Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Friday Night Lights Wraps It Up

The saddest thing about Friday Night Lights will always be the millions of people who didn't tune in to FNL. and missed one of the last great hour-long dramas on network television.  And, of course, there were the many folks who quizzically pondered why they should care about a show about high school football.

Was Friday Night Lights about football?  Oh, most absolutely.  But for some reason that seems to be an issue where watching shows about cops and lawyers and doctors (folks none of us really want to deal with), are prime-time gold.  Maybe its telling that Glee cannot be stopped no matter how been at a dead sprint to reach far past mediocre since its initial brilliant pilot.

Heather Havrilesky writes about it better than I ever will over at the NYT

At Dillon High, no student ever had a single zit (well, maybe Landry)

I've said it before and I'll say it again:  Friday Night Lights had the single best pilot of a TV show I can think of.  It was also one of the best acted shows on TV for 4 of its 5 seasons (that second season they actually veered towards becoming a standard-issue prime-time soap, and it made the show mostly unwatchable).  I was in high school drama, not football*, but FNL always felt more like high school than anything I saw elsewhere.  And the characters- high schoolers, teachers, coaches and parents - always felt grounded and real enough, and not the absent parents of teen-shows, the cartoonish teachers of most high-school shows, etc...  When you guys were recommending me a thousand different shows, this was the one I was psychically recommending to you, but I figured if you weren't watching now, you weren't going to start.

As students aged and graduated (and they did on the show.  A complete novelty.), the core of the show remained the same, Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami.

Hi, we'll be the best looking pair of educators you're likely to find anywhere (let alone in Texas)

That Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton will only achieve cult-star status out of the show (although Chandler did get a large role in this summer's Super 8) is a small crime.  At this point, its known that the show is semi-improvised, and in doing so, Chandler and Britton made the Taylor family unit one of the most fun but also, often almost painfully natural-feeling couples to exist in the TV landscape, eventually bringing the sometimes so-believable-its-annoying Julie into the mix (Amy Teagarden).

While the overarching narrative of the show was about the pressures placed upon the community around the Dillon Panthers (and, later, the East Dillon Lions), in many ways it was also about both the difficult transition young people make to adulthood and the uneasy road of the people who are getting them there.  Once the show also included Tami's career as a counselor and administrator, it not only gave the fantastic Britton a lot more to work with, but helped to highlight and contextualize the world surrounding the players, other students, etc...

The show is based on a movie by Peter Berg (who was heavily involved with the show), which, in turn, was based on the non-fiction best selling book Friday Night Lights, a look at football in West Texas in the late 1980's.  I've not read the book,** but its got a reputation.  And the movie, while engaging (and starrings ome of the same actors, carrying some of the same ambiance, etc...) wasn't as fulfilling as even two episodes of Season 1 of FNL.

It never hurt that the series was filmed here in Austin, and if you build wrong-headed connections to television characters, it was always fun to see Buddy eating steak at Hill's Cafe  (where I quite like the burgers and BBQ), or the players decamped to EZ's on Lamar, Saracen working at Fran's on South Congress, or Landry sitting in front of Trophy's on South Congress, used as set dressing (and as if you can't see the capitol if you turn the camera another 15 degrees).  A recurring location is Austin's own airport-friendly strip club, The Landing Strip (no, I've never been).  Hell, the players of opposing teams wear the uniforms of schools I went to and rooted against in 9th grade before moving to Spring (and when I quit going to high school games, because it just wasn't fun there).

Yes, these were the best looking high school kids, coaches, parents, etc... ever to grace small-town Texas.  And maybe the show was occasionally a bit too sincere or somber or a little too-close-to home-for-comfort to make it in a TV landscape that celebrates ridiculous paths to stardom via reality shows or, ahem, the weekly choreographed and overproduced song and dance routines of Glee.  And it was s how that didn't rely on the sensationalism of crime, murder, and the extremes of life in order to find the drama and characters.  And, I guess maybe a bit like Treme or other slice-of-life shows where the stakes are smaller but so real you can taste them, I'm glad the show got a chance for as long as it did.

What was always puzzling to me (and maybe this came from the book, I don't know) is that the series took place in Texas but rarely featured Hispanic characters.  I know what it looks like when the kids are headed into school near my house, and I know what my neighbors look like, who I see at the gym, etc...  I know where the cultural influences come from, in where we eat, the music you hear on the street.  For a show that went to such lengths as to mention that they shopped at HEB, I always felt this was a glaring and easily correctable error.

If you're new here, in the Fall, you'll learn that I am a bit of a football enthusiast.  I love my Texas Longhorns (Texas Fight!).  The show knew football pretty damn well, and especially in the first, third and fourth seasons, they did a great job of capturing the moment-to-moment tension of a well-played game, and the heartbreak of a game that doesn't go so well.  Texas is, as I understand it, a lot more football crazy than other places.  But, no, in the cities we don't tend to obsess over high school football, even if the local 24-hour news channel does tremendous coverage of the local high school games.

