Tag Archives: Friday Night Lights

Autumn Horizon

Autumn isn’t really autumn in L.A. Sure, temperatures may drift downward into the 70s and (if we’re lucky) 60s rather than the 80s and 90s. And sure, the evenings cool off quicker and some types of deciduous trees (if you can find them) shed their leaves. Sure, Starbucks has their pumpkin spice lattes and caramel apple ciders. One can even find a local pumpkin patch after enough Googling.

But for a Midwestern boy like me, it will never feel quite right. I have too many ingrained memories of the sights, smells, and sensations of autumn in Oklahoma and Kansas. The smell of burning leaves, the first chimney smoke of the season. The browning of grass, the blooming of mums and the site of my mom covering flowers with buckets on the night of the first frost. The adolescent energy of Fridays at school on game days, and the sounds of the drumline, cheerleaders and press box announcers on those crisp dark nights illuminated by Friday night lights.

So beloved are those golden days of the autumns of my youth: the “back to school” nights, Homecomings, bonfires, Oktoberfests, Tulsa State fairs; the smells of smokey barbecue, roasted cinnamon nuts, caramel-dipped apples; the joys of scalping tickets to college football games with dad, raking the leaves for mom, taking weekend trips to places like Coffeyville, Eureka Springs, and Branson. And also the church harvest festivals, hayrides and fall revivals; the craft fairs with their smells of cedar chipping, holiday candles, glue-guns and Hobby Lobby.

With every passing year removed from a true Midwestern autumn, such things glow only brighter and seem more idyllic in my mind’s eye. Though I wonder now how much of my autumnal nostalgia is for particular experiences of my past as much as the idea of autumn as collected over the year from movies, books, television, poetry. One of the reasons I so loved the TV series, Friday Night Lights, is because it evoked so clearly my own experiences of the Midwestern fall (i.e. football) season. And yet now FNL is itself a part of that nostalgia. I like to break out the DVDs around this time of year to live autumn vicariously through them.

I also find myself saying yes to travel invitations every fall, if it means I can go somewhere for a few days where the air is crisp, the leaves are changing and faint sounds of marching bands or tailgating can be heard. Last weekend I went to Spokane for a conference; last fall I went to Ohio and Tennessee; the fall before that, Wheaton. Some years a simple drive up to the more autumnal regions of Central California will do the trick.

Perhaps it’s time I learn to love autumn in Southern California. I don’t know. Maybe autumn is actually more beautiful an experience for me when it is such a longing of my heart, when it is a memory, a smell, a smoky horizon just beyond the reach of my senses. I may never live in the Midwest again, to fully experience the bright blue October skies over the rolling hills of harvested grains. But maybe that’s a good thing. I believe joy exists most forcefully in the unsatisfied longings and nostalgic echoes swirling around each of our hearts, hungry for a return to the land of promise and infinite skies, whatever that place was, is, or (most likely) will one day be.

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Turn on the Lights

The first episode of the 5th (and sadly final) season of TV’s best show, Friday Night Lights, aired last night. It’s absolutely tragic that only 9 more episodes remain in what TV history will surely document as one of the sharpest highlights of the waning days of the network era. NBC’s creative arrangement with DirecTV to co-finance Lights and air the show twice (I’m watching it on DirecTV now… but it will air on NBC sometime in 2011) is a fittingly transitional model for a show that thrives on the tension between old and new, nostalgia and moving on.

That tension was especially thick on last night’s episode, which among other things showed two beloved characters (Julie and Landry) departing Dillon to go off to college. I love that Lights dwells in a reality that acknowledges transience… letting its characters grow up and move on, as new ones come in to have their own growth spurts and struggles. The show reflects so gracefully the human constancy of change–that we are all constantly “moving on” and that few relationships, communities, and dynamics are ever as stable as we want them to be.

I’m going to wait until this season (and series) is over before I write a long form, reflective essay on Lights, synthesizing my many thoughts and feelings about it from over the years. But in the meantime, here’s an excerpt from a piece I recently wrote for Relevant magazine’s Sept/Oct cover story (“5 Shows Saving TV“):

Lights is a show about contemporary life. Small town, Texas life. Drenched in nostalgia, adolescent angst, and Midwestern truisms (Dairy Queen, sports radio, Applebees), the show bursts forth with quotidian drama. The Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning show is elegant, mature American art, at once a soft spoken tone poem–recalling the literary Frontier of Willa Cather, Horton Foote or The Last Picture Show–and a tumultuous tableaux of soap opera with the kinetic Americana of Thomas Hart Benton or Aaron Copland.

