Guides | June 10, 2008 | Comments ()
After two years of persuasive arguing — it’s not really a show about football, it’s the best family drama in the history of television, Taylor Kitsch often removes his shirt — there’s nothing left we can do to convince you to watch “Friday Night Lights.” At this point, you’ve either given into the brilliance of “FNL” or you haven’t, and I doubt anything I write here will sway you otherwise. So this won’t be a piece elucidating all the reasons “FNL” should be watched; it’s for those who have already given into it, who have fallen face-first into a show best described as a modern-day dramatic-version of “The Wonder Years,” except instead of 1960s suburbia, it takes place in Dillon, Texas, a small Southern town steeped religion and football. It’s “Freaks and Geeks” centered on the side of the cafeteria: The jocks, cheerleaders, bullies, skanks and rally girls, the ones many of us — the band geeks, dorks, geeks, stoners, and outcasts — viewed superficially with equal parts envy and hatred. But high school is far from a forward-thinking place — for most of us in the second, third, and fourth echelons of popularity in high schools in football-obsessed towns, it was hard to recognize that, when we escaped to college, we’d be leaving many of the Kings of High School behind to troll the used car lots, the feed stores, the Wal-Mart check-out lines, and the unemployment rolls, clinging to the best four years of their lives while their children repeated the cycle.
Now don’t get me wrong; I feel a certain amount of smug satisfaction knowing that the guys who used to wishbone my legs into the goal post and abandon me in trash barrels are now filling potholes in 100 degree weather while their sweaty jeans cling to their asses, or that the cheerleaders and skanks who would’ve spurned my advances had I the guts to ask them out are now overweight and miserable in their third marriage and fifth kid. But that’s because, from my vantage point, all I saw was the bravado, the bluster, the cockiness, the assholery, and the promiscuity, knowing nothing about how they lived away from school, nor understanding that the captain of the football team and the prom queen might have had real problems at home, reasons that they resorted to drinking and fucking their ways into early single-parenthood. In part, that’s what’s great about “Friday Night Lights”: It humanizes the very people in my high school I was often incapable of humanizing myself. But more than that, and the reason the first season was so outstanding, is because it’s as real-to-life as any show on television. Granted, the characters are slightly idealized, but they are real people, not just the stereotypes that we, ourselves, couldn’t look beyond when we were there.
One of the arguments that a lot of critics and fans of the show will make to encourage others to watch “Friday Night Lights” is that it’s not really a show about football. And while it’s true that you could love “FNL” even if you didn’t like football or were indifferent (see, e.g., Dan Carlson), it sure as hell helps. It also helps if you came from the South, or otherwise came from a town similar to Dillon, Texas, a place where racism, homophobia, and a deep, abiding love for the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ bubbles beneath every aspect of town life. While I’m sure that people from outside the South could enjoy and even love “FNL,” I’m not sure they could really appreciate how true-to-life it feels — how some towns really are as football and Jesus obsessed as Dillon, Texas (after all, like the movie before it, it’s based on a real team in a real town — Odessa, Texas — full of misplaced priorities and racism) and how the characters that populate the show feel so authentic.
The pilot episode of “Friday Night Lights” tracks, fairly closely, with the movie: It introduces the town of Dillon and establishes the importance of football to the community — the players are gods, and every fumble is like an apple falling from the tree. The star quarterback, Jason Street, is a local celebrity that even grade school children idolize; there’s a daily radio show devoted to the team; and the local media is all over the Panthers, treating 16-year-old kids like NFL stars (the flip side, unfortunately, is that these same teenagers often feel the same pressures of NFL players). The major focal point of “FNL” is on Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton, one of two holdovers from the movie). Coach Taylor’s career depends on the performance of the Panthers, and in a town like Dillon, where the booster club holds the purse strings, if a coach gets one loss, he’s a disgrace whose daughter is susceptible to the jeers of townspeople; two losses and he’s out on his ass. Though this line from the book and movie is never uttered during the show, the sentiment throughout exists: “There ain’t much difference between winning and losing, except in the way the world treats you.” Coach Taylor — a first-year coach who got the job because he’d groomed Jason Street on the JV squad — has the best high-school quarterback in the nation and little else to worry about, but for a town full of overly vocal backseat coaches, who often believe that the students spend too much time studying and not enough time practicing.
