More than a year ago, when word trickled out that NBC was developing a television series based on H.G. Bissinger's famous book Friday Night Lights, I wasn't particularly excited.
In fact, I was mildly annoyed.
Friday Night Lights was published in 1991, and it's part of the reason you're reading these words right now. Bissinger's story - which was about friendship, excess, race, love, loss and hope in small-town, working-class America as much as it was about high school football - helped inspire me, and countless other wide-eyed dreamers like me, to write about sports for a living. It was pitch-perfect, sad, nakedly honest, and yet poetic. It was almost like scripture for an aspiring sports writer. And it needed to be treated with similar respect and, if possible, reverence.
The movie version of Friday Night Lights had already attempted, and failed, to capture any of the nuances and complexities that made the book so compelling. The issue of race seemed to have been lobotomized from the plot entirely. My lasting memory of the film is the image of a shirtless Tim McGraw, who played Charles Billingsley, the father of one of the players. McGraw's chest was so hairy, he looked like he was wearing a mohair sweater Faith Hill had given him for Christmas. A series about Friday Night Lights, I assumed, would fare no better.
Of course, I was wrong. Woefully wrong. Friday Night Lights has been, if you remove HBO from the equation, the best show on television this season. It's full of rich, conflicted characters and artful story lines. Matt Saracen, the nerdy sophomore quarterback who emerges as the season's unlikely hero, actually talks like a high school kid, with stutters and uncomfortable pauses. That's a rarity on television, where teenagers usually fire back retorts and exchange banter sounding like they have graduate degrees in both English lit and sarcasm.
Friday Night Lights is about high school football in the same way that Moby Dick was about whale hunting. You don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy it. It's beautifully shot, with lots of grays and browns helping convey the loneliness and desperation of the West Texas landscape, and the music is expertly chosen. But because it's struggled mightily in the ratings (ranked outside the top 50 all season) this may read like a eulogy instead of an appreciation. The show airs its season finale, and possibly series finale, tonight at 8 with the Dillon Panthers in the state championship game. And instead of being just mildly annoyed at the prospect of its cancellation, I'm legitimately peeved. It deserves a much better fate.
It's difficult to fully explain why sports dramas so rarely work as scripted television series. The most obvious guess is that, even though we follow games in this country with the intensity of religion and the passion of politics, sports already provide us with the ultimate, unscripted reality show every week. On the screen, with a writer penning their words, their actions and their motivations, Brian Billick or Brett Favre would scarcely seem believable. They'd feel too outsized in their antics and too jam-packed with cliches to ever take seriously.
On Friday Night Lights, there are still plenty of sports cliches to go around, nearly all of them evident in the first episode. When Jason Street was introduced, the star quarterback bound for Notre Dame, I rolled my eyes when we learned he was dating Lyla Garrity, the stone-cold gorgeous head cheerleader. When we met Buddy Garrity, Lyla's dad, it seemed too easy for him to be another shady car salesman in charge of the booster club and obsessed with the Dillon Panthers. And when I assumed running back Brian "Smash" Williams would emerge as the show's cocky, trash-talking black teen who sees football as his one ticket out of the ghetto, a tired stereotype if there ever was one, I nearly changed the channel.
But with each episode, the characters gradually developed almost as if the show were a novel, unfolding one chapter at a time. When Street (played artfully by Scott Porter) broke his neck and was paralyzed in the first episode, I kept waiting for the inevitable miracle operation that would give him back the use of his legs. (Certainly this is what would have happened on Grey's Anatomy.) Instead, Street is still in a wheelchair, still struggling to come to terms with his new life.
Buddy Garrity isn't a villain, he's just a man who loves his family, his football, and has zero self-control. Smash Williams is still a cocky showman, but his social conscience has evolved, too. When one of Dillon's white assistant coaches made bigoted comments to a reporter after a playoff game, Smash helped organize a walkout for Dillon's black players.
The show's real stars, however, are coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton). The Taylors, I'm convinced, have one of the most realistic, yet strong marriages ever depicted on television. They snap at one another, they argue about taking out the trash, they bicker over their daughter dating a football player, and in the end, they love and respect each other. It's a beautiful thing to watch. Even my wife, who resisted the show for months, finds herself tearing up and getting goose bumps during the football scenes, as well as the Taylors' domestic bliss. That makes two of us.
Bissinger's book didn't need a sequel. It was the perfect portrait of America. But Friday Night Lights, the television show, deserves one more year. Even if you've never seen it, give it a chance tonight. American Idol, that contrived karaoke contest over on Fox, will still be around next week, but the clock is running out on the best television show of the season.