8th March 2007
Friday Night Lights is an American TV series which started airing in the US in October 2006. It has been showing in the UK on ITV4 for the past three weeks. I wanted to write about it now because my feeling is that the extraordinary originality of the first couple of episodes will not be maintained – there are already signs in Episode 3 that this is true. I will still be hooked but maybe not so enraptured.
The subject of the series is the fictional Texas small-town of Dillon and more specifically its (American!) football team The Panthers. So what is it that has me so enraptured? The radical form – for me something quite new (I may of course be talking from ignorance when I talk of originality). The best way that I can find to describe it is Altman for television – and great (Nashville, The Wedding etc.) Altman. The camera often conveys the impression of – maybe is – being hand-held, so that the viewer feels as if they are watching a home-movie in which there are no main characters or narrative thrust. But the main innovation is the amazing use of sound – there is often a babble of voices, phrases and snatches of conversation emerge, and sometimes one is unclear where the voice originates. Set against this is the fact that it is a series about sport – and sporting action provides a very strong narrative line. Perhaps it is this fact which allows the makers to get away with a radical form in other parts of the series. The shaky camera and sometimes blurred soundtrack also add a documentary feel to the series. All of which contribute to the attempt to make the whole town the subject of the series. It is not the content, which I will discuss below, but the form which is radical. In a Washington Post review Tom Shales writes of the maker Peter Berg ‘Berg could be the next TV “auteur” in the tradition of Steven Bochco, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley’ ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/02/AR2006100201439.html ) (Bochco of Hill Street Blues and LA Law, Kelley of Picket Fences and Ally McBeal, Bochco The West Wing – the last I do not know but the former two and especially Kelley are noted for stylistic innovation). As I say I have my doubts how long this form can be successfully maintained – the nature of the television drama is such that the need for character identification, strong plot-lines and so on militate against a style which is set against those things. What is possible for a film may not be possible for a television series. But it is a fascinating attempt. It is hard to imagine anything like this on British television – there the content is sometimes radical but not the form.
For a British viewer the content is extraordinary enough too! The whole of Dillon’s existence revolves around the success of the high-school football team. On Friday Night (when the games are played – hence the title) the whole town shuts down (highly effective shots of closed shops and businesses). Football is the subject of conversation at every social gathering, every restaurant, at church; it is on the local television channel; it permeates every aspect of life. To not participate would be to cut oneself off from the community. The central narrative story-line is the arrival of a new coach Eric Taylor; his job depends on endless success. The pressures on him and his team are immense. In the first episode his star quarter-back suffers a horrendous injury which leaves him disabled. Now the central problem with all this is to what extent the series validates the appalling poverty (a spiritual, mental and physical poverty) which allows an entire town to becomes so dependant on a high-school game? (there is also a question of how realistic this is – all I can say is that there do not seem to have been howls of protest about its unreality and viewing figures are quite good in the US so I cannot suppose it to have been completely fantastic). Sport is of course a placebo for the masses – bread and circuses, and allows a form of communal identification which can be a bulwark against alienation – as a (football) football fan I know and have experienced that. But there is absolutely nothing in the UK to come close to this (actually I am not even sure that small-towns exist in the UK as they do in the US but thats another matter). The series seems to be in an argument about all this. On the one hand it is critical of the kind of cynicism exhibited by the town’s leading figures, especially the leading businessman, who will sacrifice anybody and anything to the team’s success. The form in itself is critical. But on the other there is no questioning of the notion that sport is ‘character-building’, is good of itself.
Gender is clearly very important here. Women are excluded from the central ritual. They are reduced to cheerleaders, caring mothers and so on. And they are – so far – shown to be almost wholly accepting of this role. The coach’s wife attends a women’s Book Reading Group ; the discussion is all of football – when she asks if anyone has read the book there is laughter. So women are shown to be sucked into the town’s obsession in which they play a purely supportive role. The team members themselves have the pick of the town’s girls – this is made explicit by the one slightly cynical figure, the friend of the replacement quarter-back, who tells him after his unexpected promotion that he must make the most of this opportunity for sex. In general however women play their allotted role – a wholly secondary one. In a town built on male aggression women have a small part to play. And there is – again so far – an almost complete absence of alternatives. There is no character arguing that this culture is fundamentally flawed. The arguments and tensions are provided by the conflict between the Coach and his honest methods, and the town powers-that-be who are less honest. But the coach’s honest methods include dragging his team off in the middle of the night and making them run up and down a hill; this is ‘good’. No-one says this is stupid and pathetic and poverty-stricken. Male physicality, male aggression are (provided properly channelled) wholly validated.
Perhaps it was not possible to have this argument; perhaps American television would not allow for radical content, and so it is by the form – the way in which the series is shot – that the series questions the state of things in Dillon. It will be fascinating to see if this is maintained and how the series develops and I will try to report back at some stage! In spite of what I have said about the content (and even there in Epsiode 3 we had another form of questioning when the businessman goes to induce a star quarter-back who has been made homeless by Katrina to join the team – the family are living in a shabby motel room and the businessman promises them housing, jobs, money) the form and style of the opening episodes was terrific and compelling.