If you’d told me a couple of years back that a series about a High School Football team in a Texas small town would have become one of my favourite TV series of all time, right up there alongside stuff like The Wire, Deadwood, the Shield, Breaking Bad and the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica (but not the other three, no, no, no), I would have laughed in your face.
And it’s hard to talk about the plotlines of Friday Night Lights without making it sound … a little bit rubbish and a big bit banal. A high school football coach struggles with the huge expectations of the community. A car salesman messes up his marriage. A star quarterback is put out of action and his lame-ass understudy must step up. A promising young athlete puts his future on the line fooling with performance enhancing drugs. A guy with a bad rep does the decent thing and escorts a young girl home, her father sees him putting her to bed and gets way the wrong idea, and etc. etc. The subject matter is the stuff of many a high school soap opera, and in many ways that’s exactly what Friday Night Lights is.
So what makes it so totally brilliant? I guess it’s an accumulation of little things done very, very well. Superb casting for a start off, centred around ace performances from Kyle Chandler as inspirational-pre-game-talk-meister-par-excellence Coach Taylor and Connie Britton as his troubled-youth-redeeming wife, but extending to pretty much everyone else anywhere in the series, kid or adult. Then there’s great music, great pacing, a fantastic sense of place and an occasionally really dark picture of small-town America, all delivered in a really cleverly executed documentary-esque visual style.
Though many of the plots and events are cliche, the setting, the characters and their relationships never are. There are no cartoon villains, just mismatched people with their conflicting obsessions, problems, and mistakes, usually trying to do their flawed best in one way or another. There’s a truthfulness about the whole thing, an honesty and a reality that you just so rarely see in this type of show. Everything feels from the heart. It goes for the big emotions and it god damn hits them, pretty much every time. The great TV of recent years has excited me, horrified me, made me think, but it’s rarely choked me up. Friday Night Lights has me complaining about imaginary dust in my eye every other episode.
Downsides? Bit shaky in the second season, with a somewhat shark-jumping murder plot that seems way out of place and a bit of a loss of focus, with different characters all following their own not always believable threads to an arbitrary halt called by the writers’ strike. But things come back strong in the third season, then they make an inspired change-up to give the fourth and fifth a very different mood and setting, but one that in some ways spreads out the investigation to further, tougher areas. It felt just a little like the Wire, which started with drug-dealing but then expanded season by season to look at different parts of the system – politics, rehabilitation, education, the media. Friday Night Lights is smaller, more intimate, less heavy on its messages, but still pokes at some dark corners of American life. And it’s decidedly realistic and un-judgemental in its treatment of its teenage characters. They drink, they screw around, sometimes they mess up big and sometimes they come through big.
Unlike so much of the recent wave of great TV, Friday Night Lights is feel good. That’s not to say it’s easy or soft, it throws some hard stuff at its characters, it tackles some serious issues, people don’t always win, don’t always come out on top. But it celebrates the good in people, the desire to do the decent thing, to stand by your family and your friends and your team-mates (I’m choking up, god damn it). The sports sequences are often incredibly cheesy – glorious victories snatched in the dying seconds by some heroic action of whichever character’s struggles have been highlighted that episode – but after a while that seemed to suit the underlying thesis: you can be a golden hero on the football field, save your team and do your touchdown dance, but once the friday night lights are turned off, in real life there are no easy answers and no simple endings.
As Coach Taylor is so fond of saying, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.’