Screening Room

Friday Night Fumble: When Mediocre TV Masquerades as High Art

By posted at 6:07 am on July 26, 2011 44

coverFor six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.

It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.

That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.

In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).

With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”

covercoverAnd we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.

For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.

I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.

Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”

“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them.  Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.

Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.

It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.

coverThere’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.

coverMad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.

But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.

Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?

Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.

I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.

The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.

And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.

This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.

I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.

covercoverTo be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.

Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.

This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.

There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.

What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.

My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.

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44 Responses to “Friday Night Fumble: When Mediocre TV Masquerades as High Art”

  1. EKSwitaj
    at 6:53 am on July 26, 2011

    This is a minor point about a fascinating article, but I think it’s a mistake to accept “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” so unproblematically. After all, the words in the poem are spoken by the urn, and though the poem begins with seemingly straightforward admiration for the urn, a certain irony (or at least special pleading) seeps in with the excessive repetition of “happy” in the third stanza. Still later, we see “desolate” and “Cold Pastoral”.

  2. Nick Moran
    at 8:04 am on July 26, 2011

    I’ll leave aside the reactionary timing of this article for a separate discussion entirely. I’ll also attempt to separate what is clearly the author’s personal opinion and taste from what is supportable analysis.

    I find it a bit silly that you cite Friday Night Lights’ lack of racial tension — a tension, I should add, that’s quite palpable during the merge with East Dillon in my opinion — but hold up Harry Potter as having “fidelity to reality.” Far be it from me to wage war against the mighty HP, but I think that series averages roughly one minority per movie.

    It’s interesting to me that you haven’t catalogued any of the actually devastating moments on the show. Were you unmoved when Tim Riggins hopefully visited his father and yet returned broken-hearted? How about when he went to prison? Were you unmoved when Matt Saracen reconciled his feelings for his father — spanning the spectrum from earnestness to rage to funeral planner, etc…? What about Smash taking steroids? Jason Street getting paralyzed in the show’s pilot episode, and then later on his girlfriend cheating on him? Tami Taylor being responsible for the imprisonment and removal of a promising (but troubled) student? Buddy Garrity ruining his entire life? (I could go on…)

    I could also, were I so inclined, sum up Season Three of The Wire using only the “positive” story lines: Cutty is released from jail and starts a boxing ring for kids; Stringer Bell becomes a property magnate; Baltimore’s murder rate falls. But that’s not exactly fair, is it?

    Instead, I want to believe that your problem with FNL is that its devastations are short-lived, its inconveniences overcome, its life lessons so dutifully learned that, in your eyes, the entire show becomes hollow. I’ll grant you that the pace is quick and the turns are often upward. I’ll grant you that the same heartstrings tugged by the sad stories are soon retied on next week’s episode. But I also think that such doesn’t trivialize the show. Nor does it render the show “superficial.”

    I think it’s what makes the show so continually watchable. The emotional up and down becomes addictive, sustaining, and above all entertaining. You tune* in because you actually care about the characters in an optimistic way.

    There can be uplifting and hopeful art. It doesn’t have to be gritty to be enjoyable. The good guys can win in the end. Perhaps FNL is so refreshing and loved because people are tired of having their hopes dashed over and over again by the characters on their favorite HBO dramas.

    * Edited from “turn.”

  3. Sonya
    at 9:29 am on July 26, 2011

    NIcely said, Nick. I especially appreciate your examples of the crushing, unresolved story lines and would add the character of Vince Howard’s father, who fails his son, his son’s mother, and himself; and the racial tension between him and Coach Taylor is, I think, well done, because it’s not like he comes out and says, “You white man, you’re colonizing my son,” but we feel that in the underlying conflict. Another subtle example of racial reality is the fact that Jess is essentially the mother of her young brothers after her father leaves to expand his franchise; and she’s doing a damn good job of it.

    I think there is a pretty clear difference between cable TV drama and network TV drama, and some of what annoys Mr. Nazaryan is rooted in this difference. The way I see it, art is artifice; Berg and co. and have shaped the material of real life into hour-long serial episodes for the mainstream — liberal and conservative, adults and children — and it’s the confinement of the form that creates something distinctly NOT Mad Men or The Wire or Breaking Bad, all of which I love. In my opinion, it’s amazing what Berg has done with the creative parameters in which he’s working.

