This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry looks at a highlight of Friday Night Lights’ near-perfect first season: “Mud Bowl.”
When one evangelizes on behalf of the late, great, under-watched series Friday Night Lights, they’ll inevitably be asked this question: “Isn’t that a football show?” In short, yes. But really, Friday Night Lights is a show that will make you believe in the power of good. More than nearly any other series, it works skillfully to wring the cynicism from viewers’ very souls, replacing it with something that’s both stronger and more vulnerable. Across its five-season run, the Texas-set series uses a triple threat of documentary-like formal verisimilitude, writing that contains deep veins of empathy, and some damn fine acting in order to convince viewers that decency and compassion matter above all else.
One of the series’ best hours is the first season episode “Mud Bowl.” It’s a master class in Friday Night Lights’ ability to inject near-spiritual meaning into the sport of football. In the episode, a local train derailment threatens the Dillon Panthers’ last home game of the year. The team, led by new-to-them Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), has already had a tumultuous season marred by star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) suffering a paralyzing injury during the very first game. Now an environmental hazard has taken their field out of commission, and since high school football means big bucks in Dillon, townsfolk are not happy.
As expected with a series that spends more time off the turf than on it, the Panthers have worries of their own. Fullback and legendary ladies’ man Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) has cleaned up his act a bit — if that’s what you can call dating a single mom on the down-low while still in high school. Almost every performance in the series shines, but Kitsch especially is a scene-stealer, possessing superhuman charisma despite his underdog character’s often-drunken stupor. “I might not have a Ph.D. in stupid, like you do,” Tim’s brother Billy (Derek Phillips) tells him while discussing his dating life, “but I can tell you right now that this is gonna turn out badly.”
It’s one of many one-liners from Friday Night Lights that are excellent because it’s couched in the authenticity of the show’s naturalistic dialogue. In another scene, geeky Landry (Jesse Plemons) calls himself the Mr. T. of mathematics while trying to impress his dream girl, Tyra (Adrienne Palicki). “And the T stands for…Tyra’s algebra tutor,” he declares, with awkward bravado. The series’ realism, which creates an emotional vibrancy for both comedic and emotional scenes, can be credited to its unique production style. Along with the free-flowing dialogue, showrunner Jason Katims also opted to use real places instead of sets, cast mostly unknown actors, and skip traditional rehearsals and scene blocking entirely. The result is a sort of warm, overlapping chaos that feels so much like real life that it’s hard to suspend disbelief for any other show in comparison.
Tim’s not the only team member working on a new relationship in “Mud Bowl.” Waverly (Aasha Davis), the girlfriend of runningback Smash Williams’ (Gaius Charles), is bipolar and off her medication, but she hasn’t told anyone. She’s also taken up shooting guns, a hobby that has Smash worried. Some of Friday Night Lights’ short-term plots can feel borderline soap-operatic in a prestige drama package, but this one works thanks to Davis’ performance and the consideration the series gives to Waverly’s point-of-view as a Black teenage girl coping with mental illness. Unfortunately, Waverly disappears between seasons, the first casualty of the series’ jarring habit of jumping months ahead to simulate an offseason.
In the long run of the series, the side plots here don’t matter much except in contrast with a later, more mature version of these characters; Coach Taylor spends the entire series guiding these boys as they become men and doing what he can to curb their more toxic instincts. He doesn’t want them to be fuckboys or fuck-ups. He also can’t abide by the money-hungry, football-obsessed people of Dillion, who this week are plastering their corporate sponsorship logos on his field and giving his quarterback secret envelopes of cash. When he and smooth-talking capitalist incarnate Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) make a roadside pit stop on the way home from a fruitless meeting with their opposition, Coach Taylor sees a “for lease” sign and is struck by inspiration.
He brings his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), back to the spot where Buddy just relieved himself on a fencepost. They’re in a grassy field. There are cows. Coach Taylor paces around, deep in thought, while Tami stands, her hands on her hips, incredulous. “Where would people park?” she asks. “I don’t know,” Coach answers. “And how would you put lights in here?” she asks. “The cows are more supportive than you are!” he insists, as one strolls up to Tami and she chuckles.
