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.
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.
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.