“Friday Night Writes”: Meeting the Dillon Panthers
The Dillon Panthers are back (for us, anyway).
School districts across the state delayed the start of high school football season after Hurricane Harvey devastated large parts of Texas. Sports, of course, come second to the safety and well-being of thousands of Texas who have been affected by this historic storm. But with the first Friday nights of the season beginning with flooded fields instead of packed crowds in many places, we decided to continue with our previously scheduled series, “Friday Night Writes.” Because, now, more than ever, Tim Riggins’s words ring true: “Texas forever.”
This series, which will continue weekly through the month of September, follows four of our writers as they watch the first season of the classic TV series, Friday Night Lights. Two of them have never seen it—the other two are fanatics. In this first installment, they discuss the first four episodes of the season, weighing in on Jason Street’s injury, the Katrina evacuee who makes his way to Dillon, and first impressions (or second evaluations) of the characters. Check the schedule here to watch along with us.
Initial thoughts from the clear-eyed newcomers:
Doyin Oyeniyi: I think a good place for me to start is with the list of predictions I laid out in the introduction post. Just a few minutes into episode one, there’s Tim Riggins asleep on a couch surrounded by empty beer bottles. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but then a person doing a pre-season interview with him straight up asked if Tim had been drinking because he could smell alcohol on his breath. So, budding alcoholism: check. Tim also helped us start the conversation about racism (whether casual or overt). Apparently, it doesn’t matter what Smash Williams’s race is, Tim would still hate him. And I will admit that even I find Smash annoying as hell, but I noticed that the only other person Tim said he hated was Voodoo Tatum, the evacuee from Hurricane Katrina (I’ll get back to him later).
But, as Emily pointed out to me, I didn’t predict a major thing that happened in episode one: Jason Street’s accident. And I’m surprised I didn’t. The concerns that I alluded to about football include the physical damage it does to people’s bodies, so while it was in the back of my mind, I didn’t expect to see FNL address it, or at least so early. But then, when I started the show, I just knew something was going to happen to Jason Street. I took a few notes, and “Jason Street is going to get hurt” is the third thing I wrote down. And then right before the game, as I was getting very anxious, I wrote down, “I’m convinced Street is going to die.” Well, he didn’t die, but his injury is devastating. And it was easy to see coming because they spent that first episode introducing us to Matt Saracen while lifting Street up as the perfect quarterback. Why would we need to know who the second string quarterback is? Unless…
Yeah. I feel terrible for Jason. Not just because he’s injured, but because he’s genuinely a good guy who does not deserve a girlfriend with suffocating optimism and a best friend who won’t visit him in the hospital, but has time to sneak into his girlfriend’s house and make out with her. Tim Riggins is The Worst™, and I hope he has some serious character development later on (or at least gets on the road to recovery), but so far he’s trash. Sorry, not sorry.
I was glad to we were starting on FNL this week, because it was a welcome distraction from Hurricane Harvey news. Until it wasn’t. Hurricane Harvey has been devastating, and the devastation isn’t over. And several people have been comparing to Hurricane Katrina, so seeing Voodoo (who was referred to as a “Katrina refugee“) was such a weird feeling. The scene in the hotel room with Buddy Garrity and Voodoo was particularly disturbing to me, because you know Buddy doesn’t really care about his well-being. He wants his talent. Voodoo hasn’t really said much so far, and he’s rubbed a few people the wrong way, but I’m going to give him a pass because I imagine he’s traumatized from Katrina. So far, the show’s writing makes me think the writers are capable of exploring themes like that, but I’m not sure if Voodoo is a central enough character for them to get into that with him.
Christian Wallace: As the designated “West Texas curmudgeon”—I refused to watch the show while it was on-air because it was filmed in the Austin area rather than the Permian Basin, where the original book and film were set—I have to admit that, so far, I have liked how much homage the show has played to its WTX roots. The fictional team isn’t the Odessa Permian Panthers, but they are Panthers and, though the school colors are different (Permian is black and white—Dillon is yellow and blue), the “P” on the TV helmets looks almost exactly the same as the ones I used to crash into on Friday nights.
