(Credit: DirectTV)
The cast of “Friday Night Lights.” (DirecTV)

When “Friday Night Lights” debuted in the fall of 2006, I was just out of college and in possession of a television hooked up to cable for the first time in my life. I was just learning to watch television at all, mostly by getting swept up into reruns of the “Law & Order” franchise and “NCIS.” And so I missed the debut of Jason Katims’s sensitive, insightful drama about a small Texas town obsessed with its high school football team, starring Kyle Chandler as Eric Taylor, the man charged with bringing the squad to victory, and Connie Britton as Tami Taylor, Eric’s brilliant, insightful wife.

This summer I decided to remedy this hole in my education. And after finishing all of the seasons yesterday, I am actually glad I came late to “Friday Night Lights” and got to appreciate the show after watching dramas such as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” Especially in context of television’s obsession with difficult middle-aged men and brilliant serial killers, “Friday Night Lights” feels like a miraculous aberration. It is astonishing how tenderhearted, how emotional and how fragile “Friday Night Lights” allows its boys and men to be.

It helps that the boys, with the exception of talented, drunken Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), actually look like boys. They have the bodies of people who have not yet finished growing, and the tangled tongues of people who are still trying to figure out what they feel, much less how to express it.

And rather than acting like adults who happen to still be going to class, the boys act like teenagers in ways both foolish and remarkable, advancing toward adulthood in fits and starts and occasionally getting derailed by exalted dreams of what it means to be grown-up.

That conflict between impulse and the long view weaves through the story of Smash Williams (Gaius Charles). After he loses a football scholarship during his senior year, Smash goes back and forth about whether he wants to train for another chance to continue playing. When he tells Coach Taylor that he intends to take a management-track job at Alamo Freeze, it is with a sad and lovely acceptance of a more modest vision of providing for his family. That he does get a second opportunity to play serious college football is an occasion for surprise and joy — what Smash once took for granted, he now sees for the remarkable thing that it is.

Similarly, former star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) clings to a series of diminishing dreams after the injury that takes away his ability to walk in the “Friday Night Lights” pilot. At first he longs to find some way to be an elite athlete by trying out for a national rugby team for wheelchair users. When that proves a disappointment, Street places his faith in an experimental treatment for his spine. As a boy, Street could not imagine what his life might be like if he was not a star. As a man, he gains a broader perspective of what a good life might look like.

For many of the boys, their relationship with Coach Taylor is the first time an adult man has been around to expect things from them and to keep the promises he makes to them in return.

Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who is promoted to quarterback after Street’s injury, has essentially been abandoned by his parents: That Coach Taylor places his trust in Matt is both exciting and a tremendous burden, given that Saracen cares for his grandmother by himself. Whereas Matt is able to meet the expectations Coach Taylor has for him at home and on the field, a similarly fatherless Tim Riggins struggles after he leaves his boots on the football field where he has just lost a state championship.

Despite their differences, Coach Taylor’s love for both young men is not conditional. At the end of “Friday Night Lights,” Matt is joining the Taylor family on an official basis, having become engaged to Coach Taylor’s daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), while Riggins falls less formally under the coach’s protection. Coach Taylor has helped secure Riggins’s parole and given the young man a standing offer of help should Riggins choose to ask for it.

J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), a young quarterback who replaces Saracen in the third season of the show, finds Coach Taylor to be a kinder man than his own bullying father, Joe (D.W. Moffett). When Coach Taylor calls Child Protective Services after Joe attacks J.D., the choice becomes too much for the young man, who sides with the father who hurt him rather than the father figure who is trying to protect him.

Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), who Coach Taylor takes on as his quarterback when he restarts the football program at the reopened East Dillon High School, makes a different choice. He briefly reunites with his estranged father, Ornette (Cress Williams). Later, Vince sees how Ornette, newly released from prison, threatens the fragile balance that Vince and his mother have built together, and he returns to Coach Taylor’s tutelage.

And most touchingly, Coach Taylor’s boys are still young enough to confess to their fears and insecurities and ask for help in matters big and small, rather than keeping their own, still-developing counsel.

It was always inevitable that a boy as good as Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) would be unable to keep the secret that he had killed the man who attacked his first love. Later, Landry anxiously asks Tami Taylor whether there is some flaw in him that drives away women. The scene in which Matt Saracen finally confesses his worst fear to Coach Taylor, the terror that there is something in him that makes everyone leave him behind, is among the most touching of the series.

Even Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) and Tim Riggins — the former rendered inexpressive by a surfeit of parenting, the latter by his parentless upbringing — manage to give the girls they love some understanding of how deep their feelings run.

The tenderness of “Friday Night Lights” is not limited to boys on the cusp of manhood. Instead, it extends to the adults in the series, in beautiful and surprising ways.

I am particularly in awe of Brad Leland’s performance as chief football booster Buddy Garrity. Buddy could have been a textbook Difficult Man, a toxic middle-aged king swaggering through his patch of Texas, or a paper-thin lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song, existing mostly to improve Coach Eric Taylor by comparison.

Leland’s face collapses when Buddy’s wife, Pam (Merrilee McCommas), refuses for a final time to reconcile with him after he damages their marriage through a careless affair. He tucks his chin down to his chest when his younger children vent their anger at him during what was supposed to be a pleasant family camping trip that has gone badly awry. Buddy gets drunk, and he gets anxious, and he can be an awful pest.

The emotional qualities that make Buddy an entitled nag and a bad husband also turn out to be what make him capable of growth. It is a shame that “Friday Night Lights” dropped the subplot that involved Buddy parenting Santiago (Benny Ciaramello), a promising football prospect — it was lovely to watch Buddy’s feelings for the boy blossom from an initial interest in how Santiago might help the Dillon Panthers into full parental affection.

Buddy’s growing sensitivity is what leads him to renounce his beloved alma mater and the boosters who are taking it in a new direction in the fourth season of “Friday Night Lights.” Buddy loves his state championship ring and the prospect of other boys from Dillon wearing similar baubles, but Coach Taylor gets to him. Buddy finds that how Dillon wins has come to matter to him. When he makes a painful switch in his loyalties to help resurrect the East Dillon Lions after the town’s second high school reopens, Buddy’s bluff camaraderie with the black stars of Lions teams past takes him further than Coach Taylor’s awkward efforts to sell himself to the men who are skeptical that a white coach from a white school can rebuild a black program.

“Friday Night Lights” allows men these tremendous vulnerabilities not because the show believes that men are weak, but because it knows they are strong.

Boys in Dillon, Tex., drink too much, they pretend that they are thinking about buying motorcycles, they distance themselves from the girls they love. Men cheat, push their children too hard and take too long to do right by the women they love so much.

But unlike the anti-heroes who dominate so many cable dramas or the action heroes who shoot their ways through big screen after big screen, the good boys and men of “Friday Night Lights” get over these behaviors. Their need to prove their masculinity is the thing of a moment, or at worst, something they conquer after considerable trouble.

Talented young quarterback J.D. McCoy and his abusive, obsessive father, Joe, are less villains than tragic figures. They never find the same security that means Matt Saracen can marry the girl who caught him kicking cardboard boxes in an alley, that gave Jason Street the courage to chase his family all the way to New York, that Tim Riggins thought he left on the football field and finds again, or that lets Coach Taylor put his wife’s career before his own.


Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.