Should be obvious…BUT…SPOILERS AHEAD FOR “FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS!”
Has anyone had a good cry lately? Like blubbering, staggered breathing, take a deep inhale so you can “suck it up” in front of folks you don’t want to be vulnerable in front of-crying?
I am man enough to admit—actually I find that kind of phrasing, “man enough,” to be abhorrent. Correction, I am human enough to admit that I cry, a lot. And while some may perceive that as weakness, and at times they would be right, I embrace my propensity to puddle. I enjoy feeling things. Whether it’s triumph or devastation, I’m game. That sensation of being overwhelmed, like you just can’t contain yourself, is such a thrill. The moment you lose your composure is so cathartic for me—feels like I’m busting out of a box. Then there’s just pure, raw me left. And while I was open, Friday Night Lights’ first hour knocked me on my ass. And like Jason Street, I was swept up by a sea of fawning fans, and the fall crippled me to the point I would never be the same. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for my affections than the star quarterback’s paralysis for the grip the show had on may affections from that point on. The pilot is stunning, both viscerally and literally.
Another aspect that can’t be ignored is, on a technical level, how affective the pilot is. As the first installment in what would be a five-season opus on small-town life and all its intricacies, it takes no less than five minutes for the ambience of Dillon to be established. Not only that, but within 45 minutes we are asked to feel the impact of the hit that binds a promising prospect to a wheelchair, and they rattle your bones. While the story of paralyzed high school athlete was not a new twist to me—I’d seen it in “Remember the Titans,” with Denzel Washington playing the inspirational man-molder of a coach—they secured my confidence in the investment without the aid of an additional hour and change. Also, with a movie, your investment is made when you buy the ticket. The damage is done by the time the reel stops rolling. Your wallet won’t take a direct hit from watching one episode of TV. What they’re asking for is a time commitment, an exchange some are more reluctant with than if it were a monetary transaction.
Granted, when I began the series, I was in the midst of summer break and I was jobless at the time. So, what was I giving up? Sleeping in even longer? Still, all factors considered, Friday Night Lights is as surefire a sales pitch as you will see. Where many of the consensus greats in episodic drama of the last 25 years—The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Mad Men—have all asked you to bear with them after a tantalizing, but incomplete taste of what it had to offer, Friday Night Lights bared its soul and shook you by the collar and said, “Take it or leave it, punk.” Before the title slide flashed on-screen, we were wrapped in a world of expectations, resentment, and controversy, as well as devotion, heart and hope. That last one’s a big’un.
Let’s go through the checklist, shall we?
As an orange glow washes over the plains, cleansing the outskirts as a new day dawns, Slammin’ Sammy Meade is heard waking up a desolate town on what we’re told is a Monday, four days before the beginning of football season for the mighty Dillon Panthers. And soon as the phone lines open, a woman complains about the inexperienced Coach Taylor (whose name she can’t recall) and whether he has what it takes to get these boys to the Promiseland. Now, the brink of a new season in sports often ushers in the dreams of glory for all loyal fans who truly believe this could be their year. Except in Dillon it’s different, they don’t hope for a state championship, they expect it. Anything short of that is a failure. ESPN has them ranked the top team in Texas, maybe the nation, and their quarterback (colloquially referred to as QB 1) is the top recruit at his position, catching the eyes of scouts in “South Bend,” the town where the University of Notre Dame resides—a historic and prestigious football program.
The woman on the line squawks about how news cameras have been following Coach Taylor around all preseason, but it’s not like he sought this attention. Everyone wants a piece of the Panthers, and that includes national media. And as she runs her mouth we get a glimpse at some of the players involved in this three-ring circus. We peek in on Tim Riggins, sprawled out his couch in a half-drunk slumber, we scope out the Saracen home, where Grandma dozes off watching a home shopping channel as her grandson and QB 2 (the backup) prepares lunch. He’s our first love as an audience as he attends to this somewhat senile old woman who frets over the fact he made two sandwiches when she can only eat one. He plays along like this is his everyday, and we pity and adore him as she does.
