Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!
I’ve now seem all 76 episodes of Friday Night Lights (streaming Netflix rocks) and have been able to come to a few conclusions about it. Foremost, it’s a great show, with characters that you genuinely get to know and care about. It has real heart; there’s not a thing in it that seems like it came from a marketing session or a focus group. There are moments that, even if you can see them coming a mile away, still make a cynical old reprobate like me tear up, because the writing and acting make them feel genuine. Nothing that follows should take away from this: FNL is a wonderful show, it’s a damned shame that it wasn’t more successful, and you should watch it.
As is fairly well-known, Friday Night Lights is set in a small Texas town that doesn’t have much going for it except its excellent high school football team, so that both the series and the town revolve around it. Another show might parody or satirize this. Not FNL, which is an irony-free zone. It’s set in Texas, filmed in Texas (in Austin), and populated by pretty solid portrayals of Texans. We often see the characters in their different churches: a sedate mainstream Protestant one for most of them, an evangelical church for some of the more rural families, a rollicking black church for the black families. All are shown sympathetically and equally so. It’s all played very straight, with no winking at the audience.
The main character, head coach Eric Taylor, believes in what these days are usually called old-fashioned values: family, God, discipline, and hard work. And he believes that by coaching he help instill these values in the young men on his team. He’ll often talk to them in ways that sound like generic coach-speak, but are redeemed from being cliches by the fierceness of his sincerity and how much he genuinely cares about his team. He’s simply a good man; you wish he’d been your coach. Maybe even your Dad.
His wife Tami is a similarly strong personality and high achiever, and they have what’s probably the best-portrayed good marriage I’ve ever seen on TV. Because they’re both strong, they often butt heads and have their share of fights, but always without losing respect for each other, and always understanding that they’ll resolve it, whatever it is, because their love and their commitment to keeping their family together outweighs it.
The other main characters are the high school students, many of whom come from broken or otherwise imperfect homes, and this is handled both realistically and sensitively. They have weaknesses they might not have had with better parenting, and for many of them, their relationship with one or both of the Taylors helps give them guidance they wouldn’t have found at home.
FNL is by no means a perfect show. It began as a network series beset by low ratings, and was almost cancelled after the first season, even though its fairly large ensemble cast included three extraordinarily beautiful young women obviously not cast for their acting abilities. (Two of the three eventually improved greatly.) The second season introduced a number of plot-lines that seem designed to goose the ratings, at least one of which is comically awful and was eventually forgotten. (If you’ve seen this season, you know exactly which one.) It was also cut short by the writers’ strike, so some of the other plot-lines were never resolved and simply disappeared. At this point, the show would have gone away except for an innovative deal with DirectTV, which got the exclusive rights to show new episodes first, with NBC not able to show them until months later, sometimes after the DVDs had been released. The shorter cable season (13 episodes per year instead of 22) often made the storytelling seem rushed, or resulted in some characters being ignored for most of a season.
FNL also faced a problem common to shows set in high school: the actors playing the students were in their 20s to start with and got older every year. This was exacerbated by the fact that each TV season was the story of one football season. Characters who seemed to be seniors in Season 1 were still in school in Season 2, and some even in Season 3. Finally in Season 4, they bit the bullet, had almost all of the original cast graduate, and introduced a new set of students. Unfortunately, they were simply not as interesting as the original cast had been, with one exception, a troubled former gang member played by Michael B. Jordan (Wallace from The Wire. .)
But, as I said to begin with, none of this takes away from the strengths of the show: the strong characters, their real dilemmas, their honest emotion, and most of all, that it was made with, as they say, clear eyes and a full heart. And you know what that means.
1. You are not the first person to think to yourself that this is the answer to “Where’s Wallace, String?” ↩