Friday, December 22, 2006

Friday Night Lights

I'm sure I've told anyone likely to be reading this, but I love the fuck out of the Friday Night Lights show. In spite of looking from the outside like a fairly generic high school drama, composed of absurdly attractive young folks, the show has a breadth and degree of detail that compares favorably with The Wire or Deadwood. It's also enjoyable in the best way: an improbable combination of sincerity, humor, and aching sadness. The abundance of human drama makes the football games exciting and suspenseful.

Though it's based on the book, and adapted for television by the film version's director, Peter Berg, the show is fiction. This, I think, is one of the keys to its success. The film drew explicitly from the book, retaining character names and biographies (while also fictionalizing somewhat). Even though the book was critical of the football culture in Midland-Odessa, and blunt in its depiction of the racism and economic disparity of the region, the film soft-pedaled these things a little. I don't know why, but I could understand a number of rationales: the film would necessarily lack the ability to detail these themes in an appropriate way, it might make for too depressing a movie, or it might be interpreted as besmirching actual, living people. (Nonetheless, it's a fine movie and it's still true to a lot of the book's spirit, if not its content.)

The show take a reverse tack: it retains the context and changes all the proper nouns (it also retains the film's use of Explosions In The Sky music). Rather than take place in Odessa in the late 1980s, the series is set in fictional Dillon, Texas in the present day. The rest of what made the book so fascinating and moving is still there, for instance:

Dillon, Texas is a former oil producing town that, following a series of boom-and-busts, has an economically and racially stratified population.

The town's central organizing events are the high school football games.

Dillon is populated by seemingly every former Panther player, many of whom wear state championship rings, and taunt the new coach with them following a loss (following a win, the coach is treated as the town's savior).

The city has a permanent booster club for the team, who assume an unofficial, and generally unwelcome, advisory capacity for the coach.

The city places a huge set of expectations on the young men of the team, and either punishes or rewards them according to their performance.

Though these are the starting points for the show, it tweaks them in surprising ways. The first episode establishes the team's state-bound trajectory, and its leadership by quarterback Jason Street (referred to as Sports Illustrated's best high school quarterback in the country, sure Heisman candidate, and all sorts of other superlatives). The expectation for championship rings is cemented by the presence of first year coach Eric Taylor, hired specifically because he had coached Street since he was a kid (note the implication of the football team's primacy: the most important part of Coach Taylor's resume is that he already knows the quarterback).

The rest of the main cast is quickly established: Tim Riggins, Street's best friend, abandoned by both parents, raised by his well-meaning but underemployed brother, and alcoholic; Brian "Smash" Williams, apparently based on the book's "Boobie" Miles, another exceptionally talented player, though not as humble and well-liked as Street; Matt Saracen, distant second-string quarterback, who occasionally gets up at 4:00am to go to school and chat online with his father. Saracen lives with his paternal grandmother while his father is stationed in Iraq, though it seems to be because she needs a caretaker, not him: she's developing Alzheimer's, and keeping her medicated and safe frequently conflicts with Matt's academic, athletic, and social aspirations (he's also the only player we see working a part-time job, at a local Dairy Queen-type establishment). Later in the series, he's described admiringly by Street as artsy and creative.

The balance of the cast is drawn very well, too: Coach Taylor's wife, Tami, who takes a job as a guidance counselor at the school, giving her a front-line perspective on the school's football-centric culture. Lila Garrity, cheerleading captain, girlfriend to Jason Street, and whose father, Buddy, played on a state champion team, and owns a car dealership when he's not looking over Coach Taylor's shoulder and making hiring and recruiting suggestions. There's much more to the cast, all of whom seem integral to describing to show, but this is the core.

After quickly and effectively establishing these characters, the show starts out throwing a wrench into it all: Street is paralyzed in the season's first game. The team's state prospects are suddenly in doubt (not to mention the show's prospects for an unqualified happy ending), and we have one more painful subplot to follow (Street's rehab, acclimation to being paraplegic, and the emotional and financial toll of the injury on his family, among other things). Saracen, untested and generally unknown to his teammates, is suddenly the new quarterback.

What follows manages both affirming drama and wrenching conflict. The show incorporates a Hurricane Katrina evacuee and the Iraq War, though never seems ostentatiously topical. It also effortlessly develops themes having to do with masculinity and familial commitment.

There are easy reasons to be skeptical of the show, but none of them should bother you. Yes, the cast is almost uniformly attractive (Dillon must have one of the few schools in the country without any candidates for diabetes). There's sincere talk about God, and people's feelings. The non-Explosions In The Sky music is either generic pop or a strained Explosions... knock off. For a show about a football team, too, the football games comprise a very small portion of what happens on-screen. Relative to the rewards, these are all small concerns; acceptable costs for having such a show available for free each week (and probably mainly a result of the budget allocated to a new, massively unwatched show).

The show is on hiatus for a couple weeks now, but will let you watch each episode online for free.


Anonymous said...

Have you read the article in the latest Texas Monthly (with the scary Dick Cheney picture on the cover) by the Fort Worth Star Telegram film critic basically eviscerating this series, and talking about how awful and patronizing, pretentious and phony it is? I haven't seen the show, so I can't really comment, but it seems that everything he hates about the show are what everyone else (who probably have superior taste to him) likes about it. I'm dying to watch it. I need to get around to that. I should borrow your CD's and watch them all before school starts.

Mark said...

My family talked about this show a lot during Christmas. My dad was so excited that NBC moved it to Wednesdays so the ratings could go up (possibly). And then last night Kat was glued to a marathon NBC was showing. I haven't seen this much enthusiasm about a TV show since Lost debuted.

p.s. one of the funniest things I've ever heard from my dad was when he told me this weekend how he was trying to figure out his Wednesday night schedule b/c he usually does yoga (YOGA?!?!) at that time and it will interfere with Friday Night Lights now.

bryan h. said...

ryan: I read the Texas Monthly piece a few days ago, while in line at Central Market. That's fine that the guy doesn't like it, but all he was doing in his article was quoting or paraphrasing a supportive review and saying "no it's not." He also didn't care for the "solemn" tone (it's got more light moments than he's giving credit for). There was also nothing in the article that indicated he had seen an episode past the fourth.

mark: I can't imagine a show that has Kat's number more than this one.