Friday, May 7, 2010

Parenthood Under Friday Night Lights

Parenthood Under Friday Night Lights: Part 1

I'm talking about shows here, people. Don't think for a second I'm actually talking about parenting advice. I mean, wait.. What? I like two shows that I have no interest in the subject matter. Parenthood? While I'm not opposed to the idea of having a family function less crazy than my own, I'm barely in my 30's now and the idea of having a kid is still one that is a long while away from.

Then there's football, which I have zero interest in and I didn't really even know the rules of the sport prior to watching this show. Maybe I've been to one football game in high school and I went to a raiders game that scarred me for life when I was really young, but that seems to be all the exposure that I have had into this subject matter. And yet two shows based on the very subject matter I have no interest in are some of my favorite TV shows to date and it's all because of who is behind it. Jason Katims.

Tonight marks the return of Friday Night Lights. Though if you're like me, you've already watched this season on DirecTV and I must say, it was one hell of a season. If I can take your attention for a few minutes and peak your curiosity on what is one of the best shows on TV right now, right up there with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Doctor Who, Parenthood, and Treme. If it were still on TV, I'd even invoke The Wire.

Okay, let's not say things we can't take back.

I don't intend to.

What the're serious. You're actually goddamned serious. Are you...the fucking shows are on NBC!

Exactly. It's a neglected show on NBC. This is a football show, right? And they had the Super Bowl in 2009? Not one ad for this show played during the game.

...Go on.

Look, I'm not going to pretend that this is just like the shows I namedropped (although perhaps you could draw some parallels to Treme). It's not grim or edgy, the lead protagonist isn't all that mysterious, and as near as I can tell (I wouldn't be surprised if somebody challenged me on this), there isn't some grand theme being laid out like "the triumph of the institution over the individual".

So exactly what does this show have going for it?

Straight up, the best developed cast of characters this side of David Simon, making for the some of the most emotionally arresting television you've ever seen.

Okay, I'm intrigued, what's the show about?

The short version? It's about a high school football team in West Texas.

Okay, okay, hold up. High school? You're trying to tell me that one of the best shows on TV travels the same fertile ground as the early years of fucking One Tree Hill?

Oh, no, this is mostly different.


We'll get to that, but before you make up your mind, hear out the long version:

High school is indeed silly for most of us. It's kind of a social training ground that we push through before we move onto college and beyond, dealing with bigger issues that are usually worth complaining about, even if the problems we faced back then seemed so daunting at the time. The same feels true about most TV shows that focus on teens. They seem to have these big problems, but they're young and their families are well off; you watch shit unfold, and sometimes you can't help but ask "In the grand scheme of things, what the fuck is the big deal?"

Dillon, Texas, the fictional town where the show is set, might as well be in the middle of nowhere. Most of the people who live in the town hover somewhere between lower-class and middle-class. Most of these kids aren't going on to college because their families can't afford it - their best hopes lie in scholarships. Otherwise they're going to take a bullshit job in this backwater town, and they're most likely going to die doing it.

To the lot of us, high school is the beginning of a hopefully long journey. Friday Night Lights takes us into a far-too-real world where high school is as good as it's ever going to get for most people. And the way to make the most of it is to play football.

As I mentioned, Dillon is pretty much somewhere in the vast expanse of West Texas. The nearest city is about a two hour drive, and that leaves its residents with very little to do for recreation, aside from minor things like going to movies, bars, strip joints, or just getting drunk in some abandoned area and shooting shotguns. The most excitement this town sees is during a Friday Night Football Game.

During football season, the town's mood for the week depends on whether their high school Football team, the Dillon Panthers, wins or loses on Friday night, and the town's mood during the off-season depends on if they can bring home a State Championship. To give them the best possible chance at success, the team boosters raise gobs of money for football programs to train kids from a young age and give them all the best equipment, forgoing all other educational needs. The rest of the town does favors for team members when they're winning and shuns them when they're losing.

All of this has the intended effect: the team is good enough to build a massive reputation and attract scads of college recruiters to the town, enticing players with full scholarships to their universities. This feeds the machine even further; parents want the best for their kids, and the best shot they have at a future outside of Dillon is through being on a great football team.