But it’s much less high-falutin than that sounds. It’s really just a show about everyday life: family, friends, community–all deeply enmeshed in a culture of Christian values and red state conservatism (Bud Light keggers, church potlucks, and teen pregnancy included). …

Throughout the series, moral dilemmas are the centerpiece of conflict: Should we sleep together? Are steroids ok to use? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor? The show wrestles with thorny topics (issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, vocation, etc) with uncommon grace, but almost never with a didactic “nice tidy lesson” wrap-up. It’s a show that gives reality its messy, unromantic due, even while it almost always tips its hat in the direction of hope.

Though the show’s cast of characters includes an array of teenagers–football players, nerds, cheerleaders, outcasts–the heart of Lights is its centerpiece family: the Taylors. Coach Eric and Principal Tami Taylor (Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) are as good as TV families get. They are the show’s rock. They are a good, loving, shockingly functional American family–not without their faults, but always tender and utterly believable. It’s something of a miracle that a contemporary network television show could so vividly remind us of what is wonderful about families who stay together, struggle together, and grow together. We so often only get the struggle.

What makes Lights so special is that it gives us goodness–in the form of families that rally around each other, communities that still believe in small town heroes, and teenagers who make bad decisions but ultimately strive to do what’s right (as opposed to, say, the amoral adolescents of Gossip Girl type shows).

On an average episode of Lights, Eric and Tami Taylor will have a moment where they sit down together on the couch, or in bed after a long stressful day. They’ll talk about their days, their struggles, their needs. Sometimes they’ll just look at each other and laugh. Sometimes they’ll fight or flirt. It’s a picture of marriage as a partnership and a balm, soothing the struggles of everyday life through companionship.

It’s a metaphor for how life is meant to be lived–in tandem, together, as a team. In football, and in everything else.

Best TV of the 2000s

In 2020, will there be TV anymore? Who knows. But on the off chance that the death of television hasn’t been greatly exaggerated and is indeed imminent, we can at least celebrate the good twilight years that were the 2000s. In case TV fades into oblivion or merges with the Internet or something, this wasn’t such a bad decade to have ended on.

Here are my picks for the best TV shows of the decade:

1) Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-present): This show, based on a movie that was based on a book, became the best adapted television show of all time. More than a high school football show, FNL is beautiful rendered, stunningly mature look at Middle America. It’s close to perfect on almost every level and one of the great dramas of the contemporary network era.

2) Lost (ABC, 2004-present): There’s nothing else like Lost on TV, though there have been plenty of imitators. The Twin Peaks-esque sci-fi mystery show has gotten better in its five seasons, and its time-traveling, shape-shifting perplexities only get more interesting. This is to say nothing of the insanely perfect ensemble cast and memorable characters that have compelled audiences to truly care and watch, sans irony, for all these years.

3) Arrested Development (FOX, 2003-2006): This show might be the most tragically short-lived and under-seen on this list. But it’s also the best comedy. Hands down. If you haven’t seen this show (which launched the careers of people like Michael Cera, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett) you must get on it right away.

4) The Office (NBC, 2005-present): Though the British series is hard to top, the American version (which at 6 seasons is now a much more substantial body of comedy) quickly became one of the best comedies of the decade, capturing the zeitgeist of the YouTube era better than any other show on TV.

5) Mad Men (AMC, 2007-present): This is the show that got hipsters obsessed with television again. It’s a show that has so much indie cred: It’s bleak, sexy, fashionable, 60s lux, and on AMC! But it’s also just really great, nuanced, challenging TV. This show offers television what Don Draper’s vodka offers his martinis: Top shelf quality.

6) 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-present): As richly intertextual and self-reflexive as Arrested Development and with a cast equally as brilliant, 30 Rock just might be the comedy that saves NBC. It’s been a slow gainer since its low-rated first season, but it’s only gotten better with time.

