For 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.”
And 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.
There’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.
Mad 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.
To 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.
Tonight, fans of the exquisite Friday Night Lights will be able to tune in to network TV (NBC) for the show’s fifth and final season. If you are both a fan and a subscriber to Direct TV, season five is old news; it aired there in October and finished out in February. But what strikes me about FNL – and why it seems fitting to write about it here at The Millions – is its appeal to those of us who live just outside of TV culture proper. In the vein of David Simon’s The Wire (which Simon has described as being conceived “as a novel”) and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Peter Berg’s twice-adapted series — first from the nonfiction book by his cousin H.G. Bissinger, then from the feature film which he both wrote and directed — falls into a growing broadcast category, i.e. TV for readers.
But unlike the aforementioned cable series, “Friday Night Lights” may be a less obvious fit for, say, urbanite literary viewers. For one, it’s about high school football as the center of all hopes, dreams, and tragedies – for teens and adults alike. For another, it is set in a small, dusty, conservative West Texas town, the fictional Dillon (the book takes place in Odessa, as does the film). The central characters are the Dillon Panthers’ head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton); they go to an evangelical church and have a strong marriage and a smart, mostly well-behaved daughter (Aimee Teegarden). Gen-Xers may be imagining something along the lines of an ABC after-school special (Helen Hunt as Quarterback Princess anyone?). Well, yes and no.
Virginia Heffernan perhaps put it best in a 2008 article in the NY Times Magazine: “[Friday Night Lights] ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on its authenticity.”
By guarding its “borders,” she means that FNL’s sole focus is on the episodes themselves, resisting what has become standard in TV marketing – online franchising in the form of tabloid features, extensive merchandising, and audience participation via wiki fan sites. According to Heffernan, this decision on the part of FNL’s producers might be a central reason for its modest-to-poor ratings – a mere 5-6 million viewers in Seasons One and Two, down to 3-4 million in Seasons Three and Four (compare with, say, American Idol, which has garnered some 25 million viewers, Heroes, with 13 million, or even Glee, with 9 million). A quick search reveals that, since 2008, merchandising and online community sites have expanded, but modestly, relatively speaking: 500,000 Facebook fans, compared with 12 million Glee fans or the 7 million fans of a completed series like Lost.
It’s a crucial decision, if you think of FNL (and I do) as well-crafted art. The serial narrative – in both TV and literature – when offered up to fans as participants, can become vulnerable. Speaking about her recent article in the New Yorker about epic fantasy author George R.R. Martin, Laura Miller said, “The more invested your fans feel in your work… the more entitled they feel to complain… and hassle you… Your fans can become involved in speculating about what might happen next.” The creators of FNL are not interested in what fans want or need to happen to the characters, but rather about what must happen to them, in the world they’ve created.
Writing about NBC’s decision to renew the series in 2007 for a second season, Heffernan wrote that “its survival has become small but meaningful evidence that goodness exists in prime time.” That we’ll be seeing the launch of season five on Friday – even as it will be the last – seems a small miracle of sorts.
Like Heffernan, and her counterpart at the New Yorker Nancy Franklin, I love Friday Night Lights. I am admittedly a latecomer (thank you, Maud Newton), and like many who love the show, was blindsided. I watched all four seasons on DVD, compulsively, over a period of about six weeks. In other words, I experienced the world of Friday Night Lights as if reading a long, absorbing novel – the conclusion to which I both eagerly anticipate (though I’ve avoided all spoilers and previews) and prematurely mourn.
Marlon James once said in an interview that the most significant bit of advice he received from his teacher Colum McCann was to “risk sentimentality.” And perhaps this is the primary distinction between a network show and a cable show, a “family” show and an “adult” show – between FNL and its more glamorous and/or gritty literary-TV cousins. Friday Night Lights is something different, and welcome – an unflinching portrait of contemporary America that is not at all clever or ironic; that is both earnest and real; that dares you to care, and to embrace the notion that heart and personal morality are at the center of everything we do – regardless of what we say (or even write) – which is compelling indeed, in a pleasurably painful way, for those of us who traffic in the sometimes disconcertingly abstract world of words.
The difference, for me, has been felt; I have been here before, after all – DVD marathons of entire series seasons crammed into a weekend or two. But unlike my previous TV love-affairs (a kind of serial monogamy: The West Wing, The Wire, Deadwood, Generation Kill, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; hopeful but underwhelming first-and-second dates with 24, Weeds, and In Treatment, and a brief infatuation with Glee), which have perhaps illuminated, impressed, and entertained more than they’ve moved me, this one has inspired deep emotional attachment – to the town of Dillon, to individual characters and their sagas, to the “particular reality” that Heffernan wrote about – an attachment that I’ve carried with me into my days, my moods, my human existence. When Coach Taylor initiates the zen-like call-and-response in the Panther locker room before each game – Clear eyes, full hearts – and the team erupts with primal conviction, Can’t lose!, I am convinced, utterly, of its truth.
