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Texas Forever, Six: Why Friday Night Lights still means so much to me

(This was originally published on Sabotage Times back in 2013, but I’ve since edited it. I’m overwhelmed by the continued number of comments on the piece by fellow fans from around the world. Goes to show the impact of this series and how time and place and culture doesn’t matter when it comes to something as universal as being human)

Texas Forever, Six.

It doesn’t mean much when Tim Riggins says it to Jason Street (best friend, star quarterback, jersey number 6) in the pilot when you barely know the characters. But the same thing uttered by Riggs (and brother Billy) in one of the last scenes of the series finale makes you cry. You repeat it and mean it even though you’ve never been there and might never go. That’s the beauty of Friday Night Lights. A show with such well-written, at times unflinching, realism that you quickly become a part of that Texas, of that Dillon, of those people. And they, in turn, are an inseparable part of you. I haven’t come across many series that wear their hearts as proudly on their sleeves.

So maybe it is fitting in a way that I’m struggling to find the right words without resorting to spoilers or getting overly emotional. How do you explain something when simply listening to the opening strains of the track playing at one of the most difficult scenes in the pilot have the power to make you instantly well up? Or when the series finale makes you want to stop time just so you can spend one more minute in Dillon? Nothing else matters. Not where you’re from, what kind of situation you’ve grown up in, or even whether you like football.

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Despite being a 29-year-old girl born and brought up in India, I am no stranger to movies about American football. Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall and Friday Night Lights feature among my favourite sport films. I don’t claim to understand the game’s intricacies and technicalities, but it’s never been a barrier for my enjoyment.

Yet, I remained apprehensive of watching a show about a small Texan town and its high school football team. I’d really enjoyed the film, but wasn’t sure about the potential of sustaining that premise over the course of multiple seasons. There are too many mindless teenage shows out there that are just a rehash with slightly different locations and different actors playing characters in a repetitive mould. I didn’t want to raise my hopes only for them to be dashed. The characters also seemed fairly cookie-cutter at first read — high-school football coach Eric Taylor, star quarterback Jason Street, his cheerleader girlfriend Lyla Garrity, best friend, full-back and ladies’ man Tim Riggins, black running-back star Brian ‘Smash’ Williams and underdog back-up quarterback Matt Saracen to name a few.

I don’t know what changed for me to watch the first episode midway through my Master’s year in Ormskirk, back in 2012. But by the heart-rending voiceover at the end of it, I was in tears and hopelessly in love. It was the gutsiest pilot I’d seen, and five seasons and two months later I was struggling to keep it together at the series finale, not wanting to let go just yet. Re-watching the series with my family once I returned to Mumbai helped fill that void, and the fact that they loved it as much as I had was just the icing on the cake.

That’s the beauty of Friday Night Lights. It’s not about the football, the location or the culture. It doesn’t matter that on the surface, I have almost nothing in common with a town deriving its collective identity and self-worth from the success of the local high school football team; a town made of extremes and divides yet united when it comes to football. The show is about family, community and a deep sense of values. It’s about friendship and courage, about being there for your disabled best friend however much it hurts you to see him like that, about being a star in high school and realising that maybe that’s how good it’s going to get, about helping a friend see the best in themselves when they can’t, about taking the blame for someone even if it paints you in the worst light just because it’s the honourable thing to do.

It’s about listening to the people who mean the most to you, about knowing that some relationships are meant to be cherished. It’s about having faith, about doing the right thing even when it’s not easy, about standing up for your beliefs against strong resistance from others, about making mistakes and learning from them. It’s about one of the most realistic marriages on screen, about commitment, mutual respect, understanding and compromise, about the value of teamwork and hard efforts. It’s about the importance of trying and failing rather than not trying at all, about unconditional love and acceptance. It’s about overcoming your fears, believing in your potential and trying to be the best you can be.

Friday Night Lights is about taking such universal generic things and crafting a wonderfully understated, intelligent narrative with three-dimensional, relatable characters, lots of humour, an inspiring use of silence and a subtle soundtrack that beautifully complements all other aspects of the production. And while it does at times stray into the realm of sentimentality, those are far and few in between, and you are touched anyway.

“It’s hard to say what’s great about Friday Night Lights, without feeling that you’re emphasising the wrong thing … In short, it feels like life.” (Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker)

Now, I’m not saying it’s perfect. But the show doesn’t pretend to be. Nor does it pretend that all its characters are. They are flawed human beings. Not all of them are likeable or always do the right thing.

Everyone also accepts that Season 2 was by far the worst, a direct result of network pressure about the lack of Nielsen ratings despite critical acclaim. The writers decided to do something dramatic that wouldn’t have looked out of place on most shows, but the barely controlled disappointment and indignation over how horrifyingly out-of-character everything felt speaks volumes about FNL’s consistent standards.