Then he heads to practice with his sarcastic friend, Landry, who drives him to the field, but mocks the team and Matt;s mediocre role as the benchwarmer in the shadow of Jason Street. Here is an instance of masterful exposition. As they banter about Landry’s “utter uselessness” Matt glosses over a headline about the star players, Street and “Smash” Williams. Then Sammy Meade sings the praises of Street, citing his pass completion rate. His friend considers it torturous for Matt to listen, since Street’s superiority means he won’t see a lick of playing time. Landry suspects it’s a misdirected “Daddy love me” thing. Matt jabs back saying that he’s doing Landry a favor since he’s an insomniac who’s up early anyway. When Landry mutters about how mean that remark was, we have cemented a central friendship we can root for. That’s after just TWO MINUTES.
In the next minute, we bounce back to the Riggins’ home, where older brother Billy wakes up Tim for practice. He scolds him for thinking he won’t get kicked off the team. He teases that life isn’t like Maxim Magazine as Tyra saunters over in an oversized shirt to kiss him awake. Then we scoot on to the Garritys. Such brilliant exposition, I swear. The first line we hear is Lyla’s mother saying “No hanging out with Jason Street tonight.” Boom, she’s Jason’s girlfriend. We see her in cheerleader garb, then the little bro lands an insult about his sister sticking her tongue down Street’s throat. Now if you didn’t get the first reference, there’s no question.
Quick cut to Jason Street and Coach Taylor seated before an interviewer and a camera. After Coach lauds Street’s skill and moral strength, a scout from Notre Dame assures Street’s mom that he has been scouting for 27 years and has never seen a quarterback so talented coming out of high school. This is almost surely lip service, but it’s most valuable to us as an audience. The show puts Jason on such a high pedestal, it makes his fall all the more tragic. Street’s humble excellence is then contrasted with Smash’s unbridled cockiness. He predicts shattered records, “unimaginable new highs,” and a state championship. He’s a coach’s worst nightmare. A mouth that cashes checks before the money’s in the account. He’s also self-centered. He brags about where he sees himself headed: playing for Mack Brown (at University of Texas) and winning a national championship. He surely isn’t doomed to a Shakespearean fate now, is he? He also shows a bit of fury when the interviewer brings up his deceased father. Him being guarded, not even broaching the subject, suggests that his swagger is a shield against pain.
Next, there’s a brief mention of an unexpected thematic strength for the show: racism. It’s hard not to seem heavy-handed or forced when a subject as large as institutional racism arises, but FNL does what it does best, gives worldly problems a small-town focus. Here, it’s a feud between Smash and Riggins. Tim Riggins insists that it isn’t about white and black. He just doesn’t like him. We then flesh out the Tim Riggins persona more when the reporter mentions he smells alcohol on Tim’s breath. He denies, but like the stink, this sloppiness lingers. We see more practice being conducted, including Saracen’s humiliation being illustrated when he’s asked to fish out something an assistant coach threw in the garbage can. Then when Tim Riggins fumbles the ball, the team circles up and starts taking shots at him. No, not verbal shots. Actual thunderous hits, as they run at the liquored-up mess full-steam. Smash takes the opportunity to stand on moral high ground and condemn him for selfishly showing up half-drunk as it reflects badly on them all. And as Tim struggles to get up, the title pops up. After five minutes, you’re up to speed. You know the personalties, the vibe of impossible expectations is set, and the documentary style cinematography gives it that authentic touch. Now, it’s game time.
Math is not my strong suit, but I can calculate that by subtraction there’s 40 whole minutes left in the episode. That’s means A TON of genius left to discuss. I’d love to address it all, but I figure even for you who have seen this pilot, watch the darn thing again. It’s better than you remember. And here’s why. Not only is the day-by-day slow crawl combined from mindless mayhem leading up to the big game excruciating as a newbie—because we want to see if they win the goddamn game—but as a veteran, we know what’s coming. Every moment is a sick reminder that all this hoopla, all this reverence for the Superman that is Jason Street, will be silenced with one collision. When Coach’s daughter, Julie, compares the pursuit of a state championship to the white whale from Moby Dick, I was shocked I’d forgotten. This could have been the mission statement for the entire show. Equally as defining is the scene where Coach asks his scout about their opponent. The scout is bleak, demanding that Eric Taylor understand the gravity of the game. If he loses his first game, he could be looking for a new job. Eric tries to make light of the situation. “It isn’t that serious, it’s only football.” And then both men cackle, knowing that’s a gross understatement, and quite possibly the thesis for the series’ ongoing dialogue. Football is everything. It’s a ticket out that godforsaken trap, and it’s also what the townspeople cling to like religion. Every game is a battleground where the men are sent off like soldiers to deal with their demons. All the anger, the fear and the broken dreams are played out before their eyes. The miracles that never come, can be manifested in game-winning drives and Hail Mary passes.