  4. John
    at 9:32 am on July 26, 2011

    Not every show is aiming for the grit of The Wire or the cynical angst of The Sopranos. Those are great shows, but knowing how to properly jerk tears is just as respectable. Friday Night Lights is not entirely true to life. It’s a melodrama, like one of the ragged, but ambitious melodramas from the fifties. Yes, it’s sentimental, but it earns its sentimentality by giving us relatable, intriguing characters that we could almost immediately root for. In a way FNL was the anti-Wire. It dealt with many of the same struggles as that show but chose to speak from a hopeful perspective. And when it comes to judging any series you have to understand its perspective and ambition. This show was as honest as any series can be while still maintaining its positive outlook.

    I know this is all your opinion, and you are not alone with your opinion, but one thing I can’t comprehend is the claim that the show’s acting is mediocre. If Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler’s acting on this series wasn’t brilliant then I don’t know what brilliant is.

    This show kinda reminds me of “Almost Famous”, a movie that was unabashedly sentimental but still had integrity. Yes, a series can be sweet and brilliant at the same time.

  5. Ahabian
    at 9:52 am on July 26, 2011

    This article manages to misread contemporary television as bad as it does classic literature. I guess you could call “unmoored optimism” A-habian, but I think it’s more accurately deranged obsession. And I guess you could call Quixote as displaying the same, but it’s more like fantastical senility. Either way, I have no idea what they have to do with Friday Night Lights. I’ve never seen such a Cliff Notes mishmash blender of random EngLit 101 references matched up to t.v. shows in one post. I mean, Baltimore is Oedipus in the Wire? WHAT? Alexander Friggin’ Pope? Dude, settle down, you’ve clearly read widely, but give no evidence that you’ve read deeply.

  6. BD
    at 9:58 am on July 26, 2011

    Is this the requisite backlash, the everybody-else-likes-it-so-it-can’t-be-good rejoinder?

    I don’t want to respond in kind, screaming at Mr. Nazaryan screaming at the TV, but I am interested in this Oedipus talk. Does good art by definition need some kind of Oedipus character? (And what does that even mean?) Who’s Oedipus in Ulysses? or in Millions’ favs Freedom or The Pale King?

    It seems like the essay points towards a figurative understanding of the Oedipus character (the only explanation for the thin “Baltimore as Oedipus in The Wire” assertion), which gets us towards the right track. Sophocles’ play succeeds so remarkably and improbably because it is able to take an extreme situation to near ludicrous extremes and actually make us respond and care and emote. We identify with Oedipus in two ways: he’s us (we’re all blind) and not us (we’re not sleeping with our mothers after murdering our fathers—we’re not as unlucky as the King of Thebes). We associate and dissociate, lose and find ourselves. When I’m honest with myself, I resemble Oedipus, a man simultaneously blind to the Truth of things and to himself. But he’s able to see better once he blinds himself (now there’s irony for you). He shows a depth of character that awes me—he’s more three-dimensional than most people I know. Loved and hated by the gods, Oedipus contains multitudes: hero, villain, victim, supplicant, and savior. Thinking about the character in these terms gets at what FNL does so well so much of the time: showing the complexity of people. Nobody is embodied by one characteristic, nobody is assigned only one note: like Montaigne says, “no quality embraces us purely and universally.” Your boy Tim Riggins, perfect hair and all, is a perfect example.

    Thanks for the essay and for the subsequent comments— it’s always useful to see someone bucking the critical momentum. But, for what it’s worth, I’m staying in Dillon, savoring that last win before reckoning all my losses. Clear eyes, full hearts.

  7. ian
    at 11:16 am on July 26, 2011

    As a matter of interest, when did “the Battle of London” that Churchill was apparently involved in take place?

  8. C. Max Magee
    at 11:52 am on July 26, 2011

    Ian: Noted and corrected. Thank you.

  9. LF
    at 12:45 pm on July 26, 2011

    No one on FNL really loses? Tell that to the guy paralyzed from the waist down in the pilot.

  10. Kris
    at 1:18 pm on July 26, 2011

    I’m curious why Jason Street’s (spoiler for those who’ve never seen the pilot?) paralysis doesn’t rate as Friday Night Light’s fallen king? To my mind that’s what gave the first season it’s real power – the specter of the once-glorious, now-crippled quarterback, seething in the background. For all the perfectness of Riggins’s hair and the pluck of Lyla and Tyra, I always felt that Street haunted the show from its sidelines, at least throughout Season One. Watching the other characters shrink from his ever-present debilitation was often heartbreaking, but felt true. It reminds them, and the viewer, of the risks that are really being taken when they step out onto the field.

