Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Generation 'FNL'

I was born in Houston, Texas. By the time I was three years old, I was living in New Jersey for the long haul. My family has no true roots in Texas, so leaving it was not a major upheaval. My father always said that Texas was the best place he ever lived. Maybe it was the best place I never really lived. This weekend, the story of the best place that none of us have ever lived—Dillon, Texas—comes to a close. After five seasons, "Friday Night Lights" finishes up, sending those ochre-tinged Texan spaces that have come to feel like home into cold blue digital storage.

"Friday Night Lights" never garnered much of an audience for a network show, and only a semi-wacky deal where NBC would let DirecTV run the season months before the network allowed the show to stay on the air. No doubt one reason for the small audience is that it did not lend itself to easy demographic parsing. Who is this show for? Middle America? Teens? Sports fans? Viewers who had a hard time with this question just didn't tune in. Fans trying to address the problem were heard, in bars across Brooklyn, crying out "but it's not really even about football!" (this most often shouted by the cool kids who pat themselves on the back for having fled the cool kids from their hometowns).

"FNL" is about football in the same way that Ulysses is about perambulation. Also, "FNL" is about: hometowns, teens, adults, the city, the country, the rich, the poor, huddled masses, yearning, hard-core Christian rock, girls with long legs, nachos, rich farmland, and men wielding pink plastic bicycles against doofus TAs who have seduced their daughters.

One way you could put it is that "FNL" is about how silly, even tragic it is to be "about" something. How freeing it can be to turn your back on what you are supposed to be or to like. It points its fingers directly at self-professed "sophisticated" media consumers and asks us: "Don't you like things that are beautiful?"

It was never clear whether "Friday Night Lights" was a teen drama or an adult saga, and I think of this as part of the show's genius. To put the case more vulgarly, as a thirty-something viewer, I have, in turns, had the hots for both high school fullback Tim Riggins (the glow of youth! We could practice SAT analogies together!) and Coach Taylor (growly adult man-man!). Let's not even get started on Tami Taylor and her cowboy boots. Unlike so many television shows, "FNL" was always able to hit that sweet spot where teenagers are beautiful in their raw inarticulateness and adults are, like, heartbreakingly attractive in their desire to take care.

For me, the show was best when it drew you into one world, only to have the other suddenly come into view, redrawing the boundaries of whatever reverie (you as head cheerleader, you as embattled school principal) you were floating around in. Case in point, Season Two opens on the town public pool, where various packs of barely-dressed teenagers flex and sway and ogle one another. The pool is the perfect figure for the seething flow of hormones coursing through these kids, the way sex and youth makes you feel weightless, elated. But humans also like pools for other more amniotic reasons, and as Tami Taylor waddles in, just about ten months pregnant, the needle comes skipping off the record, and the kids stop to stare. This is what can happen when you seal the deal, sex-wise. I mean, look at that lady! "There ain't a room big enough to contain me," Tami trills at her mortified lifeguard daughter, and eases herself into the water.

The series finale—this is not going to wreck anything for those who haven't seen it—features a scene between eighteen-year-old Julie Taylor and her high school love Matt's grandmother, the wrinkled and senile Grandma Saracen. Julie's Botticelli hair and naturally-collagen-rich face press into the old woman's shoulder as they embrace. Grandma Saracen—whose life has reduced concentrically until it resides nearly exclusively in a rocking recliner, on a linoleum floor, in front of a television, in a shotgun house in small town Texas—flutters about with joy over the life that spreads out in front of the girl. Julie does not recoil from or judge this truth, how small one's world might or might not get at the end, and I think we are meant to realize that her proximity to this small life is what will help hers bloom.

I've covered "Friday Night Lights" for Television Without Pity for the entirety of its run, so you'll forgive me for being slightly overwrought when I reflect on how this show has ushered me from the extended adolescence of my late twenties to this moment right now, as I try to get my shit together before I have a baby next month. Let me tell you, Gestational Time is Odd Time, it expands and collapses multiple times per day, so that one minute you have all the time in the world and the next you realize how quickly you are hurtling through space toward this end that you can do nothing to headfake around.

And this is basically what "Friday Night Lights" talks to us about, how time moves so strangely, how we go from late nights drinking beer and messing around in a deserted field with our friends, our problems seemingly so huge, to late nights drinking wine with a partner, the very hair on our heads weary, our problems seemingly so huge. The thing that the show did so beautifully was refuse to belittle any of these micro-times that we all pass through during a life lived.

