The Best Show You’re Not Watching – Friday Night Lights

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You’re gonna’ be sorry.

If there is one lesson that I aught to tattoo upon my brain, it’s don’t get wrapped up in first class quality television. The more original, the more daring, the more compelling – the more likely a program is tossed aside in favor of cheaper, less risky, easy-to-digest mass market morsels of whatever craze has seized the cultural zeitgeist.

That said, I’m not here to bash ‘reality’ shows or usher Cavemen along to their inevitable extinction. Instead, I’m here to beg, bother and down right threaten your dog to watch the one program I feel is destined to be discovered by you years down the road on DVD. And when that inevitable question comes – “Ya’ know. That was a damned fine show. Who cancelled such a fine hour of programming?” – I’ll offer up a mirror.

It was all your fault.

It’s happened before. It will happen again.

As example, I offer up Freaks and Geeks – a show that is easily in my Top 5 Television Series of All Time. Spare me your M.A.S.H., Cheers and Family Guy. Freaks and Geeks deserves to sit above them all; it was that good. Right now, The X-Files and Lost jockey for Number 1 but that’s because I’ve developed a strong taste for the complex, mythological arcs that the latter introduced and the former is currently perfecting. In fact, if Lost makes good on the promise of its finite end point (May 2010) then it may kick X-Files to number 2 for the sole fact that when that show went south, it went there in a hurry.

So, that aside, Freaks and Geeks has to be jockeying for 3rd place alongside The Simpsons. I’m tempted to give the nod to The Simpsons as it produced many more hours of entertainment in its 18 full seasons but I also gave up on it somewhere around its half life. The 18 episodes that Paul Feig and Judd Apatow pumped out in Freak’s ill-fated freshman year just can’t compete with The Simpsons sheer quantity. In terms of quality though, I’ll take 18 little masterworks over 18 bloated seasons any day of the week.

That said, this article isn’t about Freak and Geeks. I only mention it because it is the perfect example of my past pledge drive to coax friends, family and compadres to just give the damned thing a shot and enrich their lives (or at the least, enjoy a good hour of entertainment) only to be met with the blank stare.

With Freaks, my good pal Mook and I employed the grass-roots effort of passing the Season 1 DVD around. When people finally grabbed one hot moment to sit down for a spell, they drank deep of the Kool-Aid. And when the inevitable came, such a fleeting short time later, and they closed out Episode 18 wondering what would happen next (Would the spell of Dungeon’s & Dragons compel the burn-out Daniel (James Franco) to the Dark Side of Geekdom?, Would Nick (Jason Segel) tune out the bong-rattling drum solos of John Bonham in favor of a trip through the First Days of Disco?), we could only shrug our shoulders and point them in the direction of ER or Spider-Man or The 40 Year Old Virgin – the now-known destinations where all the talented ‘freaks’ and ‘geeks’ scattered to when another show closed shop early for the night.

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So now, it’s Friday Night Lights that I seek to keep running.

On paper, this show shouldn’t work – or at the very least – shouldn’t be worthy of my defensive schemes. I’m a big genre and comedy fan and from the outside, this show looks like it could be any one of those cookie-cutter teen dramas that the former WB and current CW employ to showcase the latest Dashboard Confessional single. Hell, if this were that show, I’m not sure it would be in the dire straits it currently finds itself in. That’s the problem inherent in exiting ‘middle of the road’ and taking the road less traveled.

FNL is that rare breed of programming that strives for something much more than mass entertainment (not that it isn’t massively entertaining.) Executive Producers Peter Berg and Jason Katims have taken a string of formulaic beats (the small town united by sports, the Degrassi High histrionics, the family dramedy) and somehow drafted a playbook that steers wide right of each and every cliché. By trying to be something more than the sum of its collected parts – and by achieving that alchemy – it scares off those who would prefer a little less challenge. It’s very easy to shout out your favorite briefcase numbers but is it satisfying. FNL challenges our perceptions on every level while at the same time rewards that dedication through some well-plotted and acted scenarios. By the time you get midway through that first season, you’ll want to take Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) under your wing and just prey that he’ll finally dish back a little of what life has tossed his way. You get invested in this show.