    In time, Dillon does get over the “fall” of their king, but I think the random cruelty of Street’s paralysis remains a crucial, lingering note in many later episodes.

  11. Kate
    at 1:31 pm on July 26, 2011

    Others have written more cogently than I have, but I still have a hard time believing the author watched the whole series. No class or race problems? Really? How about the Black players walking off the field to protest Mac’s comment? The relationship between Coach and Vince’s dad? (HT Sonya) The racial (and class) comments at the board hearing about merging the schools? The digs at the Lion’s “style” versus the Panther’s style?

    Besides caring with a grandmother with Alzheimers, a father at war and a mother who abandoned him, having to look in his father’s coffin, dig his father’s grave, and get pushed out of his position by a new rich kid, what, exactly, does Matt Saracen have to do to suffer “enough” to make FNL art?

    No class issues? Lyla and Tyra? Saracen and McCoy? The Riggins brothers and everyone else? Lions v. Pathers?

    Finally, Lyla was not perfectly acted, but she smiled in her cheerleading outfit while her boyfriend was paralyzed, she betrayed him with his best friend, her father destroyed her family, the girls at her school turned on her, and she finally left Dillon? I’m not convinced the author was looking at her face, frankly.

    All happy, all the time? Dillon? Devil Town? Really?

  12. monica
    at 1:34 pm on July 26, 2011

    i have to agree that i shrink away from the shows friday night lights and mad men. my husband seemed to enjoy friday night lights, and i could sometimes hear the show from the other room. i watched just a few scenes, but i couldn’t help but feel the acting to indeed be shrill. though i am no connoisseur, i love plays, the classic and acclaimed ones that i have read, and of course i cherish classic literature. true, not every show will be like the sopranoes – which i have actually not really watched either – but it can always shoot for integrity of emotion, to avoid over-acting and to fully explore real issues in the very best way possible, in the most excellent way. there’s always room for improvement! : ) granted, i have only watched just a little bit of friday night lights, but my impression was that there was Drama! awards! this show is good!, but i was left feeling empty. sure, it was drama, but it didn’t feel real to me, and i couldn’t watch it anymore – of course, there is actually no TV show that i watch right now. what i love about plays is the ability to really look under the skin of a situation – subtle drifts between characters is arthur miller’s death of a salesman. perhaps friday night lights has these, too, but to me it seemed to glorify high school football, and there was just too much ‘drama’ for me to see through the cracks at the ‘undramatic’ silences and indicative, unhurried subtle facial gestures, at the underpinnings of something that represents american life and is more profound. of course, i’ve only watched a scene or two, but i can’t help the fact that i have gotten these impressions from the award-winning and, from what i’ve gathered, critically-acclaimed show.

  13. DN
    at 1:37 pm on July 26, 2011

    I haven’t watched the show, but enjoyed the article. The author certainly could have lingered longer over the Aristotelian forms he’s invoking, as well as the requirement of irony. I sympathize with a felt affront to these things, along the lines of “what the show really needs is…”, but would have appreciated it being drawn out for me.

    All the same, looks like he’s successfully bucked an orthodoxy of taste. That’s usually a useful endeavor.

  14. ED
    at 1:39 pm on July 26, 2011

    No pathos in Friday Night Lights? I find this hard to believe as avid fans, including my family, sat and cheered, cried, and fought for this show for over 5 years every friday night. You wanted to see Matt struggle “the way real people do” – I’m not sure it gets more real than an absent father fighting in Iraq (who later dies, leading to an emotional sequence of episodes in the fourth season), struggling emotionally and financially to care for an ill grandparent, unable to fulfill his dreams of art school due to the love for his grandmother and girlfriend that unfortunately hold him back, being replaced by a freshman QB after fighting so hard to earn Coach Taylor’s respect as both a player and a man, etc. I believe that after five seasons of struggles, Matt’s victory in Chicago with both an engagement to Julie and a job he loves is meaningful. You say you don’t care if art is realistic, but you want it to be true; Friday Night Lights is both and you cannot condemn a series for its optimism, which in fact isn’t always present. A loss at the state championships, drug use, unemployment, racial, religious, and class differences that lead to conflict; friendships, marriages, and relationships all tested (sounds especially familiar for Americans today) and yet when the lights came on on a friday night in Texas, everyone was brought together to put their differences and conflicts aside and to cheer for football glory. As I watched the show, I too put aside my personal struggles and found joy and comfort in cheering for a Dillon Panther, and later an East Dillon Lion, W. Football is more than a sport for the people of Dillon. As Vince Howard says in one of the final episodes of the series: football saved him and Coach was always more than a coach for his football players. The relationships he shared with them, notably with QBs Matt and Vince, made for special television that I appreciated. To see a man fight for his kids, his players, his town, his wife, and his love for the game of football was award-worthy acting. Congrats to the cast and crew of Friday NIght Lights for their 4 Emmy nominations. It is well-deserved no matter this article’s comments.