Another nice call-out to the region came in the first episode when Riggins, perched in the bed of a pickup with a shotgun, fires off shells into the pasture while talking to his brother, who’s driving the truck. That made me extremely nostalgic for home. My buddies and I used to do the same thing out in the oilfield.
I liked the almost excessive use of Explosions in the Sky, because A) I love them and B) they’re from West Texas. And this might be purely coincidence, but it’s at least strangely serendipitous: my granddad used to work for the Chevrolet dealer in my hometown of Andrews. He used to take me up there when I was a kid to get doted on by the ladies who worked in the front office (they had a popcorn machine, so that was another plus). The name of the dealer? Mike McGarrity. The name of the booster club boyo and car salesman in Dillon? Buddy Garrity. Mind. Blown.
Reflections by the full-hearted veterans:
Dan Solomon: So, just a note for Christian and at least 50 percent of the Friday Night Lights audience: It’s actually not Explosions in the Sky doing most of the music. The band decided that the show would probably be a crappy cash-in on the movie—which they did do the music for—and decided not to participate. (To the best of my knowledge, this decision has so haunted them that most members of the band, despite hearing how great it is, haven’t even watched it.) The pilot licenses “Your Hand In Mine,” but otherwise it’s the dude who did the music for The West Wing who did the score, hired to make it sound like them.
Christian: …but it sounds just like them! I retract previous warm, fuzzy thoughts.
Dan: W.G. Snuffy Walden—who’s from Houston, so it’s not a total loss—did a good job of aping their sound, so it still makes things feel at once epic and desolate, sad and triumphant.
And those are the themes of the show, so it works out pretty well. It’s hard to watch some of the other themes—like Emily said, the show uses football to explore how people better themselves—knowing what I know now about football and the men who coach people to play it. A few years ago, there were memes going around Baylor fandom about how Art Briles was the real-life Coach Taylor, and it was hard to shake that while watching Coach yell at these kids, or tell Matt Saracen to get a girl in the backseat of a car. I weep for my Friday Night Innocence, but it’s encouraging to see that this hasn’t yet impeded the enjoyment y’all are feeling. And, if I’m honest, it hasn’t impeded my own much. I still like Coach Taylor, and I still believe he’s a good man. I have questions about what that all means, but I can figure those out as the show progresses.
Emily McCullar: Let me start by saying it’s been a very busy week at work (we’re closing the October issue), so I put off re-watching these first four episodes until this morning. All week I’ve been saying to myself, “Oh man, I really have to watch those FNL episodes.” And then at 6 a.m. this morning, I pressed play on the FNL pilot and heard Explosions in the Sky. My heart soared, and I thought, “Have to watch? Have to?!? No, you get to watch those FNL episodes, McCullar.” Dear Lord, I love this show.
I’ve been thinking a lot about something Christian said—before watching, mind you—about the show coming off as “pigskin Degrassi,” so I watched these episodes looking for examples of FNL being just another teen drama. But it isn’t! Let’s look at episode four. Sure, you have the sexy-teen-cheating-because-of-big-adult-feelings plotline involving Lyla and Riggins, but also one of the central narrative arcs of that episode is just Coach and Mrs. Coach resolving an argument! They just have a fight, and they talk through it. And I would argue their scenes are episode four’s best scenes, without question.
Other random thoughts:
- I love the way they play with where to put a game in the structure of each episode. The pilot ends with your standard heroic sports moment, but then they immediately devote the entire second episode to just the lead up to the next game, and they briefly use that game, and the loss, as a starting point for episode three.
- This show just generally makes me want to be a better person. When Coach makes them do wind sprints through that creek in the rain (“You thought you were a champion because you wear a Panther jersey? You’re wrong”) I actually reflected on whether or not I have been working as hard as I could to achieve my dreams.
- Connie Britton’s hair is beautiful in these early episodes, but it’s not as beautiful as I remember it. So I am really excited to watch Connie Britton’s hair grow more beautiful as we make our way through the season.
- I don’t like Jason Street. I’ll go ahead and get that out there. He annoys me to no end, and I know that probably means I am a bad person but I feel I should be honest with the group.