Take the sad plight of star quarterback Jason Street. In the pilot (directed by Berg, who also helmed the feature film), Berg’s documentarian approach steals enough random shots of Street’s golden boy town hero making good, that we all know what’s coming down the pike – a life-altering accident at a key juncture in the game. Yes, it plays out exactly as we’ve got it mapped in our brain. But then, that’s where FNL jukes. As the subsequent episodes play out, we’re treated to a surprisingly intimate portrayal of Street’s rehabilitation. Where lesser shows would eventually allow Street to walk again, just in time for The Big Game, FNL allows Street and the audience to come face to face with the inevitable. He’ll never walk again.

But he will rise.

The Street subplot took some surprising turns, with Street discovering ‘Murderball’ (i.e. wheelchair basketball) and realizing that his accident didn’t diminish his talents; he just needed to find another way to channel them. By season’s end, when Jason is accepting an Assistant Coaching position at his alma mata, you can’t help but get choked up.

I know – there’s no crying in football!!!

Then there’s the stellar midseason two-parter that tackled the issue of racial relations in a most honest and accurate manner. Once again, what impresses is how FNL, when a routine play is drafted, chooses to call an audible and avoid the easy route. In these segments, one of the Panther’s Assistant Coaches is caught by a television news crew responding to a reporter’s question with an answer that could be interpreted as racially insensitive. The assistant implies that African Americans make for better running backs based on inherent speed. Of course, he doesn’t verbalize it in that concise manner; his statement is literally one that could be interpreted multiple ways – and if anything, there is ample evidence that he could wriggle his way out of the faux pas with some clarification of the statement. When the team’s star running back, Smash (Gauis Charles), approaches Mac after hours, simply looking to validate his feeling that Mac was misinterpreted, Mac gets defiant and says that he doesn’t need to defend his beliefs to the likes of Smash (an African American).

A lesser show would have gone for the easy way out, letting the whole thing play as a big misunderstanding while simultaneously underscoring the heavy-handed message that racism is bad. FNL doesn’t take the easy way out. Mac, a fairly likable supporting character, is revealed to wear some disturbing shades of grey and that challenges our original interpretation of him. From there, Smash’s reaction and that of the town grows increasingly complex.

And that’s what defines this show – care and complexity. The town of Dillon, Texas is lived in. This is a far cry from the back lot burgh of Varsity Blues. This is a town in decay that manages to keep on breathing week after week through only the grace of God and a flip of the switch on Friday evening. At first you pity the inhabitants of this town – just another frayed notch on the Bible Belt – but then you begin to look closer and see the true American beauty that resides beneath that dusty façade.

It is the attention to every detail – no matter how minute – that sells the illusion that what we’re witnessing is not a scripted hour long but a documentary slice of life. Berg and his talented stable of directors employ the handheld camera approach (made famous by NYPD Blue) to craft an air of authenticity. We’re sold. This is all really happening – somewhere out there.

Sound is just as important as light and shadow.

As much as I’ve derided shows like One Tree Hill for working overtime to insure I skip over to iTunes and grab the latest Amy Winehouse tune, (I don’t want to download it. I say No No No), I have to give FNL major props for its expert use of music to underscore its essential montage sequences. Hell, most of the time, the music is from bands I either don’t dig or have never heard of and yet they manage to select some elegiac songs that really pick up my ears.

I refer back to the Season 1 finale where Bright Eyes “Devil Town” darkened sunny scenes of the small town getting ready to celebrate its moment on the big stage – the state championships – reminding us all that its only sunny on the surface; that these shining moments are fleeting for this dead end town. In the Season 2 premiere, Wilco’s “Muzzle of Bees” opened show in hopeful anticipation and subsequently closed the hour with haunting melancholia.

The music echoes the expert writing on the show, with the complexities of the characters perfectly etched on paper and acted on film by a stable of young actors who aught to be fortunate that their agents sought quality over quantity when pushing them towards these roles. As the Freaks and Geeks alumni were able to use that show as a springboard to big things, I predict much face time with the FNL graduates. Keep your eyes peeled for Zach Gilford (Matt Saracen), Adrianne Palicki (Tyra Collette), Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins), Aimee Teegarden (Julie Taylor) and Scott Porter (Jason Street).

And then there’s the master class essayed by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Tami Taylor, respectively. The chemistry between the two leads is so finely stirred that this is easily one of the finest, most lived in portrayals of a loving, married couple in any media I’ve experienced. That neither actor scored an Emmy nomination while the Academy was tossing a bone to James Spader once again is a major travesty. It doesn’t get any better than this.