  15. AN
    at 1:48 pm on July 26, 2011

    Author of the piece here. I really appreciate the comments, but I think you’re missing the point. Yes, there is conflict, but the conflict is overcome far too easily to make FNL compelling drama.

    Example: After the black players walk off the field in the wake of Mack’s comments, nothing really happens in terms of Smash’s relationship to the team.

    It seems to me that Berg & Co. are so afraid to lose viewers that they abdicate reality and just stay (for the most part) on the sunny side of the street.

  16. Nick Moran
    at 2:15 pm on July 26, 2011

    Mr. Nazaryan is referring to the episode “Black Eyes & Broken Hearts” in his above comment. It’s an episode I suggest he watches more closely. I’ve dug up a pretty comprehensive summary that can be found here: http://www.tv.com/friday-night-lights/black-eyes-andamp-broken-hearts/episode/957937/recap.html?tag=episode_recap;recap

    As I mentioned in my above comment, the show’s emotional and narrative arcs are sped up for the sake of (as I understood Sonya’s point) network television’s conventional audience. If you revisit that episode’s plot details, however, you’ll see that Smash, the team, Mac McGill, and Coach Taylor make quite an emotional journey. It’s significant that the episode closes with Mac ultimately standing up for the same player he offended.

    If “reality” is a prerequisite for “art,” though, maybe you could explain the apartment sizes in Sex and the City.

  17. Kevin Hartnett
    at 2:29 pm on July 26, 2011

    I think the author missed the basic pathos to Tim Riggins’ character: Despite the perfect hair and the small town celebrity, it’s obvious from the start that twenty years down the line he’s destined for a beer gut and child support payments. And that I think is what makes FNL emotionally powerful: the way it captures a sense of fleetingness–fleeting youth, fleeting glory. The characters dont triumph in the end; they fade out.

  18. Nick Moran
    at 2:32 pm on July 26, 2011

    Also, my last point for the time being — I don’t think you can accuse Berg & Co. of being afraid to lose viewers. This is simply because they didn’t have very many to lose. Additionally, any series afraid of “losing viewers” probably wouldn’t have reinvented itself so completely at the end of its third season: new cast, new side of town, new thematic focus.

  19. Tomes and Talismans
    at 2:36 pm on July 26, 2011

    “We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.”

    Are you one of those people who also thinks Batman movies are so much better now that they have every character make a 5-minute speech about justice or whatever.

  20. will c.
    at 2:46 pm on July 26, 2011

    Funny how a “book site” is masquerading about a totally separate cultural medium. Talk about irony, huh?!

  21. Mark The Spark
    at 3:03 pm on July 26, 2011

    So you hated a show…but watched all five seasons? Clearly you need to find a hobby.

  22. AN
    at 3:20 pm on July 26, 2011

    Well, I definitely think NBC stuck this show on Friday night for a good reason – the execs didn’t have faith in the writing, and rightly so. The Office has twenty times more narrative thrust.

  23. Brett
    at 4:45 pm on July 26, 2011

    Wow. You continue to lose credibility the more you post. Not only have you taken to reactionary FNL bashing, you’ve also displayed complete ignorance as to how networks operate. Well done.

  24. SwearyGeek
    at 5:37 pm on July 26, 2011

    Just an FYI: the term is “fourth and long” not “forth and long”. And you totally missed the point of the series.

  25. David
    at 10:25 pm on July 26, 2011

    Well don’t keep us all in suspense, Geek. Make it a conversation. What was the point of the series?

