Much has been said by the cognizati about the greatness of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” how it has managed to capture the simple majesty of everyday folks living through everyday trials and triumphs.
All the superlatives that have been hurled at the show during the past year are true, and justly earned. In primetime’s sea of cops, docs, lawyers and supernaturals, “Friday Night Lights” is the bravest show on TV, and it trumped the odds against shows with anemic Nielsen numbers to secure a renewal for a second season, which begins Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.
“Friday Night Lights” stood apart in its freshman year because its only storytelling fulcrum in the traditional sense (i.e. a built-in plot engine like the case of the week, disease of the week, etc.) a small-town high school football team’s quest to reach the summit of the Texas state high school football championship. The Dillon Panthers’ bid for “State” is greatly complicated after the team’s star quarterback is injured paralyzed in the first game (and episode) of the season.
But to tag “FNL” as a “football show” is like saying John Ford’s “Stagecoach” is about bandits and Indians running amok in the old West. The vast majority of “FNL” hinges on the writers’ ability to find compelling stories within the stuff of life in a small Texas town. Like everything else about the show, even the town of Dillon was finely drawn as a vibrant, complex character — neither dirt poor nor oil flush, neither a redneck wasteland nor an enlightened utopia.
Dillon has many classes, many races and many nuances that were slowly drawn out through the course of 22 segs last season in such a way that made it come alive to people who’ve never been anywhere near the Lone Star state.
For all that there is to gush about over “FNL” (The writing! The ensemble! The directing! The production touches!), what stands out most to me after two weeks of marathon viewing of the season one DVD set is how so much of the drama is rooted in a subject rarely tackled in such a significant way on the small screen: Parenting.
In one way or another, the struggles of the main characters revolve around parent-child relations — bad ones, good ones, compromised ones and non-existent ones. Yet there are no wholly bad kids, moms or dads in “FNL.” Even the most wrong-headed of them have their moments, to the credit of “FNL’s” chief creative stewards, exec producers Jason Katims and Peter Berg and exec producer-director Jeffrey Reiner.
The core of the series is the Taylor family — Panthers’ football coach Eric (Kyle Chandler); his wife Tami (Connie Britton), who is the school’s well-liked guidance counselor; and their teenage daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) who starts out a sophomore in the first season. They are loving and close-knit. Eric is a thoughtful and devoted dad, who naturally is a father-figure to many of his players; Tami is young enough and fun-loving enough to be relatable to many high schoolers, particularly her own, but with the kind of natural authority that aimless adolescents respond to on the inside, even if they’re rolling their eyes on the outside. As is often the case with 15-year-olds, however, the open-door relationship that Tami in particular has with Julie begins to head into slammed-door territory as the series goes on. As we embark on season two, those two are definitely at loggerheads as only mothers and their teenage daughters can be.
There are other strong-momma figures on the show, including Corrina Williams (Liz Mikel), the single-mom of the team’s star running back Brian “Smash” Williams” (Gaius Charles); and Joanne Street (Katherine Willis), the mother who has to watch her son’s dream crater, along with his legs, in one tackle that leaves erstwhile star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) in a wheelchair.
One of the show’s most complicated characters, savvy party girl Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), has one of the most messed-up moms. Tyra is definitely in the position of playing mother to her world-weary, occasionally pill-popping mother, Angela (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson).
Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the diamond-in-the-rough quarterback who’s pressed into service after Street’s injury, has perhaps the most heartbreaking home scenario. Dad is a career soldier station in Iraq, where contrary to the war-is-hell cliche he’s much happier there than living at home with his son. Mom is AWOL in Oklahoma — a backstory hinted at but never fleshed out in season one — and so Matt lives as the parent to his grandmother Lorraine (Louanne Stephens, pictured left with Gilford) whose grip on reality is challenged by advancing Alzheimer’s disease, so much so that Matt periodically has to pretend he’s his long-dead grandfather to calm her down.
Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly, pictured right with Porter), another primary character, has the idyllic home life on the outside that crumbles, slowly but surely through the course of season one. She’s the girlfriend of Jason Street, she’s the daughter of the town’s auto-dealer mogul and chief football team booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) — and everything in her life is turned inside out by the time season one has ended. Her relations with the mom and dad she once saw as Hallmark-card perfect is aggravated by the sense of betrayal she portrays so well — betrayal from outside forces that screwed up her plan to marry her star quarterback, and internally from a mom and dad who pretended everything was hunky-dory for too long.
And though the drama ebbs and flows from episode to episode, pound for pound there may be no more compelling, tortured soul on the “FNL” roster than Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), the team’s star full back, a guy who’s sent out on the field to be a human steamroller and barricade in service of his more nimble teammates. His position on the field is an apt metaphor for what life in his brief 17 years has handed Tim, who has puppy-dog, lady-killing eyes under his scraggly bangs. Mom and Dad Riggins went their separate ways in a violence, cigarettes and alcohol-fueled haze, basically abandoning Tim and his older brother Billy and their modest but middle class home, forcing Billy (Derek Phillips) to grow up in a hurry to pay the mortgage and keep the fridge stocked with beer and pop tarts. Tim Riggins spent season one looking for love, and father-figures, in mostly wrong places — none more so than when he briefly reconnects with his actual father, who’s been gone so long he doesn’t know that nobody calls his younger son “Timmy” anymore.
Most of the aforementioned stories weave together in a way that aims not for the trite “it-takes-a-village” sentiment but in a way that illustrates the universality of love, pain, longing and loss. And perhaps most importantly, for all the parents in the audience, “FNL” offers an unvarnished look at how the child is the father of the man, or how teenagers can’t help but develop in the image of their parents, warts and all.
Against this backdrop, the Panthers’ oft-repeated team motto “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” has particular resonance. Like the Dillon Panthers, the “FNL” cast and crew has an inordinately hard task ahead of them to even maintain, let alone build, on the foundation the laid down last season. But based on their collective perf last season, I’m betting that, give or take a few fumbles here and there, this is a team that still can’t lose.