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Clear Eyes, Full Hearts! Can’t Lose!

I often spend more time looking for something to watch on Netflix rather than actually watching something on Netflix. Despite this, you occasionally, well, often very rarely, discover a hidden gem. A while back I saw something called Friday Night Lights. It looked like an interesting film. I put it to the back of my mind. Then this week I went to give it a go but ended up watching a TV series of the same name instead. Mental mix up.

That was good, as Friday Night Lights the TV show is brilliant. I binged watched the first 22 episodes of season one.

On paper you’d think it wouldn’t be a good idea. A drama about a High School football team stretched out across 22 episodes a year (though as it happens post-season one it drops to 13). The usual stereotypical characters, the usual plot set-ups. All of which sort of work when fitted into 120-minutes but would get very tired episode after episode. Imagine something like Varsity Blues attenuated across that many hours? Soul destroying. You don’t get that though, you get something very different. Friday Night Lights isn’t just a sports drama about American Football. It isn’t a High School drama, far from that. It’s essentially a drama about a town and its obsession with its High School football team because that is, by and large, its biggest success.

The strangest thing about Friday Night Lights is the two TV series it reminds me of the most? Battlestar Galactica and True Detective. I know, a lofty comparison, and there are many ways in which the show is nothing like either of these two shows, yet I can’t help but feel the connection.

It’s like Battlestar Galactica in the way it’s filmed. It has that close, ‘amateur’, grainy and intimate camera work which works surprisingly well in this small town, High School and football setting. Really odd, but it works. It makes it a very intimate and intense drama. You are drawn into scenes about the most mundane of things. I don’t mean mundane in the sense they are boring, but mundane in the sense they’re about important, character driven stuff but there is hardly any ‘chewing of the scenery’ in Friday Night Lights and it is brilliant because of it.

Then you have the setting, it’s not as a big a portrait of its setting as True Detective was, but it plays along similar lines. The Texas small town, its inhabitants and its all consuming obsession with football is brilliantly portrayed. The buildings, the rich family owning the car dealership, the poor housing, the fields, trees and dust hanging in the sunlit air. You feel embroiled in the culture and the place and I think this is one of the biggest facets of the show that helps raise it above the numerous genres it’s pulled from. As a place on paper it’s somewhere that you’d be inclined to not like, make fun of or ridicule, but Dillon with its religion, prayers before games, run-down housing with posters outside declaring their sons playing position, and varied inhabitants, just works. It is the fabric of the series in a similar way to True Detectives setting been woven into the fabric of that show.

Dillon, Texas may not be a place I’d want to live, but as a place for drama it is a thing of beauty. Its fascinating.

Ultimately, it’s about the characters and their relationships and there is something being captured in the show that isn’t present in others. True, it’s easy to see it as sporting all the stereotypes: the star quarterback who gets crippled; the lead cheerleader who is the daughter of the ‘better off’ car dealership owner; the young quarterback with confidence issues, forced to rise to the occasion; the poor kid, with father issues, who the women fall before; and the super star black running back who refers to himself in the first person.

All this doesn’t matter as it doesn’t really play out that way while still allowing the characters to be essentially who they are. The star quarterbacks journey through dealing with being in a wheelchair is fascinating and, in my view, one of the best examples of a storyline dealing with crushed dreams and adversity. The issues around that star running back and the pressure he faces as the single way to raise his family out of poverty manages, for the first time, to make me feel the weight of that responsibility. Even the young, naive quarterback rising to the occasion, while dating the coaches daughter is incredibly well done. The relationship between the daughter, the quarterback and the coach is brilliant and you want him to do well. In fact, I’d say Friday Night Nights has one of the best explorations of family relationships I’ve seen without falling into the safe bet of shouting and scenery chewing.

It’s just an incredibly well implemented show. I understand the rating weren’t great. In a way I can understand why, it was probably quite a different show when it aired. Very understated. Filmed differently. It’s essentially a study of character, place and culture. Now, it would be different, coming in as one of those 13-episode HBO style affairs. Hopefully, it doesn’t make really bad changes in the second series onwards to try and become more popular.

I don’t know about the proceeding seasons, but Friday Night Lights season one, for me, is a bit of a TV show work of art.

About Ian O'Rourke

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