Friday Night Lights was first a book (non-fiction), then a (fiction) film starring Billy Bob Thornton, Garrett Hedlund, Connie Britton, and Tim McGraw, among many others. I haven’t read the book, and I haven’t seen the film. Between 2006 and 2011, it ran as a TV series, starring Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, and Taylor Kitsch, among many others.
If you know me, you know I’m not particularly interested in sport. I’m especially not interested in American sports, which seem to be designed exclusively to enable many, many advertising breaks when televised.
FNL was sitting on the NowTV box for ages before I took a look at it. By the time I did, only seasons 4 and 5 remained. I wasn’t aware of this show being broadcast on free-to-air channel ITV4, back in its early years. According to the Wikipedia, just 26,000 people watched it when first broadcast in 2007. ITV4 shifted it around in the schedules, and it was then shown on Sky Atlantic, which has a daily reach of just under 800,000 – and that includes viewers of Game of Thrones.
So I watched season 4 and then season 5. I think the family were away. It took me a while to pick up who the characters were, especially the departing or older students, who were no longer part of the team. But it didn’t take long to work out what was happening, and by the final three episodes of the run, I was watching through a veil of tears.
So in France a while ago, I bought the boxed set, and I’ve been working through it, trying not to watch it all in a rush. Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a disc in once or twice a week and watched three or four episodes in a row. I’ve now reached past the point where I started watching, so I’ve seen the whole thing.
Whatever your opinions of American sport, especially gridiron football, this show is good: great, even. To summarise: it’s set in a rural town in Texas which has more or less nothing going on in it apart from high school football. For many of the students, their only opportunity of going to college is getting a football scholarship. For others, the grinding realities of every day life leave them with few opportunities, beyond working in a fast food restaurant or scratching a living with manual labour.
While it’s true that the teenage characters all seem to be played by actors in their 20s*, Friday Night Lights is exceptional in showing a more realistic portrayal of working class life than most American dramas. Not since the heyday of Roseanne have we seen so many people with ordinary incomes struggling to get by in modern America, where so-called middle-class incomes have been steadily falling since the 1970s – even as shows like Desperate Housewives and Friends fed us completely unrealistic representations of ‘middle class’ lifestyles.
But it’s all about football, right? Yes, and no. In FNL, people worry about keeping their jobs, paying their mortgages, paying medical bills when uninsured, paying college tuition fees, just like real life. The moral centre of the show is the Taylor family, consisting of the high school football coach and the school’s principal. Even though both of them are in full-time employment, they still live in a modest home, drive ordinary cars, and argue about being able to afford a new house. The coach is a father figure to his players, but the show doesn’t entirely focus on football. It takes in the whole town, from the local economy and job prospects, racial tensions, politics, abortion, and the struggles to fund the more academic side of the school. Yes, sometimes, it can get a bit Waterloo Road (when teachers go hunting for AWOL students, or students turn up at teachers’ doors), but in the context of the story and characters, it rings true.
And it makes you care, even about football. The drive and passion, the high stakes, what you know about that character’s home life: all of it makes you care, and emote, when watching the game sequences. When you know that everything in Tim Riggins’ life is a mess, and you see him pick up the ball and carry it into the end zone? You emote. But you also emote when Tyra reads out her personal statement from her college application.
Anyway, if you’re not among the half a million or so UK TV viewers who might already have seen it, it should probably be your next boxed set. Recommended.
*I did some research. The actor who played running back Smash Williams was 23 when the show started in 2006 (he was playing 17). Lyla Garrity was 26 (playing 16). Tyra was 23. Tim Riggins was 25. Season 4’s Jess was 24 and Becky was 19. Only Landry Clarke, who was just 18 when the show started; and Julie Taylor (17) were even remotely teenagers. But you can’t cast teenagers as teenagers, can you? They have spots.