departure episode makes this list. In any event, at this point in the series Zach Gilford and Aimee Teegarden have such great chemistry that they can share a number of moments in this episode without much dialogue and we at home can key in to exactly what they’re thinking and the pain they’re feeling. I think both of them are solid actors in their own right, but when the two of them are together, they raise their games in such a way that a moment or little look is never wasted. Matt’s returned since “Stay,” but it doesn’t really undercut the messy, confusing conclusion this episode let him drive away on.
19. “The Lights in Carroll Park” (S4): When the series shifted gears in season four, it opened up a whole new world of East Dillon, one that allowed the series to tackle some of the racial and economic concerns Buzz Bissinger’s book tackled but neither the movie or the early part of the TV series had. And although it seemed staggering at first to see that Dillon had all these projects and kids who’d we had never seen before, season four eventually wrangled all that together and made it fairly believable. “Carroll Park” is an episode that more or less comments on the series’ transition, wherein Coach recognizes a problem with this other side of town and tries to fix it, but the East Dillon folk aren’t as initially welcoming as you might think. It avoids having Coach serve as a Great White Hope and that’s a smart decision.
18. “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy” (S3): It’s sort of a cheap and easy ploy to flip the perspective of an episode to a character originally thought to be villainous, but that doesn’t mean it can work when executed really well. In the early goings of S3, J.D. McCoy was picked out as a major antagonist, but it was really his father Joe doing all the plotting and villainous grinning. This episode does a good job of showing us that at least when he was a freshman, J.D. wasn’t guilty of anything but wanting to play football and make some friends. He devolved into a rote, flat villain later, but that’s okay.
17. “Nevermind” (S1): My Saracen love returns yet again! This season one episode was the first to introduce us to Matt’s war hero father, a reunion that both we and he expected to alleviate some of the stress in 7’s life. Unfortunately, the main crux of FNL is all about the universe deciding how many terrible things it can throw at Matt before he breaks and thus his father ends up being a giant asshole who’s intentionally detached from his family and his responsibilities at home. And although it’s on a different tonal level, Landry tutoring Tim in English is most definitely one of the season’s best comedic moments.
16. “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” (S1): Although I’ve missed Smash in these last two seasons, I’ve almost missed his mother just the same. This episode sees her find out about Smash’s extracurricular weight-gaining methods and it’s not pretty. She’s tough, fair and honest with her superstar son and even though he could be her ticket out of Dillon and her difficult job, Smash’s mother knows that she’s better off just teaching him a lesson and making sure he does the right thing in the end. Gaius Charles and Liz Mikel felt like a real son and mother from the very beginning and they do some of their series-best work in this episode.
15. “The March” (S5): This episode begins the fissure played out in “Small Town” between the Taylors, but before we knew they’d be arguing about whether or not to move, the dejected look Coach gives when Tami’s not at the post-semi-state victory party is heartbreaking. And after all the tensions between Vince and the rest of the team, this episode does a solid job of repairing the connections by implementing a fun and fast look at the Lions’ run through the playoffs. It felt like something straight out of the FNL movie and that’s a total complement.
14. “Laboring” (S4): Much like this season’s penultimate episode, season four’s 12th episode is a blast of attrition, particularly for Coach and Tami. Though he’s usually quiet and reserved in the best of ways, “Laboring” sees Coach’s desire to beat the hell out of the West Dillon Panthers all over his face. He’s noticeably stressed and fatigued with the events swirling around the game, but more so than usual he’s willing to fight for his team and make sure the local politics don’t bring down his chance for revenge. Meanwhile, Tami’s decision not to write the standardized letter of apology for giving Becky some good advice is one of those fantastic idealistic moments that Connie Britton plays so well. You can almost see why the people in Dillon kind of hate her since she’s so intelligent and so progressive, but at the same time, it’s absolutely impossible to root against her.
13. “New York, New York” (S3): Despite their long-running issues, Tim and Jason’s friendship is one of the backbones of the early seasons of the series, a partnership that made those Mexico episodes better to watch. Thankfully, Jason’s farewell episode doesn’t worry about any sort of big celebrations or sweeping moments and instead lets Taylor Kitsch and Scott Porter riff off one another in the streets of New York City. The trip to find Street a suit is both goofy and heartwarming in that it shows these two guys’ naive outlooks on the world. “Texas Forever” doesn’t really work when you’re in the Big Apple, but they make do I guess. And of course that final goodbye just destroys me every. single. time.
12. “Eyes Wide Open” (S1): Usually, I find second episodes of a series to be kind of a mess. Sometimes there is tinkering from the pilot, other times the writers are just working out characters and the overall tone, but it’s usually a bit underwhelming. “Eyes Wide Open” is not one of those episodes. It’s another one of those Saracen-heavy efforts, but it showed from the very beginning that the relationship between he and Coach was going to play a crucial role in keeping the series’ afloat. Without that moment at the very end, with Coach turning on all the stadium’s bells and whistles and forcing Matt to practice calling plays, Matt probably doesn’t become a great high school quarterback and Coach doesn’t make it to two state title games as the Panther coach.
11. “Mud Bowl” (S1): Listen, most of the episodes on this list feature these big emotional pay-offs or heartbreaking asides. “Mud Bowl” doesn’t have a lot, if any, of that. But you know what? It’s just fun as hell. Messing with the weather is a great way to make the football sequences to seem more exciting — and let’s face it, they’re usually mediocre at best — and Coach’s plan to make the Panthers build the field out in the middle of nowhere is just a classic Coach Taylor moment.
