October 2009

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I love Friday Night Lights. If you have a soul, how could you not love Friday Night Lights? (Okay, that’s an overstatement but FNL fans know what I’m talking about.) I admit I’m very late coming to the party. I had heard the Sports Guy and my friends talking up the show for a long time but I was hesitant. I wasn’t really interested in watching the TV version of Varsity Blues, which is what I imagined FNL to be. I love football but I do not love television shows and movies about football.

What I did not know and wish I had understood is that FNL is much more than a TV show about high school football. It’s a drama about human relationships and like most great dramas, the backdrop is not that important. Great drama is about the constants of human interaction: love, pain, glory, anger, humor, fear, fidelity and so on. You see emotion on FNL and you feel it too, prompting many shout-at-the-TV moments. Apparently, much of the dialogue is improvised and maybe that’s why it seems so authentic. They are really getting the most out of these actors.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to have a game every few episodes and the football is well done. It does not appear fake as it does in so many television shows and movies. You feel like you are really watching a high school football game. As the Sports Guy has pointed out, there do seem to be an excessive number of implausible heroic finishes. And why are the opponents always so dastardly? I don’t mind these weaknesses, though, because they are not the focus of the show. I love these characters and when you love — and believe — a show’s characters you forgive a lot of imperfections.

Before I get into the characters, though, I want to break down the series. Season Four is about to begin in a few weeks, so this blog entry concerns the first three seasons with only a nod to four and five. There follow a lot of SPOILERS so if you have not seen the series yet, go out and watch the first three seasons and come back. Each TV season is a new football season at Dillon High.

Season One: Brilliant. This is the foundation of the show and the reason we love the show and these characters.

Season Two: The show goes off-track. I get the feeling they did not expect to be renewed for Season Two and frantically pulled storylines out of the hot Texas air. The storyline with Tyra and Landry plunges off a bridge and nearly sinks the show, neutering two interesting characters for many episodes. Peter Berg, the series creator, told Bill Simmons that the murder storyline was an attempt to increase ratings, originated in the writer’s room, and he opposed it. The storyline with Saracen and the nurse was also over the top. And Lyla comes a bit unhinged.

Season Three: The show gets back on track but they introduce a few new characters that are not appealing: the McCoy family. However, they do bring us home with our favorite characters and I think they got that right.

Seasons Four & Five: What will they do? They may not have a critical mass of my favorite characters. Not that I won’t watch the show. Riggins will make a few appearances. Reportedly Tyra will be gone for Season Four but might be back for Season Five. She’s off filming the remake of “Red Dawn” — Russians (and Chinese this time) descend on middle America (Michigan this time) and I assume Tyra kicks some commie ass. Wolverines! Go Tyra!

It’s hard to believe FNL is a network TV show. How did they keep the network suits from ruining it? Someone should write a book about that. Peter Berg told Bill Simmons he was lucky to have a very supportive brass at NBC at the time.

Now let’s talk about those characters, in my order of preference:

Tyra or Lyla? (A question for the ages — or at least the “X or Y?” game at happy hour.) Not to dismiss Julie and Tami Taylor. Hard to pick a favorite but of the female characters I love Tyra the most. Her sister is a stripper and her mother seems to go from job to job. Her family loves her but their ability to help her is limited. If Tyra wants to rise above her upbringing she must do all the work herself. She must overcome all manner of forces dragging her in the opposite direction. We love her because she is trying, because she is a fighter and a leader. We know the world needs a Tyra, a Tyra at her best. And though she takes a step back for every step she takes forward we are with her every step of the way. If you don’t cheer for her in Season Two when she joins the volleyball team then get out the resuscitation paddles.

I thought volleyball was going to be Tyra’s ticket out of Dillon. She spends most of Season One desperately seeking a way out of town. And you don’t realize quite how tall she is until Season Two when she’s standing next to Lyla and suddenly Lyla shrinks to 2/3 size in your mind. But Tyra’s volleyball career is mysteriously dropped from the storyline in Season Three. This is a good time to point out there is quite a jump from Season Two to Season Three in various storylines. This could be because Season Two was shortened due to the writer’s strike. I wish they had made Season Three an extension of the second documented year at Dillon High. That way they would not have needed to graduate so many of the major characters.