Ultimately, the hopes and dreams of this entire town rests on the shoulders of a bunch of 14-18 year-old boys.

And they don't always handle it that well.


Yeah, I know.

That can't just be it, though. What else can you tell me?

Culled mostly from my DirecTV experience:
  • I mentioned that the show had an amazing cast of characters; allow me to go into more detail.

    Now I can't get into everybody. It's fucking impossible. The weakest link in the chain is made of steel, and who it is always depends on who you ask. Frankly, everybody kicks ass in this show. From Matt Saracen as the proverbial good kid with the world on his shoulders, to Tim Riggins as the badass fullback who would probably be The Dude if he wasn't built like a goddamn tank, to Landry Clarke as the goony kid fronting a Christian speed-metal band (Crucifictorius), to the girl he worships, Tyra Colette, afraid of turning into her white trash mother and sister...I don't know how to go on with this cast. We haven't even gotten into Jason Street and Smash Williams. You'll discover them as you get into it, and you'll pick your favorites. If you really want to know more about other cast members and their appeal, feel free to ask in the thread if you don't mind dodging spoilery season 4 discussion (you can always PM me if you want).

    There is one guy I can and want to focus on, though: the de-facto leader of this ensemble, the one that embodies the very soul of this show.

    As far as television role models go, Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor is less in the tradition of a Bill Adama and more like Atticus Finch if he was a hardass Texas football coach instead of a passionate Alabama lawyer. He's got a dry sense of humor, a great heart, boundless energy, and the ability to pull a St. Crispian's day speech directly out of his ass when necessary. His character flaw? He's the nicest, most respectable alpha male in Texas, but he's still an alpha male. FNL likes to remind us every now and then that Taylor is not above copping a bull-headed attitude to a situation or even throwing down to defend his family's honor (with his face).

    And for the record, his wife Tami (played by Connie Britton) kicks just as much ass and is a wonderful character in her own right.

  • One thing I have yet to touch on: the presentation. The cinematography is mostly handheld, and the shooting is usually on location. The crew has as many as three cameras rolling at once for any given scene, allowing the actors to improvise as if on stage (as opposed to blocking out their movements to keep their performances in the proper areas of the frame). This lends a more realistic air to the proceedings, and the dialogue is written to further enhance the presentation: it's quotable, but it's not a Whedon-esque quip-fest.

    It sounds gimmicky in its own right, and of course those of you who are violently allergic to handheld camerawork are going to wish that we all went and fucked ourselves, but after a few episodes (if not the first episode you see) it feels right.

  • Are you from Texas and tired of how Hollywood constantly seems to get Texas wrong? This show is perfect for you.

Okay, all that sounds great. So what's this "mostly" business about?

There was a brief slump in writing quality during Season 2. It was still great television, but the spoiler-free version is, it started playing to baser instincts. A lot of people who watch it after Season 1 end up hating it. Honestly, I'm not one of them - I was able to enjoy it for what it was, and there are a few other people that feel the same way - but I do agree that it's a weaker season overall.

If you go ahead and watch this show from the beginning, I still recommend you try to push through season 2, as there's a few memorable performances and scenes that make it worth your while.

Season 4 of FNL shares some similarities with season 4 of The Wire. New location, new stars, new situations - fans of each show came into the respective seasons with reservations which seemed reasonable at the time but turned out to be unfounded.

I'm not going to spoil much except to say that Zach Gilford and Michael B. Jordan are phenomenal this year. Everyone is as usual, but these are the two standouts to me. Also, the crew continues to use authentic Austin TX locales for Dillon haunts. Keep an eye out for a certain BBQ joint and see if you can't find it in Google maps like I did.

Okay, sold. How do I catch up?

  • If you have Netflix, all three seasons (1, 2, and 3) are available for instant viewing.
  • Episodes are available through iTunes (link takes you to the first season in SD, check links on the right hand side for links to HD episodes and other seasons), the Playstation Network, and XBox Live for $2 a pop ($3 in HD). Great way to give the show a trial run if you've got pocket change to burn.
  • If you absolutely have to buy the DVDs...
    I won't say these are all awesome deals for TV shows, but compared to other box sets, it's a fucking steal.
Now, go watch and enjoy.

I'll touch on Parenthood come Monday, a day before a new episode airs....

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