Why aren't you watching Friday Night Lights?

What you're watching.
April 22 2008 1:11 PM

Friday Night Lights

Why aren't you watching the best show on television?

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In service to this vision, there is no one setting for the show. Hand-held cameras follow actors around on location, as they go about what appears to be their actual lives—to the gas station, to the grocery store, to the local diner, into one another's homes. The cameras even ride in the car, like passengers, staring out at the passing scenery. When an event occurs—whether the star quarterback's spinal injury in the pilot episode, the unintended killing of a man that begins the second season, or just an affair or lie—we see how it affects not just one or two families or individuals but how it reverberates throughout the town and links people who may have previously had little or no interaction, socially or economically, but who are nonetheless connected.

Almost as if to counter this wide narrative scope, an enormous percentage of the show's scenes are shot in extreme close-ups. The camera shifts attention the way our eyes do: to a speaker's face, a tapping foot, a picture on the living-room wall, back to the speaker, in an aggregation of telling details. We're not onlookers to a scene. We're in the scene, inches from another person's face. Dialogue, though sometimes improvised, is likewise edited and compressed to its comic or serious essence. Sometimes there are no words at all: just an eye roll, a shrug, a dumbfounded silence.

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Perhaps because Friday Night Lights presents women in so many different circumstances, juggling so many balls, the series has sharply-defined female characters. Principal among them is Tami. In the first season, the show established her credibility as a wife and mother. But at the start of the second season, her life begins to unravel. She has a new baby, a sexually rebellious daughter, and a husband who's taken a job in another town. No show has more accurately or honestly portrayed the disarray and utter exhaustion of new motherhood. Given their incomes, the Taylors can scarcely afford child care, prompting Tami to consider giving up her job. Tami's single younger sister moves in for a while to help, setting up an exploration of their conflicting lifestyles. Eventually, there's an opening in a neighborhood day-care center. At first, Tami can't separate from her infant daughter. Where another show might have lost its nerve (having the mother stay home), Tami eventually makes the handoff successfully, without further ado.

Because this is rural Texas, church life is integral to the town and also starkly segregated. As in many communities, churches serve social, not just religious, functions. The billboard outside one chapel reads, "We baby-sit for away games." Not everyone in Dillon is "born again"—or even believes. Faith is complex and runs the gamut. One evangelical single mother works at Planned Parenthood. The town mayor is a fiercely intelligent middle-aged woman and a semi-closeted lesbian. For Buddy, the Panther booster and car salesman, faith amounts to praying alone in a chapel, after an all-important game: "I know you truly are an all-powerful God to let such a crap team win." Jason, the quarterback who is paralyzed, scorns God after his accident. Lyla, his former girlfriend, goes the opposite direction and joins a megachurch. When she tries to hand a flyer about "Christ Teen Messengers" to Tim Riggins, a wayward soul and the town heartthrob with whom she once slept, he gleefully informs her, "I had a three-way with the Stratton sisters." Tim is the Christopher Hitchens of Dillon.

Despite such sexually explicit content, the show's characters—even Tim—are forever asking themselves and one another whether they're "good Christians." Sometimes the inquiry is mocking; other times deadly earnest. Yet the questions don't rankle even nonbelievers because the show is so clearly not pushing any message or creed. Rather, such inquiries are Dillon's vernacular for more basic questions, which everyone (including adults) must answer if they are ever to grow up: What does it mean to be a good person? Who is a person of honor? What are my obligations to myself and to other people? The show's themes are "mature"—but in both senses of the word. Tyra, Tim's sometimes-girlfriend, may not have an ounce of religious feeling, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have a moral code. "Don't you dare screw my sister," she tells Tim. "That's my line—don't cross it."

The football on Friday Night Lights is also genuinely thrilling although the outcomes are often improbable. Every game is a cliffhanger. The show's real concerns are elsewhere. On the wall of the Panther locker room, a small sign reads: "character is who you are when no one is watching." It's a motto born of necessity in Dillon. The eyes of Texas aren't upon this dying oil town. But in an age of MySpace, YouTube, and American Idol, it's a refreshing notion, this idea that what we do when no one else is looking matters. In this sense, Friday Night Lights may be the farthest one can get from reality TV—and the closest to real life. We don't have to be stranded on a desert island or dared to eat bugs to discover what we're made of. Most of us can find that out in our living rooms.

Sara Mosle is writing a book about a natural gas explosion that killed hundreds of schoolchildren in the eastern Texas oil fields in 1937.