Friday Night Lights

Athletics has reached such epic proportions in our culture, as far as how we define ourselves.

–Peter Berg

Pounding, smashing bodies. Low angles on endlessly smiling cheerleaders with pompoms. Breathless parents in the stands, their faces all turned the same direction. Boys in uniforms huddling, running, hidden under helmets. Once the football game started in last week’s premiere episode of Friday Night Lights, the clichés came fast and hard, but still, compelling.

Based on H.G. Bissinger’s book, expanding on the movie directed by Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg, NBC’s series drew immediate and nearly unreserved praise from critics, happy enough to appreciate a well-wrought, earnest project. It helped that Friday Night Lights was not yet another iteration of Lost or CSI, the two models most abundantly on display this TV season. It also helped that the performers were attractive, young, and serious, the setting small-town Texas (here called Dillon), the stakes high but also high school, which means, recognizable but not apocalyptic or otherwise overwhelming. The show seemed destined for something like greatness.

And yet, for all the promotional and critical love, the first episode ranked third for its timeslot (behind Dancing with the Stars and NCIS), with 7.1 million viewers. The fact that it attracted the biggest chunk of men 18-34, beloved by TV executives, which might earn FNL more time to beat Dancing with the Stars. It’s a specific and unassailable sort of pressure, the demand to meet expectations, to produce numbers by some strange alchemy, along with something like “quality.”

Perhaps a show about pressure is too meta. As executive producer Berg notes on the show’s website, FNL puts on weekly display the many pressures on high school footballers — coaches and players — the structure of high school football as a business. Berg suggests there’s “something magical about these kids,” that the show illustrates a special time and place (“It’s hard to imagine a greater time, a more alive, charged time for a young person”), and the first episode pretty much laid out the romance for the coming season: superstar quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) (“The best ever,” according to a preseason newspaper headline, with a 72% pass completion rate) was injured in the first game, and backup Matt (Zach Gilford) stepped up, unbelievably and thrillingly in under three minutes, to win the game the Panthers were losing. He was the night’s hero, and so set up to move the series down a road already traveled by the movie.

At the same time, the show thematized the problem of expectations right off. After Matt was set up as a good boy who looks after his grandma, early scenes featured players and new Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) answering questions for local reporters, all looking for predictions on the coming season. Tailback Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) described the dynamic concisely: “This is business. I keep it football, leave all other stuff at home.” The journalists nodded and wrote on their notepads. The kid was impressive. The fact that he was also the only black player with a speaking part (asked whether he encountered racism on the squad, he focused on his strategy for survival: “I keep my head down”) made him point man for likely storylines, at least one having to do with his dating a white girl.

The pilot episode did lots of such setting up. Noticeably, a couple of the white players, like Jason and fullback Tim (Taylor Kitsch), were endowed with home lives (Jason embodied his parents’ dreams of salvation, hard-drinking Tim rejected his brother Billy’s [Derek Phillips] efforts to straighten him out, rightly dismissing his overwritten line, “This is life, this isn’t Maxim magazine”). Smash had none (as yet), though he did remind you, charismatically and entertainingly (and stereotypically, in the sense that his loud self-love echoed that of NFL me-me-me primetimers), that high school dreaming is a function of mass media, proclaiming his intentions to have endorsement contracts with McDonalds and Burger King, Adidas, Nike, and Reebok, because in his mind, he does contain multitudes.

In fact, Smash’s “difference” on the squad was underlined by a scene at Coach’s home, as wife Tammi (Connie Britton) dreamed her own future (a house with his and her closets) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) pronounced the dominant metaphor for the town, in Moby Dick.

The cold black sea representing the season and all its uncertainties, the magical white whale is the holy grail, the state championship. The boat, I mean, the whalers, are the team… Smash Williams is Queequeg, the hulking African Zulu harpoon-hurling whale killer.

And yes, her dad was Coach Ahab, leading his team on a howling, wild, and endless excursion into darkness, self-understanding, and boys-to-men-style education, driven, Julie said, “to capture what may be uncapturable.”

Julie’s attempt to sum up and so shape the whole new team/big expectations experience suggested she’d been through it before. The FNL pilot granted girls — wives, daughters, rally girls, and fans — some chance to respond to the volatile masculine forces swirling around them. This included a real estate lady propositioning Tim and another woman instructing Jason to listen to Black Sabbath because “It’ll make you mean.” In this, at least, the episode “captured” a sense of how the business of football makes for a vast supporting cast: everyone in town felt (or asserted) a stake in the game, in the season, in the team. As the camera frequently traveled down streets to show beat-down storefronts, aging vehicles, and people-less spaces, you understand that not only does everyone’s energy focus on game day (Friday), but also, the rhythmic rising-and-falling of that energy is something of an addiction. Pursuit of the “uncapturable” is a business all right, but not only that.

For all the narrative sincerity and good-looking imagery offered by FNL — and it is refreshingly unlike the wasteland that has turned proudly crass, formulaic, and game-showy — it is most admirable for its insights into the industry models that shape U.S. entertainment, sports, religion, and education. While the pilot episode was surely sentimental and overwrought (a climactic intercut sequence set Jason’s bloody emergency room travails against Matt’s on-the-field brilliance), it was also, on occasions, subtle. Details suggested stakes apart from the “lights”: Matt’s grandmother’s slipper tapping on the floor as he left for practice, Tim’s predigested declaration that “I just like to hurt people,” and the familiar but still disturbing connection between praying to God and winning ballgames.

Leave it to a non-player, Matt’s buddy Landry (Jesse Plemons), to make an original-sounding assessment: “I’m startin’ to look at this whole damn town like a big old outta tune guitar, you know what I mean? Like, smashed up like some demonic crosswords puzzle.” Matt was tossing the football through a tire tied to a makeshift frame, the camera close on their faces but looking through fences and tree limbs to underscore their limited options. Matt’s grandmother looked on from the porch, her housecoat pale pink while listening to Landry’s plans to start a Christian speed metal band. “Matthew,” she said sternly. “You need to get a new friend.”

While the first episode considered the intersections of local influences and expectations, it made clear that these were of a piece with larger patterns, the all-consuming culture of sports as business-metaphor-distraction. Yes, Coach’s solemnly instructional voiceover insisted during the concluding, teary hospital montage, you know that “What we have is special, that it can be taken from us and that when it is taken from us, we will be tested we will be tested in our very souls.” But aside from the usual uplift — football as a model for life — Friday Night Lights hinted at the costs of doing business, even when winning.

RATING 7 / 10