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

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I wrote this piece (see below) a couple of years back, during Friday Night Lights’  freshman season. At the time, I valued the show so highly that I was absolutely certain it was doomed to failure. As I repost this, we are mere days away from the launch of their 3rd season on NBC -  a season that I have already seen in its entirety.

You see, FNL was on the chopping block almost since its inception. The ratings just aren’t there for a show that films on location and thus costs more to make than most. That the location shoot adds to the authenticity, allowing Dillon, TX to live and breathe as a vital supporting character doesn’t matter much to the suits who just want blockbuster numbers to kick start their careers. Nothing wrong with a prestige piece.

Anyway, the show made it to a miraculous second season but NBC quickly poached some of the behind the scenes talent (specifically showrunner Jason Katsims) to perform triage on the Bionic Woman. When the Writer’s Strike interrupted all scripted programs, NBC jettisoned the uber-expensive Bionic Woman and placed FNL on the chopping block.

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And at that darkest hour, when it looked like all was lost, DirecTV swooped in for some final second heroics. With DirecTV making a major push for the High Definition home entertainment crowd, a quality program with a small but dedicated fan base seemed like the perfect fit for them to make a splash. DTV struck a deal to co-finance the show and in turn was granted the right to air the season first (beginning this past September) before handing the baton to NBC as a midseason replacement.

As I write this, I am one episode away from the end of the 3rd season. The second to the last episode was awe-inspiring, although then again, this whole season has hit those lofty heights. This is the type of entertainment I only wish I was capable of writing. And if people thought that FNL suffered the sophomore slump in Season 2, I am happy to report that this show has aced it in that all important Junior Year.

This is a mirror image of Season 1 and the fact that I have one episode left this year (maybe forever) is heartbreaking. For fans of this show, remember to tune in to NBC starting this Friday November 16th  at 9:00 p.m. EST. This season, you’ll get some closure to the Jason Street and Smash Williams stories – both of which coaxed a tear from this man’s man. And that’s just the beginning.

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How I envy you. You’re in for a treat.

As for the rest of ya’…

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You’re gonna’ be sorry.

If there is one lesson that I ought 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 to the side 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 it?” I’ll offer you 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 shows of all time. Spare me your M.A.S.H., Cheers and Family Guys. Freaks and Geeks deserves to sit above them all – it was that good. Right now Lost and The X-Files are jockeying for Number 1 but that’s because I’ve developed a strong taste for the complex, mythological arcs 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 position alongside The Simpsons. I guess I’d have to give the nod to The Simpsons as it produced many more hours of entertainment in its currently 18 year run but I also gave up on it somewhere around it’s half life. The 18 episodes that Paul Feig and Judd Apatow pumped out in F n’ G’s ill-fated freshman year just can’t compete with The Simpson’s 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 a past pledge drive, on behalf of me, to coax my 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 a 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 tragic short time later, and they closed out Episode 18 wondering what would happen next – we could only shrug our shoulders and point them in the direction of Spider-Man or The 40 Year Old Virgin – the various locales that all of the talented people behind F and G scattered to when the show closed shop.

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And now it’s Friday Night Lights that I seek to keep turned on.

On paper, this show shouldn’t work – or at the very least – shouldn’t be worthy of my defensive scheme. 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 use 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.

Nope. FNL is a rare breed. Executive Producers Peter Berg and Jason Katsims 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 jukes and steers wide right of each and every cliché.

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 shots of Street’s Golden Boy town hero that we all know what’s coming down the pike – permanent paralysis at a key juncture of The Big 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 school – you can’t help but get choked up.

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Then there’s the mid-season two parter which tackled the issue of racial relations in the most honest and accurate way possible. Once again, what impresses is how FNL, when a routine play is drafted, chooses to call audible and avoid the easy route. In the episodes in question, 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 to support that he could wriggle his way out of the faux pas with some clarification of the statement. When Smash (Gauis Charles) approaches Mac after hours, simply looking to validate his voiced feelings that Max was misinterpreted, Mac gets defiant and says that he doesn’t need to defend his beliefs to the likes of Mac.

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 from there, Smash’s reaction and the reaction of the town grows increasingly complex.

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, (No 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 never heard of and yet they manage to pick some haunting, elegiac songs. I refer back to the Season 1 finale where the song Devil Town drenched 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 outside. That these shining moments are fleeting for this dead end town. In the Season 2 premiere, Wilco’s Buzzing Bees opened and closed the show, simultaneously establishing an air of hopeful anticipation and suffocating 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 ought 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. Here’s hoping that day doesn’t come too soon.

There’s so much I could write about but in doing so (and in rereading the ground I have already tread) I realize that none of this does justice to how special this show is. You see an ad for it and you think – yup, it’s a show about football. Or another Dawson’s Creek. Or Thirtysomething all over again. But it’s not. 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 show out there but it feels timeless. The best shows always do.

Look, we’ve all got our crusades. For me, it’s been Freaks and Geeks. The Office. And now, Friday Night Lights. For you – maybe it’s Harsh Realm. Wonderfalls. Firefly. Battlestar Galactica. Or Pushing Daisies.

Join with me and I’ll join with you.

And that’s a frakkin’ promise.

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Comments now closed (2)

  • I have been counting the days until FNL comes back-not having DirectTV-you couldn’t have said it any betterthan I could about how wonderful this show is. And it is an absolute tribute to it that I have not pestered you to tell me every detail that you have seen thus far, I will await while it unfolds for me.