‘Friday’ finds a classic couple

Times Staff Writer

“Don’t whisper-yell at me,” Coach Eric Taylor retorted during a recent episode of “Friday Night Lights,” after his wife, Tami, proved once again during a quiet, intense fight that she’s the wiser half.

It was a funny line in its delivery, but it also highlighted a relationship that works for better and for worse, and has been heralded by critics and fans as the best portrayal of a marriage on television.

As brought to life by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, Eric and Tami Taylor are not your typical TV spouses. They argue without bickering. They support without resenting. And they are loyal and interested instead of dishonest and indifferent. No other married couple on TV -- except perhaps for Allison (Patricia Arquette) and Joe Dubois (Jake Weber) on NBC’s “Medium” -- makes domesticity seem both ordinary and blissful.


Chandler, 42, who is married and has two daughters, says the secret to the success of the Taylor marriage has little to do with the romantic part of the couple’s relationship.

“A marriage is a bond between two people, and a friendship,” Chandler said. “The way we do it, I think, is that the marriage part is secondary to the friendship between the two characters.”

The couple’s steady give-and-take is one of the cornerstones of a series built around the life of a town in which high school football means everything. “Friday Night Lights,” which was created by Peter Berg, has a loyal audience of 6.2 million but still hasn’t popped as a hit. The series has improved its ratings since NBC moved it to Fridays, ranking second in its 9 p.m. time slot among 18- to 49-year-olds and picking up 38% more of those viewers from DVR playbacks. Though its season was shortened by the strike, “Friday Night Lights” managed to complete 15 episodes -- there are three more in its run.

In person, the actors who portray the Taylors can seem as if they’re stuck in an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” During an interview over breakfast at Victor’s Square Deli in Hollywood last month, they teased and squabbled about who smells worse, who talks more and how they each landed their roles.

Britton: Pete had been talking to me about it, and I had been a little foot-draggy, and then I found out it was you and I was really foot-draggy.

Chandler: I was foot-draggy too. And if I had known it was you, I wouldn’t have been foot-draggy. I would have been the hell out of there.


Britton: Exactly. I thought, who is this scumbag that I’ve never heard of?

Chandler: And I thought, who is this dumb broad?

Britton: And then they sent me this great “Grey’s Anatomy” episode, which got me hooked on “Grey’s Anatomy” by the way. And I thought, OK, well, he was good in that.

Chandler: And then they sent me “Carrot Top Does Cincinnati” and when I saw her, I thought, I’m all over this.

Britton: I never did “Carrot Top Does Cincinnati.” It was Miami. Golly, get it straight.

Straight is not on the menu for these veteran actors who are now becoming household names. They met the first day of shooting the pilot, and their first scene together called for the wife to hug her husband behind his back.

“Oh, man, it was the beginning of the worst miserable . . . year of my life,” Chandler taunted. By the second day, they were calling each other obscene nicknames.

“I thought that was a pretty good sign,” Berg, who directed the pilot, said. “Then they talked about driving back to Austin together if the show got picked up and I thought that could lead to trouble. There are a million different bad scenarios when you drive cross-country together. And they did it, and a real adult friendship was formed.”

Exploding, literally, in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” landed Chandler the “FNL” role, even though he wasn’t looking for it. Casting director Linda Lowy, who casts “Grey’s” and “Friday Night Lights,” chose Chandler, who was nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal on “Grey’s” of a bomb squad leader who dies on the job.

“She was so insistent,” Berg said. “His emotions feel like they’re emotions that we deal with in our friends and family every day.”

Berg didn’t consider anyone else for the role of Tami Taylor, but it took some convincing to get Britton to sign up. The 39-year-old actress, who is single, had played the part of the coach’s long-suffering wife in Berg’s 2004 movie of the same title, and she wasn’t interested in reprising that.

“I was afraid my character was going to be a supplemental, supporting good wife again,” Britton said. “But Pete said he wanted to do what he couldn’t do in the movie -- explore this role and this relationship. To me, what makes it special and what makes it unique on television is that it’s a partnership. Any conflict that comes up we deal with but that doesn’t break the foundation of the partnership.”

It’s how it’s done

Chandler and Britton credit the way “Friday” is filmed with helping them make the marriage seem as alive as possible.

The series is shot on location in Texas, using three or four hand-held cameras at the same time. Actors are encouraged to improvise and to be involved in the writing process. With no rehearsals and no blocking, the camera operators are asked to capture what is happening as if they were filming a documentary.

“We never know where the cameras are,” Britton said. “Most of the time when you’re shooting a movie or a TV show, you’re very aware of where the camera is, where you are in relationship to the camera. We just trust them that their cameras are going to help us tell the story and they’re going to find us wherever we are.”

“Of course, when you’re doing that, you don’t always know where the other character is coming from,” Chandler added. “So you get very real moments. Even some moments of silence, which is very rare to see. A lot of times with Coach, I want to say less. And if I’m silent, another character gets to be silent too while they’re watching me, and that just makes a certain dynamic that is powerful.”

One of the more memorable quiet moments between the actors took place at the end of the first season when Tami told Coach that she was pregnant.

“It was a nonverbal response by Kyle followed by laughing by Connie,” Berg said. “That just happened and it was so real and emotional and unique. That little moment -- it was just eight seconds of silence -- to me is staggering. It’s those moments of silence, that we’ve discovered, that really elevate the show.”

Another example occurred this season when Coach Taylor returned from Austin for the weekend and had to leave sooner than planned. Critics praised Britton for Tami’s silently seething response.

“People who watch the show, certainly married couples, find themselves in that marriage,” Berg said. “So many people say that to me. Couples say this is something we watch together and feel connected to the universe.”

There is no question that Chandler and Britton have a warm connection, which might explain why Britton has taken to calling him “sugar.”

Britton: It makes him so mad!

Chandler: It was a little endearing until I realized what sugar actually equated.

And that would be?

Chandler: Jackass!

Britton: It’s that famous Southern woman thing. If you call somebody “sugar,” you’re basically saying, “pathetic little loser.”

Chandler: I haven’t thought of another word for her. I mean, I have, but I can’t use it in public. Even on the message machine, she’s like “Hey, sugar.”

Britton: I’ve even started putting it in scripts.

Chandler: Ugh. I haven’t come up with one that’s appropriately defiling enough.

Britton: Like honey bunch! Oooh! Honey bunch!

Chandler: You, muffin!

Britton: Anything but muffin!