Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: Friday Night Lights

We finished watching the final season of Friday Night Lights last night. I’m surprised how bereft I feel with no more to watch! Though this is not TV with the intellectual reach of The Wire or Deadwood, it has the most heart of any TV show I can think of. I think what moved me most about its conception is that its characters are all striving to be or do better, often against considerable odds. Though they are flawed (except, arguably, for Coach Taylor), and they often fail to turn their good intentions into right actions (I’m talking about you, Tim Riggins), there is something tremendously affecting about watching them muddle through. And even when their triumphs were a little too pat (the East Dillon Lions, for instance, are surely unbelievably successful in their second-ever season), I was thrilled at every one–and I was also usually in the grips of heart-pounding anxiety until I knew how things were going to work out. It’s just great human drama, and the writers and actors (and their whole team) completely succeeded in making me care about the characters and feel “invested” (a word that recurs frequently in the DVD extras) in their decisions. The only time I felt skeptical was during the unfortunately melodramatic “murder” plot involving Landry and Tyra in Season 2. The writers were right to let that lapse out of the show’s memory, just as they were right to keep some other early elements going–a particularly nice small touch, I thought, was bringing Landry and Matt back together in the final episode for a little of the dry, friendly banter that they open the series with as Matt practices throwing the football through the old tire in his unprepossessing yard never dreaming of the immanent tragedy that will propel him into the role of QB1. They didn’t do too well with the “Julie Goes to College” plot-line (why is it that TV shows often falter so badly when they try to portray university life? a professor who holds salons, for crying out loud? and a TA who gives her paper a C- because he thinks it’s “safe” and she’s bright enough to do better–when he’s talked to her, what, twice?), but by that time I was so involved with Vince that I would have forgiven the show anything.

It’s Coach Taylor who carries the show, though, and who embodies individually the qualities the show stands up for overall: integrity, sincerity, perseverance, commitment, loyalty, aspiration. His official job is to win football games, but the series ultimately focuses on his role in building character. I had reservations occasionally about the degree of shouting involved in this: I’m always dubious that people who are yelled at will in fact be motivated to do their best. (Those of you with more experience at–and tolerance for–organized team sports can perhaps tell me if this is indeed how coaches work, and whether it is considered somehow necessary or beneficial to the players to encounter authority in this fairly absolute way.) What saved it for me was how clear it was that Coach really did have the best interests of his players at heart, and that in addition to yelling at them, he also opened his door to them at all hours of the day and night and stood up for them in every context where he could make a difference. When they screwed up, he made no secret of his displeasure but also showed them that he absolutely believed they could do better. The only one he never won over was J. D., who turned into a real little creep in Season 4–though by that time his equally creepy dad had cost Coach Taylor his job with the Panthers anyway. If he’d stayed with Coach, I’m sure he’d have turned out just fine! I think Kyle Chandler is amazing in the role: in addition to having perfect piercing eyes (he can command a scene just by looking at someone), he’s completely believable, especially during the football scenes. There’s one win in particular (I won’t specify which, so in case you haven’t watched it yet, you too can be on the edge of your seat until the final minute–which in FNL is always when a game is decided!) after which his reaction is so tangibly fired up I thought our TV might have switched to 3-D.

I don’t even like football in my real life, but watching FNL gave me new interest in and respect for the game. I think Sonya Chung is right (in her nice essay on the show at The Millions) to emphasize “the way the football action itself is used to advance plot” in the series:

You almost always know what’s going to happen during a given game: some player is going to succeed or fail, according to the character’s dramatic journey.  And yet it’s almost ridiculous how gripping it is to watch it unfold – Matt Saracen throwing interceptions and losing his QB1 spot to an upstart prick freshman in Season Three; running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) getting side-tackled hard while playing with a serious hip injury he’s kept secret throughout Season Four; geek-turned-kicker Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) going for a 45-yard field goal in the final seconds of the final game of the season.  All of Season Four is built around an underdog uphill climb for the ragtag East Dillon Lions (with Coach Taylor at the helm, now the victim of aforementioned prick freshman’s prick father’s maneuverings to get him transferred after a local gerrymandering debacle), and of course we know where it’s going: there’s nowhere to go but up.  Still, the battle is replete with the absorbing defeats and triumphs of both game and life.  Season Four is also where we see a more explicit emergence of racial issues (featuring The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan as the East Dillon quarterback), handled like everything else on the show – as part of the fabric of everyday life.

Beyond that, even, I’d say football is really the occasion, rather than the reason, for the characters’ development, standing in for any endeavor that relies on the kind of commitment, cooperation, and hunger for success that football does here. In a different setting, it could be a youth orchestra, a ballet company, a hockey team, couldn’t it? And yet I guess it’s true that football has a specific resonance all its own in some communities, and it’s also more exciting (I suppose) to watch football practice than an orchestra rehearsal!

There are so many other things I enjoyed about the show, including the increasing complexity in the relationship between Eric and Tami Taylor, culminating in the difficult choices that end Season 5. Tami’s a great character in her own right, also brilliantly and believably played, and the story-lines related to her work as counselor and principal effectively round out our picture of the Dillon community. The style of the show was fascinating, from the loose camera work to the unscripted freedom you can sense in so many of the scenes–the producers’ openness to experiments and improvisation is one of the reasons the show seems so real and authentic, presumably. It’s the people that really mattered, though, and the way the show embraced the emotional possibilities of their lives.  I was so happy every time a door opened to reveal Matt Saracen–or, for that matter, when we got to visit his grandmother, one of the best “minor” characters in the show. It was nice to see Jason Street reappear too. The people seem so real that I kept wondering what had become of “Smash” Williams (we do finally get a glimpse of him–on TV). But I got fond of Luke and Becks too, along with Vince and Tinker and especially Jess Merriweather. I’m going to miss them all! To quote from Chung’s essay again, Friday Night Lights is “an unflinching portrait of contemporary America that is not at all clever or ironic; that is both earnest and real; that dares you to care, and to embrace the notion that heart and personal morality are at the center of everything we do.” The lack of irony, the earnestness, might strike some viewers as faults, symptoms a kind of deliberate, even self-indulgent, naivete, but to me it was a relief and a pleasure  to watch a show that served up some idealism without ignoring realism.

I’m wondering if I could develop a pedagogical style based on Coach Taylor. Do you think if I opened every lecture by saying “Let’s go have some fun!” and then yelled “What are you doing??” every time someone fumbled a question, things would go better than usual? We could do worse than to adopt “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” as our mantra…

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