Joy of Sets: Friday Night Lights

Posted by Grace C

FNL2Friday Night Lights had been on my TV radar for a while; friends in America had raved about it, stars had been bolstered by it and numerous recaps for other shows had referenced it as a beacon for unrivalled character portrayal. I finally had my opportunity to settle down and give it the attention it deserved over Christmas. It is safe to say it surpassed my already high expectations.

For someone who loves nothing more than well written, grounded character development without the distraction of overly dramatic plots (for the most part), Friday Night Lights is the perfect show. The keystone of its quality is in the cuttingly realistic portrayal of its main protagonists – passionate and caring, but no-nonsense, high school football coach Eric Taylor and his level-headed, patient and committed wife Tami. This powerhouse couple come to life with the understated talents of Kyle Chandler (Argo, Zero Dark Thirty) and Connie Britton (Nashville, Spin City). Their chemistry and consistency is the driving force that maintains the heart and soul of the show even through changing circumstances and the rotation of the show’s repertoire of promising young talent. 

FNL 1In the pilot episode, Eric Taylor is recruited as coach of the Dillon Panthers, a high achieving team that is idolised by the entire football-obsessed town of Dillon, Texas (the one that looks like rugby with pads, not the actually foot-to-ball kind). Its Mayor and many of its rich inhabitants have significant influence on the money and decisions, not just for the Panthers but also their home – West Dillon High. Coach Taylor is set with the task of reining in and sobering up (sometimes literally) the talented band of misfit teens currently sporting the Panthers’ badge of honour, hopefully nurturing them to victory. Each of these kids is a local celebrity, but as we explore and invest ourselves in their lives, it becomes clear that Coach Taylor’s role will not only be to lead his boys to success under extreme public scrutiny, but also lead many of them into adulthood. On the other side of the field, Tami Taylor fulfils a similar position, at first as as the school guidance counsellor. This parallel role and broader interest in the school as a whole not only allows the show to superbly scrutinise the shackles of small town politics but also some outstanding clashes between the Taylors, always against the backdrop of a shared bottle of wine and their unwavering devotion to each other.

The home-camera style filming and snap shot, part improvised, scene style adds to the feeling that you are spectating real life and as a result, it doesn’t take long to develop an affection for these often troubled characters. Even the most stable of Dillon residents have their flaws and this show has a unique ability to tackle them without stunting or swaying from the strong relationships or traits it establishes from the start. Following the lives and realistic paths of the youngsters (in many cases across all five seasons) gives a sense of a graduating class journey and reaching the end of each arc feels like catching up with an old classmate. While some students either choose or are thrown into humble futures (the show never shies from the grit of reality) others manage to soar above the expectations they were faced with at the start. The unanimous reward at the end for each of them is the personal growth they all portray and the clear connection they have to the town and people that have shaped them.

Through each backstory and social situation, the show paints many portraits of footballers and classmates alike. We see players having to turn their life around after being devastated by injury or scandal while others are thrust into the spotlight and forced to balance their new status with their former friendships or difficult home life (my favourite of these is the unexpected quarterback who is the sole carer of his slowly declining grandmother). There are others who too often jeopardise their opportunities with stagnant apathy and some who become so blinded by their desperation to achieve that they become their own barriers to doing so. In later seasons we see a new flock of students, many from the poorer end of town, East Dillon. While there are many similarities, there is a notable shift in atmosphere as the veil of celebrity is removed from our younger leads. With the rose coloured glasses replaced with sudden stigma, the show has new territory to master and does it with every grace of the early seasons, never wading into the saccharine but allowing us to see how these kids balance their struggle in light of the new opportunities they are greeted with. While many of the topics covered (racism, unplanned pregnancies, sexual assault, drugs etc.) make the show sound heavy, the good, honest nature and humour behind so many of the faces allows for the episodes to never seem depressing or hopeless, and the relatable dynamics keep the show light even in some of its darker moments.

While an ensemble cast of this size will always have its shining stars, there was no jarring weakness in its cast. Some characters are more likeable than others and some are definitely more annoying (I’m looking at you, Julie Taylor, the girl blessed to actually have the Taylors as parents yet too often likes to do her best not to deserve them…) but this just adds to the realism of the show rather than a weakness in the quality (though as always, there were some storylines I was more than happy to make my cup of tea during).

For me, this show has everything, and although some could find it slow at times the suspense is there across all seasons, often from the superbly shot match scenes. This was something I was nervous of at first (considering my distinct lack of interest in American Football) but even by the end of the pilot I was already finding myself embracing the contagious football-fever of the town and caught myself looking up the rules on Wikipedia (which apart from explaining the jargon is not something necessary for understanding those match day stepping stones that move the show along). It is not a show about football but a show about the people joined together (sometimes reluctantly) by this common vein of passion and it is that human element which sucked me in and got me hooked.

Friday Night Lights is available on Netflix.

Specific Observations (MINOR, NON-EXPLICIT SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT)

  • Is there any job Tami Taylor is not immediately qualified for but yet always seems to deserve?
  • Julie Taylor should have a “What Would Tami Do” bracelet for whenever she is interested in a boy who isn’t Matt Saracen.
  • Matt and Grandma Saracen will always simultaneously fill me with the most tragic joy I have ever experienced on TV.
  • There is no escaping how seductive Tim Riggins is no matter how much he shouldn’t be.
  • I cannot stand Lyla and Jason scenes no matter how hard I try.
  • Tyra and Landry’s Season 2 storyline was like putting a square peg in a round hole yet credit to the two of them for pulling it off so well.
  • The sudden disappearance of the Season 2 storylines (due to writers strike) is annoying but I got into Season 3 fast enough to forgive it.
  • There should be a waiting list for people who want to punch Joe McCoy.
  • Billy Riggins is pretty much the village idiot but always brightens a scene. Pairing him with Mindy Collette was a stroke of genius.
  • Credit to the show for creating a genuine conflict of heart when it came to having to change allegiance from Panthers to Lions (except for the McCoy factor).
  • Season 4 episode “The Son” is a masterpiece.
  • I never realised Americans teens could get away with that much alcohol – I thought it was just us.
  • I have never witnessed a greater marriage on TV than the Taylors.
  • This show should have gone on forever.

Guest post by Grace C

3 Comments

Filed under Drama, Joy of Sets

3 responses to “Joy of Sets: Friday Night Lights

  1. Tim

    I completely agree. I didn’t watch FNL (having previously read the original book) until it was repeated from the start on Sky Atlantic a couple of years ago and I immediately fell in love with it. It’s a rare drama that is willing to lay its characters flaws open for all to see, but it’s that three-dimensional portrayal that makes the show so compelling despite the odd new plotline requiring a major suspension of disbelief (such as Tami suddenly becoming principal). Best of all, the show genuinely went out on a high, with the final two seasons being every bit on a par with its brilliant first.

    FNL isn’t quite my favourite show of all time (that would be The West Wing), but it’s mighty close.

    • remotecontrolled (Grace C)

      Exactly – and usually the belief suspenders bug me but they never really did in this show. Any few there were I was kinda glad because it allowed the characters to do new things that let us see a new layer of them and to me it was always worth it. Has to be one of my all-time favourites too.

      • Tim

        Yeah, other than the Tyra/Landry murder storyline the biggest belief suspenders mostly involved Tami’s ever-changing jobs, and given that she’s all kinds of awesome I was willing to overlook them too.

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