Friday Night Lights

August 23rd, 2013

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.’

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on August 23rd, 2013.

27 comments so far

  • Frank Fitzpatrick says:

    Huge, huge, HUGE fan of the show myself.

    Poor Matt Saracen is the most unluckiest man alive. *SPOILERS Alert* And his father’s burial was heart breaking to watch. That episode was the closest I’ve ever came to crying whilst watching TV or film.

    And Tim Riggins storyline is somewhat similar to Shivers in Best Served Cold as you watch his life spiral out of control further and further.

    Such a good fucking show.

  • Ben says:

    It’s funny, I used to live in the town (Odessa, TX) that inspired the movie and subsequent series but I’ve never seen either. Guess ill have to give it a go.

  • Chibrou says:

    BSG has 4 seasons, no ? Maybe you’re separating the 4th in two . The third one was still enjoyable, but yeah, fuck the 4th.

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    You may well be right. The transmission of the fourth one was split into two chunks though, wasn’t it? If we’re talking four, then season three was patchy, season four was awful.

  • Zafri Mollon says:

    Yeah, I heard about this show a long time ago and never bothered because it was a show about a high school football team (supposedly). If I hadn’t already started watching and blasted through the first five seasons, your recommendation would have pushed it onto my ‘must watch’ list.

    Criminally underrated is perhaps an understatement. The fact that the plot seems ridiculously clicheed if you describe it further emphasizes the strength of the writing, the acting, and the directing.

  • Ian says:

    Loved Friday Night Lights. The best seasons (in my opinion) are seasons 1 and 3. Season 2 they thought they were going to be canceled, so they ran the course in season 1. Season 2 they lost their way. Season 3 was back on track. Though good, the problems I have with seasons 4 and 5 is this: it was a show in a small town, but by these seasons there was a large enough population for two high schools, a section of town with huge mansions, etc. I think it was a result of the main cast from the first few seasons had graduated and again they weren’t sure how to progress.

  • Graham says:

    I can only think of the West Wing that can compare when it came to bringing in so many new characters over the season’s without a drop in quality. Tuesday night is much poorer now this has finished it’s year and a bit run on Sky.

  • Chris B says:

    Very cool, my wife (from Liverpool) and I (American) really enjoyed binging on this series a few years back via Netflix. We both appreciated the genuine chemistry present amongst the actors, and felt that there were likely strong bonds/friendships that had developed and maintained long after the camera stopped rolling. The glaring exception to the brilliant casting in our minds, was Lyla Garrity’s character. Just us thinking her energy was awful? It felt like she was treating her screen time as casting call for a lad mag and her self awareness ended up being a little disruptive. Otherwise, this really was a superb piece of tv drama.

  • Anthony says:

    Brilliant stuff. Half way through the fourth season now. Kyle Chandler awesome, Landry,Saracen and Tyra the other stand outs for me. Only thing is why does everyone always call Tim Riggins by his full name?

  • Angie says:

    You mentioned this show before, and I added it into my Netflix queue. I have such a loathing for football, but your recommendations carry a lot of weight with me, and probably most of the other people who read your blog. Years ago I bought Dragon Age: Origins based on your review, and I regret nothing!

    It may be a little while before I can get started watching this. I recently got introduced to Welcome to Night Vale, and am not watching anything else or even reading until I finish that, because it is amazing.

  • Paul says:

    Wallace Lives! #TheWire #GreatCasting

  • HeroineOfCanton says:

    “the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica (but not the other three, no, no, no)”

    Even if I didn’t love your books, this would be enough to make me love you.

  • Myc Guz says:

    I live in Austin, TX and my mom lives in Buffalo, New York. She watched some of the show up there and finished it via Netflix when she came to visit me. I bring this up because it was really funny to me when she admitted the Whataburger signs on the scoreboard seemed lazy. She thought Whataburger was a fake name made up for ad filler space since the name was so on the nose and “they didn’t even come up with a logo.”

  • Markz says:

    Hi Joe,

    I love your posts on TV shows. You just have to watch Banshee. Also give The Newsroom a try.

  • Morgan says:

    Are you more inclined to watch American Football on occasion now?

  • James says:

    Have you tried Ripper Street? Certainly not of the calibre of something like Breaking Bad or The Wire, and a bit patchy at times, but still worth the eight hour time investment.

