Friday Night Lights

Hello, and welcome to this, the first ‘Rewind, Rewatch’ column/feature/thing. I started this for a chance to talk about shows that are no longer on the air, and as an excuse to write hundreds and hundreds of words about how wonderful and amazing they were. As well as acting like a long recommendation for a TV show, it also explains how I came across the show in the first place. Hopefully the feature will get more people to watch these modern classics.

fnl

At first glance, a television show about a group of Texas teenagers and their parents who all really, really like American football doesn’t sound like the most interesting thing in the world. It certainly didn’t to me before I started watching, mainly because I didn’t know anything about American football, or care to find out. Even after watching the series from start to finish, I still only know the very, very basics (touchdown = good, quarterback = important?). So, at the time, it seemed unlikely that a soap/drama centred around a weekly game of high-school American football in a small rural community, probably stuffed with cheesy, sentimental motivational speeches and ‘surprise’ last-minute victories, would appeal to me, or be anything more than dull or mediocre.

It also didn’t help that when I think ‘television show about the lives of people in a small community’, I think of a show about a place where miserable, humourless grumps spend all their time in the local pub yelling and arguing with each other over nothing, a place where every happy occasion is interrupted by some ‘shocking’ melodramatic tragedy, that leads to more misery and shouting – nothing actually interesting really ever happens, but the death rate sky-rockets during the festive season. EastEnders, basically.

The last thing I wanted to watch was an American EastEnders, mixed with a sport I knew or cared little about, and a high-school drama full of love triangles and teens whining about their problems. So many different elements I didn’t like, so much potential for bad acting and overwrought melodrama. No thank you.

Yet it had received glowing reviews, enthusiastic praise and pleas from fans and critics that ‘it’s not just a show about American football, honest, it’s good, it’s really really really good!’ (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea). So, one Tuesday evening, the first episode popped up on Sky Atlantic. There was nothing else on so, hey, why not give it a try? I could be pleasantly surprised if it was any good, or feel smug and superior if it was awful.

One of the best things about Friday Night Lights, for me at least, was that it consistently and thoroughly defied my expectations. Every pre-conceived thought I had about the show was proven to be completely and utterly wrong. Are there big motivational speeches and last-minute victories? Well, yes, plenty of them, last-minute victories, last-minute defeats, last-minute everythings. Are there love triangles and teenagers complaining about their problems? Oh, all the time. And yet, and yet, somehow, through a combination of brilliant performances from actors young and old, great writing that makes conversations seem completely natural, and a a hand-held way of filming that makes you feel like you’re standing in the room, watching over someone’s shoulder, none of these things became annoying or problematic*. Instead, you become immersed in the show’s world.

*(OK, there are some exceptions in Season Two)

Sentimental, emotional moments frequent almost every episode, but they rarely feel over-the-top or melodramatic. These moments are handled carefully, delicately, perfectly. The show lightly prods you and provokes you, rather than shouting at you “THIS MAN IS SAD, ARE YOU CRYING YET? LOOK AT HIM, LOOK HOW SAD HE IS, CRY FOR GOD’S SAKE’.

When it does lean towards a Big Emotional Moment, say, at the end of a football game, and the music swells and the cheese starts to seep in, you absolutely don’t mind, because it works, because the show has earned this Big Emotional Moment. It’s not forced or just being done for the sake of it. There were plenty of times where I watched and thought ‘Wow, normally I would be rolling my eyes at this stuff, but it’s actually really well-done.’

Oh, I haven’t even mentioned the American football stuff yet. Remember when I said how that might put me, and maybe other people, off watching the show? Well, as it turns out, the football matches themselves are a surprisingly small part of each episode. Sometimes they don’t appear at all. The build-up to Friday night, what everyone’s doing and dealing with on every other day of the week, that’s where the real focus of the show is.

Also, the main reason everyone cares so much about the big Friday game is because there’s little else to look forward to in Dillon. People go to church, or to an Applebee’s restaurant, or herd cattle and that’s it. I’d join the local American football team if that’s all there was to do in my town, and I can’t throw a pass to save my life.

Barely any of the characters are the sort of obnoxious, mean, football-is-everything-in-life fanatical parents and children which I thought the show would be full of (another expectation defied, another pre-conceived thought proven wrong). Buddy seems to be this sort of character at first, but he is given a bit more depth, a bit more likeability as the show progresses. Every character is given this depth, every character seems real, far from the one-dimensional clichés on lesser shows.

Oh, sorry, almost everyone is given this. Pleasingly, the one character who is an obnoxious, mean football-is-everything fanatic is the one character that the writers don’t bother giving any redeeming qualities to. He is an immensely-unlikeable arsehole, a boo-hiss pantomime villain, and it’s fantastic.

