Some time ago I saw the first dozen episodes of Friday Night Lights, then I fell out of the habit. I started watching because of, I think, a Guardian article. It mentioned that Friday Night Lights was as much to do with football as Buffy was about vampires, with a large underlying narrative and an interesting look at a culture outside of my own.
I enjoyed it enough that I bought season one on dvd from CEX for £8 last year. Then I left it on my shelf and did nothing. I watched a cheap dvd copy of One Tree Hill, enticed by an eventual five year leap (I love a good five year leap). Then I saw all of the modern Doctor Who run, then I was distracted by a shiny object… you get the picture.
As far as teen media goes, I’ve been enjoying it since I was a teenager. I was Buffy’s age when I started watching that show, my manager at Dave’s Comics prescribed me Dawson’s Creek as well as several other shows (Babylon 5 and Twin Peaks to name a few). The state of teenagerdom has a lot for it as a narrative. There ARE lazy narratives, shows which are just teen shows for the hell of it, but with Lightning as a piece of grown up YA media, I picked apart and analysed anything I saw.
So when Gossip Girl came on the scene, by the maker of the sublime OC, I was hooked. The same with Glee, which showed promise for about 12 episodes. I started following “These Fucking Teenagers”, a podcast by my favourite site, Overthinking It. They used analysis of literature, sociology, psychology and politics to observe what Glee and Gossip Girl were really about. These were fantastic analyses and in their later days included Skins, which finally got me to watch and appreciate the show, something I never thought possible.
The TFT podcast has (thankfully) given up on Glee and picked up instead, Friday Night Lights. I was relieved, with the whole first season only semi-watched on my shelf, so I’ve started re-watching it from scratch. Here are a few observations about what makes this a fantastic pilot.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
I’ll tell you what it purports to be about, and I’ll show you why it isn’t.
This is a show about an American football team in a small town in Texas. See you at the end for more.
The direction of the pilot is quick and like a documentary. The Texan lighting and landscape are unlike any of the shows set in LA or New York. It’s strange, ethereal, making an otherworldly glow a Southern Englishman hasn’t seen. This is in its own world and because of that, excuses the cultural strangeness of this town and its fixation.
The shaky nature of the camera makes it feel candid, like we’re an observer in the scene. This is a style which worked wonderfully in The Shield, placing us in the location, an observer to most of the moments and giving askance looks at the surroundings. A lampshade is hung on the documentary style by having the football players and coach interviewed inter-cut with people’s morning rituals during the opening sequence.
The thrumming music gives a sense of the mundanity of the scenes, but grows as events unfold in each scene. There’s potential, but there’s threat. Everything’s building higher and higher.
W G Snuffy Walden, a man with a fantastic name, is great at providing background noise which isn’t noticeable until it is. His work includes The West Wing, which had a very distinctive style to it. Each show he’s done has a unique sound, and knows when to be invasive. WG has done work for all of Aaron Sorkin’s shows and injects that level of earnest import to each scene in the pilot.
The background noises also include small town radio call-ins, adding to the sense that EVERYONE in Dylan, Texas, is looking at the team to do their best. They aren’t confident in the coach because he’s new, and how, ultimately, this is ALL that they have. And it’s not even actual football, it’s high school football. When the announcers speak in the football game, it dominates the dialogue, talking over the cast, and sometimes even drowning them out.
We have a large cast in this show, and it’s difficult to keep them all together and keep the narrative contained. There’s no set protagonist, although there are people who fit protagonist type roles.
Jason Street is the obvious protagonist. He’s the best at what he does, he’s king jock and much like Dino Ortolani in Oz, the pilot is very cruel to him after playing to our expectations.
Tim Riggins is the obvious anti-hero, but he’s allowed to get away with his behaviour because of his place as a football player. Smash is an ego maniac who should, narratively, have karma kick him in the backside. Lyla (played by the lovely Minka Kelly) is the head cheerleader and Jason’s well-meaning girlfriend.
Matt Saracen is a kid who’s not very good at football and has a senile grandmother he’s looking after. He also has a nerdy friend who isn’t a footballer and a crush on Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter. TFT correctly mention that she misappropriates the novel Moby Dick’s narrative as that of the game. It could be said that they’d sacrifice anything at the altar of the game, that they’d destroy their children if it got them a moment of fame, that it’s ultimately a meaningless fate. Losing a game may seem like the end of the world, but in the future when they’re car salesmen or office clerks, will this victory really matter?
The coach, Eric Taylor is a core part of the cast and as under pressure as the kids are. The whole town, mayor included, are fixated with the game. His wife is (in true television wife form) long-suffering, wanting him to lessen his role while the town demand more. Thus drama.
It’s a difficult narrative to pick apart from a single perspective. This is a story of a collective. This unit, this tribe, are preparing for a football game. It’s the first game of the coach’s run with this school who had an amazing coach, a top-class team.
The players, and the people around them, are shown up as human beings with as many benefits and flaws to make them three dimensional. Saracen has heart, but isn’t very good. Riggins is the agent of his own downfall and people are relatively complicit in letting him do that as long as he’s good.
The team give interviews, muck about in a diner and get ready for the big game, which is more important than anything else. They give pep talks to children, appear in front of local businessmen and political figures, they’re paraded out like they’re either about to go on a hunt or being offered up as some kind of sacrifice.
During the game, the style changes look and makes it this bright green field and an ocean of black above us. The stands are full of people, the way a professional game often looks on television. It looks almost poetic, which as a non-sports fan is very confusing. Then Jason Street is knocked down and can’t get up. He’s paralysed. Oooh, snap! (in more ways than one) Okay, that’s cruel, especially as the sufferer of spinal woes myself.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Friday Night Lights is about community and ritual, how people relate to each other and how a unit of people act, how they are expected to act. This could be about a team of soldiers going off to war, about a high risk & visibility business, about a tribe who have to defend themselves from attackers. As Coach Taylor says in the pilot, as the TFT podcast episode introducing their coverage of Friday Night Lights is titled, Men Are Coming To Destroy You.
It isn’t life or death. It’s not the majority of these people’s lives, it’s not going to determine how well or badly 90% of the players will do in their lives. Almost none of them will become professional footballers or cheerleaders. But for now, in this tiny town, this is all that they have. Despite the lack of meaning in their ultimate success in life, this is their only moment for fame. It’s all the community has, and the focus is both exhilarating and traumatic to the teenagers.
It’s the best pilot that I’ve seen this season, despite not being a topic I would like, and being a television show from five years ago.
Watch it. Even if you “don’t do” teen media, or network television, you should watch it. The statement that it’s as much about football as Buffy was about vampires is true. There’s an underlying narrative and football’s where the action happens, the framework for the drama. The style of the show is very earnest, very raw, and that adds to the heightened drama the youths and the community place sport in their society. For me it may as well be another world as it is Dylan, Texas, and it’s a fascinating insight. I’m going to carry on through season one and hope to find a cheap season two, or maybe a complete box set as the show has finished it run despite attempted cancellations and despite critical acclaim (normally a sign that a show will be a ratings flop and thrown to the wolves).
Also, because there may be one or two people who I’ve spoken to in real life who have yet to hear me recommend it, look at Overthinking It. Listen to their podcast, and to the sociological, psychological, literary dissection of Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl on the podcast, “These Fucking Teenagers”.