I don't know exactly when it was that I started feeling like I had a past, but whenever it was, it was a sad and wonderful day. Once you have a past, you can always go back (in your mind) but you can also never go back (am I really ever going to see dawn from the wrong side again?). "FNL" makes me feel the way that one LCD Soundsystem song about friends makes me feel. Like once I danced all night in a condemned loft with my friends but now I do not. Both of these things are totally okay.

So I have a proposition: let's all watch the series finale. Then we can meet out on the field in the dark. We'll toss the football around a bit and shoot the shit, crickets sounding in the background.

Sarah Blackwood professes about literary stuff in Manhattan and watches a lot of television in Brooklyn. She's had the same online blog journal, Drunken Bee, for seven years because she doesn't really understand Tumblr.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

danielle johnsen (#3,585)

This made me tear up. I have become addicted to this show, in the best way possible, and I think it is become I am looking at it with more mature eyes. Caught the series finale a few months back on DirecTV, since I just couldn't avoid spoilers, and I think it was a perfect send off to a simply perfect series. No big show, no big twist, but just like in real life, a bit of change.

Its incredible to see the response to this show now as opposed to just two years ago, and I think when we look back in 20 years it will be a time capsule for many of us.


Also, Tim Riggins is just as beautfil, if not more, in real life.

Kat Toland (#6,626)

I was way more into this show than I expected. Somehow the way it was written and shot made you invested in every story, even when the teen angst is so far in the past. I was more upset by the end of this show than any other, and I vowed not to watch it again when it was on NBC. I've been pretty good, but it's still sad to think it's ending forever this week. The Emmy nods, long overdue, were nice, but I don't really believe that will happen. Hope everyone enjoys the finale and doesn't get quite as hysterical.

hockeymom (#143)

I'll miss all the usual suspects…but also, Buddy Garrity.

anonymass (#13,682)

I don't really go on twitter ever, but should there not be a #men wielding pink plastic bicycles against doofus TAs who have seduced their daughters? Or do I not understand twitter?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Best. Show. Ever.

vilkomerson (#37)

I will also miss Drunken Bee's recaps which examine the psychological state of the show's most important character, Coach Taylor's hair.

sarahblackwood (#16,870)

@vilkomerson Coach Taylor's hair just wants to take us all out for ice cream. Its treat!

iantenna (#5,160)

it really is amazing that a teen oriented network tv show about football, based on a book, based on a movie, has done the best job on television this side of david simon in dealing with race, gender, class, etc. in contemporary america. on the surface that sounds impossible.

I have never watched FNL, but you have piqued my interest now.
For what it's worth, I have been living in Houston for 11 years now and these have been the best years of my adult life.

RodeoToad (#8,147)

@boricuaintexas — Me too! (12 years actually. Austin for 13 years before that, and you couldn't drag me back to that town now.)

statistics_lie (#14,052)

Pete Berg is a total genius and the show was genuinely revolutionary. That fucking process! Three cameras, real locations, genuine collaboration between actors and writers, significant improvisation, and Christ, that lighting. It's funny how little critical attention the show has gotten compared with every "sexy" piece of shit Showtime and HBO put up when it's been the most genuine, heartbreaking, lovely thing on TV for years. FNL FTW

iantenna (#5,160)

@statistics_lie i can't really disagree but "treme" has been knocking it out of the park enough to make up for every other piece of trash on hbo and showtime combined.

statistics_lie (#14,052)

@iantenna Oh sure Treme is great, I think Berg and Simon actually have a lot in common, especially as far as valuing what real places and people look like. I didn't mean to imply that everything on HBO and Showtime is terrible, but a lot of it is and just cuz it has, dunno, long pale thighs in it writery people lose their shit? And act like everything on network is pap.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

@statistics_lie One scene–set of shots, really–took my appreciation for the direction to a level beyond. It's when Matt walks into the artist's "studio" to confront him about Julie and looks up at that angel sculpture. It stopped me short. Never has anything on film felt so much like how my eyes work over and process a novel object or piece of art.

Parleyview (#7,337)

@statistics_lie ^ completely agree.

" It's funny how little critical attention the show has gotten compared with every "sexy" piece of shit Showtime and HBO put up when it's been the most genuine, heartbreaking, lovely thing on TV for years."

Moff (#28)

It's seriously amazing, and I don't think it's going out on a limb at all to predict that over the next couple of decades, we're gonna see some great, artful stories produced by people citing FNL as a major inspiration.

