TV has had it pretty good these last few years…but I wanted another series to get into this winter to fill the void before Thrones and Mad Men returned. I’m usually late in acting on recommendations for movies and TV series, but I acted on an old suggestion to watch Friday Night Lights, the TV series.
Even as someone who’s always liked and followed football, I was skeptical at what a series revolving around it could accomplish. I enjoyed the 2004 Friday Night Lights movie quite a bit; it had a way of capturing small-town characters and atmosphere in the same sneaky-brilliant manner that Napoleon Dynamite did. But I think what was most moving about the film was that it portrayed real stories from real lives, while still establishing the backdrop so well. Would the execution of telling a similar story in series format with fictional characters be able to match that?
It took me about two weeks to devour FNL the series. The football itself is probably the worst part of the show, and only because every important victory ends with some kind of miraculous hail mary. But the show’s so good that this never matters. You don’t care about the realism of the outcome of the football games because what matters on the field comes from the character lives off it. This is the most hopeful show I’ve ever seen. It looks at how a balanced and healthy family tackles various challenges, but not in a way that would build resentment or disbelief. You can’t resent Eric and Tami Taylor for being too perfect, because they’re not. Unlike the dysfunction-laden main characters of all-time great shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad, the Taylors are asked by this show to be heroes, to step up and dare to say that this is what a modern American family should be all about. I’ll never forget the scene where the Taylors are in the living room, tense and frustrated over with each other over how each chose to deal with their daughter Julie. There’s nothing but anger, silence, and confusion. You’re half expecting to hear some drab line about how the couple love each other and they’ll get through it, or maybe you’re thinking there will be a cut to let the issue linger and return to it later. No. You take in everything they’re feeling, and then Tami, whose off the charts EQ always finds the words to answer any challenge, says that hey…this is the first time that either of us have done this. Neither of us know the answers as our daughter enters volatile, uncharted territory. And these lines from Tami Taylor weren’t things you’d find on motivational posters or fan tumblrs. But with just a few words, you had admission, resolve, ‘we’re here in this together’, coming to terms with fear and uncertainty, and hope. And every single moment of that scene mattered because of how well the characters had been built.
Zooming out for a sec, it’s gotta be incredibly challenging to craft a compelling story about people’s formative adolescent years without drifting too far into teen drama fantasy. I saw a review somewhere that said critics loved FNL but audiences did not because it wasn’t escapist enough…it was too real. I can’t disagree with this…I imagine that similar forces were behind why The Wire had to fight so hard for its survival, and also received much of its praise and acclaim well after it went off air. FNL does have some of the standard teensy stuff, but it never fails to include the REAL teen stuff. Mistakes and consequences, love and friendship, status and identity, family and dreams, failure and potential.
The Wire was brutally harsh in showing just how deeply the roots of decay have sunk in. It set off anger, despair, and indignation. FNL was the yang to its yin, and in this dystopian-worshipping age of television, dared to elevate the best in people, no matter their circumstances. It reduced me to a tearful wreck.
I’d go so far to say that if you ever watch just one season of any show, make it season 1 of FNL. The later seasons are still good (though Season 2 is aptly described as a mess, with the writers’ strike, a change of leadership at NBC and a need for ratings all combining for a chaotic and sometimes incoherent season) because the show’s most important characters are always there making a difference, but I honestly found it hard to connect to many of the newer young faces after the first generation graduated or otherwise moved on with their lives. I struggled to care about a Becky Sproles even a smidge as much as a Lyla Garrity. Honestly though, if you make it through Season 1, I doubt you’ll be able to stop.