Sunday, July 10, 2011

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose...



Over the past month I have tried amongst my friends and family to make my case for Friday Night Lights being one of the greatest television shows of the past decade. It has been an uphill battle to say the least. Most of my appeals are rebuked with a scoff or a snicker. Many people become almost embarrassed for me having admitted to being a fan. The thing is, all of this negativity is based on a huge misconception about this terrific program, so I've decided to take my argument to the interwebs. If I can get just one of you to watch this show and talk to me about it, I'll be so very happy. Here goes...

Friday Night Lights is a one hour drama about a high school football team from the fictional West Texas town of Dillon called the "Panthers". Remember the movie Varsity Blues? Yeah kind of like that, except with one major difference... this doesn't suck.
Peter Berg (google this guy and be amazed at his resume) is the executive producer and based this series off of his cousins non-fiction book about a 1988 TX high school championship season. On paper, the story has all the familiar tropes of a high school football story... die hard football "don't mess with Texas" dudes, gossipy southern belles, and cheerleader/quarterback romances, and of course the gruff but inspiring coach. Where FNL really shines however, is in the execution of this otherwise mundane subject matter.

First, the music supervision on this show is top notch. Instead of coasting on an indie rock flavor of the month soundtrack, the show has an eclectic yet sonically complimentary pallet. The Replacements, J.J. Cale, Wilco, Richard Hawley, Lucinda Williams, and plenty more all have significant air time and create a stirring musical backdrop for the drama. The shows unofficial "theme" is actually an old Daniel Johnston by way of Bright Eyes tune called "Devil Town". It is simultaneously haunting and jangly. Fun to sing along to but heart-wrenching as well, a perfect metaphor for the entire series.

Shot handheld and on location, the show assumes the look of a documentary. This provides a heightened sense of realism but also affords the actors free reign of this deeply realized world of Dillon, Texas, and thankfully so for the casting of the show is by far its greatest asset. Instead of populating the show with 25 year olds playing the part of an 16 year old, or supermodels as everymen/women, the actors on FNL look and feel like real people. Sure you have Minka Kelly and Taylor Kitsch, two of the most beautiful people on the planet, but the way with which the characters are developed over the course of the series makes their looks a moot point. Often actually an obstacle to be overcome as opposed to an asset.

The sheer amount of young talent on this show is staggering. In an age of Lohans and Hudgens and other Disney disasters, the teen actors on this show restore your faith in empathetic youths. Jesse Plemons, Zach Gilford, and Aimee Teegarden will no doubt become familiar cinematic faces and their turns in this show are already enough to pin careers on.

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Gilford especially shines as 2nd string quarterback turned team captain, Matt Saracen.
Saracen is an odd kid, abandoned by his parents and left with an invalid Grandmother in a crumbling house. He supports himself with a job at the local burger joint and has little to no social skills. To watch Gilford's portrayal of Saracen evolve from a confused and insecure jock outcast to a determined, albeit bumbling artist over the series run is truly a pleasure.

The real core of the show though are Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Mr. and Mrs. Taylor. He's the head coach of the Panthers and she is the high school guidance counselor. Its one of the greatest portrayals of marriage I've seen on television and its refreshing to see two underrated actors finally get a chance to steal the spotlight. Chandler's take on the high school coach is inspired. He's trying to do the right thing in a town full of cheaters. Britton's southern charm is undeniable and her portrayal of a modern Texas woman is strong and progressive.

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That brings us to perhaps the shows most redeeming quality... its progressive and at times brutal portrayal of the contemporary American south. It is for this reason, more so than any others, that I think Friday Night Lights deserves its place amongst the best of American television. We've seen a tremendous decade for the boob tube. Shows like The Sopranos and Arrested Development and The Wire revolutionized the entire medium. While Mad Men has assumed the cool and purposeful plotting of Sopranos and Modern Family picked up where Development's slapstick absurdity left off, there has yet to be a show with the same brutally realistic and emotionally exhausting pace of The Wire.

Friday Night Lights is that show. It does for the rural southern landscape what The Wire did for the modern urban nightmare. Over the course of 5 seasons we get see the exact problems that contribute to decay of the moral and physical infrastructure of modern America. While Baltimore, Maryland and Dillon, Texas have significant differences in population and culture, the problems that plague both locals are sadly identical. Drugs, racism, political corruption, sensationalized media, and economic degradation are abound and both shows examine the intricate interweaving of them in the characters everyday lives. Even Michael B. Jordan who played the beloved 'Wallace" in The Wire is a star of FNL's last two seasons as quarterback, Vince Howard. I know it may sound ridiculous to the slew of skeptics out there but I'm not overstating the power of this program. You need proof? Watch it.



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