7) The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008): I read something once that said that after watching The Wire, there’s no way anyone could watch CSI: Miami without stabbing their eyes out with a fork. And I think that’s about accurate. The Wire is HBO’s verite show about urban life in Baltimore, and though I’ve only seen the first two of its five seasons, I can understand why the critics frequently hail it as one of the best television shows of all time. It’s gritty, prestige TV of the finest order.

8) American Idol (Fox, 2002-present): This is the show that has dominated the decade in ratings and reality TV trends. After Idol came all the other dancing, performing, talent shows. But Idol’s contribution was also to the emerging landscape of “convergence” television in general—perfecting the art of audience interactivity, product placement, and trans-media storytelling (a live show, a concert tour, single available on iTunes, etc). It’s not Citizen Kane or anything, but it’s a ridiculously well-oiled machine of moneymaking pop entertainment. And I applaud that.

9) Friends (NBC, 1994-2004): Yes, this show was on in the 2000s, and while it might not have been the best years for the show, it was still pretty darn good post-Y2K. By the end the six “friends” had become icons getting $1 million a piece for each episode. The show was THAT huge.

10) Laguna Beach (MTV, 2004-2006): Before The Hills became a parody of the genre, there was the exquisitely rendered, truly original reality/soap hybrid Laguna Beach. Its celebration of conspicuous consumption and rich white American youth ushered in a new era for MTV and the youth culture at large. Real teens acting like actors playing real teens, driving Range Rovers and wearing Stella McCartney coats… GREAT TV.

Honorable Mention: The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Chapelle’s Show, Da Ali G Show, Dexter, South Park, Rome, Prison Break.

Friday Night Lights Season Four Kicks Off

The fourth season of Friday Night Lights premiers tomorrow night on the 101 channel of DirecTV (for those of us fortunate to have DirecTV… I bought mine solely for FNL). I urge you to watch it if you can! Find someone with DirecTV! Or search for it online. Or wait until 2011 and watch it on NBC. Just don’t miss it!

I still marvel at the number of people I know who have yet to see an episode of this fantastic show. These are people who like Mad Men and Lost and appear to know good TV when they see it. Alas, they’ve somehow missed what is certainly one of the best shows on television.

Well it hasn’t been because of any lack of promotion on my part. Over the years, I’ve written numerous blog posts and articles about this show. Among the things I’ve said:

“Every now and then a network show comes along that redefines the medium’s artistic horizons and proves that cinema has no monopoly on forward-thinking style in the world of moving images. Lights is such a show… Beyond the technical aspects, perhaps the chief appeal of Lights is that it is not condescending to middle America, even while it relishes in pointing out its quirks and contradictions. For those of us who hail from (and adore) the sprawling rural midsection of this country, it’s rare to see a portrayal that gets it so right.” (“Still the Brightest Light on TV“)

“This show—unlike most other hour-long dramas on TV—is not about plot twists and cliffhangers. Its greatness comes from how mundane it is—how it captures subtle beauty in the everyday occurrences of this sleepy little Texas town.” (“Friday Night Lights is Back“)

“When I think about Friday Night Lights, I think about my memories, and I think about my hopes. But I also think of Thomas Hart Benton, the plains, adolescence, Aaron Copland, thunderstorms, Dairy Queen, and struggle. Not many T.V. shows (or anything really) stir up such a complex array of emotions or feel so utterly relatable.” (“Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights“)

Anyway, in case you remain unconvinced, here is a sampling of some of the endless raves reviews critics have given Friday Night Lights over the past three years:

Tom Shales, Washington Post

“Extraordinary in just about every conceivable way—but especially in the quality of its cast… “Friday Night Lights” is great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV.”

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

“With any luck, popular success will follow the critical, because pretty much everyone who sees “Friday Night Lights” falls hard. With its fuzzy lighting and slow-as-a-summer-night cadence, it’s the antithesis of many of the slick hyper-dramas ruling the airways. It attempts to show life for folks who live without a freeway or a subway, complete with ugly violence and choked-back silence.”

Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Friday Night Lights is not good. It’s great… If viewers get over their preconceived notions about what they think this series is about and actually give it a shot, they’ll be as stunned as everyone else.”

Adam Buckman, New York Post

“The best live-action show about contemporary life in America that is currently on the air.”