Riggins

Who doesn’t love Riggins? Yet I hate Riggins too. Damn you Riggins! He seems to just sit on his couch at home all day reading a magazine and various local hotties drop by to fool around with him. And it looks like he has been reading the same issue of the same magazine for the entire series. Riggins has a family life that is even worse than Tyra’s. His parents have both disappeared and he is being raised by his brother who is worse than Tyra’s mom at holding a job. Fittingly, the brother ends up marrying Tyra’s stripper sister. The brother is not exactly a good role model for Riggins but he does love Riggins and genuinely wants him to succeed, just as Tyra’s family is happy for her when she succeeds. You might say Tyra and Riggins are the male and female versions of the same character. Riggins is also a fighter and a leader. It is not surprising that as the series begins, Riggins and Tyra are boyfriend and girlfriend. I think Riggins and Tyra are the heart of the series. The best episodes feature extensive storylines with both characters.

Street

He is the first-string quarterback until he is paralyzed while tackling a player after throwing an interception. (This scene made a real-life horror scene flash into my eyes: the Brian Griese interception that ended Terrell Davis’s career when TD blew out his knee while trying to tackle the intercepting player.) In another show you might have a couple hospital scenes and then Street would disappear but in this show Street becomes a major character. We are with Street every step of the way as he learns to live with his paralysis.

One of those shout-at-the-TV moments I mentioned early occurs when Street shows his athletic skills in wheelchair rugby. Another is when he kisses the blonde at mini-Stonehenge. Sometimes during FNL you only shout “Aighgh!” because you don’t know where you stand on the character’s decision, as with that kiss. More often it’s a cheer of approval, as when Tyra kills it in volleyball or disapproval when Riggins’s brother drags him into the copper wire stealing scheme.

Peter Berg (if I heard him right) told Bill Simmons that Street was named after the famous Texas Street brothers, one of whom, Huston, is now a pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. Berg also said the Street storyline was inspired by a player who was paralyzed during a real high school game they were filming as part of the FNL movie.

I still have to watch the Season Two deleted scenes, but there are a couple great quotes from the Season One deleted scenes, both involving Street. In the first, Streets friend Herc says of being quadriplegic, “You let them define you, ya start believin’ the definition, you’re done.” That’s pretty good advice for anyone, quadriplegic or not. Another time, Street is coaching Saracen and says to him of football talent, “There’s no such thing as a natural. It’s just an excuse for lazy people not to put in the work.” Speaking of deleted scenes, the best one may have been when Coach Taylor gets interrogated by the booster club. (I think that is what is happening.) It’s like Question Time in the British Parliament.

Tyra, Riggins and Street are the most compelling characters if you ask me. (I know you didn’t but I’m going to anyway. This is a blog after all.) Here are the rest of the characters who I love only slightly less:

Saracen & Julie

Great last name. Matt Saracen is the backup QB. He starts the show as a bit of a nerd who nobody knows. He lives with and must take care of his grandmother who is in the early stages of dementia. Saracen never loses his “nice guy” charm, even when he is the toast of the school. He might be more of an interesting character if he did get too big for his britches at some point only to be brought down to earth by Julie. He dates Julie, the coach’s daughter, and that is a interesting stretch for both characters.

But Matt’s character falls through the cracks as the series moves along. A nurse named Carlotta moves in to help with his grandmother. And guess what, she is young and smoking hot! Do you think there’s any chance she will hook up with Saracen? It’s like when the hot new next door neighbor shows up at Riggins’ door. As a viewer you think, “Here we go.” You have to wonder if someone in the writer’s room was always saying, “We’re stuck. Let’s throw a new hottie into the mix!” Maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve had many home health care nurses in my day and none were as cute as Carlotta.

