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.” 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).
Yet everything about these kids is going to be challenged (if often incoherently) by the various scriptwriters. In real life teenagers are often challenged to the point of destruction, and even in Berg’s film the boys are, in effect, partly denatured—roughened and distressed to match the parched turf—but less so here in TV-land. In this particular prime-time representation, small-town Texas culture is less about hardened exteriors and shredded dreams than about preserving, finding, and acquiring integrity and decency: family duty, Christian kindness, and charity are its hallmarks. For decoration there is also a lot of cleavage.
Unlike The Wire, which works as a visual novel,2 Friday Night Lights does not possess confident and overarching story lines and there are so many loose ends and dead stops and panicked plot moves that it might have been written by writers who thought the series was about to be canceled the next day. (In fact there were indeed dire network discussions regarding the program’s low ratings.) Scripts often seem frantically assembled with no memory of what came before. Story elements are shuffled, parachuted in, forgotten about. People are added and subtracted and only sometimes is there an imprisonment or a marriage or a baby shower to explain. Often characters just disappear. It is one of the show’s troubling ad hoc aspects, exacerbated perhaps by one of its virtues: the cast had a hand in the dialogue and often improvised scenes and rewrote lines. Kyle Chandler, script in hand, is said to have once phoned the director to insist, “I don’t need to make this speech. I can do it with a look.”
Chandler can do just about anything with a look. The expressive restraint of his smoldering gaze and his squinted grin of chagrin is one of the most intriguing aspects of Friday Night Lights, even if it is overrelied on. When called on to say lines such as “I’m offering you everything I got. This is not just about football. I beg of you: think about what I just said,” he makes the words pierce and soar. When he says to his team, “Listen up, gentlemen,” it doesn’t much matter what he actually says afterward: everyone is drawn to attention. And when at a coaches’ poker game he gets up to leave early, saying “I’ve been cheating all night, looking at his cards, and I still can’t beat him,” the line-reading is such that we know he is actually a bit tipsy and missing his wife.
So that is the way the series’s chief architect, executive producer Jason Katims, proceeds: a little willy-nilly. The camera work—three cameras filming simultaneously—is excellent and done in a “run and gun” filmmaking style, all of which allows the cast additional set pieces, scenes, or ad libs. But using that many cameras leaves the really hard work of the storytelling to the editors. And having to bring each episode in at forty-three minutes clearly resulted in some unhelpful excisions, as well as some dubious inclusions. There is perhaps too much of Tim Riggins’s blustery older brother Billy, and too much of the Garrity clan, though Buddy Garrity gets some of the funniest lines in the show (as when, desperate and gasping, he confides to Eric Taylor that “the Boosters”—a coven of unelected village elders—“may have my phone tapped”).
To a one, the actors who play the young football players perform with nuance and openheartedness. Seldom have teenaged boys been this emotionally articulate. The distinctive qualities of each one offset the idea of their warrior fungibility as enacted on the team. All are riveting, and their adolescent Texan mumbles, even when explaining the difference between a skinny post and an out-and-up, do not require subtitles though the thought of subtitles crosses the mind. All the characters say yes sir, no ma’am, please, and thank you—sometimes as in “Becky. Shut up. Please?”
The show’s handling of race becomes more sure-footed in the later seasons once Michael B. Jordan, the actor who played Wallace on season one of The Wire, joins the cast as the new black quarterback of the East Dillon Lions. (Mid-series, even after winning the state championship, Coach Taylor, as punishment by the politburo of self-interested Boosters, is removed as coach of the West Dillon Panthers and sent to the poor side of town to make a team there from scratch.) Whereas desegregation for its own sake proceeded with great difficulty in Texas, the gerrymandering of school districts for purposes of football is accomplished in a hurry. And if the redistricting doesn’t work there are always ghost mailboxes that can be set up by the Boosters, and illegal recruits in the guise of charity. “Feel his hair,” says the younger sibling of an African-American girl, touching her sister’s white boyfriend’s head. “It’s like grass.” In fact two characters on The Wire are murdered in David Simon’s Baltimore just in time for the excellent actors who play them to join Friday Night Lights, where boys are not killed, only maimed (one waits for the army to scoop one up, but it doesn’t happen until the finale montage).
The action happens mostly on the football field. And the dramatized football plays, studied on video and in printed diagrams in ring binders by the characters—both male and female (the East Dillon quarterback’s girlfriend wants to be a coach, not a rally girl)—are more engaging than one might expect. One looks forward to the games, as does every denizen of Dillon, which is what the viewer becomes. Periodically, to end an episode or a season, a wedding or a rodeo is arranged so we get to see the whole cast gathered up and milling around, as if in a curtain call, to remind you of the community you’ve come to know.
Over the five years of the show there is time for the kids to change, and change they do. By the end they can all look people in the eyes while speaking. The alcoholic Tim Riggins, brimming with sweet sex and soft rage, reminiscent of a brawny Jim Morrison, begins the show saying of his aggressive tackles, “That dude could be Santa Claus and I’d still hate him…. I just like to hurt people,” and ends it by turning Panther decency into saintly martyrdom. The good Texan grandson Matt Saracen, who begins so dutifully and diffidently, becomes an urban Chicago hipster. And when last we see the endearing albino nerd Landry Clark, before he goes off to Rice University, he is getting an “epic” lap dance at the local strip joint and in self-parodic tones says happily to the dancer, “I want to know absolutely everything there is to know about you.”
It would not be entirely accurate to say the entire show was discussed in our mad corner at that Manhattan party. The people I was speaking with mostly wanted to discuss the character Tim Riggins, played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch heaven! Lyla Garrity was a dismissible minx. Tyra Collette, who runs for class president by saying, “Nobody here is getting laid if you let Ginny here have the prom in the gym,” had distracting hairdo instability. The girls in general held less interest, and the coach’s new baby Graciebelle held the least of all. (According to Jason Katims in the DVD commentary, Graciebelle is portrayed by a toddler who is one of “three twin sisters,” a remark that certainly gives one pause.) Even Landry Clark and Matt Saracen and stormy, stalwart, black-Irish Eric Taylor—the characters who possess the most forceful gazes, mesmerizing scenes, and unexpected psychological moves in the show—received short shrift. It was the brooding, beautiful, and slightly doomed Tim Riggins, handsome as a statue and bleakly craving goodness, about whom no one could stop talking. Tim Riggins: through the wonders of long-form and instantly sharable narrative, he was the realest person in the room.