Robert Bianco, USA Today

“Lights has a rare ability to portray life in small-town America without being condescending or sentimental.”

Bill Simmons, ESPN

“It’s the greatest sports-related show ever made… Every nuance is nailed, every hug seems genuine, every fight makes sense, every sarcastic barb and flustered reaction ring true. If there are better TV actors than Kyle Chandler (Coach) and Connie Britton (Mrs. Coach), I haven’t TiVoed them.”

Matt Roush, TV Guide

“Friday Night Lights moves me like no other show. It reminds me of where I came from and of what it truly means to keep one’s eye on the ball. And yet, as wrenching as the show can be, it’s also terrifically entertaining, with plenty of dry wit, edge-of-the-seat suspense, sexy romance and even the occasional laugh-out-loud moment.”

Maureen Ryan, Chicago Tribune

“I not only think it’s the best show on network television, I also think it’s as good as The Wire… This extraordinary drama lets us peek inside the lives and the minds of people who aren’t any different than we are, who are struggling with the mundane and major problems of real life. And it’s done with such subtlety, surprising wit and grace, that at the end of every hour, I devoutly wish it wasn’t over.”

American Film Institute—Television show of the year (2006):

“FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a celebration of America – its hopes and dreams, its heart and its heartland. Rare is the show that presents family and faith in such an authentic way – rich with emotion and illuminated by the pulse-quickening thrill of football. Peter Berg’s small town tale is one with community at its core, but universal in scope – the struggle of winning and losing, the drive to reach for more and the challenge of seeing a future beyond the glare of Friday night’s lights.”

Peabody Award (2006):

“No dramatic series, broadcast or cable, is more grounded in contemporary American reality than this clear eyed serial about the hopes, dreams, livelihoods and egos intertwined with the fate of high-school football in a Texas town.”

If you are still unconvinced to at least give this show a try, then I don’t know what to say. You’re missing out!

Why You Should Watch Friday Night Lights

I was born and raised on the banks of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a sandy and humid spot to grow up—full of pecan trees and azaleas and armadillos. People were nice, and most everyone seemed to be working hard to support their families and maybe earn enough to put in a below-ground pool. And football was huge. From elementary school on up, it was the thing to do.

I remember some great Friday nights when I was about 10, watching our local high school team (the Jenks Trojans) playing at their stadium across the bridge, on the other side of the river. On Fridays at school, everyone wore school colors (maroon), and there were occasionally pep rallies. Sometimes the high school players would come in their jerseys and make an appearance at an elementary school assembly. We all thought that was pretty cool.

Looking back on it now, it’s all pretty distant and quaint. Like all memories of childhood, it occupies a place that is equal parts nostalgia, wonder, and elegy. I think it was the hope of those days—the excitement of the “big kids” and how one day I would be that old too—that lingers so pleasantly and so tenderly in my mind. Knowing what I know now, however—that I am that old, that those high school days have come and gone with furious expediency, that my schoolmates are now married and fathers and soldiers and doctors and grad students—I can’t help but to see it all through a bittersweet lens.

Things change. We grow up. The glory days of youth live for the majority of our lives in our memory.

For all these reasons, but chiefly because it is just an amazingly well done piece of art, the show Friday Night Lights (season 3 premiering on NBC, Friday night 9/8pm) has become my favorite show on television. By a long shot.

It’s a show that is about life, and growth, and how each of us copes with the challenges and setbacks and everyday things that define the duration of existence. I could go on and on about its technical merits, the impressive talents of its cast, the caliber of the writing, and so on, but I’ve written about all that stuff before and so have others. My friend David Kern summed it up nicely on his blog recently.

When I think about Friday Night Lights, I think about my memories, and I think about my hopes. But I also think of Thomas Hart Benton, the plains, adolescence, Aaron Copland, thunderstorms, Dairy Queen, and struggle. Not many T.V. shows (or anything really) stir up such a complex array of emotions or feel so utterly relatable.

Tonight I will be watching the season finale of FNL’s DirecTV season 3 run. But starting Friday, I’ll also be watching it on NBC. Season 3 is phenomenal. If you have never seen the show, you should set your DVRs now. If you have been watching seasons 1 and 2, your DVRs are doubtless already set. I don’t know what else I can say to get you to watch this Peabody Award-winning show. I can say “it’s not about football!” fifty times or throw down 500 more words about how eloquent, earnest, good-hearted, perceptive and shockingly subtle it all is.

