I’ve tried very, very hard not to litter this blog with reflections on my love of television. But two things happened this week that, in combination, proved too much for me to resist.
#1. A marginally popular drama called Friday Nights Lights reached the end of its fifth and final season last night.
#2. Chuck Klosterman wrote one of those sentences that makes you realize something about yourself you couldn’t have explained nearly so well:
Because TV is so simultaneously personal (it exists inside your home) and so utterly universal (it exists inside everyone’s home), people care about it with an atypical brand of conversational ferocity — they take it more personally than other forms of art, and they immediately feel comfortable speaking from a position of expertise. They develop loyalties to certain characters and feel offended when those loyalties are disparaged.
I’m glad Chuck Klosterman understands this. Because that means Chuck Klosterman will get it when I write the following: Chuck Klosterman is a big dumb stupid-head!
Perhaps I’m guilty of conversational ferocity, but out of loyalty to characters like Coach, Mrs. Coach, Saracen, Julie, Vince, Riggs, Landry, Buddy, and the rest of the FNL dramatis personae, I feel offended by this other sentence from Mr. Klosterman’s essay: “There doesn’t seem to be much debate over what have been the four best television shows of the past 10 years” — namely, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Mad Men.
Not coincidentally, all four are on cable. After all, claims Klosterman, “Having the best show on network TV is kind of like being the best crunk dancer at a Genesis concert.” (I am far too dorky to dance crunk, and not nearly dorky enough to be at a Genesis concert in the first place. Is that a paradox, or did I just prove his point?)
Contra Klosterman, the fact that Peter Berg, Jason Katims, and their colleagues chose to bring FNL from big screen to a small screen tuned to NBC only accentuates their achievement, raising it at least to the level of his Unapproachable Four. Lights’ creative team had to simultaneously work within the confines of network television and transcend them. For an inside perspective on the nature of this challenge and how Berg, Katims, et al. met it, see the wonderful oral history published last week on the same site as Klosterman’s essay.
Amusingly, that piece’s author (Robert Mays) seems to answer Klosterman in his introduction: “…when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of our Country seemed most in doubt.” And that is as good as any capsule explanation of why FNL deserves to stand alongside the very best films, novels, and plays about the American Dream. (Take Grover’s Corners; I’ll keep visiting Dillon.)
Despite his huge oversight (or, as evidenced by the fact that I view it as such), Klosterman has me dead to rights: I do take television “more personally than other forms of art.” Much as I can stand back and admire Friday Night Lights for its unique alignment of outstanding acting, casting, writing, directing, cinematography, and setting, my response to it is primarily affective, not cognitive. As much as anything else beyond my faith and my family, it gives me the “full heart” promised in its most famous catchphrase (if you can call it that).
And for reasons I’ll never fully comprehend, in its finest moments, it invariably makes me cry.
And that is so barely fathomable to me that I hesitate even to write about it. Rather than attempt a full explanation of that emotional response, since I’m neither that self-aware nor that well-versed in psychology, let me just count down the three most tearful moments in my experience of Friday Night Lights. (I’ll link to each on NetFlix if you want to join in on my sobfest. And, of course, SPOILERS follow for those new to the show.)
#3. The conversation between the Riggins brothers in the last act of “Thanksgiving” (Season 4)
I’ll admit that I don’t share the same obsession with “Riggs” as some fans, and his relationships with Tyra and Lyla feel network-imposed/suggested (Lyla’s reappearance strikes the one missed note in the next episode I’ll discuss). They’re certainly less interesting than his friendship with Street. (The friends’ farewell in “New York, New York” from Season 3 could also make this list, though it evokes a different kind of sadness.) But even though any FNL fan has long since learned the biblical truth that redemption is inseparable from sacrifice, what Tim does for Billy (and watching the older brother realize what’s happening) is gut-wrenching. (“You are a father, and you need to be one.”) Setting their parting to this Steve Earle tune is almost too much.
2. Matt Saracen shows up late for dinner at the Taylors’ house in “The Son” (Season 4)
So many Saracen moments could qualify here (#2 for me would be the cold shower he takes in the 2nd season stand-out, “Leave No One Behind”), almost all stemming from his relationships with his absent father (serving more tours in Iraq than even the Army demands) and the son-less football coach who takes on that paternal role. In this showcase for Zach Gilford, news of his father’s violent death unleashes the son’s pent-up hatred. Gilford is given two remarkable soliloquies: first his implosion in front of the Taylor family (“I don’t think I’m okay”), and then his bittersweet graveside eulogy. Almost as powerful are two silences on either side of the dinner scene: the words a drunken Saracen can’t summon as the casket opens to reveal the IED-mangled corpse of his father; and the speech Coach doesn’t give as he walks Saracen home.
1.The last twelve minutes in “Pilot” (Season 1)
Maybe the finest tribute to Friday Night Lights is to acknowledge that its best episode was its first one, and yet it somehow built on an achievement it could never surpass. Here’s part of what the aforementioned oral history has to say about the very first episode:
Kyle Chandler (actor): It was the best pilot I’ve ever seen for a TV show. Arguably, it may be one of the best pilots ever.
Patrick Massett (co-executive producer, writer): The cut from the field to the sawing of the helmet to Minka Kelly crying.
John Zinman (co-executive producer, writer): The voiceover …
Massett: “We will all be tested.”
(And, in the truest statement of them all, an NBC marketing executive tells the producers, “This is a great pilot, but I really don’t know how we’re going to sell this.”)
Even if you know it’s coming, what happens to Jason Street is staggering. That just doesn’t happen on American TV. But once it does, it seems to set up everything else that’s going to happen in the series.
And about “the voiceover…” One TV rule is that you don’t cripple your hero in the middle of your first episode. Another is that voiceovers are the mark of lazy screenwriting, simply bringing into relief how motion pictures can’t convey the depth of thought and feeling that books can. But Coach’s prayer, when integrated with images in that unique fusion of sight and sound that novels can’t provide, breaks that rule, too.