In the first episode of the first season of Friday Night Lights, I cannot believe that I already care about a football team when I don’t even follow the sport anymore. Jesus. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Friday Night Lights.
I can’t. I DIDN’T SIGN UP FOR THIS. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME.
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As per my custom when I start something new, here’s what I know about Friday Night Lights:
- It’s about a football team in Texas.
- I should say goodbye to my heart.
Thankfully, that’s it. I first heard about this showâ€¦ well, actually, it was before it was a show. It was back in 2004 when I learned that Explosions in the Sky recorded the soundtrack for the movie and later had music on the show. I adore the band, but never got into the soundtrack because I’m a bad fan and because I never saw the film. Then the show started, and lots of my friends started talking about it. A few years in, it was this thing on a message board I moderated at the time that they’d hold weekly thread meet-ups just to discuss each episode, and it was pretty much universally adored. At that time, though, I was deep into LOST, re-watching The X-Files in order, andâ€¦ well, not watching anything else. I was too busy with just two shows! I couldn’t add anything more to my platter.
And so I never got around to it. THANKFULLY, SINCE I NOW GET TO SUFFER WITH Y’ALL FOR THE NEXT SEVEN MONTHS. Thus, I am now finally getting Friday Night Lights. So, I’ll start this way:
This is, genuinely, one of the finest pilots I have ever seen.
From the start, it’s clear this show is just going to do things differently. The camera work is subtle, intimate, and gives off a documentary-style feel to everything. I don’t feel like I’m watching actors; it’s like the camera was dropped right in the midst of a Texas high school football team. Stylistically, it’s jarring because I’m so used to shows not looking like this. It’s also incredibly refreshing.
I wouldn’t say the town I grew up in was terribly tiny, though it looked, at times, a lot like Dillon, Texas. It sure felt like it. I grew up in between La Sierra Acres, where a lot of the upper middle class people in Riverside lived, and Arlanza, where most of the poor people of color resided. My particular neighborhood had a lot of gang and drug activity; most of the people around me had lived in the Inland Empire their entire lives and never aspired to leave the place. It was a suburban dream for the folks who had money, and it was a nightmarish hell for anyone who deviated from the ideal of the perfect heterosexual family with two kids. Depending on where you were in town, you either felt like you lived in a melting pot of diversity, or you were terrified for your life that some asshole in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag waving from the antenna would chase you down, screaming obscenities and slurs, telling you to go back to your country. (That always changed for me. I’ve been told to go back to so many places! I should start keeping track of those.)
Football mattered so much. We weren’t particularly good, though we had a few stellar players who have since gone on to make a mark in collegiate football. But by god, that team got so much money. I did Cross Country and Track (and dabbled with swim and soccer, but only a semester each.) And we won. All the time! We sent people to State every single year. We could not get the school to give us money for anything other than buses to meets, and even then, we still had to pay for any invitationals that weren’t official. I remember it took us four years to get the varsity team new uniforms. We were still using the same jerseys that the seniors used when we were freshman.
And yet, football was everything. They got a brand new, multi-million dollar stadium. They had new uniforms every year, nicer buses to take them to games, they had entire social events planned around pre-game celebrations. The point of this is not to prove that I’m immensely bitter (LOL CAN YOU TELL), but to explain that I know what this is like. My community cared so much about football because it was the manly, acceptable thing to do. Which isn’t to insinuate that football is inherently invalid because of that; that would be silly and reductive. But it was impossible to separate the very stereotypical reality of the high school social strata from the fact that where I grew up was immensely straight and homophobic. I can’t even count how many times the football players would shout slurs at my teammates and myself when we practiced on the track while they were there. Apparently, running is super gay? God forbid our shorts wereâ€¦ well, they were short. IT’S IN THE NAME, DUDES. Of course, I once reminded one of the linebackers that he was wearing spandex, and I got punched in the nose. It was totally worth it, for the record.
Anyway, I’m sharing this because Friday Night Lights gets this. It gets this so well, and it’s eerie. As the camera moves this town and introduces the vast cast of characters of the show, it feels like home. The sprawling suburbia, the weed-filled yards, the car dealerships that host social events, the media circus around football games, the kids who dream of a life outside of their tiny slab of nowhere. Whenever I enter a new fictional world, I always pay attention to how this place is introduced to me, and “Pilot” is just stunning in this regard. I understood Coach Taylor’s past, the pressure he was under, and the style he used when he coached. I saw how Riggins treated football as a nihilistic escape, despite that he had no desire to leave the Lone Star state. I got that Matt Saracen was the reject, the kid who wanted to play football and be good at it, butâ€¦ well, he’s just not that good. (PS: It was super distracting that the dude who played Landry was that guy from Breaking Bad. You know who! H E L P.) The setting is established immediately and coherently, the characters make sense, and the story is a hell of a doozy just in the first episode. I did feel like this was a dense pilot, but it didn’t overwhelm me in the same way that The West Wing did. There’s far less dialogue, and I noticed that the show relies heavily on sequences that are just images and music. YES, PLEASE.