- This show uses football as a medium through which to examine how people try to better themselves throughout the courses of their lives, whether in sports, work, or in relationships. I love it so much.
- Final thing: a while ago Eric Benson asked me if FNL ever mentioned the stats of their QBs for a piece he was working on for the September issue, and I told him I didn’t think so, because I didn’t remember it. But then they talk about Street’s stats in the first ten minutes of the pilot, which just proves that I have never watched this show for the football.
Christian: Dan, since you mentioned the conversation about Saracen and “getting a girl in the backseat of a car,” I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Coach was essentially advocating for “Clear eyes, full hearts, empty balls, can’t lose.” And suddenly the implication of that message hits him when he sees Saracen and his daughter chatting.
Doyin: I’d say Coach was advocating for the type of masculinity that’s about being “aggressive.” That’s the gist of what I got form that conversation (aside from freaking out because he was essentially talking about his daughter as that “girl”). But also, this is a football show. As much as I appreciate the dynamic between Coach and his wife and how she calls him out on being a decent person and communicator, he’s still coach of a sport that’s all about a certain type of male aggression.
Dan: Is the coach advocating that his horny young QB get a young lady in the backseat of a car, only to find out that the young lady of the horny young QB’s fancy is his own daughter, the sort of Pigskin DeGrassi situation you envisioned before you started watching the show, Christian?
Christian: To Dan’s point, I’ll say that there has been more depth—overall—to the interpersonal drama between the characters than I was expecting. I didn’t go into it thinking the QB might take a liking to Coach’s daughter, but after the first couple of exchanges, I got the, um, thrust of that narrative pretty quickly.
Emily: Yeah, enough of that.
Doyin: Emily, can you expand on why you don’t like Jason Street? The show seems to be working really hard to make us like him.
Emily: I’ll admit I feel somewhat limited as to what I can say by the need to withhold spoilers. I respect Street, and I feel for Street, and if Street were a real person I would probably feel differently.
Doyin: I’ll say that it feels like the show set him up to be a martyr, and his self-sacrificing got a little bit annoying. I can’t believe he apologized to Coach for letting him down. That broke my heart. But I’m glad that in episodes three and four, he was showing some cracks in his perfect mask.
Emily: He’s definitely not perfect.
Doyin: Absolutely, but so far, they’re making it seem like he is.
Christian: “You’re a good man” scene between Street and Coach was pretty damn good. I remember being that age and hearing an authority figure say something like that would have made a fairly profound impact on me.
Dan: I’m curious what y’all think about Riggins, since he’s one of the show’s most beloved characters—but, as Doyin noted, he sure is a friggin’ jerk at this point in the series. I expected that we’d see more of the heart of gold that—at the risk of spoilers—may lurk behind that bad-boy exterior and those smoldering eyes at this point. I don’t like Riggins at all at this point! Not just for the way he treats his best pal, or for the puppy-dog eyes he makes at Lyla, or for the shitty way he treats Tyra, or for the borderline racism towards Smash and Voodoo (P.S., I can’t wait till this show starts giving it’s black characters real names), but for the fact that he basically has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. I can forgive him and Lyla hopping into the sack so soon—they’re teenagers, so Street’s injury was basically like four years ago for them—but the only moment I liked him even a little bit was when he pulled Saracen into the car to go vandalize the opposing team’s QB’s house, which is kinda messed up. But it was, at least, the first time this entire series we see him be anything other than selfish and mean for no real reason.
Emily: Riggins is pretty horrible right now, yes. But we also don’t know much about him yet. And we’re only four episodes in. I’d argue that the show is still figuring out how to present all their characters, with the exception of Saracen, Coach and Mrs. Coach, everyone else is still a little caricature-y right now: Smash is the loudmouth. Riggins is the drunk bad boy. Tyra’s the slut. Landry’s the comic relief. Buddy Garrity is generally the worst.
Christian: Julie is the literary-minded, cool, slightly aloof girl. Lyla is the blessed Virgin Mary? (Except she’s not.)
Emily: Lyla’s the privileged cheerleader. She ain’t no virgin.