  26. AN
    at 10:49 pm on July 26, 2011

    There was no point. To make people feel good about themselves, I suppose, by offering up anodyne plots with no connection to reality.

  27. Tom
    at 11:03 pm on July 26, 2011

    Wow, anodyne. What a word. Your intellectual prowess continues to impress everybody.

  28. LF
    at 7:42 am on July 27, 2011

    As for the author’s comment that the show was banished to Friday nights because NBC “didn’t have faith in the writing,” well, that’s just ridiculous. I’m not saying this in defense of the show at all, but as a means of explaining how the industry works. Regardless of whether a network RESPECTS a show, if it brings in advertising and viewers, I can assure you, it gets renewed. I very much doubt that CBS has promoted CSI: Miami for 10 years because it has faith in its narrative capabilities. They’ve renewed it year after year because it’s a money-maker for the network.

    The fact that NBC didn’t cancel FNL outright after (or, quite frankly, during) its first season means that the network not only had faith in its overall production, but it thought it might be able to find a specific group of viewers on a Friday night. The fact that it CONTINUED to broadcast FNL in its partnernship with DirecTV, at which point NBC was showing a second-run show in primetime (which is unprecedented and was subject to much interest when announced) means that not only did they have intense faith in the show, but that it had found a specific audience off of which NBC believed they’d be able to make some ad money.

    Before you make assumptions about the way the television industry works, it behooves you to actually pay attention to it.

  29. flo
    at 11:06 am on July 27, 2011

    Why is there this assumption that FNL is trying to be “high art”? The pilot has a distinct look to it and the series overall uses the fly on the wall approach visually. But there’s nothing in there that I’d say qualifies as masquerading as some high-brow material. Did it have episode long dream sequences like The Sopranos or season long diatribes like The Wire? Was it about societal order rising from chaos through uneasy compromises and tension like Deadwood? Or BB’s exploration fo morality and the role of free will and subsequent responsibility for one’s actions? All FNL tried to provide was a semi-realistic portrayal of a town and its people who have high school football on top of sunday services. A place to worship and inspire them for a few hours so that they may handle the problems of everyday life.
    Where young men can achieve fleeting glory, and if they’re lucky, learn to move on when the time comes.

    My feeling on this is that the show was really great at capturing small moments and really one of the best shows at doing uplifting/carthatic moments. That’s not to say it’s batting 1.000 in those areas but compare FNL to even something like Everwood and it is probably more heartwarming – and that’s the crux of it really, it’s goal to pluck the heart strings takes it out of the realm of art and into entertainment for some (notably, the writer of this piece). FNL is “It’s a Wonderful Life” (or Casablanca) and it’s hard to judge that along side Citizen Kane or 2001 or Solaris (which represents the gritty cable fare). FNL is not perfect – there’s at least one major misstep a season and one season that was basically all missteps – even within it’s excellent moments you’ll kinda feel like you have to suspend your disbelief (Street’s job, Mrs. Coach’s job offer, Tyra’s admission, etc.). But for the vocal fans, including myself, the sum is more than the parts.

    If I’m doing a X + Y = FNL then it’s Gilmore Girls plus Everwood (plus dash of O.C.) but some significant percentage better than the sum of those shows.

  30. flo
    at 11:28 am on July 27, 2011

    Random things: I feel the need to point out the writer’s obsession with pathos and tragedy where the show offers optimism and redemption; FNL is not a Greek tragedy does it owe viewers an apology for that. Things can break from the Aristolean form I believe. Let me guess, he loved The Natural the book but hated the movie.

    Riggins jail time, Saracen being abandoned by everyone, Coach losing his job were apparently not real significant losses. Probably needed more Omar and Stringer or somebody needed to get cancer.

    To be fair the football was bad, too many hail marys and last drive wins and they shouldn’t have won state in S. 1. I bet the writer would have liked season 1 then. But football was just the backdrop against which the characters interacted. Saracen didn’t play that well and they’re supposed to be a powerhouse team so their winning is not so improbable.

    Lyla is Jen from Dawson’s Creek and not Medea or Persephone or Elizabeth Bennett.

    The character improbability stuff is a problem but it’s an understandable logistic problem. You want to use your cast they have to be involved with football or the Taylors somehow.

    Overall, I don’t see much profit in trying to find literature-form art in a network television family-oriented show. FNL does have a slight spiritual/religious/faith bend and other imperfections. But to complain that it’s not The Iliad or Beowulf…well, it’s something.