10. “Texas Whatever” (S5): Last week’s penultimate episode had me in tears or near-tears from the very beginning until the very end. Though he hasn’t been in a lot of episodes this season, Tim has made a huge impact on the narrative and watching him stumble around angry and moderately aimlessly until Tyra saunters back in was difficult and enthralling. Although I can see the concerns people have about the two of them randomly getting back together, I’m good with it because of the history that comes with being from a small town like Dillon. In less happy news, “Small Town” provides us a look into the biggest Taylor marriage fight in the series’ history and as I tweeted last week, it’s more difficult watching them argue that it is watching my own parents. We know that Eric and Tami won’t divorce in the final episode or anything, but I appreciate the writers’ gumption to take them to the brink in the final episodes anyway.
9. “Underdogs” (S3): The state title games obviously have a bit more weight to them but that doesn’t make “Underdogs” any less potent. The game sequences here were well done, but all the events swirling around the game, from Coach’s perspective firing to Matt and Tim’s college plans, make this one of the series’ best episodes. Taylor Kitsch has most certainly had better emotional moments in the series’ run, but the scene with Riggins leaving his cleats on the goal line of the state field is just fantastic and well-played for an individual who felt like the football field was the only place he was really at home and in charge.
8. “Hello, Goodbye” (S3): Smash’s goodbye episode. Epic performances from Gaius Charles and Kyle Chandler. I’m not sure there’s anything else I need to say but those two sentences.
7. “Don’t Go” (S5): After all the bad things that had been happening to Coach, Vince (self-inflicted, obviously) and the Lions, “Don’t Go” shows them and us how much East Dillon has rallied behind this football team and their Coach. Kyle Chandler has been ridiculously good in this final season, but his performance in this episode is definitely his best of the season. Coach starts off the episode moderately sure that he’s probably going to leave East Dillon for a better head coaching job in college, but by the end, the outpour of support and love has shown him that Texas is where he belongs, money, power and positioning be damned. And I can’t forget to mention Tim’s parole hearing, which features great work from Derek Phillips, Taylor Kitsch, Chandler and Brad Leland, as Billy, Coach and Buddy show Tim and the committee that once you’re apart of this football family, you always have someone supporting you.
6. “Thanksgiving” (S4): The season four finale is the only one written with the knowledge that the series would be back for another year, but that doesn’t stop Jason Katims’ script from including a number of gut-punching and fist-pumping moments. We knew from the beginning of the season that the Lions would be pretty terrible but somehow gut out a win against the now-evil Panthers and that’s exactly what this episode gave us — but it doesn’t matter. Landry’s long field goal served as a major release both for this side of the town, but also Coach Taylor, who found some solace in beating his former squad that screwed him over royally. Aside from the game, this episode features a number of great individual moments, like Billy’s horrible Thanksgiving speech, Tim’s slow walk to prison and Matt and Julie’s little moment.
5. “Tomorrow’s Blues” (S3): The season three finale was most certainly written to be the series finale and that’s okay, it’s still amazing. This is an episode fully devoid of football and completely powered by community, friendships and family and it’s perhaps even more powerful. Billy and Mindy’s wedding is totally goofy and a bit trashy, but that’s Dillon. Everyone shows up, everyone makes an effort. And of course, had the series not come back for the final two seasons, I’m not sure how I would have lived after this episode’s fantastic cliffhanger that saw Coach lose his job at West Dillon and be moved over to the presumably awful East Dillon. The final scene with he and Tami on the East Dillon field is gorgeous, contemplative and generally fantastic.
4. “State” (S1): This wasn’t really intentional, but here we have the three real finales right in a row. “State” was also written to be a series finale so even though all of the big moments and developments sort of mess up what the writers had to deal with in the early part of season two, it’s still worth experiencing the highs of a state title, Tami’s pregnancy and Coach’s new job. This episode also features a number of great small moments, like Buddy and Coach in the press box and the full road trip sequence with Landry, Lyla and the Collettes. There’s a real sense of community in this state title and that’s what Friday Night Lights is all about.
3. “East of Dillon” (S4): The season four premiere doesn’t pack the emotional punch that a number of these other episodes in the top 10 do, but there was such a degree of difficulty with the opening to season four that I can’t deny how successful this episode was in creating this whole new world that Coach and others stepped into. “East of Dillon” is more or less the series’ second pilot, one that establishes East Dillon, both the place and the school, without many problems and also introduces us to a slew of new characters that ended up being just as likable and important as the Panthers we grew to love over the first three seasons. Also, not surprisingly, Kyle Chandler is unbelievable as Coach here. Without that performance, the entry point into the new world wouldn’t have worked as well.
2. “Pilot” (S1): This might seem like a surprising choice, but the pilot episode of FNL is still one of my favorite pilots ever. I re-watched it this summer when I was showing the series to my girlfriend and by the end of it, both of us were in tears. That’s an individual circumstance, but it shows what kind of impact that episode has on people, no matter if they’ve experienced other journeys with the characters or not. As pilots should do, the first Friday Night Lights offering sets a specific tone, establishes the setting and introduces the characters. But unlike most pilots, this episode does all those things expertly and also manages to swing a few emotional uppercuts at you in the process.
1. “The Son” (S4): Never have I cried at an episode of television more than I did with “The Son.” This is the episode I have watched the most and it still hits me the same every single time. Zach Gilford has always been great as Matt, but this is like his final exam, a tour-de-force of anger, confusion, sadness and loss. There are other things happening in this episode, but they don’t really matter because everything falls to the background as Matt staggers through the days after his father’s death, ignoring the condolences and wondering why everyone is so sad for a man that ignored both his sick mother and his own young son. From the drunken rant on the football field to his emotional breakdown in front of the Taylors and his desire to physically pour the dirt on his father’s casket, Matt experiences a number of the steps of grief within a very short time and there was barely anything better on television in 2009 or 2010.
There you have it folks. I feel really good about this list, but let me know your picks in the comments or on Twitter.