Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Win?

This is what good television does: it illustrates what is always evident (the unending, unfolding of time; the interconnected nature of the human experience and of the world in general; the undeniably inherent imperfection of humanity) but does so through a mirror that reflects these truths back to us so that we ourselves and our familial surroundings in the show even if the “where” and “who” are completely foreign to us. The Wire (number two on MY list of top shows) also does this, depicting Baltimore in layers and showing how the same strands of corruption and misdeeds permeates throughout society whether it be the ones in power or those slinging drugs in the high rises and corners. (One scene early on showing both cops and dealers running into each other at the movies really drove this point home). There was a similar connection to the Sopranos: If you strip away the mob ties, Tony is just another middle aged guy in therapy dealing with the type of problems that someone his age in his social strata normally deal with, as well as the stress that comes with it. Good TV shows us ourselves and our world and fosters that connection to characters whose lives may be completely different than our own.

Of course, this was all quite unexpected. When it premiered, and for each season after, I disregarded Friday Night Lights as just another teen drama, something that it undeniably is. The way NBC promoted it, I thought it was another poorly acted, shoddily written, overly-dramatic tripe intended for teens and women (admittedly I had already felt like I had been burned by The O.C.) and by some weird associative line of thinking that it would too Varsity Blues-like for my taste. Sure it was based on the stellar book by H. G. Bissinger (a must read if you like fascinating examinations of cultures) and the movie of the same name, directed by Peter Berg, but this only made me more weary seeing as how other than M*A*S*H or Buffy, television shows based on movies are rarely ever good or successful (in either popularity or critically). I wasn’t alone. It had horrible ratings the first season, which only led to what appeared to be a slight tweak in the second season that actually veered the tone closer to what I already assumed it was. Luckily the writers’ strike had halted that any further attempts at tinkering with a good thing, though continuously sluggish ratings put its future in jeopardy following the strike.

NBC would pick it up…sort of. They struck a deal with Direct TV that would see production costs split between the two. The season (now adopting a 13 episode format, similar to Sopranos and other cable series) would air first on Direct TV’s channel 101, and then have a spring or summer run on NBC. The network had a done a similar deal with the USA network for Law & Order:Criminal Intent, and although ratings continued to get worse, the show continued unmolested, able to tell its stories on its own terms.

Sprung from its former shackles, it continued to deal with both broader sociological issues like racial and class relations, as well as other complex topics like the use of performance enhancing drugs and the pressures that would lead even high school athletes to turn to them, even the combination of both the joyous and complicating nature of pregnancy at various stages of life. Dillon and its inhabitants could be anywhere in Texas, or anywhere in the US, and like the proverbial Anytown, it ranks include scores of different people whose lives are affected in some way by what happens at the Dillon football stadium. Someone like Billy Riggins initially (and perpetually) come across like a childish, perennial fuck up –which he is- focused on drinking beers and getting women, but still a goodhearted person concerned for the wellbeing of those he holds close to him, which amounts to at least half of Dillon. He along with brother Tim (played by that dude that was in John Carter) are just the aforementioned shades of grey, fleshed out over time just like new people in our own lives that we slowly get to know.

Due in equal parts to great casting and a novel approach to acting , in addition to choices in directing and cinematography that encouraged improvisation and experimentation in a way similar to Mockumentary style shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, Friday Night Lights was able to flesh out Dillon and the people who called it home. Maintaining the style of the movie, Peter Berg preferred not to block, instead utilizing three cameras (mostly hand held) and filming whole scenes, in real locations in Texas, typically in one take, and replete with plenty of close-ups to capture the most subtle of lip quivers or stares off into the horizon. The actor’s wouldn’t rehearse, and were encouraged to improvise, or as Kyle Chandler (who plays head coach Eric Taylor) put it “break down and rebuild,” leading to intimate knowledge with their characters (leading Chandler to claim that “Peter Berg really changed my life.”) Some took to this looser approach better than others: Chandler and Connie Britton (playing Eric’s wife Tami…who more or less reprised her role from the film) were brilliant separately and together, as was Zach Gilford as would-be-QB One, Matt Saracen. Others like Minka Kelly as Lyla Garrity could come across as “acting” in the traditional television drama sense,  but even that wasn’t bad; it just stood out because the strong, believable performances from the rest of the cast. What we typically got was a lot of inarticulate speech that sounded like the type of conversation one would overhear at Panera Bread somewhere. Characters would stumble through awkward interactions and missteps, briefly rambling at times, but it didn’t matter because it’s what separated THIS teen drama from the too-perfectly worded, rapid paced dialogue of The O.C. or Gilmore Girls. It is what made the Taylor marriage possibly the most accurately portrayed one on television. even made young love look like both the idealized version that many of us found ourselves drowning in that is mostly depicted in these types of shows, and the inevitably terminal version that you don’t see until looking back.