I don't think it's such a bad thing that it's coming to a close. I have absolutely not watched it with the rigor necessary to comment 100 percent astutely (I piggyback on Mrs. Moff's Hulu sessions) and haven't seen the finale yet, but five seasons covered a lot of ground, and a lot of the main characters seem to be at places it's comfortable and fitting to leave them. (If I'm way off, please, someone feel free to correct me!) If the show really is about how time moves so strangely (and that sounds pretty dead-on to me), it's kinda fitting that it has An End, and a leaves-you-wishing-it-would-just-go-on-a-little-longer-but-no-it-can't-and-that's-OK-because-it-has-to-be end at that.

Julian Hattem (#7,208)

full eyes clear hearts

Parleyview (#7,337)

@Julian Hattem
can't lose

Cooper (#5,827)

"In this important world, you're on a team."

mats fan (#16,999)

I'm going to be that guy:

I enjoyed watching seasons 1 and 2 of the show (never got beyond that), but am pretty disappointed by the fact that it makes very little effort to reflect the almost unbelievable racism that's rampant in Odessa (the real world version of Dillon) even 35 years after Brown v Board of Ed (the book is from the late '80s, and the schools in Odessa had been racially integrated only a few years prior). The show also downplays the fact that many of these kids' lives will go nowhere post-high school due to the town's complete prioritization of football over academics (the book's epilogue is a painful read). The book is seriously dark, and while the sugarcoating on race and on the kids' prospects in the real world probably makes the show palatable (pun intended) to a wider audience, it does result in a product that's not representative and, at least in my opinion, less powerful.

anonymass (#13,682)

@mats fan
This is a very well-stated critique. I feel you. One of the things I've noticed about FNL is the way it presents the possibility of utter tragedy so that you can feel it, even if the show almost never fully commits to it. The prospect of Matt Saracen going from state champ QB1 to bitter local pizza guy was heartbreaking, and real for a moment, before he ended up in a lovely apartment in Chicago somehow making a go of it as an art student. The show is always doing this: letting you glimpse real tragedy before somehow turning it all rosy. When I watch it, I'm always aware that I'm getting a touch more fairy tale than authentic characterization and narrative, and this is honestly a key part of my enjoyment. I can't deny that part of FNL's appeal for me is escapist. I've described FNL to friends using the shorthand of "it's like the Wire of high school football," even though I've always known that the actual football is probably a good deal less authentic than The Wire's drug dealing and police work and that FNL's narrative really doesn't go as deep, as you argue.

Brett (#17,049)

@mats fan

"it makes very little effort to reflect the almost unbelievable racism that's rampant in Odessa"

See: season 1, eps. 15 and 16. Also, the bulk of season 4.

"The show also downplays the fact that many of these kids' lives will go nowhere post-high school due to the town's complete prioritization of football over academics"

See: Tim Riggins, seasons 4 and 5.

Ted Maul (#205)

This was glorious. Thank you, Sarah Blackwood.

David (#192)

Gorgeous. That show is just beautiful! And it will make you cry. Thanks for the posting!

Dave Bry (#422)

Wow. Yes, I do like things that are beautiful. Like, those last three paragraphs, for example.

nofunnybusiness (#10,151)

I grew up in central Texas in a town awfully similar to Dillon. What initially drew me in to the show were the little details – gestures and behavior that I certainly never noticed in any conscious way as I great up, but definitely knew well and knew personally – details that are so true to small-town life in Texas: how men take off their hats when they enter a home, going out to someone's land to drink, and (even for this atheist) the prayers before games, before meals.
But that's a very local and personal reason why I, the (now ex-)Texan love the show. As for the bigger, more global reasons – you've hit the nail on the head. Thank you for that, Sarah; for putting it in words for me.

mats fan (#16,999)

@ Brett

On the racism stuff, it's a matter of degree. Yes, perhaps there are a few episodes dedicated to it, but, if FNL were reflecting late-80s Odessa, it would've permeated every single episode, and FNL would've been a very different show.

Also, it's kind of funny that in the TV show Riggins is a character who struggles to grow up. In real life, Riggins is one of the only members of the team who ends up a fulfilled, mature adult.

Brett (#17,049)

@mats fan

It's not supposed to reflect late '80s Odessa because it's not set in the late '80s, it's set in contemporary times. I've lived in the South though I've never lived there so it's just a guess, but I would imagine that the racism you see there now is a little more subtle than it was over 20 years ago.

I really enjoyed this show, although I found my self gleefully yelling DRAMA! every time I watched it.

I have so loved your TWoP FNL commentary. I have teared up reading your writing as much as I have watching the show. Thanks for five years of beautiful writing, and heartfelt commentary. I will miss it.

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