Landry

He’s Saracen’s nerdy and loyal best friend and he tries to act like a good Christian. He talks the talk and walks the walk. He has a strong conscience. More importantly for the plot, he has a crush on Tyra. Watching Tyra and Landry cautiously navigate this possible nerd-hottie romance is interesting. Of course, as a former high school nerd I was pulling for Landry. At the same time, there was a cute nerd girl who was quite infatuated with Landry and it seemed like she might have been a better match. But Landry chose Tyra and for a time, Tyra chose Landry.

Behind the scenes of this romance something excessively dramatic was happening: Landry murdered Tyra’s stalker/attempted rapist and they disposed of the body together. Wait…WHAT!? Hmm, what storyline does not fit in this TV drama? During the time period the murder is resolved they may as well have sent Tyra and Landry to the moon. And once it is resolved, things go improbably back to normal. I would imagine the murder would color everything that follows.

But I like their improbable return to normal because they never should have left normal to begin with. By the way, what ever happened to Landry’s Dad? Apparently it’s not a big deal for a sheriff to destroy evidence and obstruct an investigation. The writers swept that under the rug as they swept the murder under the rug. (Again, I haven’t seen the Second Season deleted scenes and they might have addressed this and tied up some other loose ends.) Landry also has one of the funniest lines of the series: “What would Riggins do?” WWRD? If I had lived my 20s and 30s by that credo who knows what levels of coolness I might have reached. (Minus the copper stealing caper and a few other bad acts/behaviors. Landy is speaking of an idealized Riggins, the best possible Riggins, the Riggins we love.)

At one point, Tyra tells Landry that without the murder they never would have gotten together. It’s not clear she believes this but I wonder if the show’s writers believe it. Were they wracking their brains in the writer’s room trying to think of a way to get Tyra and Landry together and this was all they could think of? “Murder! That’s it!” I wish they had tried to find another way to make a nerd-hottie romance workable. Landry’s bout with guilt was interesting but perhaps they could have had him commit a lesser crime. The Tyra-Landry relationship fascinates me but they were a bit too stereotypical about it. And I think we should have been a bit harder on Landry for choosing Tyra over the cute nerd girl. Not that I blame Landry for picking Tyra. Another shout-at-the-TV moment: “Don’t you do it Landry! Don’t you dare!” (One time I got the feeling Landry was about to dump Tyra. He didn’t.)

Lyla

She was Street’s girlfriend and she soldiered on bravely after Street’s injury. Then in a weak moment (or several weak moments) she fell apart and slept with Riggins. Then her idyllic home life collapsed and she gave up cheerleading and turned to God. She kind of lost me when she turned to the Lord. Not because she became religious but because it happened so suddenly and without showing us how it happened. I wish we had seen more of that transformation. Later, she seems to abandon the transformation (and her youth minister boyfriend) — also without much explanation. I think the show handles religion fairly but in a much more interesting way through Landry.

You ever have a character ruined by the way the actor behaves in real life? It should not happen but it happened to me with Sheriff Bullock in Deadwood. I love the Bullock character but in the commentaries the actor who plays Bullock sounded like a complete asshat. Therefore, Bullock loses some of his coolness. This makes it harder to live by the credo: “What would Bullock do?”

I have a similar feeling about Lyla because the actress is dating Derek Jeter. To date a baseball star seems so…high school. Yet to me the core of Lyla’s character is that she is very mature and seems above the high school bullshit. Hard to admire Lyla when the actress who plays her seems so silly. (To be fair, the actress who plays Lyla and the actor who plays Bullock could be awesome people for all I know. I’m just talking about impressions and their impact on my gut perception of the characters.)

Smash

In the book, this character is named Boobie. I can see why they went with Smash. Smash Williams is the star running back, the best player on the team after Street went down. His character is a bit flat at first, “the star athlete.” But that was Smash. Then Smash starts to grow. Part of his growth occurs in a storyline dealing with racism. In the book, racism is stomach punch real and deep. In the show, it is addressed well but is sugarcoated. Still, the way his little sister deals with racism, the way she cried on the couch in her house, felt more effective than any Jesse Jackson speech. That is the power of excellent drama. This is a good time to mention that the acting in FNL is phenomenal, from the stars to the supporting cast members with the smallest roles.