That is, until the first game of the season, when Street (Scott Porter) — by all accounts, a humble, good-guy superstar with a level-head — throws an interception that changes absolutely everything on the field, on the team, and in the town. In an attempt to tackle his interceptor, Street breaks his neck, paralyzing himself from the neck down. In a town in suburban Boston or Minnesota, maybe the refs suspend the game, maybe the coach gets a free ride for the rest of the season, and maybe the town rises up and recognizes what’s really important: The well-being of a permanently crippled teenager. But in Dillon, Texas, and in all the towns like it in the South, what’s most important is football.
Enter Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a nobody; a back-up quarterback with a stutter, a perpetual benchwarmer, and a guy with a hell of an arm and zero self-confidence. It’s difficult to take one of the best high school football teams in the state and find an underdog story, but in Matt Saracen — a good fucking kid whose father, serving in Iraq, left him alone to take care of his ailing grandmother — “Friday Night Lights” finds the ultimate underdog, a kid you never stop rooting for. Matt also ends up dating Julie (Aimee Teegarden), Coach Taylor’s daughter, who loathes Texas life and dislikes football. She nevertheless falls for Matt because of his bumbling awkwardness and, above all, his modest decency. Their relationship slowly blossoms over the course of the season, providing the Jim and Pam meant-to-be storyline, as well as exemplifying a lot of that Southern Christian morality. In a way, through both the football team and his relationship with Julie, Matt is also trying to work his way into the Taylor family, find in Coach Taylor the father he is missing.
Then there’s Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), the black star running back, destined for a college scholarship and later, the NFL. He’s cocky, arrogant, and egotistically refers to himself in the third-person. In Street’s absence, Smash is left to carry the team, an opportunity he openly relishes. But behind the scenes, behind all the bluster and bravado, Smash — who comes from a poor single-parent home — is scared to death; he feels the intense pressure to make it all the way to the pros so that he can someday support his family, who has for so long supported him.
Jason Street’s best friend, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), is the team bruiser, a drunk whose good intentions are consistently derailed by his own stupidity. Riggins is the guy that breaks my heart the most on the show; he’s got a good heart (and insanely good looks), but he’s not only dumb as a post, he has the worst fucking luck of anybody in town. Every time it looks like he’s finally going to get something right, something happens to set him back. No matter what the kid does, it just gets worse and worse for him. Riggins has redemptive moments, but he’s never able to redeem himself. He’s loyal as hell, and he’ll give you the shirt off his back (much to the delight of many), but he lets that big stupid heart and his dick do all his thinking for him, which is how he ends up sleeping with Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) — the school’s most popular girl, a cheerleader, and Jason Street’s girlfriend.
The only person more devastated by Jason Street’s quadriplegia is Lyla, whose future was inextricably tied to Jason’s. Without Street’s once inevitable NFL career to dictate Lyla’s future, she’s left to start thinking for herself. Lyla, the character, is actually an incredibly dynamic person — the perfect girl with the perfect life who suffers the loss of everything in it. Unfortunately, Minka Kelly, the actress, isn’t quite strong enough to pull of the role — if she were asked to step into a paper bag and act her way out of it, the poor girl would die of carbon dioxide poisoning. She’s the first season’s sole weakness.
Lyla’s dad, Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), is the head of the boosters and the town’s football id. A car lot owner, he bleeds Panther pride, putting nothing — including his family, at times — above his love of that team. He’s a giant asshole, but one that slowly grows on you once his many faults inexplicably endear you to him.
Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) is, for lack of a better word, the school whore; like most of the characters, she comes from a broken home, where her mom falls in and out of abusive relationships with redneck bastards. Tyra begins the season as Tim’s girlfriend, but as Season One progresses, thanks to Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) — the school math geek and Saracen’s best friend — she starts to notice in her own self more than just someone who just gives it up to anyone that asks; she sees, within her, the faintest glimmer of hope that she might get out of Dillon and discontinue the cycle of abuse that her mother and her sister (a stripper) are destined to continue.
A lot of Season One’s plotlines also follow Jason Street’s struggles in rehab, his attempts to make sense of his life after losing not only his career in football, but his ability to walk. Understandably, he spends the first few weeks in a state of self-pitying despair, but as his friendship with Herc (Kevin Rankin), his rehab roommate and wheelchair rugby teammate grows stronger, so does his will and independence. The show does an amazing job of extracting a lot of inspirational moments out of Street (especially in the first half of the season) without turning him into “FNL’s” cripple mascot.
