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TGFF: Thank God for "Friday Night Lights"

In 1988, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger had just received a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.  He was interested in small town sports, and so moved to Odessa, Texas, for a year-long sabbatical.  Here, at one of the most storied high school football programs in the country, he examined the lives, pressures, tensions, hopes, and dreams of the 1988 Odessa Panthers.  The resulting book, Friday Night Lights, has been hailed by Sports Illustrated as fourth on the list of the greatest sports books of all time, and is number one for the sport of football.  It is considered to be perhaps the most insightful look ever into the problems and dangers of high school sports.

The book was later made into a movie, and then into a TV show.  Here, I want to examine some of the positives and negatives of the TV show.

Aesthetically, FNL is excellent.  They take a unique approach to filming, in that the actors are given almost wholesale freedom to interpret their characters as they see fit.  Cameramen are instructed to follow the actors wherever they choose to go in a scene, rather than the actors being instructed where to stand.  So long as the actor manages to get their lines mostly right, hit the key story points, and make the scene believable, the first take is usually the only take.   Because of the spontaneity, lighting is often awkward or imperfect, which again makes it all the more believable.

This format, combined with excellent and realistic writing, makes the show impressively easy to identify with.  Conversations make sense, and the way actors respond to each other is believable; there is a certain discomfort and tension that is much more “lifelike” than canned dialogue.

What really drives the show, though, is the characters’ attempts to make daily life choices.  Their ability to discern right from wrong, to weigh options, and to decide whom to trust or not is constantly brought to the fore.  In the course of a single show, you see how fathers and mothers, teens and adults, football players and geeks try to live their lives as best they can.  Some make good choices; some make poor ones.  By the next week, though, the roles might be reversed and the same person who was so wise before chooses something selfish and petty.  It is this dynamic that makes the show so believable and relatable.

For example, one of the main characters is the young quarterback, Matt Saracen.  Thrust into the spotlight after the starting quarterback is injured, he struggles to deal with new-found fame and scrutiny.  In one show, he shows maturity and sacrifice to love and protect his girlfriend.  In another, he allows pressure from his team to keep him from doing the right thing.  In a third, he acts petulant and immature in dealing with a reduced role in the team offense.  In a fourth, he shows depth and maturity taking care of his grandmother.  They are all situations any high school kid might have to face – and that is what makes it dramatic.

It’s here that the show is at its best.  Racism, recruiting, marriage, teen angst, fights, reconciliations, high school and yes, even football are all themes that drive the story.  However, these things keep coming back to individuals trying to make good decisions about their lives.  Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they do not, but the key is that the show rightly focuses on individual choice as the key dramatic event in life stories.

Is Friday Night Lights a show worth watching?  Here are some points to consider.

The Good

1. Friday Night Lights is well made. Its themes and tensions are all the more powerful because you are swept up by the story and almost never distracted by poor (or overdone) cinematography.

2. FNL is well-written. Most people will find something to relate to.  Season Two includes a storyline in which the football coach and his wife are coping with the pressures and struggles of a new baby- and my wife and I were shocked at how closely some of their conversations mirrored conversations we’ve had in regards to our new little one.  The whole show is like this.  Almost every line, conversation and decision is believable, and it is rare for the story to be driven by a series of impossible misunderstandings like so many TV shows.

3. FNL deals with great moral problems. I would even go so far as to say I have never seen a show that so honestly and accurately addresses moral problems as FNL.  Further, it tends to keep its focus on small things like mother-child relationships or the impact of spur-of-the-moment decisions.  This makes it easier for the viewer to be immersed in the story.

4. FNL affirms the importance of daily life. It is not in any way escapist- it deals clearly and honestly with real life issues, and does not allow romance to trump problems like peer pressure, selfishness or paying the mortgage.

The Bad

1. FNL portrays Christianity as a shallow crutch for the weak and purposeless. The Christian faith shows up all over the place in the show, but it is consistently weak, shallow, and limiting.  Often it is heartlessly legalistic.  On the one hand this is helpful, because I think it is an accurate portrayal of the way the church is seen (and practiced) by many.  However, because it is never shown as anything but shallow, legalistic and cheesy, it allows the church to become a caricature, rather than dealing with the honest problem of real vs. nominal Christianity.

2. FNL does not offer alternatives to moralistic, therapeutic deism as a decision-making prism. Every character (even the “Christian” ones) consistently resorts to preference and undefined morality when making choices (which, as mentioned, are central to the show).  Again, I feel this is generally true of the American character, but the lack of an alternative subtly suggests that there IS no alternative.  This, I think, is a mistake.

