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  • Dimming the ‘Lights’

    It’s fitting that my favorite television show is ending its run with episodes tonight and next week, and I won’t be there to watch it. After all, I have seen only two or three episodes of “Friday Night Lights” in real time any way.

    And that’s OK, because I never really wanted to watch the show when it started.

    I’m a big fan of H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book, which told the story of a northwest Texas and the obsessive fans who rooted for the Odessa Permian football team. I also enjoyed the 2004 film based on Bissinger’s book, but had no interest in a fictionalized TV version.

    I didn’t, it turns out, want to go home again.

    My family is scattered across the state, from the petroleum-fueled Gulf Coast to the barren West Texas town of Albany to Longview’s piney woods in the east. Football was, is, and forever shall be the center of everything in many of these tiny communities.

    That last statement is overly simplified, of course. It's just like the one from the person who says, “The only reason you have December, January, and February is to celebrate Jesus’ birth and to mark the time between the playoffs and the start of spring practice.” (I know that statement isn’t true because I spent almost a decade in North Carolina, where people live for December through February because that’s the heart of ACC basketball season.)

    Texas was my home state for 28 years, and for much of that time, the town I grew up in felt stifling. Why look at fiction when I could recall my reality in bright, living, humid color?

    The show’s pull loomed large, however, as its first season ended, appropriately when I was traveling back and forth to Texas to see my dad, who was dying of cancer, So I purchased the first season on DVD, but never could watch it. I couldn’t commit.

    Then, two months after my father died, I saw a few minutes of the Oklahoma-Texas game at a restaurant and thought immediately of him. He refused to miss any UT game that was on, sitting in his chair in his Longhorns coat, a football fan until the end.

    After Oklahoma won by 7, I thought again about growing up in Texas. The next night, I went and found those DVDs. Four bleary eyed days later, fueled by insomnia and the fictional Dillon Panthers, I was ready for season 2.

    Fortunately, that season was cut short by the writer’s strike, in part because it had an ill-advised plotline that everyone agrees was a mistake. Still, even in its most ludicrous moments, the show had passages that were absolutely sublime.

    The beauty of “Friday Night Lights” is that it’s not just about football, but life in a small town. It is not afraid to deal with issues of class, economics, and race — all of which are facts of life in any small community.

    Most of all, it captures the little details so beautifully – the rebellion, confessions, religion, community, mistakes, and connections between neighbors, family, and friends. The marriage between the coach and his wife feels real. The other characters, all with flaws and redeeming qualities, sometimes in equal measure, are archetypes of those we all know.

    I know this now having watched all 76 episodes in marathon stretches, always after it has been released on DVD. I usually buy the season on the day it becomes available, intending to watch right away, but inevitably I repeat the season 1 pattern. I dance around it, then watch in a single gulp.

    Because season 5 was released before the show started this summer on NBC — its last three seasons were a split arrangement between the network and DirectTV — I’ve already seen the final episode that ended the series run in a typically classy fashion. As the last two episodes approach on television, however, I’ve continued to reflect on “Friday Night Lights” and what it has meant to me. Why does it make me cringe with memories and smile privately at the same time?

    I guess, because when I’m watching from a couch 1,500 miles away, I have a little piece of home — the home where I grew up — with me. As I raise kids of my own, I’m finding more and more that that little piece is a big thing.