The fine individuals over at Pajiba! recently posted an excellent essay on Friday Night Lights with which I concur wholeheartedly. However, in the course of the essay, they spoiled the major plot twist of the second season premiere episode. Since I firmly believe that A) everybody should watch this fine program, and B) to fully appreciate it you have to watch it from the very beginning, I present to you the portion of their essay pre-spoiler. You’re welcome. And hopefully this leads you to jump to firm belief C, which is “everybody should go out and buy the DVD set of the first season, especially considering how cheap it is.”
Regular readers know that I’ve plugged NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” pretty incessantly over the last year. And I know from your comments that I’ve successfully gotten some of you on-board. Fantastic — welcome to the club. The first half of this column isn’t for you. Instead, this is for the folks who still haven’t watched the show. A commentor once noted that I always tell you to watch “FNL” without ever saying why you should watch. Fair point, although my word should simply be good enough at this point, no? But if it’s not here’s why you should be watching.
“Friday Night Lights” is the best drama currently on network television. “But TV Whore,” you say,”it’s about football. Surely the best show on network TV isn’t some jock program?” Well the thing of it is, while the show is absolutely about football, it’s not about football. Yes, football is an integral part in the lives of almost every character on the show. In fact, it’s an integral part to many facets of life, in general, in the fictional town of Dillon (just as it is with many real small towns in Texas and throughout the country). But one of the brilliant things about “Friday Night Lights” is that it manages to use the sport as a window into the town and into the characters. Look at it this way — take a show like “Grey’s Anatomy.” I suspect that many people are fans of the show more because of the characters than because of the fact that they’re doctor-types. To such fans, the silly medical storylines are more about providing insight into the characters — showing how they react to a given situation, whether they man up or crumble, do the right thing or the wrong thing, etc. Well it’s the same thing here, only more so — the football storylines often take a back seat, acting as the thread that keeps things together and flowing. In fact, if you were to only tune into this show on the rationale of “well I like football, so I’ll like a show about football,” you could very well find yourself severely disappointed, because this is really a show about characters and relationships, not football.
“But TV Whore,” you say. “Those characters and relationships mostly deal with high school kids. Surely the best show on network TV isn’t some teeny-bop ‘90210’ meets ‘The O.C.’ crap.” Surely not. In fact, the single greatest strength of “Friday Night Lights” has nothing to do with any of the high school kids. Rather, it has to do with Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) — the Taylor’s relationship is the single best portrayal of a strong adult marriage I’ve ever seen on television. As is true for most of the show (but sadly, if the season two premiere is any indication, not for all of the show), the Taylors are written incredibly realistically. Their fights don’t feel like caricatures, they feel and sound like the exact type of argument you might get into with your own significant other. And they’re resolved in realistic ways, not in made-for-TV-movie cheese. But whatever with the fights — the portrayal of the Taylors is even stronger and more compelling, unlike most dramatized relationships, when they’re getting along just fine. The glimpses we get of the cuteness shared between the couple, or of their obvious and earnest love, is a joy to watch. I was recently relaying this same sentiment to a friend, and they were utterly shocked that I would be gushing about a lovey-dovey relationship, because I’m a rather cynical prick. But there you go — that’s how amazing this aspect of the show is.
And of course, while much of the strength of the Taylor relationship is due to the writing, it’s more due to the absolutely brilliant performances, week in and week out, of Chandler and Britton. Peter Berg, who directed the movie and exec-produces the show, said that he specifically cast Britton (who played the same role in the flick) because he felt her character was underused in the film and he believed there was so much more Britton could do with the role. Good call. She delivers a strong female character who also manages to be soft and emotional, all without tumbling into the lame trappings that most TV wives fall into show after show after show. Britton delivers a fully realized female character and even a male pig like me can recognize what she’s doing, and wish that there was more of this on TV. As for Chandler — well, he’s just on a whole other level. Absolutely amazing. There’s a line in last week’s season premiere, where he comes to pick up his teenage daughter, who’s been stranded at a bar. The line is simple — “You have got to be kidding me” — and on paper it reads rather corny. But Chandler manages to deliver the right inflection and tone so that it winds up being one of the funniest lines in the episode. And he brings this same ability to all aspects of his performance, yet another reason that the Taylor relationship works as well as it does. (In fact, he’s so good on this show that he probably now cracks the top five of my man crush list.)
None of this is meant to belittle anyone else on the show. Almost every actor delivers a very strong performance, and the writing, across the board, is generally top notch. The point simply is that this isn’t a kids-in-high-school teen/tweener show. It’s a meaty show about small-town American life that tackles all types of relationships and issues in a very earnest and realistic way. It’s just a fine fucking drama, and those are few and far between on our TVs these days.
Of course, the show isn’t 100% flawless. For instance, some of the actors don’t quite perform up to snuff (I’m thinking of Minka Kelly — while she’s an absolutely pleasure to look at, she kinda sucks as an actress). But the writing and other performances around these weaker actors generally keep things moving so well that you hardly notice. Similarly, not every plotline on the show is a slam dunk. One from last season that leaps to mind is the plot thread focusing on running back Smash’s girlfriend having some sort of mental illness. Terrible storyline. But the writers smartly moved it along and eventually got it out of the way, so it wound up not being a major detriment to the show.