Doyin: Julie is girl who got all upset over Coach not being able to attend her dance recital even though if I were her I wouldn’t have let anybody know about that. I can’t believe she wanted people to see that.
But you’re right, everyone’s a bit of caricature right now, so I’m willing to give them time for some character development, which means I’m also ready to see Matt be less of the self-sacrificing grandson. I’m sure there’s some pent up frustration at his dad in there. And speaking of fathers, I’m so ready for some depth to Smash! Let’s talk about the loss of his father! Let’s talk about his badass mom. Her Planned Parenthood line to Tyra was my favorite: “I work at Planned Parenthood. I bet you haven’t seen the last of me.” *Chef’s kiss*
Christian: One caricature that’s annoying me: this town’s bat-shit insane obsession with football.
Doyin: OK, right? I was wondering if this was just due to my inexperience with small town football madness, but my god. The mayor betting a cow. Buddy from the car dealership recruiting traumatized kids in hotels. Strangers threatening Julie at fast food joints. It all seems a bit cultish and I didn’t know how true to reality it was.
Emily: But I’d argue that’s one of the only consistent things that came from the original Buzz Bissinger book.
Christian: Just because a town REALLY loves football doesn’t mean every grandmother and booster club member can offer detailed lectures about a quarterback’s footwork or the pros and cons of a spread offense. I get that they’re using the TV and radio to advance the narrative, but people do listen to and watch things other than coverage of their high-school football team. It’s just a bit much.
Dan: Are the things that Doyin notes accurate to your experience, Christian?
Christian: I mean, I’ve never heard of a mayor betting a cow, but I’ve definitely heard of shady dealings made to circumvent UIL rules to bring in football talent into high-schools. What happened with Voodoo was more messed up than anything I’ve ever heard of, though. And I have seen and heard about rivalries getting pretty ugly, as the one between Dillon and Arnett Mead did in episode 4—though jumping someone behind what is essentially the Dairy Queen was stretching it pretty far. That’s straight-up assault.
Dan: That’s definitely fair. I also don’t get why Coach Taylor spends so much damn time listening to all the talk radio. It’s out of character for the well-centered molder of boys into young men to spend so much time listening to his own press—except, of course, that the show needs us to hear what they’re saying, so we spend more time than we should watching him take it all in.
Emily: You’re both right, but I don’t mind. Man, I wonder if I’m every going to be able to actually criticize the show. I’m willing to let the show play with accuracy for a bit to allow for comic relief or atmosphere building.
Dan: Let’s take a positive spin: Who are everybody’s favorite characters so far on the show?
I had forgotten how good Grandma Saracen is at being both comic relief and one of the show’s emotional centers (which aren’t easy roles to bridge), and the budding romance between Saracen and Julie is one of my favorite things so far. I’m also really big on Buddy Garrity right now, because I think he’s the most honest thing the show is doing.
Doyin: Ew, you like Buddy? Couldn’t be me.
Matt Saracen. That feels like such an obvious answer, because of course they want us to like him so far. What’s not to like? Just a humble high schooler trying to figure it out and become a good quarterback while taking care of his grandmother (that scene where the police drop her off got me). I’m ready to see him be more assertive and confident. I want him to become a good quarterback.
Emily: It’s hard for me to answer this without bringing to it all my experience with later episodes, but I when I first watched it, I was able to root for Saracen very early on. As Doyin said, it’s impossible not to. I adore Tami Taylor and I also really like Tyra. It pissed me off the way they dressed her “really driving home that she’s promiscuous” but I like that she is who she is. It doesn’t take long for them to give her a little more depth. Tyra doesn’t care that much about football, she’s just only in scenes with football players.
Christian: I like Tami. She’s one of the only characters who doesn’t eat, sleep, and breathe football. And she seems like an honest, all-around good person. I want to like Saracen, and I’m sure I will, but right now he spends like 80 percent of his screen time with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Someone even calls him “Bambi” at one point.
I do want to know what’s driving Tyra. But I’m also looking forward to seeing more from Smash. He’s been so one-sided so far, but I feel like he’s got a lot more to contribute. He could be a great leader if he let’s go of some ego.
