Tonight, fans of the exquisite Friday Night Lights will be able to tune in to network TV (NBC) for the show’s fifth and final season. If you are both a fan and a subscriber to Direct TV, season five is old news; it aired there in October and finished out in February. But what strikes me about FNL – and why it seems fitting to write about it here at The Millions – is its appeal to those of us who live just outside of TV culture proper. In the vein of David Simon’s The Wire (which Simon has described as being conceived “as a novel”) and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Peter Berg’s twice-adapted series — first from the nonfiction book by his cousin H.G. Bissinger, then from the feature film which he both wrote and directed — falls into a growing broadcast category, i.e. TV for readers.
But unlike the aforementioned cable series, “Friday Night Lights” may be a less obvious fit for, say, urbanite literary viewers. For one, it’s about high school football as the center of all hopes, dreams, and tragedies – for teens and adults alike. For another, it is set in a small, dusty, conservative West Texas town, the fictional Dillon (the book takes place in Odessa, as does the film). The central characters are the Dillon Panthers’ head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton); they go to an evangelical church and have a strong marriage and a smart, mostly well-behaved daughter (Aimee Teegarden). Gen-Xers may be imagining something along the lines of an ABC after-school special (Helen Hunt as Quarterback Princess anyone?). Well, yes and no.
Virginia Heffernan perhaps put it best in a 2008 article in the NY Times Magazine: “[Friday Night Lights] ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on its authenticity.”
By guarding its “borders,” she means that FNL’s sole focus is on the episodes themselves, resisting what has become standard in TV marketing – online franchising in the form of tabloid features, extensive merchandising, and audience participation via wiki fan sites. According to Heffernan, this decision on the part of FNL’s producers might be a central reason for its modest-to-poor ratings – a mere 5-6 million viewers in Seasons One and Two, down to 3-4 million in Seasons Three and Four (compare with, say, American Idol, which has garnered some 25 million viewers, Heroes, with 13 million, or even Glee, with 9 million). A quick search reveals that, since 2008, merchandising and online community sites have expanded, but modestly, relatively speaking: 500,000 Facebook fans, compared with 12 million Glee fans or the 7 million fans of a completed series like Lost.
It’s a crucial decision, if you think of FNL (and I do) as well-crafted art. The serial narrative – in both TV and literature – when offered up to fans as participants, can become vulnerable. Speaking about her recent article in the New Yorker about epic fantasy author George R.R. Martin, Laura Miller said, “The more invested your fans feel in your work… the more entitled they feel to complain… and hassle you… Your fans can become involved in speculating about what might happen next.” The creators of FNL are not interested in what fans want or need to happen to the characters, but rather about what must happen to them, in the world they’ve created.
Writing about NBC’s decision to renew the series in 2007 for a second season, Heffernan wrote that “its survival has become small but meaningful evidence that goodness exists in prime time.” That we’ll be seeing the launch of season five on Friday – even as it will be the last – seems a small miracle of sorts.
Like Heffernan, and her counterpart at the New Yorker Nancy Franklin, I love Friday Night Lights. I am admittedly a latecomer (thank you, Maud Newton), and like many who love the show, was blindsided. I watched all four seasons on DVD, compulsively, over a period of about six weeks. In other words, I experienced the world of Friday Night Lights as if reading a long, absorbing novel – the conclusion to which I both eagerly anticipate (though I’ve avoided all spoilers and previews) and prematurely mourn.
Marlon James once said in an interview that the most significant bit of advice he received from his teacher Colum McCann was to “risk sentimentality.” And perhaps this is the primary distinction between a network show and a cable show, a “family” show and an “adult” show – between FNL and its more glamorous and/or gritty literary-TV cousins. Friday Night Lights is something different, and welcome – an unflinching portrait of contemporary America that is not at all clever or ironic; that is both earnest and real; that dares you to care, and to embrace the notion that heart and personal morality are at the center of everything we do – regardless of what we say (or even write) – which is compelling indeed, in a pleasurably painful way, for those of us who traffic in the sometimes disconcertingly abstract world of words.
The difference, for me, has been felt; I have been here before, after all – DVD marathons of entire series seasons crammed into a weekend or two. But unlike my previous TV love-affairs (a kind of serial monogamy: The West Wing, The Wire, Deadwood, Generation Kill, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; hopeful but underwhelming first-and-second dates with 24, Weeds, and In Treatment, and a brief infatuation with Glee), which have perhaps illuminated, impressed, and entertained more than they’ve moved me, this one has inspired deep emotional attachment – to the town of Dillon, to individual characters and their sagas, to the “particular reality” that Heffernan wrote about – an attachment that I’ve carried with me into my days, my moods, my human existence. When Coach Taylor initiates the zen-like call-and-response in the Panther locker room before each game – Clear eyes, full hearts – and the team erupts with primal conviction, Can’t lose!, I am convinced, utterly, of its truth.
