When great television is discussed, the "important" shows are generally marked by their daring or innovation, either formally or in their challenging of social taboos: the socially conscious comedy of All In The Family or M*A*S*H; the multi-season arcs and open-ended, novelistic density of Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue; the darkness of character, everyday texture and always-shifting tones of The Sopranos; the layering of comic books, soap opera and cinematic intertextuality in Buffy and Angel. We love the programs that fly like Icarus towards the new, breaking boundaries and thereby (ironically) enshrining themselves as "landmarks." In his new book, The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross describes a similar process at work in music history and criticism, and I think his words apply to other media:
Histories of music since 1900 often take the form of a teleological tale, a goal-obsessed narrative full of great leaps forward and heroic battles with the philistine bourgeoise. When the concept of progress assumes exaggerated importance, many works are struck from the historical record on the grounds that they have nothing new to say....Two distinct repetoires have formed, one intellectual and one popular. Here, they are merged: no language is considered intrinsically more modern than any other.
The first season of Friday Night Lights (available on DVD) doesn't fit this mold; what it provides is not the shock of the new, but the shock of the familiar, expertly done. It mines the ground of countless family dramas, late-night soaps and sports movies, with their relationship angst and lead-up to the big game. What it brings to this potentially cliche-ridden field is a keen eye for detail, a respect for small-town life and a deep empathy for its characters. Over at the excellent Glenn Kenny's blog, he somewhat condescendingly refers to the phrase "generosity of spirit" as a concept "some critics cite when they can't conjure specifics." I know what he means, but I would argue that an avoidance of the phrase is just as problematic a critical strategy, a desire for the hip and the distanced point-of-view that borders on nihilism (or, as Ross might say, "two distinct repetoires have formed"). The wonder of Friday Night Lights is its avoidance of such a stylistic or ideological binary; like the WG "Snuffy" Walden theme music, which takes a simple repeated guitar phrase and layers a series of searching improvisations on top of it, Lights teases out the depths and imaginative possibilities of its simple form, and makes of it a show that is, in its own way, perfect.
The music references in this post are deliberate: FNL is a show that organizes itself as much sonically as visually, a symphony of noises, music and distinctive voices that blend into a whole (Ross again: "no language is considered intrinsically more modern than any other"). The aural throughline of the sports talk radio we hear coming from houses and trucks, a Greek chorus of the fan that's both sympathetic and self-absorbed; the jostle of plates and glasses at the Applebee's or the other local hangouts; the cacophony of crowd noise, players' grunts and coaches' pleas during the games; all of this provides a soundtrack that dovetails nicely with the documentary-style framing to help us understand the world we're seeing, and just how important football is to the small town of Dillon, Texas. Within this world of social noise, it's the individual voices that struggle to find themselves and be heard: the stammering backup-QB-turned-star; the injured player who must find a new life for himself; the geeky sidekick who's secretly cool; the cheerleader princess with hidden depths; the booster who is both obnoxious and oddly sympathetic. It says something about the sensibility of Friday Night Lights-- dare I say it, Mr. Kenny, its generosity of spirit--that all of these voices are given equal weight and respect, even when we hate what they're saying. There's a lot of Richard Linklater in Friday Night Lights (intriguingly, Linklater himself had optioned the book it's based on for a film version in the mid-90s), and a touch of Freaks & Geeks in its keen-eyed warmth towards folks whose lives are, in one way or another, permanently trapped in high school.
None of this would work if FNL's cast wasn't so strong. Since the cancellation of The OC, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have replaced Peter Gallagher and Kelly Rowan as television's sexiest and best-developed parental couple: their banter, arguments and heart-to-hearts are wonderfully observed, sweet without being sentimental and tough without being heavy-handed. It feels like a genuine partnership, between both characters and actors, and its realism and sympathy puts those Grey's Anatomy brats to shame. Chandler and Britton also have wonderful moments away from each other, as he must help guide his football players with a mixture of toughness and respect, and she finds a role for herself outside the home as a guidance counselor at the high school. They are the center of the show, but are ably supported by Gaius Charles as the outwardly trash-talking, inwardly sensitive superstar Smash; Aimee Teegarden as their smart and angsty daughter Julie; Taylor Kitsch as awkward bad boy Tim Riggins; and Adrianne Palicki as the tough, confused Tyra. Special note should be made of the wonderful Brad Leland's performance as Buddy Garrity: he takes the thankless role of a clueless booster and imbues it with such heart and humor and grace that in many ways, he becomes the most complex character on the show. I also liked Louanne Stephens as sickly Aunt Sacrecen, another thankless role that's enhanced by her fearless minimalism, and Derek Phillps as Riggins' washed-up older brother.
Special mention should be made of the show's two other primary couples. As the injured superstar Jason Street, Scott Porter is clearly the dreamy romantic lead, but the narrative's twists force him to take on a character actor's role, and Porter is so good at finding both the heart and arrogance of his character that it's become impossible for me to see interviews with real-life young quarterbacks without thinking of his character; his partner in crime is Minka Kelly as cheerleader Lyla Garrity, who rises to the challenge of portraying the show's most hazardous stereotype with perfectly timed glances and an awkward way of moving that suggests a young woman desperate to escape her body, her town and its crushing expectations. The show's best couple is a homosocial one. Zach Gilford is wonderful as backup QB Matt Saracen, and his challenge is the opposite of Porter's: he has to keep his part from feeling too treacly or underdogish, and Gilford does a great job of slowly revealing the core of steel and anger beneath Saracen's nice-guy exterior; meanwhile, Jesse Plemons steals the show as Saracen's best friend Landry, a lovable nerd who constantly defies easy categorization and thereby becomes the emblem of the program: funny, smart, sarcastic, critical and sympathetic, all at once.
The reward of serialized narrative is a deep involvement with the characters, and an investment in their problems and triumphs. A sports show enhances that quality by building mini-dramas into each episode-- will they win the big game or not? Friday Night Lights provides answers and expected rewards to those sorts of investments, but it's real triumph is richer and more complex, its real concerns not the games but everything around them, and taking the time to notice everyday details and triumphs. It halts the sports show's usual narrative thrust, its march-down-the-field momentum, in favor of the lateral pass: let's slow the game down and find new patterns to run. Which is not to say the games aren't exciting: the season's deeply ironic denouement wouldn't be nearly so funny, sad and self-critical if the show's producers hadn't done such a good job of making us feel like Dillon boosters for 22 episodes. After a season of intense close-ups, they pull the camera back just enough to give us a wide-angle view of the proceedings, and to remind us that, as viewers observing this small-town world, "All my friends are vampires...turns out, I'm a vampire, too." That they can do this without losing a smidgen of our sympathy for that world suggests just what a striking blend of the popular and the intellectual Friday Night Lights really is.