:( fml… FNL signs off

The sun finally set on Friday Night Lights Wednesday night, and already the television landscape is looking more than a bit dimmer.

I’ve mentioned the show before here, a long time ago, issuing a rhetorical challenge open for any to accept. That challenge still stands, as does every superlative I excitedly doled out upon first discovering FNL when it had already run for three seasons.

Wednesday’s episode was really the third finale this show has ever had. Amidst atrocious ratings, the writers penned the last episodes of seasons one and three to act as both cliffhanger and catharsis; should the show have gotten canceled, either of those episodes would have served as worthy ends. They didn’t have to, thankfully, and NBC deserves all the credit in the world for keeping it running for five seasons even as no one watched. In the eternal struggle between art and commerce where the latter almost invariably wins out, score one for the good guys.

Indeed, there is probably no better example than FNL of the divide between popular taste and artistic quality: even as critics sang its praises year after year after year, no one watched. ABC Family recently acquired the rerun rights; they pulled it after six weeks. No one watched.

And therein lies the most immediate and practical reason for the continued existence of the professional critic, even in a world where a resentful public would rather scorn their opinions than engage them: “the discovery and defense of the new,” as Anton Ego so elegantly put it in Ratatouille. “The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Yes it does. Were it not for the informed and heartfelt lauding of FNL by television critics I’ve come to trust, particularly the invaluable and always illuminating work of Alan Sepinwall, formerly of the Star Ledger and now over at HitFix, I never would have given a second thought to watching this show ostensibly about small town simpletons’ obsession with football that is in actuality more complex and less about football than I would have otherwise ever known.

I’m glad I know it now. I’m glad I got to spend 76 episodes with Coach and Mrs. Coach and QB One and the Riggins boys and Lance and Smash and Street and Buddy, and if those names mean nothing to you, as I strongly suspect they do, then you’d be wise to seek out the show and find out why they mean so much to me. Then you’ll know, too.

There’s something about going on a journey from beginning to end with a show like this that just feels different when it’s all over. It’s an indefatigable sense of completion, reverence and joy that you can’t get even from the giants of television drama, like The Sopranos or The Shield, even as your brain tells you, “Those shows were better.” They were, but it takes a show that engages your heart as much as your head to elicit the feeling I described above. And when it happens, when you find that rare show that inspires you and crushes you and surprises you and delights you, over and over and over again, well, there’s just nothing else like it.

I had that feeling at the end of The West Wing. I had it at the end of Freaks and Geeks. And I had it Wednesday night, at the end of Friday Night Lights, The Little Show That Could, whose central character that I can without hesitation or embarrassment call a genuine role model continually espoused a mantra of, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Amen to that, Coach – your show proved it.