Every man, at some point in his life, is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he’s gonna lose, but what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself. This game is not over.
—Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler), “State”
Don’t look at me. I had my last hot flash in 1990.
—Grandma Saracen (Louanne Stephens), Landry’s car, “State”
Friday Night Lights’ greatest boon may be exactly what keeps people from watching it. The Peabody Award-winning drama mixes seemingly disparate genres and narrative modes, focusing on high school football while also providing small town melodrama. It also merges realism with idealism, the quotidian with the heroic. Much like fans of the Dillon Panthers, viewers are absorbed into the romance of ordinary people who play above themselves.
The realism starts with how and where Friday Night Lights is shot. Friday Night Lights‘s “documentary” style is effected by three cameras and little artificial lighting. Set and filmed in a small Texas town outside of Austin, the show often employs real-life residents as extras, providing local color in addition to an impossible-to-fake authenticity. (While helping a shopper find an apology gift for his girlfriend, the real-life jewelry store clerk adlibbed, “Was it diamond bad or gold bad?”) Moreover, the principal cast follows executive producer Peter Berg’s edict: “You know your character 110 percent, you know the lines that are on the page 110 percent, and then be prepared to get rid of everything and start all over.”
Such immersion produces characters who look “lived in.” In the US, football is typically cast in a heroic light, especially in Texas, where towns like Dillon have little else going for them, culturally, economically or sociopolitically. The sport becomes a simultaneously quixotic and pragmatic way out for some lucky few, and a way for Dillon residents to watch kids achieve something beyond what the town can offer. When Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) said, during the season finale, “State,” that his team must not lose themselves even if they lost the game, he spoke to the reality of their 26-0 halftime deficit, but also to their dreams. For his undersized team, his advice is accurate and potent: the players must perform beyond what the situation and circumstances give them. Only then do they “become men.”
As inspiring as the coach, his wife Tami (Connie Britton) is imbued with the most optimism of all the Dillonites. The moral rock of the Taylor household—see her breathtaking scene in “I think We Should Have Sex,” frank but also protective, in which she had the Talk with daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden)—Tami likewise prevents the rest of the show from spinning out of melodramatic control, sometimes literally holding others together. At a team roast celebrating the Panthers semifinal victory in “Best Laid Plans,” Tami was distracted by tensions with Taylor over a possible relocation for a job he accepted without asking her. Nevertheless, she not only lauded him while enumerating how she much she sacrificed for him, but also glowingly thanked the entire town for their support, at the end embracing Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), who was reluctant even to acknowledge she had been sexually assaulted, until Tami had intervened.
While she might sound like a supermom caricature, Tami remained refreshingly convincing throughout the season, owing to Britton’s subtle and often moving performance. She created Tami out of beautifully gratuitous details—in “State,” she stood on her husband’s feet just before they discussed the future of their family. Living amid the quietly desperate world of Dillon, she remained remarkably idealistic.
In this, Tami is not so unlike other residents of Dillon, who become better than what they are. In the mundane, in the small and sometimes sad realities of small-town life, the heroic can be found.