Coach and Tami Taylor

What about the Taylors, you ask? Bill Simmons thinks they are the best TV parents in recent history and he could be right. Coach Taylor is kind of the straight man and his wife, school counselor and later Principal Tami Taylor, performs a similar role. Occasionally they fly off the handle but usually they subdue the mayhem in Dillon, Texas. They are the ports in the storm. Watching the Taylors deal with their daughter Julie is like a primer for every parent out there watching their kid turn into a teenager. Those storylines alone give parents who haven’t been through the Teen Wars a reason for watching.

The Taylors provide more shout-at-the-TV moments, such as when Coach Taylor is going to pick up Julie at Matt’s house and barges in because the door is ajar: “Don’t do it Coach!” Or when Julie falls for the Swede: “Julie, don’t fall for the guy-in-a-band-with-a-van douchebag!” Or when Julie ditches the Swede: “Yes!” (That scene with the Swede in his apartment was perfect.) “Coach! You got it all wrong!” (When Riggins is helping a drunk Julie into bed, in one of Coach Taylor’s fly-off-the-handle moments.) Yeah, we saw it coming a mile away, but we still cringed. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who used to be in that show about getting the newspaper a day ahead of time. (Peter Berg told Bill Simmons he initially had a similar skepticism about Kyle Chandler, who plays Coach Taylor.)

What next? Here are a few things I’d like to see happen in Seasons Four and Five:

The Taylors need to stay in Dillon and Coach needs to win back the Panther job. Sure, it would be great if he could beat Dillon with his East Dillon team but the show needs Buddy Garrity and Buddy could never leave the Panthers. (I might be wrong. In a deleted scene he all but announces he’s coming to East Dillon with Coach Taylor.) It might be a tempting finale to have Coach Taylor move into college coaching. I don’t think so. He tried college and it didn’t suit him. They have found a home in Dillon and I think they need to stay there.

Julie should go to college at the University of Chicago and Saracen should join her there. His grandmother should insist on it. Saracen not reaching his potential is not an acceptable outcome.

Tyra needs to save Landry in some way. And she needs to join the UT volleyball team. Maybe she could go to the Olympics in volleyball or at the very least get a volleyball scholarship to stay at UT. (It’s not clear how she’s going to pay for UT.) Landry can go to UT when he graduates. Do they stay together? I’m not sure. We could hint that they are close and leave it at that. Who knows what college will bring? We love these characters so much we tend to overvalue these high school romances, the vast majority of which do not survive college. Then again, it’s hard to think of these young people as high schoolers. They seem to act more mature than high schoolers, even the immature ones.

Lyla should become disenchanted with Vanderbilt, transfer to a college in Texas, rediscover God, and become a minister. She and Riggins can get married and Riggins can be a youth advisor at Lyla’s church in his spare time. For a career though, how about Dillon Panther football announcer and sports radio talk show host?

Street. Forget the sports agent stuff. I’d like to see him as Coach Taylor’s heir-apparent. Maybe offensive coordinator. Or maybe Coach Taylor comes back to the Panthers and Street becomes the head coach at East Dillon, with Riggins as his assistant coach?

Is the Friday Night Lights realistic? No, not exactly. FNL depicts a world where everyone has the best intentions and that reflects my wishful thinking when it comes to human behavior.

Also, real people don’t communicate this well. As I mentioned, I don’t think real high school kids are this mature. But a truly “real” high school drama would be very boring. There would be lots of teenagers hiding in their rooms and making wild assumptions about everything happening in their lives.

The show does show real human emotions and people dealing with those emotions. The age group (high school) like the backdrop (high school football) is secondary. This is a show about people. I think of it all as happening on a hyperspeed timeline. Communication and resolution that would take six months or never happen at all takes a few weeks at most. I do not mind this at all. Drama is just accelerated life.