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Very Deep in America

Friday Night Lights, Seasons 1–5

a television series created by Peter Berg
Universal, DVD box sets, Seasons 1–4, $29.98; Season 5, $34.98

Friday Night Lights

a film directed by Peter Berg
Universal, DVD, $12.98

On my way to a Manhattan book party recently my mind was wandering to cultural guilty pleasures: sprightly but inane movies, or half-baked television programs no sophisticated person would admit to watching, as well as other aesthetic uncoolnesses, such as, say, Josh Groban, whose precariously belted tenor, crossover repertoire, and passable Italian have made him a secret darling of vulgarians like me. When he sings “The Prayer” with Celine Dion, is the listener not in the private ocular mists of kitsch heaven? Is not one of those pearly gates real pearl? And might one pay for admission to this slum-paradise with a parterre ticket stub from Wozzeck?

So it was, then, with great and satisfying surprise that almost immediately upon arriving at the party, I found myself locked in enthusiastic conversation in a corner with two other writers, all three of us, we discovered, solitary, isolated viewers of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. We spewed forth excitedly, like addicts—this was no longer a secret habit but a legitimately brilliant drama. Though the title might make the uninitiated think of shabbat candles, the show is actually about football in Texas, a state that I felt just then had not been this far east since the Bush administration.

Rooting is in our blood,” Janet Malcolm has written, and when traveling around this country one would be hard-pressed not to notice that sports stadiums have become to the United States what opera houses are to Germany. Every community has one, even ones without much money. Friday Night Lights, whose final season has just come to a close, is a weekly hour-long dramatic series (forty-three minutes without commercials) whose focus is a high school football team and its place in a particular Texas town by the fictional name of Dillon—inspired by the real-life town of Odessa.

In West Texas, largely because of the heat, high school football is often played on weekend nights under klieg lights to crowds of up to twenty thousand people. These lit matches are just that: they light the fuse and transform these young players into local celebrities, turning these high school games into the only show in what would otherwise be a no-show town. In rough terrain blighted further by the dusty winds of economic collapse—droughted ranches, oil rigs mute and still as scarecrows—these games are the week’s high point for these boys and for the adults (parents, uncles, unemployed older brothers, boosters) who try to live vicariously through them. The town wants to win at something. The high school coach signs a two-year contract and often has to look for another job immediately following. If the team loses, the town will remind him by pounding For Sale signs into his front lawn or accosting him over ice cream at the local Alamo Freeze. In Friday Night Lights, when the coach’s wife takes a job as a guidance counselor to help out, she is told that the last guidance counselor killed herself.

Friday Night Lights is held together by a cast of disconcertingly attractive young people with pink, wavy mouths (a few seem straight out of a Beverly Hills casting agency, marring slightly the verisimilitude). They play kids named Tim Riggins, Tyra Collette, Jason Street, Lyla Garrity, and Matt Saracen, whose names envelop and suit them better than any others could, including the actors’ own. Equally attractive is the only high-functioning family in Dillon: that of Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami, who are played with deep and beautiful concentration and chemistry by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. The Taylors often speak politely over each other, simultaneously, as if in an Altman film, and when they genuinely lose their tempers, which is seldom, it is transfixing, even when the sparring sounds mild. When Tami is made high school principal and begins to respond to her husband’s work issues with platitudes of fatigue, he says, “You know who I miss? I miss the coach’s wife.” And she replies, recognizably, “You know who I can’t wait to meet? The principal’s husband.” The portrait of their relationship has been described by Daniel Mendelsohn in these pages as “the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture.”1 And it is a far cry from the marriages one has seen on The Sopranos or Mad Men, as well as other marriages in Dillon, Texas.

The series wants Dillon to function as a microcosm of larger working- and middle-class America: it takes its fifty or so hours and opens a window on American family, education, community race relations, athletics, social class and its various brokennesses. But lest you go away, it keeps you involved with the drama of high school—its romantic student soap operas, its tense and dire administrative politics, plus the multigenerational home life that has dads in prison, dads in Iraq, dads gambling and drinking and roaming around the country while Grandma sits in the front room. This is where the role of the coach as holy father (not for nothing does he lead the team in prayer before each game) is underscored: these boys are the coach’s congregation. He is their shepherd and they are his flock. And despite its unflinching glance at some really tough lives and an unforgiving landscape, this is a television show and will not submit easily to despair.