Tami Taylor, in addition to being the coach’s wife, is also the school guidance counselor, and she’s what makes the show really work. Connie Britton is, hands down, one of the top five actresses working on television today, and her Tami is a sassmouth, a no-nonsense, passionate woman who comports, largely, with the role of a traditional Southern housewife, only there’s a twist: She’ll she stand by her man all right, but she won’t take any of his shit. She is strong, caring, and — in what I believe is the best compliment I can muster — she’s the Mom I, and many others, often wish we’d had, a don’t-mess- with-me-because-I’m- your-fucking-mother-and-I-know- what’s-best-for-you type of woman.
Finally, Coach Taylor — easily my favorite character on any currently running series — is the driving force behind “Friday Night Lights.” He is another insanely decent, powerfully Southern man, a guy who refuses to wear his heart on his sleeve (except when it comes to his wife and daughter), and a hard-ass who shows his affection by pushing you harder. He’s full of stubborn pride, but he’s not so dumb that he can’t admit when he’s wrong. If a player fucks up, he doesn’t say, “Try harder; you’re doing your best”; he says, “Get your head in the game.” He demands the best from his players, and his players fear and respect him too goddamn much not to give it to them. But there’s also something incredibly endearing about his alpha-maleness (he never breaks character) in that the slightest betrayal of it is more powerful than a Hallmark store full of schmaltzy platitudes — when he says, “Good job, son,” it will kick you in the heart. And when, for example, in the second episode, after Jason Street — paralyzed, lying in a hospital bed — apologizes to Coach Taylor for letting the team down, Coach just looks Street square in the eyes and says without the slightest hint of condescension or pity: “You are a good man, son. You are the reason guys like me want to coach football.” It will make your soul swell three sizes bigger.
“Friday Night Lights” is largely a character-driven drama that relies heavily on the actors to capture the realistic nature of the show — there are no rehearsals, minimal blocking, most scenes are shot in one take, and the performers have leeway to ad lib their dialogue to fit their character. The show works as well as it does because character templates are so well drawn, again — in part — because they are based on actual people, and because the actors — particularly Britton, Chandler, and Leland — are so exceptional. And by putting the actors is real-to-life situations, they are better able to create organic performances. But there’s a lot to be said, too, for the overarching narrative, and for its ability to weave a lot of themes into the storylines without forcing them.
Racism is a major one of those themes, and “Friday Night Lights” handles the issue with the subtlety and nuance that Paul Haggis only wishes he had. One of the best episodes of the first season deals with the team’s response to some offhand comments one of the assistant coaches makes about black player’s ability to run faster, while white players are smarter and better suited to the quarterback position. The two-episode arc reveals the sort of racism that still predominates in the South — it’s not as out in the open or flagrant as it once was, but it’s so ingrained into a lot of the older people that they don’t even realize it when they are being racist. Such was the case here, and after the assistant coach refused to own up to his prejudices (thanks, largely, to his goddamn Southern pride, though he does later avail himself to some extent), Smash Williams organizes a principled walkout of the black players ahead of the state semi-finals, refusing to return to the team until the assistant coach is fired, a move that threatens to derail the Panther’s miraculous comeback season, as well as the individual careers of Smash and some of the other black players. The assistant coach — a 20-year veteran who had committed his life to Panther football — selflessly tenders his resignation to save the season, but Coach Taylor refuses to accept it. Neither side blinks going into game day, until Smash’s mother (Liz Mikel) — a supporting character who makes the most of her limited screen time — delivers my favorite speech of the series:
You quittin’ football to try to make a point about racism in a small Texas town, that ain’t the Million Man March. You are 17, and you gotta a brilliant future ahead of you, and I’m not gonna sit here and watch you throw it away trying to teach a lesson to a bunch of fools. You know how you get back at people who think like Mac McGill? You get back on that team. You play like the star that you are. And you get recruited by a A-list university. Go on and get your degree.
It’s a common tact throughout the series, both on the field and off: Black players are taught not to play into racial stereotypes by resorting to violence, but to prove prejudices wrong by rising above those stereotypes.
