“Friday Night Lights” Hits Home as Bob Dylan Turns 80
By Stuart Mitchner
Close your eyes. Pretend you’re 10 years old. Playing. Just playing.
—from Friday Night Lights
Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time.
—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles
Picture two people in a pasture with some cows, a line of pink light balanced on the horizon. Move in closer and you see a high school football coach and his wife. The toxic spillover of a train derailment and an explosion has cost the coach home field advantage, an absolute necessity for the upcoming game that will decide whether his team goes to the state finals. He’s refused the emergency option of a big stadium with all the amenities, an offer tainted by big money, bribery, and corruption. Mainly, he knows what home field means. So, two days before the game, he decides to convert the pasture into a makeshift stadium, with arc lights, stands, scoreboard, end zones, goal posts, everything. Clearly an impossibility, but he’s a determined man. His wife has doubts and questions. “Where would people park? And how would you put lights in here?” Coach says he doesn’t know, doesn’t care. When a cow moos, he takes it as a show of support. “All I’m tryin’ to do,” he says, and suddenly he knows what he wants to say, it’s what the moment’s all about, the heart of the matter. “Come here,” he says. When she’s within whispering distance, he holds her face in both hands, tells her to close her eyes and pretend she’s 10 years old. Just playing. Just playing….
What Hit Home
Playing! That’s the word that hit home for me and brought back the essence of play, as in playing ball, 10 years old, me and my friends, as it was and seemed it would surely always be, just us, no adults, no coaches, no parents, no pressure (no cows). Just kids having fun, with a football in fall, a baseball in summer, using scuffed up, grass-stained balls and a few Louisville Sluggers with black friction tape around the handles and nothing but the rough sketch of an infield to play on in a onetime pasture with an old barn at one end and on the bluff beyond it the Illinois Central railroad tracks. We were still playing in the fading daylight right up to the moment parents called or whistled us home. That was before the adult-monitored, organized competition of Babe Ruth or Little League, or in high school, where, if you were lucky you had a coach like the one in Peter Berg’s series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011).
When my wife and I landed in the football-crazy West Texas town of Dillon on a Hulu rebound from Harlots, I didn’t expect to be bringing Shakespeare and Melville to the game, let alone Bob Dylan and Brood X cicadas. Nor did I expect to find anything as stirring as the scene in the pasture that comes toward the end of the epic 22-episode first season of Friday Night Lights that debuted on NBC in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But once you begin to ponder terms like play and playing in the context of a show that does rich justice to the human comedy, chances are you’ll find yourself thinking of heavy hitters like the creators of Falstaff and Ahab. In the two seasons I’ve seen so far, there’s a Shakespearean sense of life and play everywhere, whether by way of the coach and his wife, Eric and Tami Taylor, as played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton — one of the most believably embattled, amusingly complicated couples in the history of series television — or through the plight of a fallen hero, quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), struck down in the opening episode, only one among the show’s star-crossed friends and lovers, schemers and dreamers, like the Falstaffian rogue Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), who becomes more lovable the more he sins and looks for redemption. At this point in the series, probably the closest to an As You Like It, What You Will, Midsummer Night’s Dream threesome is the one bonded and shattered, bound and unbound in love and friendship, composed of Jason, his best friend Tim (Taylor Kitsch), a moody, updated less histrionic James Dean who can’t catch a break, and Buddy’s troubled daughter Lyla (Minka Kelly), the cheerleader with a broken heart of gold.
Breakfast with Ahab
As for Melville, he enters the series pilot with the coach’s 15-year-old daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden), who’s reading Moby-Dick at the breakfast table and telling her parents it’s actually “the perfect metaphor for this town … The cold black sea representing the season in all its uncertainties. The magical white whale is the Holy Grail. … State championship. The boat, I mean, the whalers are the team, right?” And when her dad asks if that makes him Coach Ahab, she says, “Absolutely. Coach, captain, hunter, hunted. Driven to catch what may be uncatchable.”
And who else but Ahab Eric, the classic coach, fighter, father, husband, would imagine converting a pasture into a regulation football field in under two days, put his crew to work making it happen, and then watch them slog through the deciding game in a downpour that turns the field of dreams to a muddy swamp. It’s not clear whether he invented the team’s rallying cry, “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose!” but he embodies it.
Bob Dylan enters the picture with starting quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Jason’s seemingly hapless replacement. When Jason is asked by Coach Taylor if he thinks QB2 is up to the task, the answer is that he’s “different,” but cool: “he listens to Bob Dylan.” Although we don’t see or hear Matt listening to Dylan in the first two seasons, he makes a pivotal move late in the series to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” according to Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall.
Even though I have three seasons to go, I’m writing now while the pasture scene that inspired this column is still fresh in my mind. Such is the ain’t-no-use-to sit-and-wonder-why reality of binge viewing.
I’d been listening to Dylan’s song “Day of the Locusts,” and thinking the cicadas were “singing their high whining trill” for him even before I found out Monday was his 80th birthday. From his 1970 album New Morning, the song is based on the emergence of the great-grandparents of Brood X when Dylan was in Princeton 51 years ago to receive an honorary degree. For someone who writes and sings the world his way, it doesn’t really matter that the locusts singing “off in the distance” were actually cicadas, which scan no less smoothly if you make it “And the cicadas sang, yeah, it give me a chill.”
What’s worth mentioning is the contrast between the song’s positive energy and Dylan’s downbeat account of the ceremony in Chronicles, which was published in 2004, putting him in synch with the cicadas’ 17-year time frame, and so he is again now, hitting the big 80 right on schedule. In the book there’s no mention of the “sweet melody” of the locusts/cicadas, nothing about how the sound gave him a chill. What comes through loud and clear is his discomfort, with the heat, the cap and gown, and above all his reaction to the wording of the citation (“Oh sweet Jesus! It was like a jolt!”), presenting him as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned consciousness of Young America.”
On the Horizon Line
“Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the last song on his last album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is the one I keep coming back to, haunted by lines like “If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there … Key West is on the horizon line … You stay to the left and then you lean to the right … I play both sides against the middle.”
The way he moves the lyric also reminds me of the deceptively careless wayward movement of the prose in Chronicles, which concludes as if looking ahead to 2004, with reference to how the “national psyche would change and in a lot of ways it would resemble the Night of the Living Dead. The road out would be treacherous, and I didn’t know where it would lead but I followed it anyway. It was a strange world ahead that would unfold, a thunderhead of a world with jagged lightning edges. Many got it wrong and never did get it right. I went straight into it. It was wide open. One thing for sure, not only was it not run by God, but it wasn’t run by the devil either.”
The “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra the Dillon players chant before each game in Friday Night Lights is barely audible blowing around in the “idiot wind” of 2021’s Big Lie. Peter Berg’s series is less about winning than sustaining a clear-eyed vision of truth and integrity, playing by the rules, being there for your parents or children or friends or siblings. Seen now, it’s like a mirror held up to the distorted face of the nation. As the song says, “We’re idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”