There’s so much I could write about but in doing so (and in rereading what I’ve already written) I realize that none of this does justice to how special this show is. You see an ad for it and you think, “It’s a show about football. I don’t want to watch that.” or “It’s another Dawson’s Creek. I’ve already seen that.” or “It’s Thirtysomething all over again. Been there. Done that.” Friday Night Lights may look like them but it’s none of those things. It can’t be easily identified, catalogued or quantified. It just needs to be watched. Four episodes and I guarantee you are hooked.

Once upon a time, when programming choices were slimmer, if a show like this appeared it would be instant appointment viewing. It would run for so many years, it would run its course. Think St. Elsewhere. Think M.A.S.H. But times have changed. If either one of those shows launched today, they wouldn’t last ‘til mid-season. That’s my fear for Friday Night Lights. This is a show for the ages and the irony of it all is it should have premiered ages ago. It’s as contemporary as any series out there but it feels timeless.

The best things always do.

And now, despite the fact that NBC renewed the show for its second season (which began last week) it has unceremoniously dumped it in the graveyard slot of Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. That’s the exact time when its prime demographic is across town bathed by the glow of real-life Friday night lights.

Leading me to beg everyone to give it a shot. Tape it. Tivo it. DVR it. SAVE IT. Pick up those Season 1 DVDs and burn through them in a weekend. YOU WILL THANK ME.

Look, we’ve all got our crusades. I’ve rallied behind Freaks and Geeks. The Office. And now, Friday Night Lights. For you, maybe it was Harsh Realm. Angel. Wonderfalls. Firefly. Battlestar Galactica. Or perhaps, Pushing Daisies.

Join me and I’ll join you.

And that’s a frakkin’ promise.

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Comments now closed (4)

  • Well, as I have already mentioned to you, I am nine episodes behind from last year and now two behind this year. I’ll tell you, I am nervous about catching up only to have the show be canceled. My feeling is that by NBC burying it on Friday night, while finally name appropriate, it is lost to most everyone that would want to watch it. Now, hopefully they are also in the 20% of households with DVR, but is that enough to keep it going? (This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a good piece on this new season’s struggle with ratings and the impact of people’s changing viewing habits due to DVR, On Demand, DVD and the iTunes/interwebs.) One hopes that with its slot on Friday, there isn’t as much pressure on it to perform, but then, the show production costs don’t seem to be on a small budget. (Not that there’s lots of sci-fi stuff like a Bionic Woman.)

    That said, I’m still supporting the show. I tell people to watch it also and my Media Center is still recording it every week for me. If it doesn’t end up canceled, I’ll catch up at some point. Yeah, I’m missing out on some good TV now, but I am trying to spare myself some heartbreak and investment by avoiding it for now, much like you are with some other promising shows that seem ripe for the canceling. I think the Freaks’, Undeclared’s and Harsh Realm’s have jaded us over the years.

    Speaking of Freaks, you never offered to pass that to me. While I was a huge fan of Undeclared, I somehow missed Freaks when it was on. It is in my Neflix queue though.

  • I have been a devoted FNL viewer since the first episode, and I had yet to find anyone else who watched it. I constantly announced it was THE BEST SHOW ON TV, and tried to get anyone who was willing to give a ” football show” a chance to watch it. I volunteered to catch them up in detail on the characters. Having spent my senior year in high school in Texas, I can attest that everything rings true here, from the accents to the small town devotion to the high school team. I hadn’t heard the term ” rally girl” since 12th grade ( and no, I was NOT one!)The relationship between Coach Taylor and his team, his family, his school, and his town is perfect every step of the way. While I was disappointed with the plot twist in the first episode of the new season, I somewhat understand it in that it throws 2 characters completely together, when they normally would not have ended up that way. I have to say I knew at least 2 Buddy Garrity’s in Texas, and the portrayal is so perfect that I wonder if they didn’t just hop down there and get one. Give it a try, you won’t be sorry.

  • Aunt Sharon – I am glad you posted. I began to think that my little crusade here had gone by as un-noticed as ‘our little engine that could’ of a show has to date. Of course, the only two Comments I’ve solicited are from a fellow fan (you) and a lapsed one (Sean).

    That does it. I’m gifting the Box set this Christmas to every damned person I see and am then going to chain myself to their love seat until they either watch the thing or toss me and the chair out on their front lawn with a giant ‘FREE’ sign.

    Hey, who wouldn’t want their very own live action Ed-Man???