Thursday, September 16, 2010

You Should Be Watching: Friday Night Lights

Whenever I write these, I assume that they are being read by people from the U.K. since I'm British and, by and large, so are most of the people I know and they're the people who read the stuff I write. Apart from all the Japanese people who spam the comments, that is. (Thanks for the traffic, guys!) This is the main reason why every show I write about is American; a lot of these shows take years to reach these shores, if they do at all, and very few of them end up on a channel that everyone will have access to. I hope, then, to shine a bit of light on something that otherwise might go unnoticed.

It's this supposed, possibly imagined target audience that makes the subject of this post especially difficult; it's tough enough trying to entice people to watch a show most people might not have heard of, it's doubly difficult to persuade them to watch a show about American football, a sport which most British people have a barely concealed contempt for. (Everyone who actually watches this show is no doubt screaming "But it's not ABOUT football, stupid." I know that, but not everyone else will.) So, with this Sisyphian task ahead of me, I'll try to tell you all why you should not only be watching Friday Night Lights, but why it's one of the best shows on television.

Friday Night Lights started life as a non-fiction book called "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream" by H.G. Bissinger, and told the story of the 1988 Permian High School football team from Odessa, Texas, their run at the State Championship, and the way in which the team came to represent the dreams of their entire community. In 2004, director Peter Berg (Very Bad Things, The Rundown) used the fact that he is distantly related to Bissinger to get the rights to the book so he could adapt it into a feature film. After the film became a critical and commercial success, he developed the story yet again for television, moving it to the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and setting it in the modern-day, rather than 1988.

As with the film, the focus of the show is on the high school football team, The Dillon Panthers, but as I've already said, it isn't really a show about football. (At times, almost perversely not.) The Panthers serve as a jumping off point for showrunner Jason Katims, who took over the running of the show after Berg's initial involvement setting it up, and his writers to examine the wider community of Dillon and the way in which small communities can lean upon their sports teams to fulfill their own dreams and aspirations (one of the great strengths of the series is its ability to give Dillon a history, telling us without actually telling us that people have been following The Panthers before members of the current team were even born), and the effect that this pressure in turn has on the young men expected to shoulder that responsibility as they battle it out under those Friday night lights.

Considering the size of the cast and a panoramic focus that tries to give all of them at least some screentime every episode, not to mention that the entire cast is excellent and most of the characters are well-drawn and fun to be around, it's hard to choose which characters to write about in such a short space of time. However, since most of the characters are in high school and, due to the nature of the show, eventually move on from Dillon, it makes most sense to start with the two characters that form the backbone of the show; Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tammi (Connie Britten).

There are few marriages in television history that feel as real as the Taylors'. Theirs is a marriage built on friendship, love and a hell of a lot of sexual chemistry, and even if they have huge fights - which they do fairly often because, hey, it's television - you know that they'll be okay by the end of the episode. Not because it's a narrative convention for them to resolve their problems, but because they are two adults in a loving relationship who can put all the bullshit aside and fall asleep next to each other. It says a lot about them that when the show received a handful of long overdue Emmy nominations for its fourth season, both Chandler and Britten were nominated as lead actors. They didn't win, but they were probably the most deserving nominees considering how good they'd been for so long.

As coach and guidance councillor of Dillon High School, the Taylors provide a throughline to the series that connects the occasionally disparate groups of characters to each other, and are among a select group of characters who have been with the show from the start, as other characters have moved away from Dillon and left the main cast. (Though, as of Season 4, some of the original cast still show up as guest actors from time after time, because everyone comes home once in a while.)

The ensemble nature of the show, and the strength of the actors, mean that I could spend a thousand words per character and still barely scratch the surface. They all feel very much like real people, in that they have their problems and contradictions, and some of them change over time whilst others stay the same. The time afforded by the medium means that the actors have been able to grow into their roles over time, so that someone like Taylor Kitsch, who initially wasn't able to bring much to the character of Tim Riggins besides his good looks, has been able to explore the character and bring a depth and soul to Riggins that I certainly wouldn't have expected based on his performance in Season 1.

