I’ve just watched the pilot episode and am seriously impressed at the understatement and discernment on display. I’ve heard a lot about this low-rating but highly acclaimed show since its premiere last October. It’s the small-screen incarnation of the eponymous book that spawned the 2004 film with Billy Bob Thornton, and has been receiving raves for its critique of the role of sport in American culture and for intelligently addressing any number of social and family issues with a probing insight rare for network television.
The pilot can be a little dry and clearly needs some time to settle in and start packing an emotional punch, but its unassuming characterisation, natural dialogue, and dedication to realism mark this as an important show. In a TV drama landscape dominated by police procedurals, any show that breaks that mould and doesn’t feed us formulaic plotting and painfully obvious lines is one to keep an eye on. Plus, even though it’s about football, this is a show that anyone can draw something from. Speaking as someone utterly apathetic about playing or watching sport and who is openly critical of its prominence in Western society and our reverence of it, hopefully this generalising pronouncement actually means something.
The opening sequence immediately marks Friday Night Lights as a subtle and provocative enterprise. We are not expected to be adulatory of sport overall, let alone the high school leagues that provoke an astonishing passion in local communities. The quarterback is a hero, but we are meant to see this via the town’s unconditional respect for him, not because of a stereotype that we must subscribe to. Citizens on local radio and in person harangue the new coach (Kyle Chandler, showing great and promising restraint in the lead) with political intensity, believing him to be incapable of leading their beloved team to victory. And a dichotomy is already apparent between the socially accepted sports stars and those who question their Olympian status, such as, interestingly, the coach’s daughter (Aimee Teegarden). Yet the players themselves are divided too and exhibit nuance and complexity from the start; we sense that they may be tormented or altered by the expectations thrust upon them. We watch well-mannered and apparently decent star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) being accosted by the mayor, who insists that he play meanly and viciously. The scene upends our preconceptions when the nice female mayor’s praise of his affable qualities gives way to blunt criticism that these are weaknesses on the field that could cost them success. Dillon is evidently a town that finds its self-esteem in its renowned team, and the series will undoubtedly delve deeper into this destructive and fascinating community crisis of identity and purpose.
Friday Night Lights has been blessed with massive praise, with TV Guide’s reliable Matt Roush even comparing it to The Wire in its analysis of how a community functions (or doesn’t). While it’s too early for me to make such a call – and it would be a miracle if the confines of network television could ever yield a gem like that – Friday Night Lights’s texture and grace, of a kind rarely seen outside HBO, point to great things to come. Thankfully, the prestige that the show has brought NBC has secured FNL a full season, and a second has not been ruled out by commentators. Sure, I’ve only seen one episode, and Studio 60 managed to plummet from a stellar pilot into a miasma of failed potential, but the continuing applause for FNL 18 episodes in gives me hope. I can’t wait to see what it digs into.