So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week Hannah Dunleavy talks Friday Night Lights. No, don’t wander off.
I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked for a boxset recommendation and I’ve suggested Friday Night Lights only to see their eyes glaze over when they heard the fatal words: “American high school football drama”.
If you’re still reading, good for you. Because, if you can get over the premise, you’ll be rewarded with something that’s so frigging warm and funny it feels like your TV is loving you back.
The show’s premise was drawn from the film Friday Night Lights, itself based on the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name. However, its central plot came from an incident witnessed by Peter Berg (the film’s director and show’s creator) while he was researching high school football.
It means the series kicks off with a barnstorming pilot. High school Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has just taken the helm of the Dillon Panthers and the whole town expects them to win the state championships. Then something catastrophic happens. Not in a this-might-be-fixed-by-next-week’s-episode way: in a completely-rocks-the-community way.
The remainder of the first season, and arguably the whole series, deals with the repercussions as they ripple through the town in the coming weeks, months and years. Because (and here’s what we won’t tell those people who fucked off at the first mentioned of it) FNL isn’t really about American football. It’s about a pisspot town in Texas where the pride of the community has become inextricably tied with its team’s success. So much so, it’s become a poison which has permeated education, race relations, business, politics…everything.
With its huge cast, alt-country soundtrack and location filming, the whole thing looks and sounds gorgeous and goes a long way to creating the authentic feel to the community of Dillon. Scenes weren’t blocked or rehearsed and actors were allowed to wander from the script. This might sound like a recipe for disaster when you’re dealing with such a young cast. Instead, it works to the show’s advantage as its characters look and sound a lot less like TV teenagers and a lot more like real ones.
In fact, the young stars are (almost) universally bloody good. Even Taylor Kitsch, who starts off well below par, ends up as one of the series MVPs (let’s mix up those sporting metaphors). Zach Gilford puts in a brilliant performance as Matt Saracen, the boy life just keeps shitting on, and Jesse Plemons (who would later become Todd in Breaking Bad) has that rare gift of being great at both comedy and drama.
Friday Night Lights is shot entirely on handheld cameras, often in extreme close-up. No-one benefits from this more than Chandler who must have the world’s most expressive face. Coach Taylor is a good bloke but he’s not a saint. He often does the wrong thing, sometimes for the right reasons. He has a whole town to please, a family to support and he’s picking up the slack for a whole bunch of absentee fathers.
Chandler won an Emmy for his performance in the show’s fifth season. His bravura half-time speeches certainly helped, but it’s in its quieter (or even silent) moments that he really shines. Eric Taylor just sitting at his desk thinking makes for some first-class television.
It’s weird to talk about Eric without immediately mentioning his wife Tami, a character who sticks two fingers up to the television theory that behind every successful man there must be a woman bitching about how much time he spends at work. The Taylor’s partnership is that rarest of things – a happy TV marriage and the writers never resort to the cheap trick of putting it under threat to boost the drama.
Connie Britton (now starring in Nashville) is genuinely cracking as a coach’s wife who walks a fine line between supporting her husband and kicking against the more insidious sides of American football culture.
She often revisits the topic of how football excludes women and takes funding from other sports, not to mention the way its players objectify, and take liberties with, the teenage girls who surround them. Chandler and Britton are electric together – possibly drama’s best ever pairing – and it’s this relationship that forms the beating heart of the series.
It’s important to point out that Friday Night Lights isn’t perfect. The second season had some terrible plotlines before being prematurely brought to an end by the 2007–08 Writers Guild strike. By season three it was firing on all cylinders again, although the lack of a resolution to some storylines led to retconning and a spot of collective amnesia. The fourth season required a partial reboot as many of characters were too old for high school. The series dealt with that very efficiently by putting a different set of obstacles in the Taylors’ way and introducing Michael B Jordan (The Wire’s Wallace).
Friday Night Lights, which had been threatened with cancellation from the very start, signed off permanently after a fantastic fifth series. Like Coach Taylor’s teams it was an underdog and, like his teams, watching it overcome obstacle after obstacle is a remarkably thrilling and moving experience.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.