Football and religion are frequently linked in the show, this episode being no exception. Jason Street leads a group of aspiring Panthers in the pee-wee leagues in prayer after a boy asks whether God loves football. His answer? “I think everybody loves football.” Whether it’s misguided or not—which arguably the show does believe it is, while still showing its positive attributes—these kids and adults see football as their world. They live and die by the wins and losses. And the while the spirit of the game does let them “touch God,” as Tim Riggins toasts before Friday’s game, it also brushes up against the shoulders of hellish despair. The same sport that anointed Jason Street, the same field that became his throne, would be the spot where he seemingly loses everything. We see him stealing smooch after smooch from his sweetheart, Lyla, but how long will she stay by the side of a man who can’t love her from the waist down. It’s ugly, but it’s true. How do you fully recover from having your dreams within reach only to watch them dissipate because you forgot to lift your head up when you dove to tackle an opponent, trying to keep him from your endzone. And as a town, how will Dillon treat Coach Taylor when he inevitably falls short of expectations because their savior has left.
But as all-encompassing as Street’s injury is, there’s SO much being built here. Let’s not forget the game doesn’t end with #6 being carted off. Matt Saracen, the meek and dejected kid who was rejected by Julie Taylor earlier for simply donning a Panther uniform, has to not only look the part, but be a leader of men. And despite some blunders in his first couple attempts, he ends the game hurling the ball downfield to a wide-open receiver for the game-winning touchdown. Talk about bittersweet though. As Saracen was charging ahead with a comeback, we get snippets interspersed with Jason being escorted into the hospital for an emergency operation. For a few seconds, Saracen’s a hero. Then after the exaltation wears off, he reminds Dillon of the price they paid earlier. Street is on the table, his helmet being sawed off as they try to save his spine from more irreparable fractures. Smash prays that through their love they can fix what is broken, but it’s Coach Taylor’s voiceover that haunts me.
“Give all of us here the strength to remember that life is so very fragile, that we’re all vulnerable. And we all, at some point in our lives, will fall. We will all fall. Help us to carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us. And that when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We’ll be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It’s these times, and this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.”
And as he says that last line, Julie—who from our quick introduction we know despises football—hugs Lyla Garrity, head cheerleader and Jason’s girlfriend. Smash shakes hands with Tim, who can be brothers as they mourn for the mutual friend. And Coach’s hand lies on Jason’s mom’s shoulder, as he grips Jason’s hand. And with a stern look he bores into Jason, as if to say, to beg…”Can’t lose!” Ah, those immortal words. The mantra chanted before every game. Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose. I legit, have the t-shirt.
I cried during that final frame, I got misty-eyed seeing Matt’s initial failures at quarterback juxtaposed with Street being turned on his back so the surgeons could work, and I nearly burst at the seams when Riggins scooped up the onside kick to give the Panthers possession as time dwindled on the scoreboard. And even though I knew the victory would come, my heart actually stopped when they just got the play off, and Saracen rolled right and launched a gorgeous pass. The episode captured everything I love and loathe about sports. “Friday Night Lights” started a tough conversation that we’re now forced to have in the wake of Junior Seau’s death. A legendary linebacker committed suicide, presumably because he suffered excruciating mental anguish from the effects of too many concussions: concussions that weren’t treated at the time. Is the danger worth it? Like sending our sons and daughters to war, are we willing to take the risk? Especially since it’s not our freedom, but entertainment that’s on the line. But in Dillon, and nonfictional locations across America, it’s not “only football.” It’s a way of life.
