“Friday Night Lights” is remarkable, and my subsequent praise will not even begin to do it justice. It is quite simply not only the best thing I’ve laid eyes on in years, but maybe the best thing I’ve laid eyes on. Ever. And by all rights, it shouldn’t be. By all rights, this new series, airing Tuesdays at 8pm on NBC, should be preachy, political, patronizing or pandering. The show is about the high school football team in the small town of Dillon, Texas. Every Friday night, the hopes and dreams of the entire town hang rise and fall with the fortunes` of the team. Can’t you just imagine that this should have been some Hollywood executive’s attempt to reach out to the red states or brag about the high-mindedness of the blue states or simply to find the next successful high school drama?
Instead, “Friday Night Lights” is hardly about high school. Better than that, it has no agenda. The only other new series this fall that has garnered as much praise as “Lights” is another NBC offering, Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and it cannot make such neutral claims. Both deal with the culture wars in one way or another, but I would propose that what separates the two is Sorkin’s ever-aware stance of his side in those wars, and his need, however witty, to continually prove his smarts.
“Lights,” on the other hand, is wholly unaware of its role in propagating the opinions of the ‘other side’. It feels no need to pepper its dialogue with August Strinberg references or repeatedly sneer at residents of Terre Haute, Indiana, like its NBC partner. Instead, “Friday Night Lights” is heartbreakingly sincere, without ever delving into the cloying. All it claims to do is chronicle the life of Dillon, with obsessive, painstaking detail.
The series centers on Coach Eric Taylor, one day the town’s savior, the next its punching bag. Though his team, the Dillon Panthers, is the favorite going into this football season, as Taylor drives to practice everyday, he hears advice on talk radio for how he should run his team better. After practice, he is drilled by local residents at Applebee’s while having dinner with his family. He cannot look into buying a house without the real-estate agent pulling him aside to give him her thoughts on Friday night’s game. Even his wife cannot escape interrogation: she agrees to join a ladies book club, only to discover that the sole reason she was asked to participate was so the other women could suggest ways their sons could better be utilized in the game. To put it mildly, Dillon residents live for football. As one car salesman puts it, “That’s football. That’s all we got.”
The gravity with which the town of Dillon approaches football is the gravity with which Peter Berg, the executive producer, director and writer, treats his show. Berg, director of the movie of the same name, treats this weekly venue not as if it were an opportunity to only entertain, but rather as a kind of sociological showcase. He takes stereotypes and clichés about small town America and its teenagers, and casts them off.
All of the younger roles, for instance, are superficially rife with regularity: along with a host of others, there is Jason Street, the star quarterback with a heart of gold; Lyla Garrity, his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend; Julie Taylor, the coach’s aloof, bookish daughter; and Matt Saracen, the backup QB who has to step up in the final moments of the opening game after Street is carried off the field, near-paralyzed. Yet every one of these characters feels like a revelation: the camera focuses on their fresh faces, on their personalities as supposed to their characteristics, and every actor lends a genuine, hopeful and frankly young air to their roles. They seem real, and their emotions never appear filtered through the Hollywood machine.
It is that simple lack of jadedness that makes “Lights” so touching. Everything matters so much to these people. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance when it comes to football in Dillon. One of the first scenes in the pilot shows a recruiter from Notre Dame speaking with Jason Street’s parents. His mother asks “How good is he?” The scout replies “Mrs. Street, I’ve been scouting quarterbacks for Notre Dame for 27 years. Your son may be the best I have ever seen.” When Street then suffers a spinal injury at the end of the first game, you feel what has been lost: not only Street’s career, but the town hero.
In the second episode, as Coach Taylor deals with the ramifications of Street’s career-ending injury, he confides to his wife that if Matt Saracen can’t step up as QB and take them to the state championships, their family is done in Dillon and his career might be done, period. The stakes are much, much too high for these people and perhaps they care much too much, but they’ve started out on top and the only place to go is down.
Which is dually the case for the show itself. The pilot so thoroughly defied all expectations about a little show about Texas football, it seemed the following episodes had an impossible task to follow. Thankfully, the second episode builds tremendously and emotionally on the first and continues to raise expectations for further airings. As with such characters that should have been stereotypical, plot points that might have seemed clichéd in the pilot, turn out to be anything but in the second episode. For example, Saracen manages to throw a miraculous winning pass to finish the game after Street is carried off. While that might have appeared too picture perfect an ending for the pilot, the second episode delves into the town’s ponderings about the fact that the pass was not an indication of some superheroic or undiscovered ability of Saracen’s, but an indication of a fluke, an adrenaline rush on Saracen’s part.
Forget for a moment those surprising emotional and contextual depths which “Lights” plumbs, and one can also marvel at the visual and technical aspects of the production. The show is shot with shaky camera angles, a slightly grainy picture and a bluish-gray tinge, seemingly giving it a documentary feel. Like that football team this camera follows, it seems as if the camera is shaky, not to feel kitschy or stylized, but because that’s the best the camera can do. The picture of the series then not only seems very true, but like a little pressure cooker: bubbling and humming at the edges because of the expectations that the camera, and tangentially the team and this town, feel.
What the camera often captures also lends a kind of pressurized feel to “Lights.” Lest I call the cinematography breathtaking or, worse yet, lyrical, it pans along as if driving down dirt roads or the main town stretch. Much like the famous Ed Ruscha painting entitled “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” in which Ruscha paints all those buildings in one long line, the camera remains fairly close to the ground, compressing the images it captures and enforces the sense of pressure and insularity of Dillon.
The show painstakingly catalogues Dillon’s sleepy cul-de-sacs, mist filled stadiums and abandoned drive-ins, and accordingly accomplishes something rarely evident in popular entertainment: it aims to give you a sense of place, to tell the story of a town, rather than just that of the town’s hero. It seems that while one can get away with that in a poem or experimental film, network television rarely supports such a quiet and possibly boring venture.
But there is a verity and a purity to Dillon that is reflected in “Lights,” and part of that feeling comes from that sense of place of this small town. It endears us to it every time the camera pans across a street or into Saracen’s dilapidated house, when the local slut defies our expectations and cries at the football game, and a small boy asks “Does God love football?” and is answered with the utmost earnestness, “I think everyone loves football.” The chroniclers of this tale never look down on Dillon residents for such a question, but support them by spending so much time focused on their main pursuit.
And it seems to be this commitment of the creators that has left me in tears every time I’ve watched each of the first episodes. First, I get nauseous and covered in goosebumps before each game, as I come to care and internalize the stakes as much as any of the players. Second, I root for Coach Taylor because he is quiet and loving and committed. Third, I root for Saracen to throw the ball again so well for fear he will be publicly humiliated if he doesn’t follow through. And then I start crying, mostly because I start longing for that kind of insularity, to care that much and so simply about something so quaint. And I don’t even like football.