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'Friday Night Lights' Made Me Feel Emotions

TelevisionFootballSchoolsHigh SchoolsConnie Britton

We seem to be on an entertainment streak this week, so this seemed as good a time as any to collect my thoughts on the bygone NBC cult hit “Friday Night Lights.” I’m terrified to report that throughout my viewing of all five seasons, I felt unusual things. I’m told these things were called “emotions.”

Along with most Americans, I did not watch the high school football drama while it was on the air. Despite critical praise and ardent fan support, the show never found much of a following. Blame network TV in general because by the time “24” and “Lost” started to suck, I was convinced that the networks would never again air a decent hour-long drama.

I stand totally corrected, and I can only say I’m glad I discovered FNL later rather than never. Like everyone else who’s watched the series’ entire run, I adored it, warts and all, from start to finish. Beyond being a mostly well-acted, largely well-written sports melodrama, it actually had a more compelling racial and economic subtext than one would expect from a show about rah-rah Texas football. The story—which follows the trials and tribulations of Coach Eric Taylor, his wife and daughter, and the romances and athletic obstacles of Dillon, Texas, high school football players—had so much potential to be overwrought, eye-rolling garbage, that I never quite got over how much it wasn’t.

I was continuously surprised by the genuine emotion the show could illicit. Maybe that’s simply because I’m a sucker for sports narratives. “He Got Game,” “Hardball,” “Remember the Titans”—it doesn’t really matter. If there’s a team rallying around each other or players discovering deeper layers to themselves through their sport, I’m in. “Friday Night Lights,” though set in Texas, reminded me again and again of high school in my hometown. Yet while trafficking in this seemingly easy, universal nostalgia for small town Americana, the show’s writers did not conjure some Fox News Garden of Eden, instead creating characters worthy of fulfilling both myth and reality.

From lecher-with-a-heart-of-gold car salesman Buddy Garrity to drunken bad boy stud Tim Riggins, from sharp-witted, consistently heartbroken Landry to the intelligent but surly Julie Taylor, the show felt populated by people that you knew in some other life. This familiarity breeds a loyalty that turns the viewer into a member of the Dillon community.

Of course the show’s central strength was Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach Taylor and his wife Tami. Though I hardly need to second the sentiment here, the two have such vivid on-screen chemistry, you have a hard time believing they’re not actually married. The central plotline of the show, season after season, was Coach Taylor serving as father figure to troubled kids who’d never known their own: Smash Williams, Tim Riggins, Matt Saracen, and Vince Howard all abandoned by their dads, all seeking the approval and love of their football coach, who never blinks in his tough-minded support of them.

The show made Taylor Kitsch (as Riggins) a star, and to be sure there is an undeniable magnetism in Kitsch’s deadpan sense of humor and simmering cool. 

(And yes, I understand the ladies like Kitsch. My buddy Eric reports that while watching the show with his wife, she would audibly gasp every time Riggins appeared on screen. I would say this should serve as a warning to guys who plan to watch it with their girlfriends if Minka Kelly as Lyla Garrity wasn’t so eyeball-meltingly hot.)

But for me the standout among the students was always Zach Gilford as the accidental quarterback, Matt Saracen. Playing a kid with two absent parents who ends up in the starting role after a tragic play fells up-and-coming superstar Jason Street, Gilford’s shy mumble and tenacious attitude on the field make him possibly the most rootable-for television character ever. When the show cashes in on its Iraq war plotline, I was again shocked by how much sorrow it wrung out of me, with that particular development not feeling the least bit contrived but genuinely moving, tragic, and evocative of the sacrifices of the times.

(Quick but important aside: one of the underappreciated subtexts of the entire series is that it begins with star quarterback Street getting paralyzed in the pilot. This possibility then hangs like a shadow over the QBs who follow: the working poor characters of Saracen and Howard. Whereas Street has both parents and appears firmly middle class, Saracen and Howard are both solely responsible for a deteriorating grandmother and a drug-addicted mother, respectively. Should a similar freak tragedy befall either of them, there’s not even the most remote safety net for the remaining fragments of their families. The empathy with which FNL portrayed the lives of the 47 percent never failed to impress me.)

Perhaps the boldest move the series took came in its final two seasons when Coach Taylor (spoiler alert) gets forced out of the school he’s taken to the state finals twice in three years. He’s instead given a job at the underfunded, majority minority East Dillon High and forced to stock a football team from scratch with juvenile delinquents. Moving on from its mostly Caucasian cast, “Friday Night Lights” examined a situation standard to many small Texas and Southern towns, which tend to have tight-knit white communities and then a small pocket of disaffected and troubled black and Hispanic populaces on the outskirts of town. It was the proverbial wrong-side-of-the-tracks storyline, but the show’s writers handled the new setting and characters with as much skill and empathy as they did the white characters of the previous three seasons.

One of my favorite supporting characters in the entire show was Vince’s father, an ex-con played with mean swagger by Cress Williams. The character’s arch stayed within that tight range of humanity the writers kept every character: as sympathetic as he is reprehensible. In other words, human.

I don’t want to oversell “Friday Night Lights” as a revelation. After all, it is a network show with all the associated baggage. The second season, for instance, shortened by the writer’s strike, was just bad and included a truly unnecessary “I Know What You Did Last Summer” storyline. The plotting, dialogue and characterization can be as clunky and graceless as any show that must follow the commercial-break rhythm of TV writing. It misses on some casting choices and has storylines that peter out or vanish without explanation (what the hell ever happened to J.D. McCoy and his Mitt Romney-looking dad!?). It is packed full of tropes and clichés, a few of which I’ve identified even in talking about moments I loved it for.

Yet most works of creativity are teeming with flaws, and with “Friday Night Lights” I’m mostly concerned with the high notes, which it hit with regularity and grace. There was lyricism to this show, which every now and then seemed to surge forth with the stark power of a Steinbeck novel.

There may have been better shows over the past decade but hardly any I enjoyed watching as much as this one.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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