So there's this show currently running on network television that has everything you could ever want out of a TV drama: absurdly attractive, multifaceted characters of wildly different backgrounds, ages and genders, high-stakes football games with monumental cliffhangers. Murder! Strippers with hearts of gold! Money-laundering schemes! Government intrigue, small-town politics, intense rivalries, a sincere understanding of bipartisan family values that affect everyone in this country!
Its actors, writers and producers have been nominated for major awards, and the critics -- from newspapers local and national, red state and blue -- have praised it. But alas, NBC's much beloved and consistently under-performing drama, Friday Night Lights, debuted its final season last Friday to middling ratings. The episode was last in its 8 p.m. slot with 5.4 million viewers, a steep decline from its season 4 premiere just last year. This is after the fledgling cable network DirecTV took on co-producing duties with NBC, saving the show from cancellation.
All this leads us to ask that familiar question: Why can't Friday Night Lights, which has only gotten better in recent years, sustain an audience? Why can't this phenomenal show succeed?
Countless programs have been bashed over viewers' heads with a "watch this now!" message (The Wire is the classic, last year's Lone Star is a more recent example), but not many of them have been as seemingly easy-to-love as this.
"The thing that strikes me about the show," said Jason Mittell, a media professor at Middlebury College and editor of JustTV, "is that it's sort of the mirror image of Lost." That show, Mittell says, also offered "something for everyone" at its onset -- a central adventure plot with sci-fi elements, comedy, romance, mystery and drama. The characters spanned social class and ethnicity, age and background, and its appeal only grew more rewarding over the course of its six seasons.
But, while FNL also attempted to be all things to all people, it alienated key demographics right away. "For those people who like melodrama and teen drama, which is a more female-skewing audience, the football alienated them," said Mittell. "For people who like football, mainly men, the melodrama alienated them. What ended up happening is a lot of people just never bothered to check it out as it went along."
FNL developed a rabid audience, but not among viewers who typically watch network TV on a nightly basis. According to a recent study, the show was the 11th most watched among "affluent" households in 2007. The Wire was also more popular among more affluent households (see its prominent inclusion in Stuff White People Like), and struggled to stick in the ratings.
For wealthier viewers, watching small-town characters struggling to get by is an "escape" of sorts, a peek into lives they don't live themselves. For the majority of households, however, a realistic mirror of their own daily struggles -- economic as much as familial -- is not what they want out of a TV show. They'd prefer to flip on over to Kitchen Nightmares on Fox, currently airing in FNL's time slot.
"I suspect part of the reason I adore Friday Night Lights is because Dillon is so alien to me," wrote Kevin Nguyen in the Bygone Bureau. "I was born and raised in a well-to-do suburb of Boston; I went to a fancy boarding school with a dress code."
Generally, TV viewers like to immerse themselves in a world they don't see every day, whether that be a "reality-based" world or a fictional one, and they like to know what they're going to get. This is unfortunate, for many reasons, but truest when you look at the biggest network hits. Big, flashy police procedurals like the CSI onslaught, ensemble comedies like Modern Family, teen serial melodramas a la Gossip Girl; these are all clear genre entries.
FNL, however, is bigger than genre, and its primary goal is to best serve the characters -- relatable domestic problems with Tami and Coach Taylor, gritty street-realism with Vince and his violent past, soapy teen romance with Julie and Matt and Riggins and Lyla, transcending your pre-determined fate with... all of them. This, perhaps, is the show's greatest feat, and one that no other has been able to accomplish so well in recent years.
Of course, we diehard Friday Night Lights fans exist, and we even start websites and campaigns and petitions to keep it alive. We fall for this sincere, irony-free, sexy (seriously, everyone on this show is beautiful) and modern Our Town, praise its smallness and complexity and nuance, and balk at developments like the murder subplot in season 2 -- an obvious move from the producers to gain viewership by steeping two characters deeper into melodrama.
For someone who spent high school navigating a suburb of Dallas where football was king, the show was a welcome blast into the complexities of people and families I grew up with. Does everything we embrace and watch on a weekly basis have to be an escape? A mirror -- one that sheds new light into our own lives and histories -- should really be what draws us in.
In other words: "Watch this show now!"