1 June 2011
A Week-Long Affair. A Lifetime of Love.
It was inevitable, this love affair with you.
I was hanging with my bestie from grad school. We were lounging on her couch, sipping tea and catching up on Life as we are known to do. We had run through the laundry list of updates. Work: check. Friends: check. Family: check. Reading: check. Movies: check. And then, she casually dropped your name, inquiring as to whether I had, by chance, fallen prey to your charms. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of who and what you were, but she gently suggested that I get to know you. She had an inkling that we might get along, and furthermore, that I might fall helplessly in love with you.
A couple of weeks later, my friend and colleague mentioned your name at work. He confessed to an addiction, of foregoing sleep simply to spend late nights with you. Hearing your name exalted by another trusted source certainly piqued my interest, but I remained skeptical about how deep a connection we might actually forge.
Because at first blush, I didn’t suspect we had much in common. Our interests were different. You worshipped at the altar of team sports; I enjoyed solo runs. You were from Texas; I was a native East Coaster. You were stuck in high school; I had spent the majority of my adult life all too eager to leave those years behind.
And then suddenly, you were everywhere. You clearly had a way about you, seducing men and women alike. You tamed the resistant. You captured the hearts and minds of an otherwise diverse and disparate group of followers. Maud Newton blogged about you. So did The Paris Review. And after a late night session with Google, I discovered that The New Yorker had written an article about you several years ago.
So on March 2nd, I logged into Netflix and dove into Friday Night Lights. Head first.
I feverishly devoured what you had to offer, all the while dreading the imminent denouement of our time together. And by March 9th—some 4 seasons / 63 episodes / 44 hours / 2623 minutes later, it was over. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and discussing you at length, trying to dissect your subtlety, your depth, and your ability to galvanize an unlikely group of allegiant viewers. What follows is an attempt to characterize what it is about you that caused me to fall, and fall so hard.
1) Characters as mirrors. Foggy ones.
For the uninitiated, Friday Night Lights (FNL) is a story that centers around the high school football team of Dillon, Texas—a proxy for Anytown, USA. Dillon’s residents face a myriad of issues common to many small American towns—broken families, racism, and economic hardship. As viewers, we are allowed unbridled views of the motivations and behaviors of a cast of characters whose actions are guided by very real and relatable desires to improve their lives in ways both big and small. It is through these characters that we are able to catch glimpses of ourselves. They are at once familiar and fallible, while simultaneously embodying our collective hope that Better Lies Ahead.
In the pilot episode, Jason Street, beloved quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, sustains a spinal injury that not only puts a swift end to his football career, but renders him a paraplegic for life. And so the series begins; we are but silent witnesses to the aftermath. Bereft, emasculated, and uncertain about his future, we watch as Jason struggles to make sense of his life—one in which prior conclusions have all but vanished. For those of us who have experienced a sudden loss on any scale—from a job to a relationship to a loved one, we are reminded of the human condition—how fleeting good fortune can be, but also, of the reserves of strength that lie within.
The characters of FNL are frequently forced to navigate the murky greys of right and wrong, of ends and means, of being and believing. Having lost his father in a car accident as a child, running back Smash Williams feels immense pressure to leverage his athletic talent to provide a more stable financial future for his family. His tactics are misguided at best: he wages an enormous bet by electing to engage in performance-enhancing drugs, ultimately compromising his health, career, and the very relationships he reveres. Upon learning of Smash’s indiscretions, Coach Taylor is confronted with the dilemma of abiding by protocol and outing him (thereby ending Smash’s chances at obtaining a college scholarship) or choosing to be complicit in his wrongdoing. We silently cheer when Coach opts for the latter, because this, too, is familiar territory. We understand the trade-offs, of what it means to bear the burden of sacrifice to protect those we love.
2) Strong women. Vulnerable men.
Friday Night Lights was adapted as a television series by Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, and David Nevins from a book and film of the same title. I had long been a fan of Peter Berg, whose work as an actor first appeared on my radar with The Last Seduction, a noir-ish film in which Berg plays a romantic but hapless victim opposite Linda Fiorentino’s femme fatale. Not dissimilarly, the characters of FNL are presented to us as robust and complex beings whose stories frequently dispel myths around traditional gender attributes and roles.
Tami, wife of Coach Taylor and mother to Julie, is an ambitious and impassioned guidance counselor who later becomes Principal at Dillon High. Her choices around governance—both at home and on the job—are often unpopular but are ultimately motivated by a strong sense of justice and moral code. When Coach is offered the opportunity to coach college ball at a university hundreds of miles away, it is Tami who (despite an unplanned pregnancy) encourages him to accept the position while she and Julie remain in Dillon, confident that their family bond is strong enough to withstand the separation.
One of the most complex characters of FNL is fullback Tim Riggins, who we are initially introduced to as a callous and womanizing alcoholic. But his character, like all of us, contains multitudes. Our hearts break as he repeatedly watches game footage of the fateful day Jason Street’s life was forever altered, understanding that he has somehow found a way to blame himself for his best friend’s paralysis. We empathize when he confesses the depths of his love for Jason’s girlfriend, Lila. And we’re simultaneously enraged and filled with admiration when he takes the fall for his feckless brother, Billy, by serving time in jail so that Billy can begin his life anew with wife and child. Tim represents the good in all of us, his soft underbelly exposed to reveal tremendous strength.
3) Making lonely beautiful.
I was fascinated when a friend of mine recently revealed that he was most captivated by the The Town as a character. Coach Taylor is unequivocally alone in his struggles—at times the venerated leader, at others, the whipping boy for The Town’s collective hope. And while the characters of Friday Night Lights are inextricably tied to one another—be it through blood, love, or sport—each is waging an individual battle, often against oneself. The loneliness of Dillon is undeniably palpable; we see it in the grainy footage of the skies at dusk, we hear it in the exquisite soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky, we sense it in the moments of silence that pass between characters.
4) Allowing the narrative to unfurl.
And lastly—but perhaps, most importantly—it is worth noting that choices around production had a profound effect on the outcome of FNL. The Wikipedia entry describes performances as such:
Though scripted like any hour-long television drama, the show’s producers decided at the outset to allow the cast leeway in what they said and did on the show, including the delivery of their lines and the blocking of each scene. If the actors felt that something was not true to their character or a mode of delivery didn’t work, they were free to change it provided they still hit the vital plot points.
The freedom given to the cast was complemented by the fact that the show was filmed without rehearsal and without extensive blocking. Camera operators were trained to follow the actors, rather than the actors standing in one place and having cameras fixed around them. This allowed the actors to not only feel free to make changes but to feel safe in making those changes because the infrastructure would work around them. Executive producer Jeffrey Reiner described this method as “no rehearsal, no blocking, just three cameras and we shoot.”
As a designer with self-admitted control issues, it was incredibly enlightening to read about the restraint the show’s producers exercised in the filming of FNL. It’s an elegant—and in many ways, meta—approach that acknowledges that sometimes the most beautiful and heart-wrenching moments of our lives are the ones we could have never predicted.
Friday Night Lights, you may be over, but my love lives on. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.