The same cannot be said of the grim movie off which the series is spun. Both its people and its setting are hard-bitten and haggard. Billy Bob Thornton as the real-life Coach Gaines appears pale and grisly, with vampiric, beet-hued lips and stark, hollowing cheekbones. And although Connie Britton here also plays the coach’s wife, with her permed 1980s hair and constantly startled expression, she and Thornton look like characters who have wandered off the set of an inexpensive horror film. The panorama of sad houses with For Sale signs reads like a chorus crying for long-withheld help, and the desert landscape seems to hunger for a night sky that will cool and beglitter it.

The camera work is grainy, quick, and cold, as if the lens could bear neither to blink nor stare, and the feel and the look of the film are sociological and anthropological—an outsider going by with a crew in a truck. If some residents of Odessa, Texas, were not pleased by either the movie or the book on which it was based (its author, the journalist H.G. Bissinger, says he received death threats), it’s because no one likes to be told their home is depressing; everyone likes to think their lives are a little better-looking than that.

But at the time this movie is set, in the late 1980s, Money magazine ranked Odessa as the country’s fifth-worst city to live in. Its racism was legendary. Molly Ivins called it an “armpit” and Larry McMurtry’s Texasville refers to it as “the worst place on earth.” Odessa was founded in the late 1800s by huckster land surveyors from Zanesville, Ohio: it never lost the taint of betrayal. Even the high school boys, who are based on real-life people and in the film use those people’s real-life names (as opposed to their more innocent fictional counterparts on TV), appear as toughened and worn as the adults are tired and dazed. “We gotta lighten up,” says one of the film’s football players to his friends. “We’re only seventeen.”

I don’t feel seventeen, do you feel seventeen?” replies one of the boys, as with deadened eyes they skeet-shoot into the Texas sky. In fact they look leathered and thirty, as if all the childhood had been knocked out of them long ago. Set in 1988 when the US was not involved in any war in the Mideast, the film version of Friday Night Lights was made in 2004 when two such wars were occurring. It is reminiscent of a war movie (the football impact scenes are brutal and the sound editors have the volume on high for each wince-inducing hit, underscoring the disposability of the boys—“You have to worry about the safety of these kids,” one sports announcer says after some bone-cracking tackles).

But the subtext, unspoken even in the DVD commentary, is that this is our warrior class: this is where our soldiers come from. The film was made, at any rate, to look that way. It never enters a classroom or has a female character say much of anything. “I don’t understand women and I don’t feel comfortable presenting them,” says the film’s director, Peter Berg, in the bonus commentary. The climax of the film, which is the Texas state championship game against Dallas’s Carter High School, is shot and cut along the same lines as the climax of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. So says Peter Berg.

Although Berg also directed the television pilot, establishing the pace and look of the series, the television show is warmer and greener; it had to be to keep viewers watching for five years. There is better music, for instance, “needle drops” by Ryan Adams and Iron and Wine, as well as many singer-songwriters from the local Austin scene, which gives the feeling of high school life back to the kids. (As it was in the film, the Midland, Texas, band Explosions in the Sky is also used.) In the series, though the homoerotic ties of boys and team sports can be noted and felt, they are not as aggressively put forward. In the film there is a father-son pair that is the major romance—“You got one stinking year to make yourself some memories” are the father’s words of love—and the original edition of Bissinger’s book starts off with locker room photographs of hugging teammates and shirtless players blow-drying their hair.

The series is more interested than the film in how these boys relate to girls, and although sometimes clueless about the girls themselves—cheerleaders, pageant contestants, and rally girls who often appear doe-eyed, manipulative, attention-starved, and shrill (the rising action written for them requires rising voices as well)—gender-wise the series is a substantial expansion on the movie and book. In fact, by comparison, it is a veritable encyclopedia of the female psyche. The mayor of Dillon is a woman, a committed football booster and lesbian who “before she began to play for the other team,” as it’s said in Dillon, once had an affair with Lyla Garrity’s father, Buddy. And although the first season handed the viewer a world of housewives, cheerleaders, and strippers, their experiences are put forward with sympathy and wit.

The TV series, set almost twenty years after the time of the film, also repeatedly dramatizes how the relationship of grown-ups to children in this town—is it Dillon? is it Odessa? is it all of America?—is more often than not flipped: that is, the kids take care of the hapless grown-ups who have stayed on in the down-and-out setting of their own upbringing. It is a sad reversal—there is not one father of a son on the show who is not meddlesome, obstructive, or damaging, and many of the mothers aren’t much better—but it’s a burden that on television often enlarges rather than diminishes the kids. The series is also shot closer to Austin than to West Texas so that the look of the land is less desolately lunar than in the film. One feels that the TV show is less about weariness than about the struggle for moral rectitude. The essential goodness of the boys is never in doubt (though the wobbly first season foolishly makes a villain out of a young Katrina refugee).

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