Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dang That's Some Good TV

In his 1985 novel Texas James Michener devoted parts of a two of chapters to the phenomenon of Texas High School Football. According to one of the character, there are three significant characteristics of the modern Texas legend - the ranch, the oil well, and Friday night high school football. Of the three, the ranch and the oil well have been idealized countless times in books, movies and television, but there has been nothing about football. According to the character "That's because outsiders were defining how we should look at ourselves. But there's never been a really first-rate book or play or dramatic presentation of Friday night football. And why not? Because people outside of Texas don't appreciate the total grandeur of that tradition." Since Michener wrote his book that has changed ever so slightly. In 1990 a writer named Buzz Bissinger published a book called Friday Night Lights about the 1988 Odessa Permian High School Panthers, a team that looked as if it would become the Texas State Champions except for an injury to one of the team's star players (Permian would become State Champions and the National Championship in the 1989 season). Bissinger was an outsider and sometimes took a cynical view of Texas high school football. The book did open a lot of people's eyes to the tradition however and in 1993 a TV series called Against The Grain was part of NBC's Friday night line up. It ran for eight episodes, in part because NBC's line up was relatively weak that year and in part because the producers didn't seem to fully understand Texas football. About the only significant thing it contributed was some kid named Ben Affleck as the team's star quarterback. In 2004 Friday Night Lights was made into a movie starring Billy Bob Thornton as Permian coach Gary Gaines and Derek Luke as ill-fated star player Boobie Miles. The film was made by actor and director Peter Berg (who played Dr. Billy Kronk in Chicago Hope) who happens to be Buzz Bissinger's cousin. And now NBC is ready to make another attempt at telling the story of Texas high school football with its own adaptation of Friday Night Lights.

Set in the fictional town of Dillon Texas the primary focus of the series is on head football coach Eric Taylor and his players. Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler from Early Edition) is a man under a lot of pressure. The town lives and dies by the high school football team and Taylor has ascended to the job of head coach because he has worked with highly talented quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) literally since Street was a child playing Pee Wee football. In some ways Jason is like the son he and his wife Tami (Connie Britton best known for playing Nikki on Spin City) never had. The first episode tries to give viewers a sense of the pressures that everyone connected with the football team; the coaches, the players, their families, their girlfriends. The pressure is intense. The team is covered by the local television station - NBC of course - and in snippets from the local radio station the sole topic of conversation is the team. The players all have signs on the lawn of their homes telling the world - or at least Dillon Texas - the name of the High School football player who lives in that house. That includes the teams sophomore second string quarterback, a kid named Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) who is just happy to be on the team. They're almost like election signs but one gets the feeling that here elections are less important. We also get to know two other players, "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) the flamboyantly egotistical black running back who sees himself in the NFL making the big money, and the frequently drunk and possibly racist Fullback Tim Riggins who is Jason's best friend and knows that playing high school football is the high point of his life. For him there is no college or NFL career waiting just a dead-end job in Dillon. Jason's girlfriend is the cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), while Tim is having sex with Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) although she doesn't seem that particular about who she's with.. Everyone in town has an opinion and feels free to tell the coach and the players and the coach's wife exactly what the team needs to do and how he should run the team. In one scene Taylor meets with one of his coaches who has been scouting the opposing team. After reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the other team Taylor says with sort of resigned tone "What the heck. It's only football." The other coach responds "It's only football" and Taylor replies with the same attitude: "It's only football" and then they laugh the sort of laugh that lets you know that there's no "only" about football. In the way they say the words you know without doubt that there's no "only" about football in this place. In a scene at the opening of a new car dealership the town's female mayor tell Street that he's a nice young man but on the football field he has to destroy the other team and even suggests listening to Black Sabbath to "make him mean." It is made perfectly clear that these people will not accept failure.

The whole pilot episode leads up to the first football game of the season and Peter Berg does everything short of sending every potential viewer a telegram telling them that Jason Street will be injured and that Matt will have to step up to take over the team and bring them a stunning victory. And that's pretty much what happened, with Jason forced to tackle a defensive player to keep him from scoring a touchdown which will put the Panthers out of contention for the game. The stadium falls silent as Jason lies on the turf, not moving. Eventually he is strapped to a backboard and taken to hospital by ambulance. We see scenes of Jason being treated at hospital cut into scenes of the football game where after some initial problems (hitting one of his own players in the back of the helmet with a pass) Matt airs out a long pass to an open receiver on the last play of the game to score the winning touchdown. Then as the stadium falls silent all of the players on both teams gather on the 50 yard line to pray for Jason.

