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Time of the Season / TV O.D. : S1 of Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 14, 2007

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

Friday Night Lights ended its first 22-episode run on Wednesday night with a 4.1 rating–the highest it’d seen in about a half-dozen episodes, but not high enough for it to finish in the top 50 ratings-wise. In fact, Friday Night Lights has yet to place a single one of its episodes in the top 50–the best it’s managed thusfar is a #52 placing for episode 5, “Git ‘Er Done,” which was only because of the show temporarily moving to a more lucrative Monday night slot. Frankly, it’ll be a miracle if this show gets renewed for a second season.

But really, it’s something of a miracle that it was even on in the first place. The fact that FNL even exists is sort of crazy. To say that I’ve never seen anything like it on TV before (not to mention on one of the Big Four channels) would be a gross understatement–the show seems antithetical to what the very idea of TV is about. If the goal of most TV shows is to take real life and shape an idealized, smoothed out version of it, the goal of FNL is to take idealized, smoothed out television and create real life out of it. Nearly every episode follows some trite, TV-ready plot–the star running back is actually on steroids, the star quarterback gets in hot water with his nice girlfriend (the coach’s daughter, wouldn’t you know) when groupies whisk off his clothes at a team party, the troubled fullback tries to reconnect with his alcoholic father, who swears he’s changed but ultimately lets him down, etc.

But the thing is, even though nine times out of ten you can see what’s coming a mile away, it feels real. Your mind tells you not to trust it, it’s TV, but in your heart it all rings shockingly true–the writing, the direction, the editing, the scoring, the cinematography and above all, the acting, is good enough to make you believe even the lowest of plot contrivances. Don’t let the fact that it’s about a football team (strike one) in high school (strike two), based on a film that’s based on a book (strikes three and, if possible, four) fool you–Friday Night Lights is more Richard Linklater than Ron Shelton, and has virtually nothing to do with the preceding film and book, outside of being about Texas football.

And even the Texas football isn’t as important as you’d think. Sure, the show couldn’t survive without that link between all the characters, and regardless of how little you care about high school sports, you will care about the Dillon Panthers, and your heart’ll be pounding at the conclusion of every improbably tight, down-to-the-wire game they play. But sports fans aren’t necessarily more likely to enjoy FNL than non-sports fans–in fact, some episodes don’t even feature football at all, and you probably won’t even notice its absence in them until the very end. And the actual football shown is the show’s main weak spot–well filmed but very poorly edited, rushed through, as if the show’s creators don’t care enough about the games themselves to appropriately stretch the drama. They clearly find the behind-the-scenes drama more interesting.

That’s fine, because the cast of Friday Night Lights is one of the strongest ensembles in recent memory. Even though nearly every one falls into a type, none of the characters, with the possible exception of sleazy car salesman Buddy Garrity, is two-dimensional. The characters evolve, and they react to situations like human beings, which occasionally leads to genuinely unpredictable but believable situations, like Lyla Garrity going demolition derby on her dad’s dealership after she finds out about his serial philandering, or mild-mannered QB Matt Saracen storming out on the coach’s banquet speech in the finale after finding out the coach plans to leave next year. And the cast’s interactions are written in a way that borders somewhat dangerously on realism–the dialogue is filled with overlapping speech, incomplete sentences and incomplete ideas, awkward pauses and painfully visible thought processing, and occasional outbursts of genuine emotion. And the actors fill it out beautifully, without a weak link in a cast of teens and adults–an extreme rarity in dramatic television.

Still, the appeal of the show basically boils down to the two main couples. There’s the first love of teenagers Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen, whose beginnings provided one of the most awkward, difficult to watch, and ultimately heart-melting teen courtships ever presented on TV. It took Julie about half the season to even warm up to Matt, and you barely notice at first once she finally does, until episode 11 where it looks like Matt’s father is going to get him taken away from Dillon, and Julie meekly tells her mother through tear-stained eyes, “I just don’t want him to go.” It’s one of many disarmingly tender moments between the two characters in the show, and it still kills me to think about.

But really, Friday Night Lights is about Eric and Tammy Taylor, the coach and his guidance counselor wife, played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Two of the strongest, most likeable and most well-rounded characters in recent memory, TV or otherwise, played by two actors utterly in control of every aspect of their craft and roles. Eric Taylor is the kind of coach and father/father figure that every high school kid wishes they could have, tough and uncompromising, but smart, sensitive and forgiving. His authority is absolute, he can level the other characters with one of his patented stone glances (which must’ve taken Chandler months to get down just right), and he can redeem their souls and spirits with a single gesture of approval. And Tammy is, of course, the kind of counselor and mother/mother figure every high school kid would wish they could have, if they realized how badly they needed one, offering solace, empathy and genuine care, while remaining down-to-earth and relatable–the kind of person you want to tell all your secrets to just so she’ll tell you, regardless of how implausable it is, that everything’ll be OK.

But the real sight to behold when it comes to Tammy and Eric is their relationship with each other. These characters not only feel like they should be married, but it’s incredibly obvious that they’re still very much in love with each other, a relationship of genuine equals (Tammy does the unthinkable on the show by refusing to fit into either the “you’ll do what you think is best, dear” or the “FOOTBALL, FOOTBALL, WHY IS EVERYTHING ALWAYS ABOUT FOOTBALL WITH YOU??” molds of sports wives, very much her own character and one who Eric clearly needs as badly as the rest of the charcaters on the show). Take the episode where the lesbian Senate candidate (or something like that, I don’t think they mention her again after that episode) asks Tammy to help with her campaign. She tells her husband about how she’s considering taking the position, and naturally, his first instinct is to wonder how his wife’s new association is going to affect their public image. After a few rounds of some heated verbal sparring, the two break out in smiles. “Never a dull moment with you, is there?” Eric asks. “That’s why you married me, right?” is Tammy’s somewhat canned response–obviously not the first time an argument of theirs has ended this way.

The primary responsibility of sports in movies and television is to make the impossible seem possible, and FNL is no exception. It asks audiences to believe that a second-string quarterback, coming off the bench for the first time in his career, can save the crucial first game of the season with a last-second, perfectly spiraled hail mary, and that a team can come back at the half at the big game trailing 26-0 and win the damn thing just because their coach’s halftime speech was just that good. But Friday Night Lights also makes the impossible seem possible in a more real-life sense–that legitimately great and artful television can survive on broadcast television. Let’s just hope it can survive for a little bit longer.

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2 Responses to “Time of the Season / TV O.D. : S1 of Friday Night Lights”

  1. Thanks! You gave an excellent description of the best show on TV today, in fact, my favorite TV show EVER (along with Homicide).

  2. […] As with similar broadcast TV high point Friday Night Lights, the future of 30 Rock is far from secure–it consistently ranks in the 70s ratings-wise, despite critical acclaim and plum positioning. But I think the word of mouth is really spreading on the show, and hopefully viewers who were as skeptical as I was at the start of the first season will start to tune in. I mean, c’mon, people–Ghostface! […]

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