3. There is a lot of immorality. It’s good to accurately portray the fact that people give in to bad decisions, especially in the area of sex outside of marriage.  However, the show has a tendency to go over the top.  One character, for example, is apparently irresistible to women.  In the course of less than one and a half school years, he sleeps with his girlfriend, his best friend’s girlfriend, cheerleaders, and a 33 year-old mother.  He also flirts incessantly with plenty of other women, ranging in age from 16 to late 30’s.

On the whole, FNL is an excellent show.  I highly recommend that Christians watch it to see a helpful portrayal of the things people face in dealing with life and various relationships.  That said, be aware that it will not always teach the right answers to hard questions. More importantly, it never portrays a God-honoring way of handling those decisions in the first place.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • ERomano

    Great article. I am an evangelical Christian who has been a big fan of this show since it started. When I heard Lyla was going to be “born again” I was nervous, and although they have not done a great job with the storyline, I was pleased they didn’t go the way of every other show on TV and make it into a total joke. When born-again Lyla acts petty, I remind myself, “She’s a new Christian.” Maybe she acts more real than I care to admit? And, Riggins in church, while comical, is pretty inspiring. If it were real-life, he’d be the one to have the conversion experience and become a preacher! Again, interesting article on one of the only shows worth watching on TV!

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Thanks for your comments!

    I definitely struggle with Lyla’s storyline. Though I agree with most of what you said, it was really frustrating when she was “disappointed” that things didn’t go further with the radio guy at the end of season two. And their church doesn’t seem to be too theologically grounded. Still, it’s hard to ask too much of a secular show.

    One character who HAS been very classy, though, is Lyla’s radio boyfriend, who so far has been very faithful with his life. We’ll see what happens!

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://www.semicolonblog.com Sherry Early

    I haven’t seen the show, but I did grow up in San Angelo, 100 miles from Odessa, and we played football with the Odessa teams. And I grew up in the evangelical, mostly Southern Baptist, culture that is a big part of West Texas life and even West Texas football. I think it’s too bad that the show can’t or won’t portray the good, bad and the ugly of this culture accurately, according to your review. Yes, kids were hypocritical sometimes, playing church, or not playing, but others were genuinely changed by the power of the gospel. It’s too bad we can’t have an honest portrayal of both sides of the story.

    In the most recent WORLD magazine, Gene Veith writes:

    “In the TV culture, teen sex, single adult sex, and—in the most dramatic shift in sexual mores in history—homosexuality are all perfectly acceptable, unproblematic, and normal. Conversely, traditional sexual morality is presented as weird, strange, and out of the mainstream.”

    TV cannot seem to deal with good, morally straight characters. It has to tear them down.

  • http://www.thinkvirtue.com SolShine7

    Friday Night Lights is one of my absolute favorite TV shows. It’s brilliantly done and I’m glad they’re giving it another season. I pretty much agree with you on all your points, good and bad. But one thing I’d like to add is it’s amazing theme song by Explosions in the Sky. They’re one of my favorite bands.

    SolShine7s last blog post..Band Spotlight: The Golden Sounds

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Oh, great point. The theme song is terrific. It’s fun and thoughtful and wistful all at the same time, blending perfectly with the Texas landscape and the uncertain/hopeful outlook of the characters. Thanks for pointing that out!

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • ERomano

    One more thing…FNL would be smart to run some of their born-again Lyla storylines by a Christian. One thing that always bothered me is that Lyla, a beautiful, young woman, was ministering in the MALE PRISON! Anyone who has ever done any type of evangelism knows that she would have been at a female prison. (But, she did meet Santiago, Buddy’s new roomie, and Buddy gained some approval from Lyla..and the whole storyline flowed) But, anyone knows she would have never been put in that situation in the name of ministry!!!

    Oh — and Explosions in the Sky is wonderful! My FNL-watching is not a complete experience unless I listen to the entire theme-song!

  • Jo

    A really interesting, thoughtful post. I don’t have any experience with evangelism and I always wondered how accurately/inaccurately that part of the show was being portrayed.

    For what it’s worth, the theme song isn’t actually by Explosions in the Sky — it’s W.G. Snuffy Walden, who is kind of a TV-theme-music superstar (did a lot of cool orchestral stuff for The West Wing).


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