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Even their way of handling the unavoidable issues of character loss and introductions, and change in general sets them apart the rest of the Teen Drama genre, and television in general. High Schools (like the hospital on E.R.) are never meant to be permanent; most who enter will only be there temporary. Because of this, writers and actors alike need to deal with massive changes at some point when their show is centered on one of these locations. Typically, these changes are where many fans and critics tend to diverge when discussing the overall arc of a show and its legacy, but Friday Night Lights handled them perfectly. They not only added a completely new location with the opening of East Dillon across town, but they also let their original group drift away from Dillon slowly (if they left at all), and turned the camera on pretty much a new cast by the fourth season- all without losing focus or appearing like an attempt to “shake things up” (which would have made sense given the consistently poor ratings). These transitions aren’t always handled that smoothly. Take Glee, for example, which after graduation seemed like two shows filled with increasingly unlikeable characters, both new and old. Both shows have had some of their regulars who had previously “moved” on according to storylines, but there was something more natural about the manner in which Friday Night Lights kept them integrated compared to Glee’s over the top fanfare (though to be fair to Glee, over the top fanfare is sort of their shtick.)

Friday Night Lights even nailed the ending with an almost perfect buildup in the series finale to a singular moment that was familiar to Coach Taylor and also the fans that stuck through the slumping ratings and network changes (and binge viewers like myself), but still different at the same time. It was one of the most moving moments that we had seen in all five seasons, which is saying a lot considering how many other moving moments we had witnessed up to that point (moments made all that much more emotional with W.G. Snuffy Walden’s emotionally charged score that sounded a lot like the one Explosions In The Sky did for the original film.) While it had been emphasized that winning wasn’t everything, the show still made it clear throughout the seasons that winning was indeed important, many episodes were devoted to “must win” games for the Panthers (or Lions). In those final moments though, it became clear that it didn’t matter. Regardless of what happens, life goes on in Dillon or wherever it is that we end up after. The journey and the times shared are what we’ll actually cherish…championships are just one more thing to reminisce over. “Texas Forever,” a phrase spoken in both pilot and finale starts to make more sense than when we originally heard Tim Riggins and Jason Street looking ahead to their imagined futures, both unaware of the paths that life would take them down.

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Yet, when people have asked me what I have been working on, or whenever the show comes up in conversation, people look at me bewildered, as if they haven’t even heard of it. Not an “Ohhhhh. I’ve been meaning to check that out,” but legitimate bewilderment. They usually have heard of the movie, but missed out altogether on the fact that there was a show of the same name

That’s the sad part. I KNOW it did incredibly well critically. I KNOW that among affluent viewers it is incredibly popular and that eventually it will find that wider audience it deserved all along. I KNOW that * but I’m impatient and I want that time to be now. I want Friday Night Lights on every week, and not ESPN Classic, I mean all the normal syndicated channels like USA, TNT or cousin TBS, or even A &E, where a very edited Sopranos once aired. I’ll even settle for ABC Family where it briefly aired prior to the Fifth season, only to be canned for low ratings even in syndication.

Which angers and confuses me. How can a show that is definitely the best “Teen Drama” to ever exist, (and the only one to land on “Best of” lists in the company of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, LOST, and the usual list of “Can’t-miss shows”) have ratings dismal enough that it warranted even a shortened syndicated cycle on the same channel that currently owes its existence to Teen Dramas (and still airs new episodes of Melissa and Joey)? How can it be that a show so lauded for its achievement in realistically depicting life does worse in the ratings than shows that while looking more fake are touted as life, scoring worse ratings than The Bachelor, Pawn Stars, Swamp People and Duck motherfucking Dynasty? How can Mitt Romney co-opt the goosebump-inducing motto “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t Lose” in a way reminiscent of the Reagan/Springsteen affair with no one really giving a shit?

It doesn’t make any sense. But I am optimistic that one day we will get there. One day, Friday Night Lights will get the both the praise and popularity it rightfully deserves. That everyone will know what it means to be a Panther or a Lion.

But it needs your help.

If you have seen this masterpiece then spread the word by telling your friends, co-workers, or if you’re really ambitious maybe even the cashier down at the old Five and Dime. Maybe even hit share on the old Facebook if that’s your thing. Just tell people what it was actually like, because I feel like a lot of those who haven’t seen it have misconceptions about what type of show it was, probably due to poor marketing strategies. Also watch it again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Nothing is a surprise, but who cares really; all the best moments still give you that incredible feeling you got the first time you watched it (the same one you get when watching this Sigur Ros video). But hey. Whatever you want. I’m not going to tell you how to live.

For those of you that haven’t seen it but for some reason wanted to read about it anyway (thanks!), I can’t help but ask the very obvious question: what‘s wrong with you? Do you ABSOLUTELY hate sports? Dramas? Documentary style camera work? Do you hate watching TV? Do you not have Netflix? Or An Internet connection? Unless you answered “Yes” to more than one of those questions you really don’t an excuse. In Fact, you should hit me up on Twitter or Facebook because I’d love to hear these so called “reasons.”

Only together can we get Friday Night Lights into syndication where everyone can see it, even the people who have nothing but the poor channels.  Then all of us can know what it feels like to be Panther, and a Lion, and a Taylor.

Or at the very least, we can make  sure that its more popular than Gilmore Girls.

Author’s Note: Do like Breaking Bad? Check out Place to Be Nation’s Breaking Bad podcast.