    Also credit to Jason Katims who ran the show. Peter Berg was the creator but Katims was the day to day CEO on the thing.

  31. Tom
    at 11:55 am on July 27, 2011

    I don’t think a show that tries to be uplifting takes it out of the realm of “art.” It’s just as valid an endeavor as whatever the Wire or the Sopranos tried to do. What takes a show to that level is the creators’ execution of what they’re attempting to do. FNL executed its vision very, very well (with the exception of S2). And it wasn’t nearly as hopeful as the writer of this piece portrays it to be. Just as often the show would break your heart and tear it in a million pieces. Nick already did a good job of cataloging just a few of the series’ devastating moments, and there are much more. Now, did most of the characters end on a generally hopeful note? Yes. But it’s not like they had fairy tale endings either. When the characters succeed, it feels well earned because the viewer has gone through so much heartbreak with them.

  32. AN
    at 12:39 pm on July 27, 2011

    I was not the one who called the show high art, but I do cite plenty of others who have. Including those who call it a tragedy. So judging it by Aristotelian standards is completely fair, as far as I am concerned.

  33. ratambats
    at 5:53 pm on July 27, 2011

    What a load of c**p. As one of the few millions who sat glued to the tube, crying, laughing, crying again at this fantastic bit of TELEVISION, I could not disagree more with the author’s hyper-scholastic interpretation of FNL. Texas HS football was the connective tissue between these characters, not the focus of the show. As a view into a narrow slice of American life, FNL depicted everything from race, sex, class, drug abuse, economic stress, abortion, the casualties of war, absent parents and other ills plaguing America today. I am a proud repeat offender, having watched every episode multiple times (well, maybe not season 2). I’ve often thought “…what if FNL were on HBO…?” Screwed by the network, under-promoted, spurned by the EMMY’s (until recently) while the airwaves are flooded with garbage.
    Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

  34. Special Agent Dale Cooper
    at 12:48 pm on July 29, 2011

    I’m not really familiar enough with the series to comment on the accuracy of this piece, but I at least thought it was interesting, informative, and the author seemed to back up his conclusions well enough.

    that being said, I do take issue with one thing: Good television started in 1993 with NYPD Blue? I would go back to 1990 with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, especially if you’re referencing the Sopranos and the Wire in the same paragraph.

    A minor point with regards to this article, but a very major one in terms of television history, I believe

  35. Joey
    at 10:23 pm on July 29, 2011

    i bet the person who wrote this has a master’s degree!!! maybe even a PhD. and i can’t believe i am taking up for middle America where i happen to live but generally despise the overvaluing that people who live here give it….but this is a theory i have come up with and it might be crap…but white liberals, which i am guilty of being both of those things, like to feel bad about things that affect the colored races… and they just like to feel bad about them..they don’t seem to think about the women being raped in the Congo so they can have their smart phones, but they can talk about fucking Alexander Pope. they can wring their hands about the crack epidemic, they can talk about how much they love the Wire because its about the degradation of the inner city, but when it comes to…um..white trash and their problems..meth being a prime example i don’t hear a lot of hand wringing about that. because in a way and this is just based on impressions i get from people is that its easier to say “those people” got what they deserved. I think the Wire is a better show then FNL but not by much. and this just seems like a pissy little smarty pants contrarian being a contrarian for that sole purpose. maybe you are just mad because you aren’t writing for the Paris Review? this is just such a garbage writing strain of MFA programs. you are never going to be Jonathan Franzen or interesting for that matter. you’re a hack.

  36. Dan
    at 4:36 pm on July 31, 2011

    This is a big let-down. This guy’s problem is with NY intellectualism.

  37. pdamico
    at 2:14 pm on August 1, 2011

    I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State​, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.

    It never quite panned out.

    And, clearly, you still haven’t gotten over it.