  • Dking says:

    Pretty sure This one’s not for me, but maybe I’ll check out an episode or two as it seems to come so highly recommended.

    Joe, or anybody else who reads this and hasn’t seen it yet, then you really should check out the series Hell on Wheels. It’s about the settlement that accompanied the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, called “Hell on Wheels” by the Union Pacific company men, surveyors, support workers, laborers, prostitutes, mercenaries, and others who make the mobile encampment their home.

    There are some great characters, and the show certainly doesn’t pull any punches, not unlike your books, Joe.

    I’d love to hear some other peoples views on it.

  • RAMSAY says:

    LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT!! I’d like to describe and explain what made this show so special, but without wanting to kiss ass I think Joe pretty much nailed it. It’s just full of genuine heart and soul, not so much in a manipulative Spielbergian manner – but one born out of the honest trials and tribulations of the characters lives.

    I also agree about Season 2. It’s always apparent in every American show from around that period exactly when the writers strike was!

    My only minor grip – SPOILER WARNING – was the ending when Tyra came back and hooked up with Tim. Those two had been distant for seasons and all of a sudden she was like his soul mate? Which basically screamed “this is meant to be Lyla, but the actress was unavailable to return!”.

    Apart from that, wonderful stuff. AND apparently Berg, Chandler and Britton were adamant a film would be made following the end of the series but the problem was aligning everyone’s schedules. Not sure where they would take the story as it was a pretty good ending, but if a film is made it’s probably best not to include Tim Riggins as Taylor Kitsch is to Box Office takings what ‘the seed’ was to Colonel West.

  • James Webster says:

    Half way through the first series of FNL, and enjoying it a lot.

    Hell on Wheels is great. Flagged a bit in the middle of the 1st for me, but improved towards the end, some great characters. The Swede!!!

    Also enjoyed the 2 series of Copper, police drama set in New York’s 5 Points during Civil War, where all the officers are recent Irish immigrants.

    Ripper Street takes a similar approach, but set in Whitechapel in the period following Jack the Ripper’s disappearance.

    And for something completely different, Channel 4’s recent The Mill was cool. They worked the children hard in them days!

    It is self evident that TV now produces far higher quality entertainment than the movie industry, in all countries. It has done for quite a while now.

  • AD says:

    Texas forever, joe.

  • jan says:

    Hey Joe,
    since it seems you like the same kind of series as myself (except breaking bad), let me just suggest to you some more stuff worth looking at. Have you seen House of Lies? Vikings are very entertaining also, hope you will like it.

    Dking, will check Hell on wheels now, sounds interesting!

  • RAMSAY says:

    There’s a lot of love for American TV shows here, and with good reason too. With that in mind some of you might enjoy this book I’ve been reading about what has been dubbed the golden age of American TV. It’s written by a leading US TV critic and dissects series such as Friday Night Lights, Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Oz, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, The Wire and Buffy. Here’s the link:

  • Muzza says:

    My wife and I are addicted. We are nearly through season 2 and watch this in nightly, multi-episode chunks.

    Most of Landry’s story threads are have us either in stitches, heart broken or fist pumping.

    Our house also appears to have a dust infestation…lot of blurry eyes.

  • Julia B. says:

    I couldn’t agreed more with every word you wrote about FNL, watched all seasons two years before.
    And what about True blood, only the 1st season, definitive ‘no’ for the following?
    And lovely Black mirror? Just take a look to pilot, you woun’t regret.

    ps In the meantime we’re looking forward to meet you in Saint-Petersburg in September. In my opinion, the best time of the year for Sasint-Petersburg is the early autumn.

  • deckard says:

    I havent seen the show but it always sounded awful to me because I hate football. Joe is trolling is I think…

  • smilingjim says:

    If its a cheesy story line and moments where you having to fight back the tears, then there’s a documentary on high school football called “undefeated”. Plenty of moments that even the most corny of soap writers would have thrown out ended up being the biggest tear jerkers.

  • Joe..l says:

    Hey Joe, love FNL! really underistimated series in my not so humble opinion. Have you ever watched Misfits? It’s an E4 series about a couple of young offenders that is gaining super powers from a mystical storm-sounds a bit cheezy, yes- but it’s actually really good and is written in your sort of style, with really crude and explicit air about it. Give it a try if you’d like.

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