In a typical game, the Dillon Panthers enter the fourth quarter 21 points down and then score 14 back within the last 10 minutes, six more in the last ten seconds. And then they go for the two-point conversion, every time. I guess it’s to the credit of my substantial non-knowledge of football that I thought this sort of thing was the norm in high school athletics. Not that it really matters, since the secret that all the fans of “Friday Night Lights” have been hoarding is that the show has never really been about football.
When the star quarterback of a Texas high school football team is paralyzed in the first game of the season, shockwaves are sent deep into the core of Dillon, a character as much as it is a town bubbling with racism, homophobia, alcoholism and regional narrow-mindedness — traits that even the show’s most heroic characters display to a certain extent. What’s most laudable about the show is its candid portrayal of the South as a place with real-life problems, which make it feel truer and more of a home than any rose-tinted rendition of southern belle decadence (à la “Gone With the Wind”).
Now that “Friday Night Lights” has taken its final bow out of TV circulation after five flawlessly rendered seasons, I really don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. For all its deficiencies, there are so many things that I’m going to miss about Dillon — the dizzy crane swing up to the tall, tall stadium lights right before a game, the players solemnly suiting up as if they were getting ready for a Middle Earth war, the pre-game prayer-slash-pep talk, the raging party that follows a victory, the silent bus ride home that follows a loss. A football game is never just a football game — it’s a space in time where battles are fought and men are molded.
In reviewing movies, I think I do an OK job at encapsulating a film experience into a 600-word block of text. But I can’t even begin to touch on the way I feel about “Friday Night Lights” and how much it’s affected the way I view high school, football and most importantly, television.
I’ve realized the reason I don’t really like to watch TV is because the writers consistently create narrative arcs that don’t make any sense. One minute the characters are all happy and put-together, and then out of the blue there’s a murder or a pregnancy or a dastardly flashback to the past. In television, authenticity is often sacrificed for a continuous half-hour storyline that you don’t get as much in film’s tautly stretched screenplays. But what I love about “Friday Night Lights” is that it rarely ever lets the episodic nature of its medium take precedence over its characters and setting. Everything it does just makes sense.
“Play it that way, like you’re never gonna lace up again. Play it that way, and then let it go,” one of the former players says to another, and we believe him — because truly, nothing ever meant as much to us as it did when we were in high school. I was reading a medical school memoir a few days ago, and the author was saying that so much effort was exerted on a few innocuous decisions in their cadaver dissections — which student was going to be their cadaver partner, who was going to make which incisions, what they were going to wear to the dissection. Because many of their decisions are made for them by faculty members and senior doctors, every little choice they made was just that much larger in scope. High school is much of the same way. Prom, football games, graduation — nothing was ever “just a game” or “just a dance.” When your world is smaller, everything holds just that bit more of significance, and I think “Friday Night Lights” understands that in its bones better than anything.
I don’t care if most TV shows reach their expiration dates after five seasons; I could watch Coach Taylor screaming Southern obscenities at a ragtag bunch of boys for the rest of my life. Every time that Explosions in the Sky song pops into my consciousness, the one-man Greek chorus of Slammin’ Sammy Mead drawling on the radio about coaching, the shaky cam panning back and forth on the football signs on the front lawns, it just gets me. I don’t ever want to leave Dillon, Jason Street, Matt and Julie, Coach and Mrs. Coach, slippered Grandma Saracen, boozy, beautiful Tim Riggins or that big old Texas-flecked sun.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.