  38. Mike
    at 10:45 am on August 2, 2011

    I find it interesting that even as Mr. Nazaryan is quick to dismiss Friday Night Lights not only as a worthwhile drama but also as a work of some kind of truthful merit, he is even quicker to measure it against such shows as The Wire and sentiments from author/philosophers like Keats. It seems that, though he himself might not understand the roots of his own opinions, something about FNL engaged him. I’d like to quote a recent post I read on another blog:

    “Some will balk when I compare Friday Night Lights to HBO’s The Wire. They might say the quality is hardly comparable, the depths of social and cultural investigation aren’t of the same caliber. Others may point to the soapy use of dramatic music to the even more dramatic writing. Still, I say that the ambitions of the cast and crew of Friday Night Lights are not really that different from those sought by the writers, directors, and actors involved with The Wire. Critics are quick to praise David Simon for establishing a grittiness in The Wire that has since been unparalleled, but they seem to omit the fact that even though the producers made very daring writing and casting decisions from season to season, the plots quickly became predictable: Baltimore’s defeat over the underprivileged. In this sense, Friday Night Lights realizes a dramatic tension that is more exciting and, by virtue of it’s spontaneity, resembles a reality more relatable to the viewer.”

    I think this addresses two of Mr. Nazaryan’s points, the first of which is his belief that Friday Night Lights lacks pathos. Just as Mr. Moran posted in his response, I think Mr. Nazaryan’s central gripe with FNL is not so much that the character’s lacked any true risk of failure (as he writes) but that the trials of each character were so short lived. A certain predictability seems to arise in each of the character’s arcs, and perhaps this is what never sat quite right with Nazaryan. In my own humble opinion, The Wire struggled with this same issue of predictability. No matter what season/sector of Baltimore, David Simon opened our eyes to, it became to clear to the viewer (as early as season 1) that no one was, as Nazaryan himself states, able to cure Baltimore. Much of this predictability was, for me, redeemed by the gritty realism that The Wire never eased up on. I know many of the responses are concerned with Nazaryan’s comment that FNL lacked pathos. I must agree with Kate when I say that I have a hard time believing Nazaryan watched the entire series. If he did, this should serve as proof that, even if he doesn’t acknowledge the merit of the show, something about it did engage him. After all, he wrote this article. Pathos is a broad, often over-generalized term I find (especially on The Millions) and while I will refrain from taking a stab at what I think pathos entails, I will say this: as straightforwards as FNL might seem at times with corny (but touching) mottos like the ever-famous ‘clear eyes…’ chant, the themes are anything but straightforward. Though themes like racism, alcoholism, religion, etc. are presented in a straightforward fly-on-the-wall approach, they beg of the viewer a deeper contemplation just as the Wire did.

    I also take issue with Mr. Nazaryan’s knowledge of television. He writes with the authority of a television critic yet all he as written can be found in wikipedia articles. Peppering his argument with hand-picked references to Keats and Hemingway may seem to validate some of his points but Nazaryan does little to add dimension to his opinion by really investigating the other side of the argument: what makes FNL work. In other words, this article is little more than a rant. (The rancorous responses seem to validate this point.)

    I don’t wish to add to the anti-Nazaryan diatribes but I wish to back FNL with some analytical feedback that supports the opinion that it was a successful show that, for me, fulfilled ambitions that paralleled those of other great shows, high art or not.

  39. Mike
    at 10:47 am on August 2, 2011

    i apologize for some of the grammatical mishaps. This post was typed in haste.

  40. ZK
    at 10:03 pm on August 2, 2011

    This is a bore and a low for The Millions. The only thing missing is a holier-than-thou comment from EdRants.

  41. Pete
    at 10:41 pm on August 2, 2011

    Nothing is too low for The Millions. The entire post was a holier-than-thou comment. Who cares about some show that was syndicated off of DirecTV?

  42. Read Along: The Pitch | Matthew Garcia
    at 5:46 pm on July 24, 2013

    […] so I’ve read essays and articles talking about how TV is the closest we’ve gotten to the old Victorian serials; that sense of waiting for […]

  43. GK
    at 11:43 pm on July 6, 2014

    Granted, I’m 3 years late to the conversation, and I’m not here to argue the merits of Friday Night Lights. You presented your own argument, and cited your examples, with a conviction that rivals The perfection of Riggins’ hair. However, I recently read an article about the cultural influences of the show (rather than the narrative necessities you outline in your piece [and believe to be lacking]), and I thought you might be interested in reading a different perspective. The piece, I believe, examines a different kind of irony, and I thought you might appreciate the juxtaposition (if not the sentiment).

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/grey_matters_looking_back_at_friday_night_lights

  44. DTS
    at 4:07 pm on July 30, 2014

    I didn’t read all the comments, so maybe someone made this point.

    A story doesn’t have to be a tragedy to be high art. Shakespeare’s comedies were art as well as his tragedies.

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