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Friday Night Lights: Worth It

I don’t always have the best taste in TV, it’s true. I get addicted to stupid shows (like The OC, in college; or Desperate Housewives, after college). In fact, in the words of my housemate, “We all have shows we’re ashamed to admit we watch.” Too true, Jordan. Too true.

I thought Friday Night Lights was going to be a stupid show. I didn’t expect to make it past the first couple of episodes. I didn’t expect it to make me cry on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t expect it to keep me up until 2am on a week night to get to the season 1 finale.

But those things have happened, and here is why.

Friday Night Lights is, to put it simply, a fantastic show. It was nothing like what I thought it would be. I remember seeing previews for it when it was first coming on the air, and I didn’t understand why a show about a high school football team would be even remotely interesting. I even came from a high school where football was our biggest strength, our proudest achievement. (In the three years I went there, we won State twice. My high school produced Darren Sproles, baby!) Beyond that, I was not interested in watching a show about a bunch of high schoolers and all their drama. Oh no, network television. You can’t fool me a third time. I learned from my mistakes with The OC and Gossip Girl. So I didn’t even watch the show when it premiered in 2006.

To my surprise, it came back for a second season. And then a third. And then a fourth. Now that it’s in its fifth season, I have decided to start watching, thanks to a recommendation from a friend and the fact that it is available on Netflix Instant Play. (I love Netflix Instant Play. It pretty much determines whether I will watch a show. I never would’ve gotten into Lost, Weeds, or Law and Order: SVU if not for NF IP. Only Dexter has so far been a good enough show that I will order it on an actual disc and wait for it to come in the mail and be limited to watching four episodes a week. Man, I love Dexter.)

So last week, enabled by two snow days and a free Saturday night, I watched the entire first season of Friday Night Lights. And I can’t wait to start season 2, though I do plan to slow it down a bit, if for no other reason than to let the Audra-shaped dent in my couch re-mold itself.

So why is this show so good? Because it’s not just another over-dramatized show about spoiled, privileged high schoolers, and it’s also not just a show about football. I have actually been surprised to find less football footage and fewer game scenes than I expected. At times, I have even been disappointed to find that I’m not going to see as much coverage of a specific episode’s football game as I had hoped.

It is difficult to pinpoint or label a “main character” in a show as diverse and complex as this one. There are many principal characters (though not too many; the creators of this show haven’t made the same mistakes as those behind NBC’s Heroes, at least not yet), but if pressed, I think I would say that the main characters are the high school football team’s head coach and his family. Other than these three, the plot lines follow a couple of the other football players, a couple of their fringe friends, and a Booster Club family (whose daughter happens to be head cheerleader).

On the surface, the conflicts and problems of each episode revolve around the nuances of the upcoming football match, including which players are going to start, how fierce a competitor the opposing team will prove to be, and how important it is that Dillon High School win each episode’s game. But luckily, the show lets the audience into the lives of its characters throughout the entire week leading up to each game so that the viewer feels as if he is grappling with the issues right alongside the citizens of Dillon, Texas; and they are issues far more realistic and relevant than the fact that Blair’s personal maid cannot get her dry cleaning done in time for Chuck Bass’s party or that Jenny can’t decide whether to get her hair highlighted or lowlighted (both Gossip Girl references, for those wise enough not to watch that show).

In season 1 of Friday Night Lights, the star quarterback gets a life-threatening injury and is forced to come to terms with the fact that he’s going to be a quadriplegic the rest of his life. The head coach’s 15-year-old daughter wrestles with the pressure to have sex and her own indecision regarding the issue. The team’s best running back escapes from the stresses of poverty and the threat of losing scholarships by taking steroids. The coach and his wife struggle to do what is best for their family, even if that means him moving alone to another city so she and their daughter can live stable, uninterrupted lives in Dillon. The head cheerleader battles an identity crisis when she realizes that she has poured her entire life into a boyfriend (the newly paralyzed QB) who will never be the same and whom she needs to move on from – in order to find out who she really is.