Emily: I think all the characters will fare well when they become less caricature-y (except two characters who I believe only get worse with time, but I won’t name them so as not to influence your experiences).
Doyin: Should we wrap this up with the ultimate question?
Dan: Let’s do it.
Doyin: Christian, having never seen the show, do you like it so far?
Christian: In short, yes, I’m enjoying it. I think it’s definitely a little caricature-y, as we’ve talked about, but it’s early days. Right now there’s way more that I like than things I don’t. No joke, the scene in the pilot where Riggins and Street are talking around the fire—”Texas forever”—hit me so hard in all my Texan feels.
Doyin: I like the show as well. I knew I would as soon as I watched the first three episodes in one sitting. There are things that bother me, like Dan said, I’m going to need the black characters to have actual names. The town’s football obsession seems a bit much and Buddy’s shady involvement with Voodoo are disturbing, but also seem like an accurate depiction of the exploitation that happens to young football players. I’m annoyed that they haven’t spent much time talking about the dangers of the sport. They just had a little warning from a referee after one of their players was paralyzed and then they moved on and got back on a field. I don’t know what I expected from a small town as obsessed with football as much as Dillon is, but will the show ever talk about that more? Like I said before we started, I don’t really care about football until you put it in front of me and I’m rooting for the Panthers, but I’m more here for the characters becoming better people than them getting to state. But it’d be nice if that happened too
Emily and Dan, how’s re-watching the show feel for you? Anything different from the first (or last) time you watched it?
Emily: Well, I haven’t watched the show since moving back to Texas four years ago. When I first saw it I was living in California, and then I rewatched it in NYC, so it always brought me immense joy and comfort as a Tex-pat. This time, I have certainly felt my heart strings plucked (as I said before “am I really working to accomplish my dreams? are my eyes clear and my heart full?”), but there is more stuff that makes me uncomfortable. I really am worried though that I will never be able to criticize the show. I will forgive it a lot because of the way it makes me feel, and that’s not going to be very useful in this endeavor. I’m going to try and watch it with some sort of emotional objectivity. For journalism!
When I was a sophomore in high school, the QB of our team had a brain aneurism in the middle of a game on a Friday night. He got tackled, hit the ground and never got up again. He was in a coma and died shortly thereafter. Everyone was in the stands that night, and the reaction shots they get when Street goes down have always seemed every accurate to me. That’s exactly how it was, exactly how it felt. I have never cared much about football, and we did not even have a good football team at my high school, but I think there is something about being in the stands and watching one of your high school classmates hit the ground, unsure of whether or not he’ll get up, that is a pretty universal aspect of the high school football experience.
Dan: The biggest difference for me is that it’s harder to buy into the idea that football makes good men out of lost boys in the way that I did when the show first aired. I still like Coach Taylor—the scene where he makes Riggins walk home in the rain as punishment for walking off of the football field is the moment where he truly became President—but I don’t believe that a guy whose job is to win would find a way to ensure that he’s only ever acting ethically to get there. Which is why I find Buddy Garrity so fascinating right now, because I feel like he’s the honest version of the way football works: He wants to win, and he’ll do what it takes to get there. You get the feeling that Coach Taylor would just as soon not even talk to Voodoo in that hotel room, and roll the dice with Saracen. I think, in the real world, someone who needed the Dillon Panthers to win would do exactly what Buddy Garrity does, and I’m glad that the show is representing that win-at-all-costs perspective right now (even if Buddy is mostly the villain here). I don’t know how long it’ll take before I do start buying into the idea that, yeah, a good coach who loves these kids can want to win and also insist on doing it the right way—it might be episode five, or it might be season five—but for now, I’m finding that I enjoy the moral ambiguity in the competing vision for the Panthers between Buddy Garrity and Coach Taylor more than I enjoy having my heartstrings plucked by the Explosions In The Sky soundalike score as we gear up for the big rivalry matchup between Dillon and Arnette Meade. I’m skeptical of some of what the show is trying to say, but I’m also finding myself enthralled by the tension of how it’s saying it—and I think the first time I watched it, I was doing so with a fuller heart, but less clear eyes.