Before Friday Night Lights was a TV show it was a wildly underrated film made by Peter Berg in 2004 adapted from his cousin H.G. Bissinger’s revered book of the same name. After striking a deal with NBC to adapt Friday Night Lights into a television series, Berg helmed the Emmy award winning pilot which features the first seasons inciting incident: the tackle that breaks the neck of star quarterback Jason Street. From here the show follows the fallout from this event and chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Dillon High Panthers as they attempt to recoup after losing their best player. Yes, it is a show about Football, and jocks, and cheerleaders, but it humanises these clichéd characters in a way that is new, compelling, and at times downright rousing.
Admittedly I was sceptical about the show, expecting The O.C. against a high-school football backdrop, yet I gave the series a chance due to the strength of Berg’s film and his involvement as the show’s creator. To my delight the series is better than the film. Like most things I become enamoured with I’m sure it’s not as good as I think it is, and taking a step back I can see the moments of cliché and sentimentality that creep in every now and again. Yet it could be argued that the way Friday Night Lights uses cliché is in fact one of it’s key strengths. The writing is human with characters we would normally judge superficially becoming so endearing you hope they never decide to leave Dillon. It’s a show worth persevering with, even through some of the serious flaws of season two. You’ll be hooked by Season three and feel spear tackled at its conclusion when FNL is completely flipped on its head in an inspired and brave change of course.
The mainstays of FNL are Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, guidance counsellor Tami played by Connie Britton. Both are wonderful characters, played by two actors who we probably remember from lesser shows (Chandler played Gary in the 90s high-concept drama Early Edition, whilst Britton played assistant Nikki Faber in Spin City). The husband and wife relationship between Eric and Tami must be one of the best in any TV show or film I have seen.
Other notable key players are Taylor Kitsch (who recently played Gambit in Wolverine) as rogue full-back Tim Riggins and replacement Quarter Back Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) who must fill the massive shoes of Jason Street (Scott Porter) whilst coping with some more than difficult circumstances at home. But my favourite? Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), a character so likeable it is ridiculous. The real strength of FNL is it’s character development, and the way it can completely change the way you feel about a character in the space of one episode (sometimes even just one scene).
Besides its human drama and beautiful evocation of small town life, Friday Night Lights is the most realistically cast show in existence. Every single family looks utterly real. Children look so exactly like the combination of their parents DNA it can actually be distracting. Take for instance ‘Smash’ Williams and his Mama, Julie Taylor and her folks, Lyla and Buddy (check out the chins!) and later Landry and his father.
A carryover from the film is the use of music by post-rockers Explosions in the Sky. As music supervisor on the film Brian Reitzell filled the score with awesome tracks by Explosions as well as Iggy and Stooges, and even radical post-punkers Refused. The unusual choices suit the subject matter remarkably and despite Reitzell not supervising the show the same inspired choices are there, including the stirring sound of Explosions playing over the trademark sombre shots of Dillon from a moving vehicle. Later seasons feature some of my favourite songs including the title track from …Trail of the Dead’s masterpiece ‘Source Tags and Codes’.
On a surface level FNL looks great. It is shot in an exciting, handheld documentary style, which often snatches moments of intimacy through doorways in beautiful close-ups. At times it is very close to the visual style of a Cassavetes film, cutting from wides to extreme close ups as well as breaking basic rules of cinematography (such as crossing the line constantly). Everything in the show also seems to take place at either dusk or dawn, in front of the most beautiful Texas ‘big skies’ this side of a John Ford Western. The use of authentic locations adding to the shows realistic bent. In an age of the horrible, mundane high-key lighting used in shows like CSI and Greys Anatomy it is liberating to see a series shot the way FNL is shot. It is simply the most visually arresting television series I can think of.
So, if that doesn’t convince somebody to watch this overlooked gem of a show I don’t know what else will. Give the Panthers a fighting chance. For anyone interested here is the opening of the pilot episode.