These story lines, along with many more I have not mentioned, are so expertly crafted and so well portrayed that, for as long as each episode plays out, I’m able to forget that I’m merely watching. I feel like I’m participating in these characters’ lives. Jason’s despair over his life-changing injury; Lyla’s identity confusion and refusal to focus on herself and her own life; Saracen’s lack of confidence on the field; Tyra’s unbelief in her ability to succeed academically; Smash’s fear that he won’t be able to break the cycle of his family’s poverty; Riggins’s struggle with alcohol and purpose – all of it feels real, and none of it seems overdone or over the top.

The one thing that disappointed me about the show (and this seems to be the case for every TV series) is that the episodes following the Pilot didn’t feel consistent with how things were initially introduced and set up in the Pilot. The star quarterback gets injured in the first episode, and as a result, the football team and the entire town of Dillon stand silent as Coach Taylor leads them in a moving and poignant prayer on the football field. The end of the episode shows the various citizens of the town in all their respective churches, again praying for healing for Jason Street. My thought after watching the Pilot was, Wow. A network show that casts prayer and Christian life in a non-cheesy, non-sarcastic light? I’m impressed. That alone was enough to get me to watch the second episode.

My disappointment ensued when, in the following episodes, the Christian/church aspect of things got dropped almost entirely. There were only three more scenes in the entire first season (22 episodes) that took place in church. The first is a scene in which the congregation takes up an offering for the running back’s SAT expenses, a sum the character actually uses to buy steroids. The second is a short cut-shot of a scene where the coach glares at his daughter’s boyfriend (the team’s replacement starting quarterback) across the sanctuary, the morning after the lovebirds were out until past curfew and were thought to be having sex (even though they weren’t). The third actually takes place outside, after the service, when a jilted woman confronts her lover, who also happens to be the Booster Club president, a pillar of the town, etc.

And as for the prayer? It also disappeared. After the Pilot episode, the only scenes in which prayer makes an appearance are the ones where characters ask God to give the players the strength to win the upcoming football game. In this sense, the network execs and show’s producers have acted as expected and made an unfortunate mockery of the Christian life.

A seed of hope is planted upon the introduction of Waverly, a minister’s daughter who seems appropriately conservative and pious. She is said to have just returned from a year in Africa, where she supposedly spent her time doing missionary work and helping the underprivileged. She catches the eye of the running back (who is selfish, egotistical, and completely self-involved), and for a couple of episodes, it looks like she will be a good and moral example. But then, just as the viewer has begun to accept her as respectably Christian (and unashamed of it), it is revealed that she never actually spent any time in Africa and that she instead spent that time being institutionalized for treatment of her bipolar disorder.

The fact that she is bipolar is not what disappointed me. Of course there are Christians who are bipolar. What disappointed me was the network’s apparent judgment that it was too risky to keep a character who was so obviously Christian. So instead, they went the clich√© route of the “rebellious” pastor’s daughter, and Waverly has turned into a defiant teenager who refuses to take her meds and therefore acts out and ends up not being any kind of Christian example at all.

It’s difficult to stay very upset about these issues, though, because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that it is difficult for media and literature to include Christian elements without being cheesy. And overall, there does seem to be a moral compass guiding at least the coach and his wife, even if God is not directly acknowledged or credited. And there is a collective sense of right and wrong among most of the principal characters, or at least the ones who will be responsible for driving most of the plot.

As a whole, I have to say this show has hit the mark for me. The plot and characters are believable, and the pacing is consistent. And the thing I like best about it is that there is room for change, transformation, and growth, and there is also room for mistakes. Nobody is infallible, and neither is anyone irredeemable.

I will end with the comment my friend Brandon made the other day in regard to why he and his wife like the show, because I couldn’t say it any better: “We feel like we’re part of the community of Dillon. Ridiculous indeed, but that’s good writing for you.”



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