But “Friday Night Lights” also deftly explores typical teen issues, only unlike “Dawson’s Creek” or “Gossip Girl,” it’s done against the backdrop of the intense pressure for the football team to succeed, as well as real family and socioeconomic problems. There’s not a lot of competition over which college a student is going to go to, it’s more about whether a kid can go to college or whether he’s going to work at Dairy Queen until he decides to let the government pick up the bill. Relationships between characters often play out in comparison to the relationships of their parents — when Tyra convinces her Mom, for instance, to get out of a relationship with an abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, she has to make the same decision for herself: Forgive Tim Riggins his indiscretions, or jump back into the relationship, knowing full well that it’d be hypocritical to do so. Similarly, Lyla Garritty’s relationship with Jason Street is viewed in the context of her own philandering father and the crumbling of her parent’s marriage. Save for the Taylors, there are few nuclear families in “FNL,” and consequently, most of the students are saddled with adult responsibilities early on, and you can see clearly how they are all rebelling against the inevitable: A repeat of the process. You can almost feel the sense that nothing will matter again in their lives as much as high-school football does, and while that notion certainly raises the stakes, it aches to acknowledge the truth of it.
What’s also remarkable about “Friday Night Lights” is its candid depiction of the South. It doesn’t glorify nor denigrate it; “FNL” just lays it out honestly, ass warts and all. Certainly, there is an abundance of racism, sexism, homophobia, alcoholism, backwards thinking, and narrow-minded religious zealotry. But Southerners are also loyal (always to a fault), generous, and infinitely kind-hearted. After all, beneath that red neck, most Southern men have the hearts of their Southern Momma, a woman that’d make a pie to feed the world if she had enough time. There’s so much to hate when you’re living in the South, but when you’re no longer there, there’s also just as much you miss. And on a weekly basis, “FNL” captures that conflicted spirit.
Inarguably, however, the best element of the show — and the reason why you don’t have to be Southern or a football fan to love it — is the relationship between Coach Taylor and Tami. Each week, those two put on a clinic in marriage and parenting — they are to marriage what “The Wire” is to police procedurals. Everything about their marriage is amazing, and after 20 years together, the love they still feel for one another is palpable. Although Season Two has had some major missteps, I have begrudgingly forgiven the mistakes because the one consistent is their relationship; if, however, infidelity ever enters into the Taylor marriage, I won’t think twice about dumping the show — there’s just no goddamn way either one of them would be unfaithful to one another. Granted, they argue frequently, and typical of Southern men (and certainly myself), Eric insists on his position and throws a hissy fit before ultimately apologizing and admitting that Tami is right, as she always is. Through it all, the parenting difficulties, the balancing of career and family, and the occasional financial difficulty, they remain estimably supportive of one another, which is why the season finale is so heart-wrenching. After Coach Taylor takes a job at TMU, a college in Austin (several hours away), Tami decides that she’s going to stay behind with Julie to finish out high school. However, once Tami discovers she’s pregnant, Coach Taylor tries to change his mind, but Tami won’t let him:
Coach Taylor (minutes after winning the state championship): There are more important thing than football. There are more important things than TMU. But there is nothing more important to me than you. And this family. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to stay in Dillon. I’m going to be a father to this baby. And to this family. I’m going to coach high school football, and you and I are going to stay together. And that’s the way it is. Yes?
Tami:: Noooo. You got to go to Austin. This is your dream. This is what you worked for your whole life. This is your dream.
Coach Taylor: You are my dream. This baby is my dream. Julie is our dream. I’m living my dream right now.
Tami: Honey, would you just listen to me. I don’t want to be responsible, nor do I want to have this baby be responsible, for you not living out your dream. I have walked with you all these years to get to this place. You and I together. And you know what else we’ve been doing together? We’ve been allowing the space to create our dreams. And you got it in Austin. And I have it in Dillon … and it’s going to be hard. I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But I know that our relationship means that we can do it. (cue Bright Eyes’ “Devil Town”; tears streaming down your goddamn face).
Some of that lovely sentiment, unfortunately and by necessity, goes out the door in Season Two. In fact, thanks to the producers’ (failed) efforts to draw in a broader audience, quite a bit of what made Season One so perfect is missing from Season Two, exchanged for ratings ploys and other dramatics, which is why I keep the two seasons separate in my mind, almost like they are different shows. The first season of “FNL” was perfect; it simply wasn’t possible to duplicate it. Part of me, in fact, wishes that the show had been cancelled, ending an almost flawless season on the ideal note. But more often than not, I’m content to experience a fraction of the first season’s magic; after all, Season Two is a good show, better than almost anything on television. It really only suffers when you compare it to the standard of excellence set by that first season. But then again, stacked up against Season One, so would every other show currently on television.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.