As early as its first episode, Friday Night Lights seems intent on making sure that you’re fully aware of the wonderful juxtaposition that is competitive sport. It’s that recognition of the utter futility of throwing, kicking or catching a ball around a defined playing surface, knowing that wins, losses and championships all mean very little in the grand scheme of things. Games are won and lost, players come and go and seasons tumble into each other, all with little in the way of real-life consequences. Yet it exists alongside the admission that sport, and in this case, football, can also mean absolutely everything at the same time.
The pilot sets this up perfectly; almost everyone in Dillon, Texas is thinking only of beating Westerby all week long and starting the season off right. The atmosphere his fever pitch, the stands are packed and the Panthers soak up a wave of love and adulation. Then, bam! Our handsome All-American quarterback Jason Street gets badly injured trying to make a tackle. He’s unable to move and has to be stretchered off the field, and the whole façade, that obsession with winning and the importance that everyone had placed on this team up to this point completely falls apart. Real life invades and forces everyone present to watch on with some perspective.
For a minute or two, anyway. Because once Jason leaves the field, it’s up to the plucky and stammering Matt Saracen’s turn to jump in. He’s wonderfully well-tailored to fulfil the role of the unlikely hero and predictably sends the entire crowd nuts by launching the winning play, simultaneously reminding them why they came here on a Friday night in the first place and providing them with that priceless distraction once again. It’s engrossing stuff, and you’re drawn into the same contrasting set of emotions as the crowd is; you want Matt to throw that pass and win the game, but you also want Jason to be ok, and there’s a small feeling of guilt that you forgot about him for a little while as he’s shown in hospital at the end of the episode. Yet, even though there are plenty of characters like Tyra, Landry or Tami that will bemoan football’s status in Dillon and point out the problems that this all-consuming beast creates, you still find yourself celebrating Panthers’ victories and triumphs almost as if they were your own team, as if their success actually matters.
Because football is seemingly all that Dillon and its inhabitants have. In terms of a setting, Dillon is as bare and basic as they come. There’s no sense of exploration in this show, setting up a distinctive environment or letting the viewer forge a connection with the town; we see the school, a few local hangouts, some houses, the locker room and the football field. For the most part, that’s it, but that’s the point; this is Anytown, USA. Non-descript and unremarkable. A town in the middle of nowhere that isn’t meant to stand out, and that only serves to further emphasise just how important the Panthers are as an institution and a beacon for the locals to pour their energy and emotions into.
It makes total sense that the town would be so obsessed with this team, because you don’t have to look far to find problems in Dillon. We see two separate Sunday worships in separate churches for white and black people, kids beaten up for daring to openly question football’s importance and three of the show’s key characters are missing at least one parent, be that caused military duty, alcoholism or gang-related violence. So it might explain why every single radio station segment that we hear during scenes is obsessed with the inner workings of Coach Taylor’s team, from who he’ll start, the form of star players or whatever new drama is currently in focus, which again hammers home this sense of Dillon’s disconnection with the real world. Things may be tough, unemployment may be an issue and there’s not a whole lot of hope for our young people when they get out of high school but LOOK, FOOTBALL! GO PANTHERS! And you go along with it all, you get swept up in the focus to win because what else is there to do? You celebrate those early wins against Westerby, Arnett and Gatling and feel the sting when South Milbank snatch a victory in the Panthers’ back yard, because the show has you in its grip.
The pitfalls of this team being the town’s only source of hope, what it forces people to do and the consequences of falling outside of its all-encompassing bubble are frequently laid bare, too. When Jason is paralysed from the waist down, he predictably struggles to cope with a life that won’t be centred on being a star quarterback. When Reyes beats Kastor to a pulp in a parking lot, makes up a lie about being racially abused as his provocation and is found out, he pleads for Coach Taylor’s mercy, stating “football’s all I got” as he’s kicked off the team with no good grades to fall back on. Smash has a stinker on the field one night in front of a prominent scout, and feeling that football is his only available path to success, he turns to steroids to give himself an edge. None of this is high-brow fantasy stuff, either; you can picture scenes just like this in any small American town with limited opportunities and a high school football team at its core, which makes the drama of it all even more engrossing.
Still, even though Dillon’s focus is so singular, the Panthers and their games they only make up a short part of each episode. Friday Night Lights is remarkably well-balanced television, with plenty of space left for big dramas like Tim and Lyla’s affair or for smaller, heartfelt moments that the show excels at providing. It’s little things like Coach’s marriage with Tami, which is a consistently glorious battle of loving back-and-forth squabbling that thankfully steers clear from full-blown warfare; like Matt taking care of his grandmother and her worsening dementia, which is equal parts heartbreaking and, when he pretends to be his deceased grandfather and sings Mr. Sandman in order to calm her down, wonderfully soft. It’s there again when Coach needs to play Father, and tries to give Julie a fatherly lecture on boys and their motives whilst playing a lacklustre ping pong in their garage. There’s understated, genuine warmth amongst the tackles and the drama, which actually ends up being a big part of the show’s appeal. Sure, you want the team to succeed, but you also want these people to be happy, even when they argue or make mistakes because they feel real. Even though Friday Night Lights isn’t a particularly high-stakes show, it’s wonderfully adept at absorbing you into this world.
Of course, everything still comes back to football. Matt’s grandmother watches it, Tim’s brother watches it, Landry watches it and even Jason watches it from his hospital room whilst trying to piece his life back together. It’s inescapable, and only rarely is its importance challenged. Yet as an onlooker, you’re complicit in that double standard; you see the problems that such an obsession can cause, you see its victims and you see people do bad things to themselves and others in order to maintain the protection, the ego stroke and the opportunities it provides. Without having finished the first season, I can’t say for sure but I’ll bet that life isn’t going to get much better for a decent chunk of these high school kids than what they have now; living for the same night each week so they can play or cheer for their team from the sidelines. But it’s a pageantry that you can’t take your eyes off of, a slice of the American dream laid bare with all of its faults, its trappings and glorious highs smashed together. And I’m only eleven episodes in, too.