Television and football have gone hand in hand for decades. Week in and week out, Americans tune in to watch their favorite games. The NFL’s present troubles notwithstanding, that phenomenon likely won’t change anytime soon.
Football has also lent itself to great television outside of the games themselves. From heart-wrenching dramas to wacky comedies to gritty documentaries, the small screen has found a place for series about the game itself – or shows that simply surround football.
Here are seven of the best football shows. Some of them are still available on streaming services, home media, or reruns, and they’re worth looking for. Enjoy the list!
7. 1st & Ten (HBO, 1984-1991)
Growing up in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t have cable until college. But I remember spending the night at a friend’s house and watching 1st & Ten. It was everything that my sheltered self had never had exposure to on television – heavy profanity, nudity, the whole nine yards. Of course, it was probably tame by today’s standards.
The show was one of HBO’s first attempts to compete with network television with a raucous sitcom about a fictional pro football team. With real former NFL players as team members, the draw was obvious, and the series made Delta Burke a star, even though she left in the third season.
The clips I’ve seen from old episodes look dated, like most everything from the ’80s does, but back then, 1st & Ten was groundbreaking.
6. Necessary Roughness (USA, 2011-2013)
Some shows just use sports as a setting and not as something central to their essence. Necessary Roughness was one of those series, although the connection to football is strong enough to place it on this list.
Callie Thorne stars as a Dr. Danielle Santino, a therapist who goes to work for a football team to make ends meet following her divorce. The show divides its time between Santino’s adjusting to the routine of a divorced mother and her attempts to help various team members cope with life as superstar athletes.
It’s not a heavy, human-interest drama, but it’s a nice diversion and worth watching if you can find it on a streaming service or on reruns.
5. Hard Knocks (HBO, 2001-2002, 2007-2010, 2012-)
HBO must have a passion for shows about the NFL, because a decade after 1st & Ten ended, the network debuted this reality series documenting the life of an NFL team.
Over five or six episodes a season, Hard Knocks looks at the lives of coaches and players and details one particular team as it prepares for the upcoming season. The show often focuses on rookies and players making a comeback, as well as quarterback battles.
Through the years, teams have become skittish about appearing on Hard Knocks, due to the warts-and-all portrayal of the preseason, and players haven’t exactly been crazy about the intrusion into their lives either. Starting in 2013, the NFL announced that it would require teams to take part and that the league would determine which team would allow HBO’s cameras in.
The show has won several Emmys and has exhibited remarkable staying power. It’s a compelling look at what goes into getting ready for the NFL season.
4. Two-a-Days (MTV, 2006-2007)
For two seasons, MTV cameras followed around the Buccaneers of Hoover High School in Alabama, one of the elite high school football teams. The Buccaneers, under the leadership of controversial coach Rush Propst, won a state title in the first season of the show.
The series delved – sometimes too deeply – into the lives of the players and coaches, and some of the players worried about how the show would portray their lives. Still, it was an interesting show, even if it felt like every other MTV docudrama in so many ways.
Two-a-Days ended when an investigation showed that Propst had used ineligible players on the team – and cheated on his wife – and the school fired him. He has taken his winning ways to South Georgia and is now coaching at Colquitt County High School, where his teams have won two state championships.
3. Coach (ABC, 1989-1997)
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the sitcom Coach. Craig T. Nelson played Hayden Fox, head coach of the fictional Minnesota State University Screaming Eagles (until the final two seasons, where he coached a fictional NFL team in Orlando). Coach Fox dates and later marries news anchor Christine Armstrong (Shelley Fabares) and spends time with his daughter Kelly (Clare Carey), a student at Minnesota State.
Fox and Armstrong basically serve as the straight man and woman reacting to the wacky characters around them, and both Nelson and Fabares play their roles well, with Nelson even winning an Emmy in 1992.
The personal situations and hijinks outweigh the football emphasis on the show – in fact, we never really see much football in nine seasons. But Coach was a charming, often silly, and sometimes genuinely sweet show. It didn’t demand much of viewers other than to laugh along and enjoy the ride.
2. Ballers (HBO, 2015-)
Dwayne Johnson stars as a retired NFL player who now manages the finances of current football stars in Ballers. It’s everything that you’d expect from HBO: a no-holds-barred look at the life of celebrity athletes, as well as what happens after football days are done.
It’s a comedy-drama, so there are plenty of funny moments, but the series can get astonishingly dark at times too. The show takes an unflinching look at the struggles pro football players have with the trappings of celebrity life, the temptations to behave badly, the challenges of faith, and the dangers of injuries, even long after playing time ends.
The writing and acting are top-notch, as they should be with Peter Berg of Friday Night Lights at the helm. Although it’s not for the faint of heart, Ballers is worth checking out.
1. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV, 2006-2011)
I’m going on record here to declare that Friday Night Lights isn’t just the best football show ever; it’s the greatest television series of all time (don’t @ me). It was never a barnburner in the ratings, but critics loved the show, as did legions of passionate fans.
Everything about Friday Night Lights, with the glaring exception of the second season, is perfect. The improv-heavy writing is lyrical and rings true. The cinematography captures small-town Texas flawlessly – I recently visited Austin and got to geek out at some of the places where they filmed the show, and nearly everything looked just like the show seven years after it ended. The acting is wonderful, and the accents are some of the best Southern accents on the screen.
The show wasn’t afraid to tackle heavy subjects, either. From race relations to abortion to family dynamics to the feelings of abandonment that some military families experience, Friday Night Lights looked at some hot-button issues in an even-handed way, more often than not exploring multiple sides to those matters.
Friday Night Lights is so well done that even viewers who don’t know or care about football can be enthralled by the lives of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), his family, and his team. One of my friends credits the show with prompting him and his family to move from Atlanta to a smaller town – that’s a testimony to its power. Friday Night Lights is worth watching over and over again.
There’s my list. Are there other football shows that you think belong on the list? Let us know in the comments.