Boys, we're basically the X's on the board, and they're the little O's...
Hell, the show named characters after Longhorn athletes on a regular basis (Vince, Street, McCoy), and brought on UT coach Mack Brown in season 1 and former Texas Tech coach Leach in, I think, Season 3.  And even UT basketball coach Rick Barnes got a cameo.

It was amazing how well the show integrated real play and staged play into the show, and how believable it often looked.  And unlike many sports movies, shows, etc...  it actually understood the culture around sport, of the mental toughness required, of the team spirit, etc... all without condescension or irony.  To get what the pre-game prayer and speeches look like, or the post-loss let-down, it all felt real.  And it understood that under the right coaches and leaders, sport can build character, and that was the core of the show on many, many levels. 

Had my high school guidance counselor looked like Connie Britton, I would have thought up all kinds of new issues I needed to share with somebody
The cast was large and sprawling, especially as characters came and went.  But every character was given a storyline and a motivation.  Jessie wants to be a part of football, but as a girl, her prospects are slim.  The farmer-kid realizing his hopes for a scholarship may not materialize.  Hell, the stripper-sister who was a background character from season 1 has blossomed into a highlight of the show as a formerly second-tier character's anxious wife.

As mentioned above, I was a huge fan of Connie Britton's turn as Tami Taylor.  Apparently Britton was faking the accent, but...  dang, ya'll (I heard her in an interview talking about how the only debate on set for how to pronounce a word in Texan was "pecan".  I say "puh-KAHN".  But "puh-CAN" is also heard, and "PEE-can", sometimes.).  But in a show that set up Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), we never failed to understand the roles of wife, mother, coach's wife, educator, etc...  that Tami had to balance with the Southern smile on her face.

And, of course, I was a huge fan or Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the embodiment of the mumbling confusion and best of intentions every high school boy feels.  I believe by the end of the pilot, Sophomore Matt Saracen (who expected to ride the pine all season as the backup quarter-back) is thrust into the spotlight, and the story-arc of Saracen finding the ability to accept the challenge is worth watching, alone.  Add in his ongoing storyline with care-taking for his grandmother, who is showing signs of dementia, and its impressive that Gilford handled more than three seasons on the show without missing a beat.

And, of course, his pairing with Landry (Jesse Plemons) was pure gold.

Anyhow, the show is over now.  I'll miss it, but I'm glad it got the run it did.  I'm glad they shook it up and moved the Taylors to a new school.  With one episode left (and I haven't read spoilers from the bizaaro DirectTV deal), there are still multiple plot threads left to resolve.  But they won't all resolve, because this isn't a show about happy endings for everyone.  Its a show about what happens to people in a smallish town in Texas where football is maybe a bit more important than it should be.

So long, FNL.

*I'll cop to two years of middle school football where I only started once they put me on the "B" team to build my confidence by letting me sack the living hell out of kids half my size.  And then 1.5 seasons of high school basketball, and a bit of lacrosse.
**True story: I had a copy and my dog, Misty, ate it before I got past Chapter 1.


Paul Toohey said...

Man, I really loved this show. Such a great write up. I've yet to start the final season, but I need to soon.

J.S. said...

Maybe I will try to watch the first season of this show on Netflix. Oh wait. Netflix blows and I want to cancel my subscription.
Anyway, I'll find a way to check out at least the first season, and go from there.
Incidentally, I've tried to get you to watch oh so many shows that were really good (The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, etc.) that your pleas about missing a great show feel somewhat ironic. Nonetheless, I will still try to watch at least season 1. I have a hard time imagining how I'm going to be really drawn in by the subject matter, but I'll try...

The League said...

We all make time for different shows. I made time for this one, but as I didn't have HBO at the time, I didn't make time for Rome or The Wire. I don't feel like I've got any dearth of stuff to watch, read, do, etc... that is not a particular problem I've had. I always hope people don't take it personally when I don't fit their suggestions into my off-work schedule, and that's all I can do.

This post was not a plea to go watch the show now. Its done. It was me saying "it was a great show. I enjoyed it. Its too bad people didn't watch it before it was gone." Maybe the subject matter won't matter to you, but I tend to think it surpassed just being a show about football in the first fifteen minutes of the pilot.

J.S. said...

Yeah, there's only time to watch so much, for sure. The problem is that it seems like we all end up watching so much sub par stuff and miss out on some of the better stuff. I really do hope that Netflix pulls their head out of their butt. I've never had HBO, but I watched all of those HBO shows on Netflix (which is actually easier, because then you can actually watch 2 or more espisodes at a time instead of trying to find 1 hour blocks on different nights. Also, of course, the HBO shows usually only have about 12 eps per season)

The League said...

I'm not really clear on what's wrong with Netflix, and I was planning to write tonight's post about the Netflix price hike, so I'm curious on what problems you're having (I think Netflix has every right to have more problems with me than I have with it).

These days I DVR about five or six shows, and then I watch DVR's movies. I won't say I've never watched bad shows (7 seasons of Smallville, ya'll). But given limited free time, I'm not just sitting back and watching "Mysteries of the UFOs" anymore.

Now I'm anxious thinking about all the stuff I have backed up on my DVR from the noir-fest on TCM two weeks ago.