Big State, Small Screen

For most of the TV shows set here, getting the local details right hasn’t mattered much (anyone remember that hurricane on Dallas?). Then along came Friday Night Lights. Is it the most realistic TV show about Texas ever, or just the first one that’s tried?
Big State, Small Screen
Illustration by Gluekit

The snowball of critical gush that started rolling with the debut of Friday Night Lights, in October 2006, was actually a little embarrassing. That so many critics around the country would deem a show about Texas high school football to be the year’s best new drama was itself a surprise, but only mildly so, as some program had to be. But then the New York Times took the discussion somewhere else. In its review of the pilot, the Times predicted that the series would be “not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” The following week, Slate compared it to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Melville’s Moby Dick. Two months later, the Los Angeles Times put it in the same league as Dickens and Springsteen. Eventually the New York Times would top even that, declaring Friday Night Lights “a melodrama in the most redemptive sense of the term, elevating our understanding of the form the way, as the literary critic Peter Brooks argued in the 1970’s, Balzac and James did.”

The praise hardly calmed over the next four seasons. For a while the Times was running so many stories celebrating the show that it seemed to have a regular Friday Night Lights section. Slate launched a weekly roundtable analyzing each episode, lauding everything from the football to the music the kids liked to the unique pressures facing Texas educators. The valentines didn’t translate into ratings success—the series never cracked the Nielsen top fifty—but they did mirror the fanatical devotion of the show’s small audience. When Friday Night Lights faced cancellation at the end of season two, fans around the country inundated NBC with thousands of plastic footballs.

I, for one, did not buy any of it. I knew Friday Night Lights as H. G. Bissinger’s nonfiction book chronicling the 1988 season of the very real Odessa Permian Panthers, a portrayal so honest that in some parts of town Bissinger is still not welcome. I knew also that when Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg made the book into a feature film, in 2004, he promised a kinder, gentler look at Odessa. When NBC announced Berg would create a fictional West Texas town for a series “inspired” by the book, I steered clear. I grew up in Texas watching bad TV purportedly set here. No show ever got Texas right back then. And no interloping heavy thinker from the media elite was going to convince me that this one did.

Then I noticed the romance reaching all the way to Texas. Friends swore by the show, insisting that watching it was like flipping through their own high school yearbook. People normally immune to being starstruck thrilled at chance encounters with cast members, a number of whom had moved to Austin, where the series is filmed. Most annoyingly, they said Friday Night Lights “transcended” football and Texas. This was a show about life, each episode filled with what they preciously called “coaching moments.” That actually made it much easier to ignore, which I would have continued doing, except that this past summer, when it was announced that the show’s fifth season, which begins this month, would be its last, I was assigned this story. I rented the first season, locked myself in my house, and prepared to be disappointed.

The setting, which is to say, the stakes, is established with the pilot’s earliest details. Eric Taylor is the new head coach at Dillon High School, and as he drives around town in the opening scenes, skeptical callers to a sports radio show—the program’s Greek chorus—are heard wondering if he’s up to the task. Football, we are made to understand, matters in Dillon. At a preseason barbecue, the mayor presses quarterback Jason Street to throw the ball and quit being so nice (“Listen to early Black Sabbath,” she says. “They’ll make you mean”). A booster’s wife comes on to brooding fullback (and requisite heartthrob) Tim Riggins (“Have you ever blitzed an older woman?”). And a group of local elders, one played by University of Texas coach Mack Brown—clearly ad-libbing from a familiar litany of unreasonable expectations—grills Coach Taylor on the level of his dedication. “We’ve driven by [the field house] a couple times,” Brown’s character says. “Didn’t see any cars in the lot. The lights were all out.”

The action shifts to Coach Taylor’s first game. Dillon flounders until Street, who is as much the focus of the pilot as the coach, leads the inevitable comeback, at which point Friday Night Lights could have become any sports movie ever made. But then the show did something that television normally doesn’t do. Street throws an interception and gets injured stopping the return. The stadium goes silent, except for his mother’s crying, and an ambulance takes him away. The next scenes cut back and forth from the field, where the game continues, to a hospital, where technicians remove his helmet and surgeons stabilize his spine. The sights and sounds of the operating room are terrifying. The pilot ends with Coach Taylor staring at Street, who’s propped up in bed by a halo brace. I was hooked.

Over the next week, I watched every episode of the first four seasons, and the show got even better. Characters who initially looked like familiar stereotypes grew in unexpected directions. Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami, who works as the high school counselor and later principal, emerge as the heart of the ensemble. Played by Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, they carefully balance their duties to family and community and end up advising every character on the show, from the backup QB thrust into the starting spot to the pregnant sophomore considering an abortion to the wealthy booster thrown out of the house for cheating on his wife. They are de facto parents for the entire town, which makes perfect sense. He’s the high school football coach.

What worked about the show was exactly what had kept me from watching it in the first place. Seeing your home represented onscreen

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