Wednesday, September 5, 2007

TV is good for you: Friday Night Lights

When I tell people that I positively love Friday Night Lights and that they should check it out for themselves, I always get the same answer: “Oh, it’s about sports. Enh.” Which is driving me crazy. It's about sports, yes, kinda, but in the same way that The Sopranos is about the mob or The Office is about about a paper company. Football is simply a backdrop upon which the show acts out its dramatic arc.

But in fairness, I guess I can understand that indifferent reaction, because on first glance the show does indeed seem to be about not only sports, but also about teenagers, and religion, and takes place in a small rural Texas town. I can see why my urbane and sophisticated acquaintances of the demimonde would shun such programming.

But why didn’t just plain folks dig on the show? Why are they avoiding it in droves? Americans loves sports, they positively ooze Christianity, most of them are teenagers and the flyover states are made up solely of small towns--all things that I myself avoid as much as I can--so why won’t people watch? Is it because the show combines all those elements, transcends the clichés, and then turns it all into something special and rare and satisfying? FNL deals with each subject reverently, seriously and with true artistry. Maybe that’s confusing to people. Americans apparently only wants to watch TV shows about CSI agents, superheroes, castaways, grumpy doctors, or Zach Braff's hair.

But enough about what Americans want. What I want is for people to watch Friday Night Lights (and, oh, the coincidences, they do occur—the DVD of the show’s first season has arrived! And for a piddly $20!) The show is so many things I’m not interested in in real life, and yet it soars, and I have to follow.

Set in the fictional Texas town of Dillon, the series begins with the arrival of the new high school football coach, Eric Taylor, (Kyle Chandler, once Grey’s Anatomy’s doomed bomb squad technician, and seen in Jackson’s King Kong doing a hilarious Ronald Reagan impersonation) and all eyes are on him to take the Dillon Panthers to the state championship. He brings with him his wife Tami (Connie Britton, reprising her role from the 2004 film) and 15-year-old daughter Julie, who isn't quite impressed with her father's newly "heroic" status in the town.

The show gets the difficult things right without being sentimental or obvious: the pressure Coach Taylor feels to live up to his position as a sort of holy man to the small town; the give and take of a marriage in which both partners are committed to one another yet also ambitious in their own careers; the drama of high school life, with its minor events that seem to those involved of epic importance; the easy and unostentatious way the players pray before games; and tensions in race relations that are still never far from people’s minds even in the “new” South.

(from left: Saracen, Riggins, Smash)

The characters besides the Taylors are filled in well in the first episode, especially the football players themselves: the "dream couple" of team captain and star quarterback Jason Street (whose polite, deferential manner to the town's female mayor prompts her to advise him, "Listen to early Black Sabbath; it'll make you mean") and head cheerleader Lila Garrity; the awkward, insecure backup QB Matt Saracen (easily my favorite character, played by Zach Gilford), mostly waiting out games on the sidelines, taking care of his ailing grandmother while his father is in Iraq, or hanging out with his dorky friend Landry, who himself wants to start a Christian speed metal band; the driven and charmingly egotistical "Smash," who gives himself his own nickname and dreams of one day endorsing both Pepsi and Coke; the troubled--and quite often drunk--Tim Riggins, who has a volatile relationships with Smash, his older brother, and his girlfriend, the cynical, scheming Tyra who loves to dismiss Dillon's obsession with football... and a good handful of folks more. The pilot episode deftly weaves the fabric of the characters' lives and the town's livelihood together.

This is helped by the hand-held cinéma vérité camera work, which enables the show to achieve a verisimilitude rare for television (some people, I guess still nauseated from Blair Witch Project, find this irritating; the show's only one-star review on Amazon blames this sole aspect for the show's lack of success. Feh). The actors don’t use standard marks for positioning as the camera roams around—actually, struggles to keep up—to give their performances an effect more natural and spontaneous; actors’ rehearsals are kept to a minimum, and what we get is as realistic a portrait of regular people’s lives as we’ve seen on TV. Witness the encroaching dementia of Matt Saracen’s grandmother, or the fights between the Taylors when their daughter Julie tries to assert her individuality by dating Saracen; the bipolar breakdown of Smash’s new girlfriend and his attempt to console her; Riggins’s confrontation with his errant father; Landry’s dogged pursuit of the just-out-his-league Tyra; used-car salesman Buddy Garrity’s constant meddling with the Coach’s decisions about the Panthers (obviously because he has no sons old enough to be on the football team; his daughter is Lila, the head cheerleader).

Well, of course, I don't want to give away any spoilers for those of you about to watch it on DVD, or even on the NBC website--which for some reason removed the credits, so you don't get the very good opening music by W.G. Snuffy Smith. Check it out in this clip, and listen to the understated, elegiacal, yet somehow still defiant and hopeful score that truly captures the show's spirit:

Fortunately FNL avoided cancellation after a season of lackluster ratings and is set for its second season, beginning October 5. But it’s being moved to the prime-time wasteland that is Friday night at 9:00 p.m.—hey, don’t high schools have football games on Friday nights? Did the execs at NBC think people were confused that a show with “Friday night” in its title was shown on Tuesday night? Hm. Questions worth asking. But not here. Good luck, Friday Night Lights. See you soon.

And look! Cheerleaders! Well, one, anyway.

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