Good Friday Night
John Spong talks about unearthing the history of TV’s portrayal of Texas through the ages and how Friday Night Lights changed it all.
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Never in the history of television has a program about Texas (let alone Texas high school football) been so universally loved—by critics, that is. Shows like Walker, Texas Ranger and The Dukes of Hazzard had seemed to ensure that one never would be. But even though it’s the darling of reviewers nationwide (the New York Times has compared it with “Balzac and James” and at this year’s primetime Emmy Awards, stars Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler were nominated for their roles), Friday Night Lights failed to gain enough of an audience to sustain itself. This fall’s season, the series’ fifth, will be its last. Not willing to let the show go gentle into that good night, in this month’s issue, senior editor John Spong sought out to find what made this little Austin-produced sports drama so great—and so truly, authentically Texas. Here’s the story behind the story.
Rumor has it you haven’t owned a TV in fifteen years. What was it like to be in front of the tube so much after such a long period of time without it? And will you go back to your TV-free days or are you hooked now?
When the story was assigned, editor Jake Silverstein actually offered to buy me a TV on the company nickel. I declined. Netflix and a laptop looked to be sufficient. And to be frank, no matter how much I enjoyed FNL, the rest of the Texas shows made me feel quite good about that decision.
I should add, though, that I did learn one important fact in my reporting that didn’t make it into the piece: When I was thinking aloud about Jake’s offer to by me a television set, I was informed by a coworker—a snot-nosed punk in the art department—that those devices are no longer known by that term. I think the kid’s exact quote was, “Did you just say ‘television set?’ You mean like a wooden box with a knob that you turn? Like at my grandmother’s house in Del Rio?” He said that the more current term would be “flat screen.” So the better answer to your question would be: No, I still don’t own a flat screen.
When you were reporting, you visited the set of Friday Night Lights. What was that like?
TV and movie sets are funny places. They all look about the same, with one or two people you recognize; the stars, standing around doing nothing; and lots of people you don’t know, the crew, running around like crazy. Then when a scene is ready to be shot, the crew stops dead and the stars go to work. Scenes are shot over and over. Lots of repetition. It can be mind-numbingly monotonous.
The FNL set was different. They really do operate on the fly, and the scenes really do evolve from take to take, as the actors improvise and make subtle changes to their lines. And they seldom take more than three stabs at a scene. To an outsider like me, it seemed a great deal more creative and organic than most sets. There was a natural quality to what everyone was doing that shows up in the final product.
Do you patronize any of the Austin businesses featured in the show, like Fran’s Hamburgers?
One of the coolest parts of watching the show was recognizing so many of the locations. For a while there, Tim Riggins was spending a lot of time at the Broken Spoke. I’ve spent a great many nights at the Spoke. The same with the Horseshoe Lounge, where Coach Taylor would hang out with Buddy Garrity. But my absolute favorite moment was when Vince, the current quarterback at East Dillon High, walked with his drug-addict mom from a convenience store to their ratty apartment. It was clearly supposed to show that they live on the wrong side of the tracks. And they literally walked the same route I take to my colleague Pamela Colloff’s house from my own place in East Austin. Such are the salaries of big-time journalism.
You went to Westlake High School in Austin, off of which the Dillon team was modeled. Did they get the football culture right? Who were you in the world of football—Player? Diehard fan? Member of the marching band?
I was the diehard fan. My friends and I liked to drink beer in the woods outside the stadium before games and at halftime—and then buy grape bubble gum to mask our breath on our way to the bleachers. If one of us showed up late, the rest of us were easy to find because our little cheering section smelled like we’d all taken baths in grape juice before the game.
For that matter, did it feel like, as your friends said in your story, you were flipping through the pages of your high school yearbook? Which Friday Night Lights character do you most identify with?
Well, until Landry Clarke made the team, he was pretty close to me, the wiseass who hung out with the jocks and occasionally helped with their homework. And it was funny, because I had a couple close friends who were a lot like Riggins. Watching the show, I caught myself at times hoping that Riggins would let me go to lunch with him, and that he might not mind too terribly if I flirted with his girlfriend. It was all very familiar.
When Friday Night Lights debuted in 2007, TEXAS MONTHLY actually published a rather scathing review written by Christopher Kelly. Was that review part of why you avoided the show at first? Do you now disagree with what he wrote?
It wasn’t even Chris’s column that turned me off. It was those first New York Times pieces that talked about how true to life the show was. I just couldn’t imagine that they knew what they were talking about. I was wrong.
Do you know any other Texans who dislike the show?
I actually don’t know many people who’ve seen the show and don’t like it. Now, I’ve plenty of friends who’ve avoided it for the same reasons I did, but once they watched it, they were hooked too. For instance, I talked about the show one morning over breakfast with an old buddy from high school, and he got curious when I told him about all the Westlake references. Then, when we were done eating, we both went to work.
Apparently it was a slow day at his office. He started streaming the pilot as soon as he got there, periodically sending me text messages while he watched it. “You didn’t tell me Mack Brown was in the show.” “That looks like the Brackenridge ER.” Finally he sent a message at about lunchtime informing me that he’d just watched the first four episodes. He eventually turned it off, not because he was worried about getting fired, but because he wanted to go home and watch it with his wife. Now they’re both addicted.
How have the producers and writers of Friday Night Lights reacted to criticism of the murder plotline? Do they defend it, or wish it hadn’t happened?
The creative types associated with the show who I talked to all got a little defensive about it. Apparently the FNL’s poor ratings during the first season made them think they needed to broaden its appeal. One of them said that he felt the murder plot would up the stakes and make it interesting to people who didn’t want to watch a show about football. Like I said in the story, that wasn’t really necessary.
But one thing is important to point out about that plotline: It gave the show a chance to show a lot more Landry. And there’s no such thing as too much Landry.
In your story, you identify yourself as an ardent, converted fan of Friday Night Lights. Were you as enthusiastic about Dallas, King of the Hill, or any of the other shows you mentioned?
I watched King of the Hill fairly regularly when it first came on, but then got out of the habit. So getting reacquainted with it for this story was a real treat. And now I keep winding up in this weird position of reciting old Hank Hill lines to friends who look at me like I’m an idiot who’s just discovered it. I threw out a Hank quote to a buddy at lunch yesterday—“If Ronald Reagan did dye his hair it was only to intimidate the Russians!”—and he simply stared at me. The idea that KOTH was funny was not news to him.
Dallas, on the other hand, was tough to re-watch. I was a huge fan of the show when I was in college and it was running in syndication. I had a job mowing yards one summer and watched it every single day when I got done. But that was twenty years ago. Good TV is different now, so much faster-paced, and so much more concerned with presenting something believable. I was a big Sopranos fan. And lots of the smart TV-types I talked to compared J.R. to Tony Soprano. Sure, they’re both anti-heroes. But the Ewings live in a completely unreal world. You can actually take Sopranos tours in New Jersey. I found it difficult to go back to that old-fashioned TV.