But I don’t want to cram it down your throat. You can just know that you’re missing out.

Friday Night Lights is Back!

It’s true (at least for those of us who have DirecTV!). Television’s most undervalued show began its third season last night on the 101 channel on DirecTV. Fear not, it will be on NBC as well… just not until sometime in early 2009. I admit it: I pretty much bought DirecTV so I could watch the first run of FNL’s new season. That’s how much I like this show.

The season premiere last night picked up about 9 months after season 2 abruptly ended (curse you, WGA strike!), with the Dillon Panthers beginning a new season of football and Tami Taylor (the wonderful Connie Britton) assuming the role of principal of Dillon High. What a smart move on the part of the writers! Put Tami even more front and center. She is the best asset of a uniformly outstanding cast.

I won’t go into any other plot details (for those who want to wait and experience it fresh on NBC in a few months), but I will say that it looks to be more of a “back to basics” season, which is welcome after last season’s slightly off-kilter melodrama (murder! Cover-up!). After all, this show—unlike most other hour-long dramas on TV—is not about plot twists and cliffhangers. Its greatness comes from how mundane it is—how it captures subtle beauty in the everyday occurrences of this sleepy little Texas town.

And whereas TV’s other great drama (Mad Men) can sometimes feel too nihilistic for its own good, FNL is guardedly optimistic about life. It finds the goodness in its characters and roots for them to fight off their personal demons. Other shows seem to take devious pleasure in documenting their characters’ downfalls; FNL acknowledges that yes, sometimes we are our own worst enemies, but the real drama in life is not when we fall—but when we gradually get up again, with the help of our loved ones and community.

And ultimately, Friday Night Lights is about community. The show is remarkably in tune with the mythos of American small town life (in a respectful, rather than condescending, manner). Every time I watch it I feel like I’m back in Oklahoma, fifteen years ago, when I was a kid at the local high school’s Friday night football games. It reminds me of the sorts of towns I grew up in, which maybe explains why I’m such a huge fan.

But I also think anyone can relate to the show. The family dynamics of the Taylor clan are enough to hook anyone with a soul. If you haven’t already, please watch Season 1 on DVD. You’ll see what I–and pretty much every other American critic–is going on and on about.

Can Anything Save TV?

Watching the Primetime Emmy Awards this Sunday night (well, “watching” is a generous word… it was on my TV at least) was kind of like watching John McCain try to convince America that he invented the BlackBerry.

It was laughable and sad.

Coming off of the dangerously-close-to-fatal WGA strike that soured many of us on the television, this year’s Emmy’s really couldn’t expect to get gangbuster ratings. And predictably, the audiences did not turn out. It was the least-viewed Emmy show since 1990 (a paltry 12.2 million people watched the 3 hour show). Chalk it up to the insignificance of the event that I, a scholar of and apologist for television, didn’t know the Emmy’s were even on until I turned on the television Sunday night.

Alas, it was a horrible, horrible three hours of TV. From the painful quintet of reality show hosts (Ryan Seacrest, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Heidi Klum and Tom Bergeron) to Josh Groban’s kitschy medley of TV show theme songs, it was bad news. You had director Barry Sonnenfeld saying, “love TV and fear the Internet,” which was a pathetic cry for help from an aging old media relic. Then there was all the predictable political nonsense, with Martin Sheen rambling about voting practices and various other people putting in their appeals for America to get smart and vote Democrat. Add to it some humdrum Laugh In segment and some inexplicable appearances from Oprah and Lauren Conrad, and we had one highly unfortunate hot mess of an Emmys.

But in spite of the apathy most of America rightfully showed toward television’s “biggest night,” I do have to say that, for the most part, I was happy with who won awards. AMC’s Mad Men is indeed the best drama on television right now, not counting Friday Night Lights (which comes back in NBC in January and DirecTV next week!). And NBC’s 30 Rock is indeed the best comedy. I was happy to see it win so many awards… maybe now (please, people!) it will gain some much-needed viewers. Better late than never, I’d say. But—and this goes for all of TV—it appears that “never” is looming ever closer on the horizon for this medium in the twilight of its life.