Ugh, there’s much more I could praise. I could write you a dissertation on the wonderful performances by Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler as Mr. and Mrs. Coach Taylor. Their marriage is the most pleasantly depicted in TV history, in my opinion. They exemplify what marriage can be, a partnership where there’s loads of give and take, but each truly wants what’s best for the other. They are a tag team who know when one needs to tap out and let the other take over. They also know just what the other needs. Tami, in particular, knows how to strike the balance between giving Eric space to watch film, and when he yearns for a tender kiss, or a protective hug. It’s precious, something I wish could be encased in glass and put on exhibition in the Smithsonian. This is what an American suburban marriage should look like.
There’s also all the ingredients for the enigmas that become Tim Riggins and Tyra Collete. Tyra appears to be the town slut, but her indignant response to Smash’s mother’s intimating that she is a whore suggest she has higher aspirations, but is working with what she has. And boy, does she work it. My mouth dropped the minute her bare midriff graced the screen, I’m unashamed to say. (For the record though, I’m aware she could be my mom, but Tami Taylor is my kind of woman). Tim Riggins is the strong and silent type. He obviously suffering quietly, but with what remains a mystery throughout the episode. He actually comes off as profound as toasts his and Street’s friendship with “Texas Forever.” This is the only hint at his self-inflicted wounds, the idea that he is riddled with the opposite of what the team is: a lack of expectations.
And oh, the little things. Like the camera focusing on Lyla’s hand dangling off Jason’s neck as she makes out with him. She’s not entirely wrapped around him, will that bode well when his paralysis limits them? Or how about the quick, disorienting cuts during the boosters fundraiser at Buddy Garrity’s (Lyla’s daddy) dealership? The flurry of advice coming from the mayor and other boosters telling Street and Coach about how to approach the game. My favorite is when the mayor calls Jason polite and barks, “Stop that, you can’t go into a game like that!” Feminine charm, or the lack of traditional femininity in Dillon is another subject touched upon when Tami dodges the tips of the book club members that they want passed along to Coach. The absurdity of priorities is both a topic rife with comedy and boiling over with tragic implications when the triviality of their concern is trumped by Jason’s troubles with potentially never walking again.
Ultimately, there’s tons of minutia that make up the emotional wrecking ball that is this pilot. While there would be missteps, some in the second season that even threatened to tear fans apart inside after the first season’s almost flawless execution, this pilot is as close to perfect as you’ll get. It wasted no time ripping your heart out, cradling it, stomping on it, and then mending it. And while they were so daft and swift you never had time to give your consent, you’re a willing participant in the hysteria that ensues. Even if you could care less about football, you plead that these kids come out champions. If not hoisting a trophy, you hope that life rewards them somehow. Whether you’re gunning for Matt’s good karma taking care of his elders to land the sensitive soul in a good art school, or whether you ache over Jason finding a way to cope with his new reality, or whether you just want Tim Riggins to never wear a shirt ever again so that he perpetually stumbles through practice, always brooding, we all have our hopes for Dillon.
That’s probably the trademark of this program. The irrational hope that the Dillon population puts on its Panthers, we put on the players in our drama. We won’t reap any benefits from their successes, we’ll only soak up the pride that we witnessed growth and greatness, and impossible odds defied. We’re vampires just like the iconic tune, “Devil Town,” suggests (it’s the song that plays during the preparations for the game). We feed off of the blood shed on the playing field. Are we any better than the parents, boosters and citizens who corral their young into a stadium to watch them crash into each other? We’re just allowed the luxury of further psychic distance. We’re all seeking that catharsis, the possibility that we’ll be the survivors. We pour our entire beings into the hope that the efforts of our boys will exceed the fortitude of theirs. When put that way, Dillon and FNL viewers seem barbaric, savage even. Or is that just who we are when you strip us of the trappings of “society?” We’re all small-town, seeking to “touch God” on one glory-filled, unforgettable night.
However you feel, I can’t help but smile at the sincerity of Tim Riggins when he raises his beer bottle and professes, “Here’s to God, and football, and 10 years from now—good friends living large in Texas.” Does that make me simple? I suppose. But there’s nothing basic about what can be achieved under those blinding lights. Miracles happen within those white lines, and hope swells inside us as soul and spirit is captured on film.
Remember! Suggest which classic episode of TV I should review next in the comments. Thanks.