Texas Fo’ever—“Friday Night Lights” by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on September 13, 2011

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Believe me folks; it’s as much of a surprise to me as it may be to you that I’m writing about a sports-related television drama. I hate sports on TV. Watching the Ravens play basketball was the most boring part of One Tree Hill (even if it meant that we sometimes saw Chad Michael Murray sexily shirtless), almost as bad as any episode of Glee where they try to make us care about the McKinley football team (Ryan, Ryan, no one cares about the McKinley football team). Hell, I don’t even want to watch real Australian football, much less fictional American football. Despite this, there’s just something about Friday Night Lights that I find utterly spellbinding.

Friday Night Lights Season 1 Intertitle.

Friday Night Lights, an American TV drama which began in 2006 and finished up this year, was created by Peter Berg. It was based on a film, which Berg directed, and a non-fiction book of the same title, about the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers football team in Odessa, Texas. The television series follows the Panthers (the #1 high school team in Texas) from fictional Dillon, Texas.

Cover of the non-fiction book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream” by H.G. Bissinger.

The series begins with new football coach Eric Taylor’s (Kyle Chandler) first day at Dillon High School. We’re introduced to Coach Taylor’s wife, Tami (Connie Britton) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden); to some principal members of the team, including starting quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), star running back Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and second-string quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford); and to Jason’s head cheerleader girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), Tim’s girlfriend Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and Matt’s dorky best friend Landry (Jesse Plemons). The opening of the pilot episode, which dips fluidly in and out of these individuals’ lives, framed by a series of interviews with the footballers for the Dillon local news, firmly establishes that this is an ensemble show. In Dillon, football is not just a hobby; it is a way of life for the whole community. The pilot is divided up by titles: “Monday”, “Tuesday” etc., counting down to Friday night and the first game of the new season. On Friday, all the shops in Dillon close, because everyone in town is watching the game.

Coach Taylor being…coachy.

When tragedy strikes at the opening game, the Panthers’ trajectory changes dramatically, and the rest of season one (and, indeed, the whole series) is devoted to sorting through the aftermath of that change.

Those of you with no interest in football (who are no doubt preparing to disregard this article) will be pleased to know that, though football does frame the show, it does not define it. The show is strongly character-driven, so the often sports-related plot exists really to develop those characters and push them forwards, or to drag them sadly backwards. Dillon, as a portrait of contemporary Middle America, feels very realistic. The characters face challenges with friendship and family, money, lifestyle and education, religion and philosophy—while some just face the challenge of how exactly they might eventually leave Dillon. It is wonderfully photographed; intelligent shots imbued with warm realism and breathless close-ups. The football is also choreographed and shot impressively. I’ve often found myself—eyes wide, clutching my cheeks—screaming at the screen in the final minutes of a Panthers game.

The real magic in FNL comes from the writing, and the performances of the exceptional ensemble cast. The show is fully scripted, but Berg and his team give the actors liberty to control how they perform each scene. If the actors that feel a line or a bit of blocking does not suit, they are allowed change it, provided the vital points of the plot are still retained. This interesting mode of creating television really shows in each moment of FNL. People interact with one another the way you expect they would, conversations happen the way they do in real life and each scene produces for the viewer a desired (though often surprising) emotional response. Peter Katims, FNL’s executive producer and head writer, described the profound effect this process had on filming the show, stating “When I first came on set, I thought, it’s interesting — this is what I imagined filmmaking would be, before I saw what filmmaking was”. The stories are engaging and affecting, and there is an element of truth in them (with the exception of a weird, soapy Tyra/Landry storyline in season 2).

The Season 2 Cast L-R: Smash, Tami (Connie Britton), Coach Taylor, Landry (Jesse Plemons), Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), Julie (Aimee Teegarden), Matt, Lyla, Scott and Tim.

The FNL cast is an exceptional group of (predominately young) performers. There is an electric dynamic between Jason, his best friend Tim, and Lyla—besides which, Tim Riggins’ deep stare, surprising wit and monotonal grunt are devastatingly handsome. Jason is also a complicated hero, sometimes selfish and infuriating. Indeed, this is how you identify with the inhabitants of Dillon—despite some of the crappy, misguided things they do and say, you really root for all of them (even Lyla, who is pretty annoying). Shy, stuttering Matt Saracen is joyfully awkward, and he and Landry provide some wonderful comic relief. To prove how the writers of the show never rest on their laurels, Landry is not left to languish in geeky obscurity, and an interesting relationship between him and fiery Tyra develops towards the end of the first season. Matt’s relationship with Julie Taylor is probably the best representation of teenage romance on TV; tender and endearingly sweet.

Matt and Julie – adorable, folks.

The patriarch and matriarch of Dillon, Coach Taylor and his wife Tami, pull the ensemble together with incredible elegance. Taylor—more than just your typical tough-but-fair coach—is a leader you can get behind. Tammy is funny, brazen, strong and kind. She is my secret favourite character (because I feel like I shouldn’t have favourites!) They’re a true Texan couple, sometimes uncomfortable with modernity, and they truly love each other. The show has a real community spirit. Dillon’s open, humble attitude is all encompassing so when you’re watching  you feel you’re part of that community.

Both Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler have been nominated for “Outsanding Actor/Actress in a Drama Series”.

I really cannot express to you how much you must watch this show, especially if you’re a connoisseur of good TV. I rented series one to give myself a break from Six Feet Under (which, despite being fabulous, was beginning to depress me a lot). I expected to get bored after a couple of episodes, even though Ruth Ritchie, my favourite television reviewer from the Sydney Morning Herald, had raved about it. It’s often a difficult feat for any show to have a good pilot, but the excellent FNL pilot had me hooked from the last heart-wrenching minutes. This is engaging, innovative television-making at its best. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose! 

Do you agree with Matilda’s assessment of Friday Night Lights, or is the series so-so for you? What are some other T.V. show’s you’ve loved? Leave your comments below. 

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s Editor-in-chief  and co-creator. For more of Matilda’s television-related ramblings, check out Beating the…Cold: The Best and Worst of US Summer Ratings TV and The “Glee” Enigma (and a review of S2 E15, “Sexy”)

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Posted in: Television