Saturday, May 15, 2010

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

Friday Night Lights is back, and I say to everyone who has never watched this amazing TV show: go out and rent or buy the DVDs for the first three seasons. Seriously.

This is a tough show to sell, mainly because a lot of people are reluctant to give the benefit of the doubt to a television series about a high school football team set in rural Texas. To all the doubters, I encourage you to ask my father about my own personal enthusiasm about football. He would likely share a variety of anecdotes in which I rather comically make my ignorance and/or indifference about the sport known. Not a football fan. Never have been.

And yet I love this TV show, and think it's one of the best currently on network television. Why? Well, for the usual reasons, really—it is really well written, with interesting and complex characters, and is beyond that really well shot. Visually, it isn't afraid to play with colour and unconventional (for television) camerawork.

But really, it's all about the characters and the way football dominates the lives of everyone in the town of Dillon, Texas. The show both loves and loathes the sport, and oscillates between unabashed boosterism on one hand and the depredations such single-minded obsession has on the life of the town and the team on the other. The Friday night game is the center of the town's energy and self-image, and the first season saw new coach Eric Taylor trying to negotiate between his own coaching style and preoccupations, and the constant criticism and interference from the townsfolk on the other. Win a game, and be lionized; lose, and find insulting signs on your lawn the next morning.

I can understand people's scepticism going into Friday Night Lights considering how often and how heavy-handedly sport gets used in film and fiction as a grand metaphor for America; also, how nakedly emotionally manipulative climactic sequences are as the hero comes to bat at the bottom of the ninth, or as the final seconds tick away while the team faces a do-or-die touchdown attempt. Make no mistake, Friday Night Lights employs exactly this kind of emotional manipulation quite frequently (and it is deeply satisfying when it does), but the serial nature of its medium subverts the normal catharsis provided by sports movies. To put it another way: yeah, they just won the big game in a squeaker, but next episode or next season life goes on, and the pain and difficulty and struggles of everyday life are waiting underneath the euphoria of triumph.

This, I think, more than anything else is what sets Friday Night Lights apart from more typical sports narratives. We're never entirely certain whether football is balm or blight on the economically depressed town of Dillon; it offers on one hand a way out for those select few players who manage to score football scholarships to college, and galvanizes the town's pride and sense of self. On the other hand, the resources and energy devoted to winning often transgress moral and ethical lines; educational concerns take a back seat to football; and the team and coach are subjected to incredible pressure from the town, with predictable results: good players are venerated like kings, poor players vilified, and players suffering injuries that end their careers become immediate has-beens.

All of which is embedded in the town's oft-obsessed over history of football victories and championships. If ever there was a show that evoked Springsteen's song of pathetic nostalgia "Glory Days," this is it.

In other words, Friday Night Lights is about football the way The Wire is about drug dealing and policing. Nor is this analogy unapt for the new season. Friday Night Lights, after three seasons, was going to face a problem faced by all TV shows set in a high school: main characters graduate, which means that you either devise increasingly lame reasons to keep them around or you have the necessity of completely changing up the cast every few years. Friday Night Lights is splitting the difference: about half the main (student) characters have decamped for college, and the other half are sticking around for various reasons. But in a narrative move that promises to keep the show from getting stale, the end of season three saw Coach Taylor elbowed out of his job and hired by the impoverished East Dillon High. This season we're seeing parts of Dillon only hinted at in previous seasons. East Dillon is predominantly poor and African-American, and Taylor finds himself with a raft of problems he has never faced before—the big one being his new team's relative indifference to football and their understandable reluctance to be shouted at by a white man. The economic woes of Dillon in general that we saw previously now come into sharp relief.

I realize I've spent this post talking about Friday Night Lights in broad strokes, and not speaking about specific narrative points or characters. But then, if you're already a viewer, you know what I mean; if you're not, I don't want to give too much away.

1 comment:

Dallas said...

You had me at, "In other words, Friday Night Lights is about football the way The Wire is about drug dealing and policing."

I've been hearing lots of praise for this show, and now that it has earned your enthusiastic endorsement, I'm definitely going to make it the next one I watch!