A couple days ago, NBC announced that it would renew 30 Rock for a second season, much to the relief of many who have championed the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged sitcom. Yet the network appears to be withholding judgment on Friday Night Lights, another beloved show that’s struggled to find an audience, and each day that passes increases my anxiety. Various reports on rumored cancellations have suggested promising things about the show’s future—internally, the network loves the show (as they should) and appears willing to stand by it while it finds an audience. And there’s good reason to hope that it will: The show just picked up a Peabody Award, Emmy season is just around the corner, and the availability of episodes online, in Bravo marathons, and later, on DVD, might give it a boost heading into next year. Unlike some networks (ahem, Fox, ahem), NBC has a proud history of showing patience with quality, underperforming shows and nurturing them to health—the classic example being Cheers, which nearly flamed out in Season One and went on to anchor the Must-See Comedy Thursdays that’s long been its bread-and-butter.
To be fair, Friday Night Lights presents a much trickier proposition. It’s not a half-hour, easily digestible sitcom that you can watch one week and skip the next without losing the thread. FNL is part of the new breed of serialized dramas that rely on viewership to carry over from week to week. As loudly as I’ve recommended the show to anyone who will listen, I’ve always hastened to add that the episodes should be watched in sequential order, because it’s one long story (without placeholder episodes) and a lot of history builds up over time. There’s a lot of danger in serialized shows not catching on right away, because even if they do have strong word-of-mouth, viewers are understandably reluctant to come in mid-story. And yet I’m here to argue for the wisdom of picking it up anyway, because I simply can’t bear the thought of next week’s finale being the last time I see these characters.
Here are seven good reasons to keep the show (or start watching if you haven’t):
1. Explosions In The Sky. We did an Inventory a couple weeks ago about great opening credits sequences, and I’d put FNL’s among them. Who better than the Texas-based post-rock instrumental band EITS to provide the pretty, slightly somber, and yet oddly rousing score to a show that embodies all those qualities? A good credit sequence sets the tone for the action to come, and here’s one that’s worth watching again and again, just to get in the mood.
2. The look. The handheld camerawork has been tagged another “challenging” aspect of the show; even though TV has become much more cinematic over the past decade, few network shows (Homicide: Life On The Streets being the groundbreaking exception) have gone with handheld, for fear of alienating viewers. In FNL, the freewheeling camera never calls attention to itself, but gives the fullest possible impression of this small Texas town and its inhabitants. The great advantage of handheld camerawork is its immediacy, the feeling that emotions have been “caught” rather than contrived. That’s most an illusion, of course, but it’s still remarkable how much the camera sees on FNL, from revealing close-ups to a very particular sense of place.
3. It’s better than the book and better than the movie based on the book. Save for the pilot episode, which was like the film adaptation in miniature, Friday Night Lights has by necessity deviated from its filmic and literary source material. After reading the book and seeing the movie—both of which I admired—I left feeling that the principal emphasis was on the pressures of coaching in a football-obsessed town that’s loaded with noxious boosters and former alumni trying to relive their former glory. Though that pressure was palpable during the first six or seven episodes, when the team was grappling with the loss of its quarterback, the show has evolved into a significantly more expansive and intricate look at the community. Characters like #1 booster Buddy Garrity, who puts the team above all ethical and familial considerations, are fully fleshed out, and the kids themselves have concerns that often supercede anything that happens on the field. I think the book and the film have given the show a great starting point and the writers are working toward that “novel-on-film” ideal Noel and I talked about recently.
4. Coach Taylor and “Mrs. Coach.” The heart of the show, Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have become perhaps my favorite onscreen married couple ever. Individually, both actors are brilliant: Chandler plays a man’s man whose voice carries all the confidence and stubbornness and authority of a good coach, but he possesses enough sensitivity to recognize that he’s not always right and that authority alone won’t solve every problem. Britton, who takes a job as a guidance counselor at the high school, has deals with problems with empathy, reason, and a Texan’s toughness. But together, Chandler and Britton are extraordinary—funny, sexy, prickly as hell, and wonderful in how they understand and appreciate each other. Britton also serves her husband’s conscience: Whenever he’s inclined to put the team’s fortunes above something more important, she generally sets him in line.
5. Matt Saracen. When golden-boy quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) suffers a season-ending injury in Game One, it’s left to his timid and soft-spoken backup Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) to carry the team to State on his untested arm. That would be enough pressure alone, given the ugly disparity between Saracen’s experience and the town’s expectations for the team, but that’s not the half of it for this kid. He also lives alone with his grandmother, who suffers bouts of dementia, while his father is off fighting overseas, and he works nights at a local burger-and-ice-cream joint to make ends meet. On top of that, he’s not really “one of the guys”: His closest friend is a nerdy outcast and he’s modest as a turtle in its shell, driven by none of the pumped-up braggadocio that’s typical of the other starters. His relationship with the Coach’s daughter (Aimee Teagarden) is full of sweetness and feeling, and the show does them the service of taking it seriously and capturing the intensity of first love.
6. Landry. As Saracen’s aforementioned geeky best friend, Landry (Jesse Plemons) has grown to become an integral part of the show—a smart, creative, socially awkward foil in a school run by jocks. He’s typically around for comic relief, hitting quixotically on beautiful bad girl Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and fronting a majestically dreadful rock band called Crucifictorious. In recent weeks, however, Landry has come into his own: A speech he gives to Tyra on this week’s episode ranks highly among the show’s many heartbreaking moments.
7. It is and isn’t about football. Most speculate that Friday Night Lights is a tough sell because people who don’t care about football aren’t likely to watch and those who do are either too busy watching ESPN or more interested in X’s and O’s than serial melodrama. I can’t really argue with that assessment, but I can say that the show handles its business on and off the field with convincing authority. It knows the big and small details of operating a high school football team—the drills, the plays, the formations, the sketchy recruiting situation, the bartering with state governing boards, etc. And, of course, it’s a first-rate melodrama, too. But by combining these two things, the dramatic stakes are raised all around: How will Smash (Gaius Charles) perform with a college scout in the crowd? How will the reappearance of Saracen’s father affect his game? What will happen to Coach Taylor and his family should they drop out of playoff contention? Or just as distressing, what happens if Coach’s success yields other issues? I won’t give anything away, but there’s a brilliant sequence in the “Mud Bowl” episode that illustrates just how well the football and the off-the-field drama are integrated.
If you’re as wowed by Friday Night Lights as I am, please take a moment to fire off an email to NBC. The passionate few who have embraced this great show are the only reason it’s even been allowed to finish out the season, and it’s up to fans to convince NBC that those few can grow to many as word catches on. Should the show get the ax, it will leave a beautiful corpse.