No matter what the critics say, Friday Night Lights drops the ball.
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TO JUDGE BY THE EARLY REVIEWS, you would think this was something much grander than just a simple television series. This was brave and transcendent art. This was a once-in-a-generation event.
“Lord, is Friday Night Lights good,” gushed Virginia Heffernan in her New York Times review on the day of the show’s October premiere. “In fact, if the season is anything like the pilot, this new drama about high school football could be great—and not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” In the weeks that followed, the critical enthusiasm turned even more perversely effusive. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote, “Friday Night Lights is the Platoon of high school football—the story of the embattled infantry as well as of the officers in the field, reverberant with metaphorical and microcosmic echoes.” Troy Patterson, in the online magazine Slate, went so far as to invoke Melville: “Friday Night Lights and Moby Dick share a few major themes—masculinity, passion, anticipation—and each of them is bouncing with virtuosity.” That the ratings for the program’s first few episodes were dismal only further cemented its reputation. Friday Night Lights seemed destined to join the “brilliant but canceled” ranks of Twin Peaks, Arrested Development, and Freaks and Geeks, shows simply too refined, too original, too genius for the masses.
Um, now might be a good time for a midseason reality check. Friday Night Lights—a spin-off of the 2004 feature film adaptation of H. G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book—is howlingly pretentious and excruciatingly mannered; it’s a portrait of small-town Texas life filtered through a Greenwich Village art house. The show has almost nothing original to say about teenagers, about contemporary Texas, or even about football. As for all of these otherwise intelligent people so blindly falling for the hype, well, that would be plainly hilarious if it didn’t also speak to a much larger cultural arrogance at work. For here is a show that allows the East and West Coast intelligentsia to think they truly “get” Texas without upsetting a single preconceived notion about the place.
Created by Peter Berg, who directed the excellent film version (and who also happens to be Bissinger’s cousin), Friday Night Lights relocates the action from real-life Odessa (Bissinger followed the Permian High School Panthers during the 1988 season) to the fictional town of Dillon, where newly arrived Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) learns that, in this pigskin-obsessed community, failure is simply not an option. Aping the style of the film, the series is shot with a handheld camera that never stops moving—a direct contrast to the storytelling, which unfolds at a pace too tedious to even be described as glacial. In the first episode, the star quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), suffers a spinal injury, launching the second-stringer, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), into the limelight. Four episodes later, Street is still paralyzed, and Saracen still doesn’t know if he has what it takes to be a leader. Oh, and the coach is still being micromanaged by the entire town; the point that Texans really like their football seems to be the only one this show is capable of making. Were it not for a couple of very gifted actors—chiefly Connie Britton, as the coach’s perpetually bemused wife, and Jesse Plemons, as Saracen’s nerdy best friend—Friday Night Lights would barely be worth a second glance.
So what exactly are the highbrow types responding to? Certainly, much of their enthusiasm has to do with the show’s florid, self-conscious artiness. The layered sound design and overlapping dialogue owe a major debt to the great seventies films of the late Robert Altman, like Nashville and M*A*S*H, while the creator’s baffling tendency to shoot scenes through windowpanes and half-closed doors brings to mind the decidedly obscure works of Taiwanese director Edward Yang (Yi yi, A Confucian Confusion). This is television at its most self-hating, a series much too “sophisticated” and “bravura” to troll in the gutter of visceral entertainment. (Indeed, there’s very little football on display in the show—strange considering that Berg’s beautifully executed game sequences lent so much verve to the film version.)
Perhaps more significantly, Friday Night Lights manages a tricky feat: It reaffirms many Texas stereotypes—the cultural small-mindedness, the deep-rooted religiosity, the widespread fondness for guns and ribs—without necessarily coming off as condescending. Note the scene where the coach’s wife attends her first book club meeting, where, of course, she turns out to be the only person among dozens of blowsy, boozing women who actually bothered to read the book. Or witness the portrayal of Street’s devoted, devoutly Christian girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), who believes that if she prays enough to Jesus, the paralyzed athlete will one day be able to play football again. These are bald-faced clichés. But they’re presented so matter-of-factly and solemnly—everything on this show is presented solemnly—that a lot of people mistake these clichés for truth.
It might seem churlish to knock an ambitious, doggedly earnest show while it’s hanging on for dear life. But there’s also danger in letting all the misguided praise go unchecked, because it makes it that much more difficult to get accurate and thoughtful portraits of Texas onto the small screen. Despite the bad ratings, NBC is trying to keep Friday Night Lights afloat, by experimenting with time slots (the show originally debuted against Dancing With the Stars) and ordering a full season of episodes. But when the ax drops—and it will, because critically acclaimed, ratings-deficient shows never last long—gird yourself for the inevitable hand-wringing. The network executives and the critics will have all the ammunition they need to say, “We tried to give the red-staters accurate representations of their own lives, but they refused to tune in. They’d much rather watch The Dukes of Hazzard or Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Well, maybe. By my count, though, there’s been exactly one moment thus far worthy of the hype: a single scene in episode four that serves up a vision of contemporary Texas we’ve never seen before. Saracen sits in an empty classroom, talking to his father, who is stationed in Iraq, via a video monitor link. Two small flags—one American, one Texas—hang on the wall just above him. Watching this, we wonder: What of those young people—more of them every day—whose parents have been dispatched half a world away? (More than 8 percent of those military personnel who have lost their lives in the Iraq war have hailed from the Lone Star State.) How many rural Texas teenagers are presently coming of age without one or both parents around?
Too bad Friday Nights Lights can’t really be bothered to seriously reckon with these questions. The camera was moving so quickly that, if you blinked, you might very well have missed this scene entirely.