Coach Taylor walks over to Tami, closing the distance between them. The sun is setting. Sparse, scraggly trees somehow look picture-perfect. “I just…all I want to do is just…” He cuts off, then quietly asks her to close her eyes. He puts one hand on either side of her face, and she does so as he asks, radiating trust, “Pretend you’re ten years old again. You’re just playin’.” He says it like a whispered sermon. “You’re just playing…I wanna play football.” We can imagine it, too, if we try: playing as kids when all we needed was some empty space to imagine a great adventure. The idea crystallizes into something pure at this moment. Tami accepts it, so it’s really happening. They seal it with a kiss.
If Friday Night Lights can only be remembered in the public imagination for one thing, it should be Tami and Coach’s marriage and the powerful performances that made it come to life. Every inflection, gesture, and glance the two shares is imbued with the chemistry of a couple who have loved each other for decades, and who will go on loving each other forever. It can’t be a coincidence that one of prime-time’s best current writers of healthy couples — Mike Schur, co-creator of Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreation and creator of The Good Place — has included Friday Night Lights references in all three shows. Tami and Coach deserve to be the blueprint for a healthy, loving marriage, even when they’re arguing in a cow pasture.
“Mud Bowl” is, in many ways, about money and the utopic idea of freedom from it. Waverly is in crisis with little awareness of her already-limited mental health resources. Tim is playing the role of upstanding dad while he and his brother struggle to make ends meet after their own father left them. Jason Street’s family is suing the Taylors and Dillon High School to pay for his ongoing medical treatment. And in the start of a now-infamous plot that’s better left unmentioned — aside from, perhaps, Palicki’s excellent performance — Tyra is put in a dangerous situation when Landry’s junky car breaks down. All of these problems are socio-economic at their core. Coach Taylor can’t fix any of that, but he can build a football field and put on a game, one that has no VIP seating or sponsorships or multi-million-dollar stadiums.
The game starts off with a sense of novelty as the acoustic version of The Killers’ “Read My Mind” lends an auspicious soundtrack: ”The good old days, the honest man, the restless heart, the Promised Land.” Folks in cowboy hats and camo jackets look on from the sidelines. There’s a joy in the air, the kind that comes with making something with your own two hands because you love it so much. Then, in the very first play, the opposing team scores a touchdown. Coach Taylor has his tight-lipped sideline look on, one of a dozen different silent microexpressions that Chandler conveys perfectly. Then it starts to rain.
The field that Coach Taylor and his team built by hand turns to mud. Visibility is low, rain is pounding down, and everything is slippery. Plenty of Friday Night Lights fans don’t care about sports at all, but at this moment, we may as well be on the sidelines holding our breath along with the spectators. Coach brought us to this point, and now we’re committed. The weather, it turns out, works in the Panthers’ favor. Sophomore quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) sets up a play, Smash nails a touchdown, and the teams are tied at halftime. The referee attempts to call the game, but both team captains insist they keep playing. They’re having fun at this point. “In twenty-four minutes,” the ref says, “Someone’s going to state.”
Could an episode of Friday Night Lights truly be great without a speech from Coach Taylor? This one’s a classic: short, passionate, and likely to make your eyes well up if they haven’t already by this point. Coach lays it all out:
“Everything that has been asked of you this year and that you have asked of yourselves, gentlemen, comes down to this. Blood sweat, and tears, it all stays right here on this field right now. This is our dirt. This is our mud. This is ours, baby. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
With nineteen seconds left, a block from Tim and a clever play by Matt — with guidance from former quarterback Jason, impromptu coaching from the sidelines — ends in a touchdown. Panthers win. Every player we know and love helped make it happen. We’re going to state.
After the game, everyone slides around in the mud, including some of the fans. It’s a celebration, pure and simple, and the raucous glee is as contagious as every other emotion this radically empathetic show has gifted us. For a minute, thanks to Coach Taylor, each of us feels like a kid again — just playing.