Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Tribute to Great Television: Friday Night Lights

One of the best shows you never watched.  This phrase gets thrown around a lot, but this is one of the rare cases where this statement is true.  The origin of the television show is also a story that many people may not know.   Many people know that the television show was derived from a movie, but the movie was based on a popular non-fiction book.

In 1990 H. G. Bissinger released a book he wrote entitled "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream."  The book centers partly around the Permian Panthers high school football team from Odessa Texas and their epic battle to make it to the State championship.  While football was the primary reason for writing the book, the book became a critique of the ardent racism which still existed within the town, and the way people ignored the economic hardships they faced to focus on this one football team.  The book takes an in depth look at how these football players are Gods within the town. Then once their careers end, and they are no longer superstars they become become part of of the heard mentality that that honors football rather than help change the economic struggles of the town.

The book was met with some severe criticism by the towns people of Odessa, but the actual events of the book have held up and were confirmed to be true.  This book has been reprinted numerous times, and is one of the most popular sports books of all time.   In 1993 the book spawned its first adaptation with a short lived television show entitled Against the Grain, which had young Ben Affleck. The show did not last long.  In  2002 Sports Illustrated magazine named it the fourth best sports book of all time, which brought the story of this small town back to the forefront.

After being named one of the best sports books of all time it only made sense to adapt Bissinger's book into a film.  The film was released in 2004 and directed by Bissinger's second cousin Peter Berg.  The center of the story was the 1988 football season where Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) overplays one of his star players James "Boobie" Miles and Boobie tears his ACL.  The film is a good representation of triumph over adversity.  The coach must bring his team together and try and shut out the outside world and prove he can win.  While team pushes forward Boobie must realize his dreams of playing in the NFL are over and while he has focused on football his whole life he must now think about his life moving in a different direction.

Berg did a decent job with the film, but stated that there limitations to the story he wanted to tell with a film. Berg adapted the film into a television show with Brian Grazer, and David Nevins for NBC Universal.  While Berg kept some of the heart of the story and the characters from the book and film he made his own adjustments for the television series.  Berg changed the town from Odessa to a fictionalized town Dillon, Texas; he did keep the same team mascot the Panthers.  Instead of focusing on the Coach Gaines, Berg focused on Coach Taylor and his family.  Coach Taylor was played Kyle Chandler.  Berg kept Connie Britton on for the television series.  Britton played Coach Gary's wife the film, and played Tami Taylor in the television series.  Berg also kept Brad Leland who played Buddy Garritty  in both the film and television show.

Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton represented the heart of this show.  Their great performances and Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor represented many of the dynamics of the show.  While Coach Taylor lived football he also loved his wife and family.  One part of the culture within this show is the concept of family on and off the field.  I will never forget in the first episode when Coach Taylor goes to visit Matt Saracen (Zach Gillford) and Saracen does not want to let the Coach in because he is ashamed of the way he lives and feels embarrassed by his grandmother who raised him.  Coach Taylor tells him to be proud of who he is, and to never forget grandmother has done so much for him.

While the Coach represents the world of football his wife represents the hope for education.  Tami Taylor takes a job at the high school as the guidance counselor in the second or third episode of the series.  Not only does the show focus on the concept of family through her, but it also shows how this woman tries to push the boys past thinking about a life on the field, and to think about life in the classroom.  Tami knows recognizes that after these boys leave high school and walk off the field there is not much for them; she wants to push many of them to not focus completely on football while still supporting her husband.

Throughout the shows five year run it discussed not only the game on the field, but social issues like racism, economic struggles, abortion, and many other issues.  The show was able to stay true to the concept of the book and take on a detailed look at life in small town Texas, and the cultural importance of one of their other religious experiences, Friday night football.  There are of course other characters that are crucial to the landscape of the show like the different football players and non football players and their stories.  There is the alcoholic bad boy Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) who evolves into a person of substance as he tries to realize his full potential.  The show also has Landry Clark (Jesse Plemmons) who is an outsider to the world of football, and in the beginning realizes that a persons worth is measured by their role in the team, and the show shows how this character matters just as much throughout the years.  These are just two examples of the complex characters created for this show, and how they represent an interesting study of life in a small town.

The first season of the show was on NBC and ran for 22 episodes.  The show was close to cancellation, but with an ardent fan base the show was saved from cancellation.  NBC negotiated a contract with Direct-TV to play the show for the next three seasons.  Each season lasted between 12-13 episodes long.  In the fifth and final season the popularity grew enough, and the show made an appearance back in the NBC line-up.

Throughout the years the show was nominated 13 Emmy nominations (far too few).  In its first season it was nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for the pilot episode and won for Outstanding Casting in a Drama Series.  The show did not get other major nominations until its fourth season when its two lead characters Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were both nominated, and it was nominated for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series.  In the shows fifth and final season the show was finally nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, both Britton and Chandler were nominated and again.  Chandler won the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and showrunner (at the time) Jason Katims won for writing the series finale entitled "Always."

While the show may not have been the most popular while it aired countless people have been finding the show after it has left the air.  Coach Taylor and his family on and off the field represent an important piece of television history.  This show may be the best sports television show of all time because it goes beyond the film and explores life in a sociological context.  The show is also incredibly inspirational, and makes you feel ans though with drive you can push yourself to succeed.  So as Coach Taylor says as before he walks out of the lock room with his team "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose!"

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