The artistic merits of FNL are many – depth and complexity of characterization; impeccable casting and performances (Chandler and Britton are extraordinary, along with Brad Leland as a philandering yet endearing has-been quarterback who can’t let go, and Zach Gilford as the underdog second-string quarterback Matt Saracen who is thrust by tragedy into the QB1 position); rigorous authenticity of place, speech, and story-lines. Much has been written about the documentary-style shaky-cam aesthetic and intimate close-ups, which is nowhere near my area of expertise; but yeah, I’d say it works.
Beyond these merits, what has surprised – and in a way instructed – me most is how effectively FNL employs what is essentially formulaic drama; that is, how aware we are of being immersed in a constructed moral universe, and yet how little the drama’s predictability compromises either one’s engagement or the show’s objective artfulness and excellence. For example, in Season Four, everyone’s favorite drunkard hunk Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) – a recently graduated Panther (fullback) who can’t sit through a college class to save his life – joins his older brother Billy in illegal activity, twice: once to steal copper wire so they can sell it, another time to strip down stolen cars. They need the money. They are good, downtrodden guys, albeit occasionally major fuck-ups. Billy has a baby on the way. Tim has his eye on a piece of land we all want him to have. They have no parents, no safety net, limited options. My viewing partner turned to me and said, “Are they gonna get away with it?” Immediately we knew the answer. Of course not.
Why not? Because they’re taking a short cut. Short cuts come back to bite you in the world of FNL, everything must be earned. Tim doesn’t fit at college, we get this, we don’t blame him really; but still, he was offered a scholarship and he ditched it. (It’s complicated, this college thing; it’s your only way out of Dillon, but who’s to say everyone should get out?) And yet, knowing the outcome, the process of their getting caught still makes for intricate drama; because they’re good guys, because they do and don’t deserve legal justice, because the characters have fucked up so many times but we want them to do better; and because Tim faces his fate with the largeness of character we know he has in him.
Another example is the way the football action itself is used to advance plot. You almost always know what’s going to happen during a given game: some player is going to succeed or fail, according to the character’s dramatic journey. And yet it’s almost ridiculous how gripping it is to watch it unfold – Matt Saracen throwing interceptions and losing his QB1 spot to an upstart prick freshman in Season Three; running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) getting side-tackled hard while playing with a serious hip injury he’s kept secret throughout Season Four; geek-turned-kicker Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) going for a 45-yard field goal in the final seconds of the final game of the season. All of Season Four is built around an underdog uphill climb for the ragtag East Dillon Lions (with Coach Taylor at the helm, now the victim of aforementioned prick freshman’s prick father’s maneuverings to get him transferred after a local gerrymandering debacle), and of course we know where it’s going: there’s nowhere to go but up. Still, the battle is replete with the absorbing defeats and triumphs of both game and life. Season Four is also where we see a more explicit emergence of racial issues (featuring The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan as the East Dillon quarterback), handled like everything else on the show – as part of the fabric of everyday life.
FNL reminds us that high school is an entire lifetime. Everything important that’s ever going to happen to you happens during those four years. If you weren’t convinced before, you believe it after four seasons. Emotions and relationships shift quickly and in major ways from episode to episode, and we buy it, because that’s how youth happens, that’s real life in America.
The other dynamic that feels both TV-dramatic and real is that 1) bad things are always happening to good people; 2) good things do happen to the down-and-out; but then 3) bad things inevitably come back around to knock them down again. People heading for nowhere start to find a little bit of somewhere; people who have it easy get the ground pulled out from under them, and they slowly claw their way toward something real. Everyone is changing, evolving, regressing, progressing; predictably, yes, but also just like in life. And in the midst of all the chaos, the writers give us Coach Taylor and Tami – “no better depiction of married life and married love on TV right now” (wrote Nancy Franklin in 2007) – on whose door nearly every troubled teen and adult in town eventually knocks at some ungodly hour.
If you’re like me, if you approach TV-watching like monogamous love affairs – with books as priority, I want my TV to be good, I want it to be meaningful, and I want to commit – then give FNL a shot. Because what you also want is for your TV shows to offer something literary books sometimes don’t: a (passive) emotional ride driving an (active) soul-level engagement. FNL strikes this combination brilliantly. It’s TV for sure, and network TV; it might take you a few episodes to adjust, to get used to all the busty women and their half-naked outfits (I almost quit out of cleavage overload), to remember that this is high school in a dead-end town and that boys and girls verbalize how much they love each other pretty much hourly and make bad decisions even more frequently. But the creators of FNL have successfully shown me that this is a place and a group of people worth getting to know. If small-town West Texas is a place you might otherwise consider nowhere of consequence – like Simon’s inner-city Baltimore, or even Annie Proulx’s Wyoming, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg – FNL will change your mind, and I dare say your eyes and heart as well. In the immortal words of Coach Taylor (say it with a twang), “I promise you that.”