The second episode of the show spends most of its time dealing with character development - the character of the people and the character of the town. The episode starts the Sunday after the game in which Jason Street is injured. In the ramshackle Black church and the beautifully appointed White church, prayers are being said for Jason Street, but even in church the focus is on football and almost as important, the repercussions of Jason's injury. The only person not in church is Riggins who is working out his anger by shooting up road signs with a rifle. The story flies through the town that Matt had his eyes closed when he threw the winning touchdown. Things aren't improved any when, during practice Matt can't execute any of the plays. There's pressure from supporters, including former team members who flash their championship rings to remind anyone around that they were somebody. It is made absolutely clear to Taylor that this team needs to win championships - the town is nothing without a winning team - and Eric reveals his despair to his wife. He got the head coaching job because he was Jason's coach - in a very real sense Jason was Eric's meal ticket - and not only is Jason out for the season it, he is told that he probably will never walk again. In a scene in Jason's hotel room we see the depth of feeling that Eric feels for Jason, expressed in just two words, "Damn, son." There are other effects. Smash, having declared in the local diner the need for someone to step up to lead the team names himself as the logical leader, which angers Tim, who has never liked Smash and only partially because he's an egotist. Smash's declaration intrigues Tyra to the point where she lets Smash take her to his family's apartment where his mother and sisters walk in on him. However the person we find out the most about is Matt. Jason tells the coach that Matt is a different sort of kid from him - he draws and listens to Bob Dylan - and Tami convinces him that he can mould Matt in the same way that he has moulded Jason and other young players. With that he goes to the boy's home. Matt lives with his grandmother while his father is serving in the Army in Iraq. He seems a bit ashamed about living with her, to the point where he asks her to go into her room while the coach is at the house, but once she finds out who is at the door she's more excited than he is. In talking to Matt he admits that he's impressed with the way the boy is stepping up, working at a job in a fast food place to contribute, working hard at his studies, and trying to learn the football plays. He takes Matt to the football stadium and works on building his confidence before the next game. The episode ends just as the players are leaving the locker room for that game.

Based on the first two episodes of Friday Night Lights I have to say that it may be one of the gems of the new season. The show could easily have been done as a teen angst series of the type that was prevalent on the old WB - a One Tree Hill with football instead of Basketball. There's some of that but it is most assuredly not the dominant feature of the series. The adult characters are well presented with Kyle Chandler standing out in the equivalent of the part that Billy Bob Thornton played in the movie version of Friday Night Lights. Still what stands out more than anything else is the writing and the way the show is presented visually. The writing has a believable quality about it and for the most part refuses to ignore the realities of this sort of town. Berg, who is currently the only writer credited for the series, uses the Sorkin like trick of people talking over each other, and when circumstances warrant quickly cuts between conversations. The scene at the car dealership in the first episode cuts between alumni talking and asking questions of the coach, to the Mayor telling Jason about needing to get mean, to a woman of about 40 talking to Riggins about how the word "Blitz" sounds sexual, and how he could "blitz" and older woman (clearly implying herself). The outage that Smash's mother feels when he finds her son with a white girl like Tyra is palpable and her comment to Tyra - "I work in a family planning clinic, someplace you've probably never visited" - shows the disdain she feels for this piece of trash who could ruin her son's life. The presence of religion in this series is also palpable. Prayer is an accepted part of the way these people live their lives and no Supreme Court ruling is going to interfere with them praying for a win or for a fallen athlete. It isn't presented with any motive other than an acknowledgement that this is an important part of what holds this community together and in another way keeps it apart.

I also think that you have to take note of the way that the show is shot. Peter Berg directed the Pilot and his directing style seems to have been retained for the second episode. There are a lot of quick cuts and he uses the "shaky cam" to good effect. At times the episode feels as though someone is shooting a documentary about this town and their team. There are other times when he doesn't use the shaky cam technique, to give the feeling that this is a moment where a documentary crew wouldn't be shooting. The football sequences in the first episode are done nicely both in terms of how they're shot and how they're presented aurally. While we're seeing action on the field virtually all of the words we're hearing are coming from the radio announcers who are calling the game. The voices are actually those of University of Southern California football announcers Peter Arbogast and Paul McDonald. Occasionally the voice of the quarterback or the referee is heard, but there's no description of the plays from the coach. In fact the coach is almost never heard during the game until he Jason's injury and the need to get Matt into the game.

I want Friday Night Lights to be successful. I'm not a football fan. Like most people in Saskatchewan I bleed Green & White when the Roughriders play in the CFL, but I never been to one of their games or to a University of Saskatchewan Huskies game. As for high school I attended my first - and last - game in Grade 9 when it was pretty much required for "freshies" at Mount Royal Collegiate to walk to Gordie Howe Bowl and see the game. I'm one of those outsiders that Michener's character in Texas describes who doesn't "appreciate the total grandeur of that tradition." I'm not sure I have anything that I can really compare it to. I suppose the closest thing in my experience might be the way that small prairie town like Kindersley or Rosetown feel about their Junior Hockey players; kids who are one or two steps away from the NHL, steps most of them won't make. In watching Friday Night Lights the thing that kept repeating in my mind was the first verse of Bruce Springsteen's song "Glory Days". What this series has done so far is evoke a sense that for most of these young men these are their Glory Days; that while they may go to college, get good jobs, get married and have kids the best time of their lives will be the two or three years that they spent playing football for their town. Being able to convey that sense of excitement and undiscovered futility is something that most TV can't do. I love this series and hope that NBC will give it the time that it needs to find its audience. Just don't watch it expecting your average TV show about sports. This is more about the culture of a place and its people - football is just the catalyst.

No comments: