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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Binge-watching ‘Friday Night Lights’ confirms how good it was

Connie Britton played the wife of Coach Gary

Connie Britton played the wife of Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in the movie "Friday Night Lights" and then played coach Eric Taylor's wife (shown above) in the TV sequel, which picks up some 20 years later at fictional version of the school. Photo Credit: NBC

Now it can be told. When I interviewed Jason Katims in 2008 about the critically acclaimed series, “Friday Night Lights,” for which he was an executive producer, I neglected to mention an embarrassing fact for a sports media columnist:

Other than a preview DVD of the pilot episode that I was sent in 2006, I never had seen the show. This was roughly equivalent to a music critic having not gotten around to Beethoven, or a food critic having not tasted butter.

“FNL” had its flaws, but it widely is regarded as the best sports-themed TV series ever – the winner in a very thin field.

Hey, better late than never. My wife and I began a slow-motion Netflix binge about three months ago of the 76 episodes produced from 2006 to 2011 and reached the end zone on Monday night.

Sorry I did not mention this sooner to Katims, who spent his early childhood at Ebbets Field Apartments in Brooklyn and is a lifelong Mets fan. But he has done OK for himself, moving from “FNL” to wider ratings appeal with “Parenthood.”

“Friday Night Lights,” a show based on a movie that was based on a non-fiction book, always was up against it when it came to attracting a broad audience.

Like all sports-themed fiction, it faced the challenge of attracting fans of sports wary of scripted drama and fans of scripted drama wary of sports.

“The truth is, people who love football and people who hate football love this show when they find it,” Katims said in our 2008 chat. “The hardest thing from a marketing and publicity point of view is getting people to sample the show.”

TV historically has found it more difficult to generate crossover appeal for sports drama than have movies.

“Other than ‘The White Shadow,’ I don’t know that television has had sports shows that have tapped into what’s wonderful about the culture of sports in the way movies have,” Katims said in 2008.

“FNL” was saved only by an innovative partnership in which starting with Season 3, DirecTV first aired episodes that would turn up on NBC months later.

“It’s a very exciting way to not only keep the show alive,” Katims said, “but hopefully breathe new life into it.”

That it did. After a second season marked by implausible, seemingly desperate plot excesses, the next three kept the focus on the characters in general and in particular the marriage between Texas high school coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton).

Their marriage formed the series’ foundation. In their 2016 book, “TV (The Book),” critics Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz called it “simply put, the best, richest, most complex and satisfying portrait of a marriage TV has ever seen.”

But what about the football? Mostly, it was pretty good. Katims said the realism was helped by shooting full plays, not segments of plays patched together to look whole.

“We really are committed to making the football, the playing itself and everything surrounding it, the coach, locker room . . . feel as authentic as we possibly can,” he said.

Not that there aren’t quibbles worth pointing out – such as the fact that the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions over five seasons play a comically disproportionate number of games decided by improbable plays in the final seconds.

Among other non-football annoyances are playing fast and loose with characters’ years in high school based on plot needs, and very grown-up actors playing teenagers. Minka Kelly, then 26, as a high school sophomore? Um . . . no.

Anyway, at long last I can stop feeling guilty about blowing off the show. I never lied and said I watched it, but I might have been guilty of the occasional disingenuous nod when the subject came up in conversation.

As I wrote in 2008, the fact “FNL” already had risen to near the top of fictional sports shows was like being the best sports-themed opera or epic poem or kabuki play. The competition is modest.

Readers of my blog (remember those?) at the time named “White Shadow,” starring Manhasset’s own Ken Howard (who died last year) as the most formidable competition for “Friday Night Lights.”

The sports show that most successfully combined ratings and critical success was “Coach,” which like “FNL” was about a football coach, played by Craig T. Nelson, but one who would not have sounded quite right uttering Taylor’s trademark “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” (Nelson later starred in Katims’ “Parenthood.”)

There have been other candidates over the decades, notably “Arli$$,” “Sports Night,” “Playmakers,” “Eastbound & Down,” “The League” and more recently HBO’s “Ballers” and Starz’ “Survivor’s Remorse,” on which LeBron James is a producer. For now, though, “FNL” stands alone, waiting to be rediscovered on demand after plenty of us missed it the first time around.

As Bill Simmons summed it up ESPN The Magazine in 2007, “‘FNL’ is going to die prematurely because five times as many Americans would rather watch an acerbic British guy belittle dreadful singers on a reality show.”

He was referring to “American Idol.” Remember that?

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