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?

Friday Night Lights. Click image to expand.
Friday Night Lights

The second season of NBC's Friday Night Lights is available on DVD starting today. If you have yet to tune in—and to judge from the Nielsen ratings, this describes most Americans—it's time to get with the program. The show, which is ostensibly about high-school football in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon, has something for everyone: enough testosterone-fueled football and violence to grow chest hairs by watching it, some of the most vivid and complex female characters on television, and sex and booze to pique any teenager's interest. Despite this mature content, the series is also a profoundly moving and edifying "family drama" as the genre has never before been conceived. If none of this interests you, maybe you don't actually like television.

Friday Night Lights is also Texas as it's seldom been seen—which is to say, as it really is. Virtually no one in Dillon wears a cowboy hat, and certainly no one under 30 does. The show has yet to show a single character on a horse. The only person depicted as remotely connected to an oil well is a businessman from Los Angeles, briefly passing through, representing faraway interests. That's not to say there aren't some distinctly Texan characters. Buddy Garrity, the corrupt, meddling car salesman who lives and dies by Dillon football, is a genuine archetype (marvelously played by Brad Leland). Still, Walker, Texas Ranger this ain't. It's more like The Last Picture Show, 60 years after the cinema closed, without the sexual repression and filmed in sensuous color.

Friday Night Lights is also America as it's seldom been seen. It's astounding how few dramas depict ordinary, working-class life in the so-called red states—without, say, first giving several of the inhabitants supernatural powers. Also, on television, the country's lower classes seem to consist entirely of prison inmates, gang members, drug dealers, and the cops who arrest them, and they all live exclusively on the coasts. Dillon, by contrast, is Thomas Frank country. No one here is enjoying the Bush-Cheney tax cuts. People live in modest homes or, if they're particularly poor, in shotgun shacks. Most of the teenagers don't have cars—quite a statement in rural Texas—and must work after-school jobs. They don't have iPods or sport the latest fashions; they shop at the Salvation Army family store. When one football player lands a date with the coach's daughter and springs for a used Members Only jacket, it quickly gets ridiculed as pretentious. Once you start noticing the absence of consumer goods, it's a shock. Friday Night Lights may be the most radical show ever marketed to teenagers.

But unlike most high-school dramas, the series gets the parents right, too. This may be the first family drama that the entire family can watch and have each member still feel as if it's written solely for him or her. At the heart of the show are Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), the football coach, and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), a guidance counselor at the school, who together represent a balance between traditional and more therapeutic outlooks on empathy and authority. As relatively recent arrivals in Dillon, the Taylors are something of an anomaly: They're a happily married couple and economically secure (at least as long as the Panthers are winning). They also have a high-achieving daughter, Julie (whom they are struggling to let grow up), and, as of the second season, a newborn, who brings new strains.

In our privatized culture, we are used to seeing families, both in life and on television, in isolation, caught up in their own hyper-privilege or their own hell. Privacy, however, is a luxury of the relatively well-to-do, and while the Taylors could probably afford it, they choose, in a way that is sadly rare, to immerse themselves fully in their adopted town. For others in Dillon, boundaries are necessarily more porous. It's hard to find privacy when you're living in your car or on someone's sofa. Many parents are AWOL—lost in their own love lives or addictions or so immature as to be the child in any relationship. Repeatedly, sons and daughters on the show plead with their parents to act more like adults.

Consequently, the normal pattern of adolescent rebellion is reversed. Teenagers aren't in flight from adult connection, they're desperate for it. In one scene, Julie comes home from her boyfriend's house, where she's witnessed a scene of family chaos, and announces to her Mom and Dad: "I love you. … You guys are the best parents in the world." Eric gives his wife a smug, clueless look, as in "Aren't we great?" But Tami's face is a mask of horror: "No, honey!" she says. "Something terrible must have happened!" The dialogue in Friday Night Lights is often slyly hilarious. However, the show never calls attention to its humor or inside knowledge of sports or family life. It trusts you to understand, as you would understand any ordinary conversation, even if you don't know what a "counter" or "skinny post" is in football or what "pump and dump" and "six week story" mean in breast-feeding or postnatal sex.

However, as central as the Taylors are to Dillon and to the storytelling, what makes Friday Night Lights unique is how every one of the show's teenagers (not just Julie) are presented within the context of their extended families. These parents and siblings, even a grandmother struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's, are themselves major or recurring characters. When parents are missing (whether because they're dead, deadbeat, or deployed to Iraq), their absences are palpable, aching presences on the show. More peripheral figures come and go, commanding our attention for a few episodes before disappearing again, the way acquaintances and business associates do in real life. Virtually every age, racial background, and economic subgroup (besides that minuscule percentage of Americans who are decidedly wealthy) are portrayed in depth. The ensemble cast is consequently enormous—and to a one, extraordinary. Television has previously given us a single family, a school, friends, sisters and brothers, the bar, the corner, law firms, a lane, a ZIP code, even rich men, poor men. But never has television provided such an all-encompassing and realistic portrait of an entire town.

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.

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.