Damn right I’m going to talk about NBC’s Friday Night Lights on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s the only show that deserves mention on a day when the Patriots are seeking perfection and the Giants are looking to become one of the greatest underdog stories in NFL history. Friday Night Lights is perfect — and it’s one of television’s biggest underdogs.
Inspired by H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 book and the 2004 film directed by Peter Berg, Friday Night Lights uses football as a jumping point introduce us to the citizens of Dillon, Texas, one of those small American towns Steve Earle sang about in his song “Someday.” In Dillon, high school football isn’t just an extracurricular activity; it’s a way of life. The players on the Dillon Panthers football team are in their glory years, which is sad because most of these young men have yet to turn 18. Almost all of them will graduate high school, some will head to college, and one or two of the elite will be recruited to play college ball. The rest will either join the military or wind up living the rest of their lives in Dillon or some other blue-collar Texas town. They will sell cars, work construction, or just shuffle from job to job. The fame and attention they’re receiving may be the best they ever get. That sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it? Not exactly the kind of “entertainment” you’re looking for on a Friday night, huh? I beg to differ. With delicacy and grace, Friday Night Lights strives to show the good and bad in humanity in all of us by giving us characters full of hope, trying to rise about the racism and economic hardships of their town. Whether you catch it live on NBC, TiVo it, or stream episodes online at NBC.com (where every episode from both seasons is streaming), I implore you…watch this show.
The producers wisely chose to film the show with the feel of a documentary. The freedom of digital video allows them to roll three or four cameras at once. What this technique does is draw the actors deeper into the creative process. Given the liberty to improvise, the cast is able to get core of their characters and, therefore, the truth of each scene. This emotional honesty gives Friday Night Lights the ability to rise above any contrived plot lines the writers feel obligated to come up with for ratings purposes. Indeed, despite the season two storyline that found characters Landry and Tyra killing a man and dumping his body (which veered the show into soap opera territory), Jesse Plemons’ portrayal of the morally and spiritually conflicted Landry made the contrivance forgivable. Over the course of several weeks, we saw his guilt eat him alive until he couldn’t take t anymore and felt he had to do the right thing. It is that type of acting and raw power that each actor gives week in and week out.
The casting directors nailed it when they brought in these performers for the series. Most impressive is the group of young actors that populate Friday Night Lights. Zach Gilford is exceptional as the pensive, reluctant quarterback, Matt Saracen; Gaius Charles brings the right mix of arrogance and naivetÃ© as “Smash,” the star running back; Adrianne Palicki has transformed the aforementioned Tyra from party girl into a strong, conflicted young woman with ease; and Minka Kelly has been near flawless as Lyla Garrity, former prom queen/cheerleader turned born-again Christian. Most impressive is Taylor Kitsch as Tim Riggins, the town bad boy who is more complex and soulful that anyone gives him credit for. With the simplest of stares, Kitsch can convey longing, sadness and humor in one beat. Brilliant. Then there is Scott Porter as fallen hero, Jason Street. Street was paralyzed in the pilot episode, and Porter’s heartbreaking portrayal of this 18 year-old grappling with not only the loss of his limbs, but the loss of his childhood dreams (Notre Dame was ready to swoop him up) has been a marvel to watch over the past two years.
Grounding everything is the Taylor family. This household of the football coach, his wife the guidance counselor, and their teenage daughter has become central to the show. While other characters are utilized sporadically throughout the show, the Taylors are definitely the main characters of Friday Night Lights. — and rightly so: Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as Tami Taylor have earned high praise for their roles as television’s most realistic married couple. The Taylors represent a working marriage, in which feelings are hurt, people are humbled by their arrogance or ignorance, and when an argument occurs, the eventual outcome is forgiveness. Especially when it comes to daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden), the Taylors are what all families should hope to be: Not perfect. If there is one lesson that arises from this show, it is forgiveness.
One final note. The music supervision on Friday Night Lights has been exceptional. First of all, they brought from the film some sweeping anthems by Explosions in the Sky, such as “Your Hand in Mind.” I had never heard of them before, and was pleased to discover several albums’ worth of the band’s wide open landscapes available to buy. The show uses the right blend of alt. country, garage punk and hip-hop to complement W.G. Snuffy Walden’s poignant score. During those moments in which there is no dialogue, the intimate moments that the series has gained a reputation for, the music carries through, giving this small screen show a truly cinematic feel.
From the music to the writing to the direction and the acting, it baffles me that this stellar show is constantly overlooked. What feeling does a Grey’s Anatomy really give you except frustration over the forced plots? How much emotion does 24 really pull from you besides fear or tension? You hear complaints about the quality of television day in and day out, and I’m here to say, “This is it! This is the one you should be watching!” Like the finest Springsteen song, or a Steinbeck novel, Friday Night Lights is an American treasure. Watch this show.