This all feeds into the aspect of the show which I respond to most; its atmosphere and realism. Rather than artificially keep the same cast in Dillon just because they are popular, the show has repeatedly written characters out as they graduate and go off to college or seek their fortunes outside of the confines of Dillon. There's a sense that these people will grow and change outside of the show, and whenever they come back you feel as if you're seeing an old friend who you haven't seen for years; the same person, but subtly different.

The show also has a keen sense of what life is like in a small town, and the way in which they can be as suffocating as they are supportive. To paraphrase a line from the film version, if you screw up in a small town everyone knows about it, and much of the first season of the show concerns itself with the ways in which people treat Taylor and his team differently depending on whether they are winning or not. The handheld shooting style, which allows the show to be made cheaply and quickly but also allows the actors to improvise and work to make their performances feel more natural, lends an intimacy to the show that few can match. (I re-watched the film in preparation for this article, and I was struck by how much more superficial it feels compared to the show. It's not bad by any means, but the disparity between the two is really fascinating to me.) FNL is comfortable at creating an atmosphere of immediacy and closeness whether it's on the field, in the Taylors' home, or at a church, all of which form the background to the show; family, God and football are what's important in Dillon, Texas, though their relative importance may vary from person to person.

Despite my fervent belief that FNL is one of the best shows of the last five years, it is not without its weaknesses. Chief amongst these is a reliance on stock high school sports stories (steroids, a player getting injured at a crucial moment, one player being a showboatter who alienates the rest of the team, to name but a few) to pad out the seasons and the occasional introduction of plots that would be more suited to soap operas. The most egregious and derided example of the latter would be a plot strand in the second season in which two of the characters accidentally kill someone in self-defense and spend half the season trying to hide their involvement from the police. This kind of heightened melodrama does not sit with the loose, realistic style that the show employs, so whenever it does delve into the soap operatic, it feels like a step away from what the show does best.

However, even when it does tackle subjects that have been covered elsewhere or that seem sensationalistic, FNL does a good job of integrating those elements into its milieu, and even uses them to highlight the character work that makes the show so richly rewarding. Take that murder subplot, for example; the show goes to great lengths to detail the mechanics of how they dispose of the body, the sense of paranoia that develops in them as a result, and, most importantly, uses it as a catalyst to bring these two characters, who had previously only been friends, into a romantic relationship that they then struggle to deal with once the initial crisis has passed. It's a melodramatic situation that is portrayed with total conviction, and which shows us something about these characters that we might never have seen, even after spending twenty-plus hours in their company.

If FNL had been made about 10 years ago, it would probably have formed part of the canon of great dramas on NBC, enjoying the ratings and critical success that shows like ER and The West Wing did at the turn of the century. It boasts a large, talented ensemble cast, intelligent scripts and edgy direction, it's just the sort of show that NBC made its reputation on. Sadly, the show's debut dovetailled with the beginning of NBC's decision to move away from just that sort of programming, choosing instead to throw money at Jay Leno and giving up on scripted drama.

Despite being thrown to the wolves by its own network, the show has persevered thanks to critical support, a small, dedicated fanbase, and a deal with DirectTV which has episodes become available to subscribers months before they air on NBC. This arrangement has allowed the show to run for four seasons so far, with the fifth and final season due to start in October. If the world is working so hard to keep Friday Night Lights from everyone, then you owe it to yourselves to seek it out. It's worth it.

If you only watch one episode...

Despite its ongoing storylines, Friday Night Lights is a very easy show to jump into, and you can watch pretty much any episode with little or no context and still pick up what is going on. Obviously, it's more rewarding to watch the show in chronological order so that the events of any given episode have more weight, but they are largely standalone. Now, I've only watched the first three seasons of the show, so I can't recommend the fourth season episode "The Son", which by all accounts is amongst the best that the show has done and was nominated for two of the four Emmys that the show was recently nominated for. I can't recommend it, but I'm sure it's very good.

As far as episodes I can recommend, the pilot is one of the series' most triumphant moments, encapsulating as it does so much of the atmosphere and attention to detail that makes it such a joy to watch, but I'm going to recommend "Mud Bowl" from season 1. The plot revolves around the Panthers being unable to play on their own field, losing their home team advantage, and culminates in a game in a rainstorm that is as exciting as any the show has ever done, and which delivers a powerful emotional catharsis for both the players and the audience. It's the show at its best, and a stunning piece of television.