The fact that it recovered enough from this glaring error to not only last five seasons, but also return to their original is itself a miracle. And for that (I’m sure all fellow fans will agree) I’m deeply indebted to DirecTV for stepping in to co-produce when NBC decided to cancel the show, and allowing it to flourish on its own, unconventional terms.

How many dramas out there are unafraid to alter a winning formula? How many will get in a new batch of characters as old favourites head off to college? It’s a testimony to the writing and stellar acting (as much from the veterans as from the inexperienced talent) that we care as much about characters introduced more than halfway through a series as we do about the familiar guard we’ve already developed bonds with. It also helps that Tim, Matt, Jason, Tyra and the rest return home every now and then, so we can rejoice like they are friends we’ve known forever.

Change is a constant, just as in life, and the show isn’t scared of moving along at a sharp pace without dragging situations along. Over five seasons Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is the head coach for the Dillon Panthers before being shunted to the poorer side of town to rebuild the defunct Lions football programme at the re-opened East Dillon High. Maybe the writers were afraid to let go, but they do it anyway. It’s the same brand of tough love that Eric applies in his coaching philosophy; not lacking in compassion, but it’s precisely because he cares about the boys he coaches that he doesn’t tolerate any nonsense from them. It’s why he demands the same high standards of conduct from them that he himself practises.

Eric and Tami (Connie Britton) are the moral and emotional soul of the series, the compass for these high-school kids with or without role models. To do this – to mould them, guide them and make them reach their potential, to teach responsibility and what it means to be an adult – without preaching is one hell of an attribute.

I have read many complaints about the show’s handheld camera feel (I didn’t really notice it at all to be very honest, but people are made differently). The documentary, vérité feel is part of what makes it unique and while it doesn’t go away, it isn’t as strong as in the pilot. So, give it another try, chances are you won’t regret it. It’s innovative, economical film-making at its realistic best, not only allowing actors to improvise and ad-lib, but also shooting all scenes in real places in or around Austin using local talent. I admire this dedication towards authenticity and detail.

Friday Night Lights isn’t gritty or hard-hitting, and yet the show had no qualms about dealing with difficult issues most shows stay away from. They have succeeded fairly well in depicting balanced views of the same (racism, abortion, crime, underage drinking, steroid use, disabled characters, bad or absentee parenting) without judgments or hinting at what the viewers should feel and think. Sticking to its organic brand of realism, these themes were depicted as a part of everyday life and not sensational plotlines, not focal points of their episodes. I’m not saying that each issue was ideally managed in the end. But the fact that it chose to tackle them without issuing broad judgment makes it a really engrossing drama to watch. Ironically the same content stopped it from becoming a mainstream hit.

As Jason Katims, executive producer and head writer says,

“The biggest marketing challenge we had was getting the message out that you don’t have to be a guy, or a teenager, or even a football fan to like this show.”

For the football fan, there’s not enough screen-time for the sport, nor is a lot of it (ironically) very realistic — consistent last-minute wins, games coming down to the final play, must-win situations etc. These sporting clichés do however make for absorbing television as part of the whole. But many people who might enjoy this are turned off by what they think is ‘that show about football’ and there are more than a handful who are scared. FNL isn’t popcorn entertainment and while that’s more than fine for its core viewership, to others that might not be the sort of intensity or content they want to unwind to after a busy day.

Even with a great show, the series finale is where the writers fail more often than not. Friday Night Lights nails it with “Always”. Knowing when to move on has always been one of its themes, and in true fashion, the show ends at a time when fans have seen enough to fall in love with it, but still want more. There is a (MINI-SPOILER ALERT) State Championship final in the episode — beautifully scripted and shot with no dialogue…strains of music playing over the football action even as looks are exchanged among the characters spending one last time all together. The overall slow-motion effect is stunning, a perfect symbol for what the show has been.

But we fittingly never see that final Hail Mary pass come to earth. It’s not about who won or lost, but about the journey. The epilogue from nine months later has enough open ends for us to imagine their lives going on even though we can’t be a part of them. Yet, there is enough to bring some sort of closure over characters that have felt closer and more real than many people we know in our lives; people who are family and a town that will always hold a piece of your heart. “Always” is an achingly beautiful 61-minute goodbye that makes you laugh, cry, cheer and cry some more.

I’m a fan of The Wire (incidentally, Michael B. Jordan who plays Vince in Seasons 4 and 5 of FNL is The Wire’s Wallace), but Friday Night Lights has laid claim to my top place because it offers hope, a deep faith in the goodness of humanity. The show is aware that life is hard, tough, annoying, and unfair. That it will tire one out, wear one down and frustrate. That terrible things will happen, and we shall fall. But the show also chooses to believe in all the good, in spite of all the bad, or maybe more so because of it. It chooses to remind us that life is also beautiful, will yield those magical moments however small or brief they may be, and that the smallest of dreams, hopes and wishes are worth believing in and pursuing.

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