There are so many hints towards future plots, too! We’ve got Tami Taylor’s desire to move to a bigger house, which I’m sure will provide conflict later. (HELLO, CONNIE BRITTON, YOU ARE SO WONDERFUL. I LOVE YOU. PLATONICALLY AND FROM A FAR DISTANCE. I’m in the midst of watching American Horror Story, and she is so incredible on that show.) Julie is clearly trying to find her place in school without being automatically associated with her father. Riggins and Smash clearly hate one another, and Riggins has an alcohol problem, too. (PS: I am so into Smash’s characterization at this point. Count me as a fan.) Tyra fascinates me, too. She sometimes appears to like Riggins, but she’s also struggling with the sense of control he exerts over her, which might be why she flirts with other dudes so often.
Of course, the one scene in “Pilot” that shows me how well the writers understand the way the culture of high school football intersects with small town mentalities is the car dealership party. It’s brilliantly written and executed. I love that we start the scene with wide camera angles that demonstrate how many people will show up at a car dealership for a pep rally. Car dealerships had such a huge influence socially and financially in our community, too! Which was always weird for me, since my parents wouldn’t let me learn how to drive while I lived with them, and I’ve since been unable to afford to own a car anyway. Anyway, once the pep rally is underway, the dialogue and pacing becomes vicious and intense. The cameras all float dangerously close to the actor’s faces, and it heightens the dramatic tension. You can tell that Coach Taylor has stepped into a minefield, and it works on so many levels. It’s a fascinating commentary on the emotional attachment that many people have to organized sports, especially in the context of high school teams. These people want their team to win because it has a deep emotional meaning to them. At the same time, it’s like Coach Taylor is commandeering a bus full of back-seat drivers. They all know more than him, they’re all more qualified than he is, and they’re all ready to give them their opinions without even considering that he doesn’t want them and they’re not helping.
You get the sense that Coach Taylor utilizes the resources he has to coach his team, but he’s largely a stoic force. He doesn’t smile at his players. He watches videos of plays as if they’re the answer to the meaning of life. And even when he gives his iconic speech to his players before they rush out of the field to play their first game of the season, he’s deadly serious. But at the same time, he’s hopeful. Listen to that message of expectation he imparts on his players. He believes in them, and they believe in what they’re doing.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
And then I get an idea of just how ridiculously suspenseful Friday Night Lights is going to be. I assumed that the end of “Pilot” would unfold in one or two ways: the team would either win, setting up the season for a story about how the team had to keep up their wins amidst pressure, or they’d lose, taking the story on a path about disappointment and expectation. HAHAHAHA. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHA. LORD, y’all weren’t kidding. This show is going to rip my goddamn heart out. See, what happens here is not just shocking; it feels like it belongs in a season finale. AND IT’S THE FIRST EPISODE. Like, I don’t follow football anymore. I watched a lot of it by osmosis when I was growing up, even growing fond of the San Francisco 49ers during their heyday. My whole family adored the sport, but it just wasn’t my thing. I only looked forward to the Super Bowl each year because my mom would make her unreal cheesy chili dip, which was a heart attack in a Pyrex dish. Oh, and I obviously had a bunch of crushes on football players? I looked at their butts I DON’T CARE. THAT’S WHAT I DID. Don’t hate! I was far more interested in other things. I distinctly remember getting in a fight with my father because he wanted to watch a game when Masterpiece Theater was on. Are any of you surprised I turned out gay?
So I have a basic understanding of the games and the rules, but I worried that I wouldn’t know enough to comprehend these game sequences on the show. The writers don’t water down anything here, but that doesn’t make things incomprehensible in the slightest. I was able to follow along and understand the stakes, the plays, and the action. Even when Street went in for the tackle, I got that it was necessary that he stop the interception or the game would have gone to Westerby. When Street didn’t get up, though, I expected he would after shaking it off. And then he continues to be still. And the stretcher comes out, and this episode becomes horrifying. His injury isn’t just serious, it’s life-changing. And in that moment, we’re given massive character development in the first episode. Obviously, Street’s plans for the year have been derailed, as it’s clear his injury is horrific. But then Saracen is suddenly thrust into the role of quarterback and captain, despite that he’s often relegated to doing menial tasks during practice. His inexperience is obvious when he completely ruins two plays, and my heart already ached for him. His first time on the field is in the most terrifying way possible, and he botches it.
It’s a sign of how brilliant Coach Taylor is that he’s able to pull Saracen aside and truly coach him, to give him the peace of mind and the certainty that he needed to complete that game-winning pass. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
And yet the end of “Pilot” is still devastating. Despite a miraculous win, we see the entire team arrive at the emergency room, grim looks adorning their faces. Two Taylor family members â€“ Eric and Julie â€“ comfort Street’s father and girlfriend, respectively. This season, this year, has been changed irrevocably, and they’re all going to have to deal with it together, as a team and as a community.
I don’t think I have ever developed such intense feelings for a television show so quickly. Goddamn it, this show is going to ruin me, isn’t it?
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