Thursday, October 23, 2008
Illuminating TV – “Friday Night Lights”
My son, Scott, has very discerning and discriminating tastes when it comes to the arts – music, cinema, theater, TV or the fine arts. So, when Scott tells me I should pay attention to a particular artist or work of art, I have learned to listen and respect his judgment. A few weeks ago, Scott said to me something along the lines of:
“Dad, you know how much I hate sports and how little interest I have in following anything to do with sports. So it may shock you when I say that the TV series, ‘Friday Night Lights’ is the best TV show I have ever seen. I am sending you the DVD’s for the first two seasons. I think you will enjoy them.”
So, I have just finished a marathon viewing of the entire first two season of the show. Scott was right – as usual. This is extraordinary television. The concept is based on the 1990 book, “Friday Night Lights” by Pulitzer Prize winning writer and journalist, H.G. Bissinger. Bissinger spent a year chronicling the phenomenon of Texas high school football in Odessa, Texas. The book spawned a feature film by the same name that starred Billy Bob Thornton. The film was released in 2004, and was directed by Peter Berg, a second cousin of Bissinger.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the translation from film to TV series:
“Once filming on the movie was completed, Berg turned his attention to adapting the story for television. Berg expressed in various interviews following the film how he regretted having to jettison many of the interpersonal topics covered in the book from the film because of the time constraints of a feature film. Creating a TV series, particularly one based on fictional characters, allowed many of those elements to be brought back in and addressed in-depth.”
In my opinion, the biggest difference between the film and the TV series is the breadth and scope of the subject matter. While the film was primarily about Texas high football and how it defines the lives of everyone living in the small town of Odessa., the TV series has a more ambitious reach. While it uses football as the prism through which the lives of each character is viewed, the series is about nothing less than examining and illuminating how we in Middle America raise our sons and daughters – or in some cases – leave them to essentially raise themselves.
The ensemble cast is flawless in their acting and in the interactions with one another. The writing is note perfect – from the many colloquialisms that help to define the characters to the incisive look into many aspects of small town Texas life. The Bible Belt element – both black churches and a white evangelical congregation – is handled with great care and reverence, while giving full freedom to explore the constant tension some of the characters feel between being led by raging hormones or by the Holy Spirit!
The remarkable thing about this show and its overall effect is that I found myself caring deeply about the welfare of each character – even of the rogues, like the oleaginous Booster Club President, Buddy Garrity. The characters are richly drawn and finely nuanced – no white hats and black hats here. This is closer to Dostoevsky than it is to Zane Grey. The line between good and evil – between hero and villain - runs down the center of each character. In the hands of lesser talents, this show and its material could easily have devolved into bathos and soap opera. Instead, it rises to the level of fine art and great television.
In my theater-going career, one of the highlights was seeing the eight and a half hour production of Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickelby” staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company. By the end of the play, I felt I had come to know and to care about each character as if they were a long-time friend and neighbor. I had the same sense of intimate connection with the characters that populate “Friday Night Lights.”
The show was renewed for a 13-episode third season; episodes began airing on DirecTV's The 101 on 1 October 2008 and will be rebroadcast on NBC in the winter. If you have access to DirecTV, check it out now. If not, while waiting for NBC to air the third season episode early in 2009, I invite you to catch up on the lives of the denizens of fictional Dillon, Texas by watching the DVD’s of the first two season.