While last week’s Emmy Awards lavished honors on Veep and The Handmaid’s Tale, I want to direct Commonweal readers to a show that ran a decade ago. In today’s artisanal entertainment system you can pretty much watch what you want, when you want, and Friday Night Lights is streamable on Netflix. But hurry: Netflix is taking the show down come October. If you watch the first episode, you’ll likely be scrambling to get as many in as you can, because this may well be the best drama ever produced by network TV.
In the past, when I’ve written in this space about football (here and here, for instance), I’ve warned off those readers unlikely to be interested. Friday Night Lights requires the opposite caveat. Though its portrayal of football in America’s heartland provided just enough gridiron action to lure male viewers, FNL was really about other things: the temptations and corruptions of winning; the daily challenges of marriage; the wild ups and downs of raising children; the ever-present specter of human fallibility; and the redemptive power of love.
Yes, OK, and a few Hail-Mary pass plays as well.
The show grew from a 1990 nonfiction book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Buzz Bissinger, who spent a year in the small Texas city of Odessa, researching the culture of high-school football. His book offered a clear-eyed view of racism, economic distress, and the burdens that a community’s obsession with the game places on its teens. As a review in the Times noted, Bissinger set down “a biting indictment of the sports craziness that grips not only Odessa but most of American society, while at the same time providing a moving evocation of its powerful allure.” Odessa residents, who thought Bissinger had come not to bury them but to praise them, were outraged, and the journalist received death threats.
The book led to a 2004 movie, whose writer-director, Peter Berg, subsequently pitched it as a series to NBC. The series format allowed Berg to minimize the gridiron action and zero in on characters. The result was quietly spectacular. If you like shows that offer sympathetic portrayals of characters steeped in ambiguity, FNL is for you. Its scrutiny of errant humans coping under pressure repeatedly presents good people doing bad things—succumbing to various forms of temptation, anger or duress – along with the obverse example of deeply compromised characters managing, through an unexpected grace, to transcend their flaws. Thus we have Buddy Garrity, a car dealer and head of a powerful faction of football boosters, who is equal parts blowhard, conniver, and philanderer, undertaking to help a troubled teenaged boy his daughter befriends on a Christian visit to a youth correctional facility—and sticking by him, even when the young man relapses.
There’s also Brian “Smash” Williams, a star running back being raised by a single mom and desperate to get a college football scholarship; when the congregation at his church scrapes together a collection to help him pay for an SAT prep course, he uses it instead on performance-enhancing drugs. And among the female characters, a blonde bombshell named Tyra Collette struggles to avoid the fate of her older sister, a strip-club dancer, and her mother, perpetually dependent on men who treat her badly; but Tyra herself half relishes her own bad-girl reputation, and rejects a smart but nerdy boy who loves her in favor of a handsome rogue who comes to town with the rodeo. Religion plays a role in the show, in the form of an evangelical Christianity whose enthusiastic services, in a large exurban church, distinctly resemble the football team’s pep rallies; and, on the other side of town, a black congregation struggling to pay the pastor. But the show itself is essentially Christian in the cycles of spiritual experience it puts its characters through: error and discovery; confession; punishment and shame; and finally the chance for redemption.