It is hard to know where to begin when writing about Friday Night Lights. The book, the film, and the television show are all unique interpretations of the same idea, each with it’s own unique tone and focus. The book itself is a piece of journalism, a non-fiction biography of Permian High School in 1988 and is equal parts disturbing and hypnotic. The fanatical Booster Club, the larger-than-life personalities, the casual, off-hand racism are all part of day to day life in this small frequently failed oil town in West Texas. The economy and history are explored alongside the team and their families. It’s equal parts shark tank and sports commune. The film takes its cues from the book and turns in some excellent performances from everyone involved, including a staggering portrayal by Tim McGraw as an obsessive, emotionally abusive father desperately pushing his son onward towards the glory he once reached. The effect is powerful and accessible to both sports fans and casual audiences.
The book and the show are different animals entirely but share a common background and a passion for the sport that makes for a fascinating study in character and values. In both, the primary antagonists are as often rival teams as they are towns people themselves who are so consumed with the concept of winning, of being champions, that there is no regard for how Pyrrhic that victory may be. Both are about adults living through their children, in some ways robbing them of their youth and in other ways imbuing them with the kind of drive and ethics that can destroy or enrich depending on strength of character, on the purity of the lessons themselves. It’s emotional and troubling and beautiful when it is viewed from an outsider’s perspective but to the personalities involved it’s home. It’s a way of life. The idea that football is a metaphor for life seems obvious but to the initiated this is only a sentiment. To the inhabitants of those places football is life and there is no further need to wax poetic.
One of the things that makes the show Friday Night Lights so brilliant is how fully realized every character is. Although, for the sake of entertainment, the largely teenage cast gets away with some unusually adult behavior, this all makes sense in the context of the demands and expectations that are set upon them. In the film and the show there is a palpable sense that the coaches, players, and their friends are in very apparent ways mildly terrified of the adult community around them. The surrounding fervor and adulation affect each of them in different ways and they all struggle with a sense of loss. The feeling of enjoying the game, of enjoying a win have given way to the fear of losing, of failing to live up to expectation, and the joy of playing the game is long gone. Their parents and teachers cry out at them that they are immortal superheroes while at the same time barely masking the knowledge that it’s all going to go away one day very soon. This is realized succinctly and with brilliant clarity in the film itself. While being interviewed by a recruiter one of them suddenly asks Mike Winchell, “Do you still like to play football? It’s supposed to be a game. Do you still have fun?” Mike answers, after a beat, “Yessir, I love to play football.” And he’s lying through his teeth.
The television show takes a wider look at the game and the town itself and introduces more complex relationships. It finds a lot to talk about in contemporary Texas and although my experiences are limited I found myself in love with the people before I ever got here. I could talk at length about the city of Austin, where it was filmed, but I really don’t need to, the show makes the case for me. Although native Austinites wail and gnash their teeth about how metropolitan the city is becoming, the soul of the place itself is what makes it so inviting. Not every experience here is inspiring, but if you spend enough time in the right place with the right people, it fosters a sense of belonging. A sense of being in the right place at the right time. It’s a feeling that should be spread as often and as much as possible and this is a sensibility that the show captures throughout. That feeling is what it’s like living in Texas, surrounded by Texans. This may not seem like a desirable state of existence to anyone who has not spent time here, but it is possible, if one does, to understand the pride and contentment that comes with being native born, with being in love with what is in some ways still the American Frontier in certain hearts and minds.
I associate a lot of music with Austin, it’s impossible not to with as much diversity and culture as there is, but the one band that epitomizes the feeling of sitting up late after a long day and listening to the city sleep, it’s Explosions In The Sky. The post-rock movement didn’t do much for me but there is something about this band in particular, with no vocals or lead singer, that captures the feeling of being alive in Austin. There could not be a better way of describing the sense of Shut Up and Be Here Now. It’s a brilliant stroke to use their music in the film and an imitation of it in the show itself. To me, their music is the feeling of being alone but loved, of feeling small in a big world but important all the same. And its expansive but traditional arrangements, to me, are like the open expanse of Texas itself. Simple, plain, but unspeakably beautiful if you’re looking with the right kind of eyes.
Eric and Tammi Taylor are the lynchpin of the fictional story of the fictional town of Dillon but they might be the most important on-screen couple in modern television because they are true adults. They are the way we imagine parents to be as kids, flawed and difficult but right because they believe in each other without any fear or insecurity whatsoever. They are impossibly perfect for each other while at the same time being completely realized human beings on their own, with dreams and goals, who exist alongside each other to their mutual benefit. I’ll never forget the moment I realized that this was something special. To give away a minor plot point, Eric is under extreme pressure with his coaching job and with finances as anyone is at one time or another and Tammi is extremely apprehensive about telling him she is pregnant. There is this expectation that this moment will be divisive and traumatic and when she finally tells him on the eve of a pivotal game Eric’s reaction is riveting. He’s overjoyed. Utterly and completely. Because at the end of the day, regardless of what else is happening in the world, their love is supremely and obviously the only thing that really matters. Everything else can fall by the wayside. And I found myself thinking, That’s the kind of man I want to be.
So this is an endorsement of the film and the show, both of which are available on Netflix, but it’s more than that. Although the show had its missteps before it really finds it’s rhythm, the end result is, as close as I can describe it, life-affirming and I mean this in a different way than the term is usually applied. It doesn’t inform the value of life itself, rather, it affirms the value of the things and people we share life with. It takes a stark and honest look at poor, white, black, rich, Latino, entitled, Christian, popular, geeky, old, disabled, any and everyone that makes up a community of people working towards the thing, place, or love that stands a chance of making them happy, with the real successes and failings that result when hopes and dreams meet reality. And in Friday Night Lights, all the while, we’re reminded that we should be keeping to the fact that through all the trials and tribulations, all the heartache and confusion, that these are the things that bind us together forever.