The show isn’t afraid of implicitly criticising the characters for their town-wide obsession at the same time as it expresses just why they love it so much, which was yet another welcome surprise. It also tackles some fairly big issues, issues which worse shows would wring for every drop of shrieking, heavy-handed melodrama, with its typical light touch and balance.

It’s also just nice. The realistic writing and performances, and the camera-work I mentioned earlier make Dillon, Texas feel like a real place full of relentlessly-optimistic people who help each other and have fun, a place where people face serious difficulties but believe that any problem can be overcome. Aww, it’s like stepping into a hug. It’s the anti-EastEnders.

If it’s similar to any soap, it’s Coronation Street, since it has a sense of humour and characters that are actually – gasp – likeable and believable.* What I’m about to type may sound slightly ridiculous but, at times, it doesn’t feel like a TV show, it feels like you’re wandering around, just popping in to visit, seeing what everyone’s up to, then leaving, eager to come back next week. Which is exactly what this sort of drama should feel like.

‘Oh, the Taylors are thinking of moving, I hope they don’t, but let’s see how that goes. Matt and Julie aren’t doing so well, that’s a shame. Buddy’s trying to spend most of the school’s budget on a Jumbotron screen for the football matches. Oh, Buddy. You rascal. That’s just typical Buddy. Well, this was nice, see you all next week’, etc.

fnl cast

As for the actors, they’re all excellent. So good, in fact, that the actors and the characters they played are now inseparable in my mind. Apart from some glaringly bad acting from some minor characters in Season Two, the whole main cast give wonderful performances.Even when main characters are slowly phased out and replaced with new characters from the other side of town – an extremely risky move, one that could have backfired horribly – the new batch of characters prove to be just as well-played and well-written as the ones that preceded them. By the end of the show, I guarantee you will like and care about them just as much as the original bunch. And that’s impressive.

Unfortunately, not all of the cast have gone on to become the big stars they deserve to be. Tim Riggins went to Mars, Landry Clarke became a real nasty piece of work in Breaking Bad (no link, because of spoilers), Vince gained superpowers (twice) and Coach Taylor helped an alien return home and helped find Osama Bin Laden.

Zach Gilford (who played Matt Saracen), meanwhile, seems to have disappeared completely, which is a huge shame, considering he’s one of the best actors in the whole show. He could just send “The Son” episode (one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen, and also one I never want to see again – it’s devastating) to every casting agent in Hollywood and just wait for the offers to flood in. Unless he’s already done that, and nothing’s happened, in which case, what the hell, Hollywood? What’s wrong with you?

Friday Night Lights has a few flaws which are worth pointing out. The cinematography and the way the show filmed the town clearly took a few episodes to get right – the first four episodes or so involve some headache-inducing shaky-cam and sudden zoom-ins that we have to just persevere through. I’d like to think that, after episode four, the cameraman was given a swift slap and a stern talking-to, after which everything was fine.

Also, Season Two is so disappointingly sub-par that it was almost enough to stop me watching the rest of the series. The delicate balance between cheesy sentimentality and good, honest drama that the show perfected during the first season, and managed to keep for three more seasons afterwards, is almost lost during the second season.

The sort of ridiculous plot-lines and unrealistically exaggerated melodrama which I had mistakenly feared that the show would be full of started to actually happen. This is rumoured to have been caused by feedback from network executives claiming that the show wasn’t exciting enough. If true, it proves that network executives know nothing, like Jon Snow**.

The most frustrating example of this ridiculous stupidity occurs when the show’s comedy relief dork commits murder. Who thought that was a good idea? Who?! Many of the big events, new (rubbish) characters and lame, pointless sub-plots introduced in this season are completely forgotten about for the rest of the show. Thank goodness.

**(Jon Snow, the Game of Thrones character, not Jon Snow the newsreader. I’m sure Newsreader Snow knows quite a lot about everything. Except videogames.)

To summarise this wall of text, you should really watch this show. Go on, give it a try. It may not sound like your cup of tea, but if you like good television- and who doesn’t- it is. It really, really is. If you had gone back in time and told me 3 years ago that a show ostensibly about American football and teenagers going through high school would become one of my favourite shows of all time, Past Me would have rolled his eyes and laughed in your face. Then, hopefully, you would have given Past Me a slap, because Past Me is an idiot.

In short, it’s good. Well worth a watch. It’s bloody impressive how well-done everything about it is, especially considering how much of it could have been badly-handled or poorly-executed. I love it. It’s high up in my top 10 favourite shows of all time (maybe even top 5).

I haven’t thought about the show for a long time, not since I saw the last episode a long while ago, but writing all this has made me start to miss it. Maybe it’s time for a Rewind, a Rewatch.

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3 thoughts on “Friday Night Lights”

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