The artistic merits of FNL are many – depth and complexity of characterization; impeccable casting and performances (Chandler and Britton are extraordinary, along with Brad Leland as a philandering yet endearing has-been quarterback who can’t let go, and Zach Gilford as the underdog second-string quarterback Matt Saracen who is thrust by tragedy into the QB1 position); rigorous authenticity of place, speech, and story-lines. Much has been written about the documentary-style shaky-cam aesthetic and intimate close-ups, which is nowhere near my area of expertise; but yeah, I’d say it works.
Beyond these merits, what has surprised – and in a way instructed – me most is how effectively FNL employs what is essentially formulaic drama; that is, how aware we are of being immersed in a constructed moral universe, and yet how little the drama’s predictability compromises either one’s engagement or the show’s objective artfulness and excellence. For example, in Season Four, everyone’s favorite drunkard hunk Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) – a recently graduated Panther (fullback) who can’t sit through a college class to save his life – joins his older brother Billy in illegal activity, twice: once to steal copper wire so they can sell it, another time to strip down stolen cars. They need the money. They are good, downtrodden guys, albeit occasionally major fuck-ups. Billy has a baby on the way. Tim has his eye on a piece of land we all want him to have. They have no parents, no safety net, limited options. My viewing partner turned to me and said, “Are they gonna get away with it?” Immediately we knew the answer. Of course not.
Why not? Because they’re taking a short cut. Short cuts come back to bite you in the world of FNL, everything must be earned. Tim doesn’t fit at college, we get this, we don’t blame him really; but still, he was offered a scholarship and he ditched it. (It’s complicated, this college thing; it’s your only way out of Dillon, but who’s to say everyone should get out?) And yet, knowing the outcome, the process of their getting caught still makes for intricate drama; because they’re good guys, because they do and don’t deserve legal justice, because the characters have fucked up so many times but we want them to do better; and because Tim faces his fate with the largeness of character we know he has in him.
Another example is the way the football action itself is used to advance plot. You almost always know what’s going to happen during a given game: some player is going to succeed or fail, according to the character’s dramatic journey. And yet it’s almost ridiculous how gripping it is to watch it unfold – Matt Saracen throwing interceptions and losing his QB1 spot to an upstart prick freshman in Season Three; running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) getting side-tackled hard while playing with a serious hip injury he’s kept secret throughout Season Four; geek-turned-kicker Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) going for a 45-yard field goal in the final seconds of the final game of the season. All of Season Four is built around an underdog uphill climb for the ragtag East Dillon Lions (with Coach Taylor at the helm, now the victim of aforementioned prick freshman’s prick father’s maneuverings to get him transferred after a local gerrymandering debacle), and of course we know where it’s going: there’s nowhere to go but up. Still, the battle is replete with the absorbing defeats and triumphs of both game and life. Season Four is also where we see a more explicit emergence of racial issues (featuring The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan as the East Dillon quarterback), handled like everything else on the show – as part of the fabric of everyday life.
FNL reminds us that high school is an entire lifetime. Everything important that’s ever going to happen to you happens during those four years. If you weren’t convinced before, you believe it after four seasons. Emotions and relationships shift quickly and in major ways from episode to episode, and we buy it, because that’s how youth happens, that’s real life in America.
The other dynamic that feels both TV-dramatic and real is that 1) bad things are always happening to good people; 2) good things do happen to the down-and-out; but then 3) bad things inevitably come back around to knock them down again. People heading for nowhere start to find a little bit of somewhere; people who have it easy get the ground pulled out from under them, and they slowly claw their way toward something real. Everyone is changing, evolving, regressing, progressing; predictably, yes, but also just like in life. And in the midst of all the chaos, the writers give us Coach Taylor and Tami – “no better depiction of married life and married love on TV right now” (wrote Nancy Franklin in 2007) – on whose door nearly every troubled teen and adult in town eventually knocks at some ungodly hour.
If you’re like me, if you approach TV-watching like monogamous love affairs – with books as priority, I want my TV to be good, I want it to be meaningful, and I want to commit – then give FNL a shot. Because what you also want is for your TV shows to offer something literary books sometimes don’t: a (passive) emotional ride driving an (active) soul-level engagement. FNL strikes this combination brilliantly. It’s TV for sure, and network TV; it might take you a few episodes to adjust, to get used to all the busty women and their half-naked outfits (I almost quit out of cleavage overload), to remember that this is high school in a dead-end town and that boys and girls verbalize how much they love each other pretty much hourly and make bad decisions even more frequently. But the creators of FNL have successfully shown me that this is a place and a group of people worth getting to know. If small-town West Texas is a place you might otherwise consider nowhere of consequence – like Simon’s inner-city Baltimore, or even Annie Proulx’s Wyoming, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg – FNL will change your mind, and I dare say your eyes and heart as well. In the immortal words of Coach Taylor (say it with a twang), “I promise you that.”