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.
It also offers, via Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami—a counselor at the same high school—one of the most nuanced portrayals of marriage and family you’ll find anywhere. Any parent will smile to see how Eric and Tami, who in their jobs routinely dispense thoughtful counsel to young people, so often lose their perspective when dealing with their own teenaged daughter, Julie. In the episode we watched last night, Eric and Tammy discover that Julie, who is fifteen, has gotten a tattoo on her ankle. The pitch-perfect blowup that follows later on begins with Tami tersely informing her daughter that “I found a place in San Antonio, it’s very reputable, and we are going to go and have that tattoo removed.”
Julie gives her parents the teenage death-ray stare. “You two have fun, because I’m not going.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” snaps Coach.
“This is not your decision to make,” says Tami.
“Really? Last time I looked, it was on my ankle,” Julie shoots back.
At which point Tami explodes. “No, honey, it’s not. Until you’re eighteen years old, it’s my ankle, OK? It’s my ankle! And we are going to go down there tomorrow and get that tattoo removed! End of conversation!”
My wife and I were watching with our sixth-grade daughter, and—as we so often do with this show—we paused it to discuss the scene, beginning with the daughter’s insistence that “it doesn’t mean anything—it’s just a tattoo!” We asked our daughter: why did she think the mom and dad were so upset?
She thought about it. “Because they love her and they’re worried they’ll lose control over her. They think it does mean something. They’re afraid she’ll end up being like Tyra.”
If you have a middle-school-or-older child with whom you want to jump-start a conversation about fundamental and knotty American realities, I can’t imagine a better text to use than this show, with its trenchant look at class and race, ambition and education, and the pleasures and pitfalls of family life. The show also portrays serious life setbacks. Early in Season 1, the starting quarterback and town hero, Jason Street, suffers a severe spinal injury and has to restart his life as a paraplegic. Then there are the toils of the quarterback who replaces him, Matt Saracen, a dutiful sixteen-year-old who lives alone with his grandmother—his mother abandoned the family, and his father is in Iraq—and must care for her in the early stages of dementia. Saracen is hard-working but no star athlete, and in one episode, Coach Taylor agonizes about whether to replace him at quarterback with a new and more talented kid. The prospect of piling this demotion atop Saracen’s already considerable burden appalls the coach. “If I take him out in the middle of the season, it’ll kill him,” he says to Tami. And then the next day he does it anyway. His job, as he reminds Matt when delivering the bad news, is to win games.
The novelist Vladimir Nabokov once observed that “all reading is re-reading”—by which he meant that a truly great novel only begins to disclose its depths upon a second or even third reading. Friday Night Lights is like that. Hardly an episode concludes without either my wife or me commenting, “I knew this show was good, but I hadn’t realized it was this good.” Episode after episode reminds viewers that Americans too often fixated on success at all costs—both individuals and communities—also possess deep reservoirs of resilience to rely on when those costs pile up. The show delivers complicated realities and important truths. I’m a football fan, but it’s as a father and husband that watching it has elevated my game.