Up Close and Inspirational — The Spirit of “Friday Night Lights”
By Stuart Mitchner
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Friday Night Lights is that it is painfully, breathtakingly realistic and yet also exists as some sort of platonic ideal of what human beings can be ….
—Will Leitch, introducing A Friday Night Lights Companion
When Peter Berg pitched Friday Night Lights to NBC executives in 2006, he accentuated the negative: “I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him …. And he’s going to break his neck in the first game. We’re going to create this iconic American hero, and we’re going to demolish him.”
Berg is quoted in “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose” (a variation on the Dillon, Texas Panthers’ pregame mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”), an oral history compiled by Robert Mays on grantland.com and posted July 28, 2011. Mays describes the series as the “story of a high school football coach from Dillon, whose improbable victories mirrored those of the critically beloved — but disastrously rated — show itself. In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights (FNL) 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.”
That was “our Country” a decade ago.
“Say It’s Hot!”
When the FNL pilot was screened at NBC for high level executives along with scheduling and publicity staffers, people were cheering and clapping; as the lights came up the head of marketing said, “This is a great pilot, but I really don’t know how we’re going to sell this.”
“Sometimes we would get these great reviews, and we’d joke about them in the writers’ room,” commented show runner and head writer Jason Katims. “They’d be comparing us to a prose poem. … to an opera. Just say it’s sexy and raw! Say it’s hot!”
For Brad Leland, who plays Dillon Panthers super booster Buddy Garrity, “The moment that critics from New York to L.A. loved the show, I knew we were doomed.”
Peter Berg thought football was “probably the least interesting part of the show. Watching Buddy Garrity try to stay sober and get a JumboTron named after him was much more interesting to me. I don’t get a lot of kids coming up to me to say, ‘Oh, the football rocks.’ The show will be remembered more as one about a marriage than one about football.”
Connie Britton (Tami Taylor, Dillon High guidance counselor and the coach’s wife) agreed. Responding to the way FNL was being marketed, she said, “It’s a show about community and family and the way people interact with each other. And how do you just whittle that down into a teeny-tiny poster?”
According to Berg, “The episode when the show sort of found itself was the Mud Bowl, when they couldn’t play in the stadium, so Kyle Chandler’s character [Coach Eric Taylor] went out and found that field. There’s a great moment where Kyle and Connie Britton are just alone in the field, and he starts walking it off, and there’s these wild bulls around them. We’re sitting there thinking, ‘This is why we do it. This is what it should be.’ That’s when something inside me clicked.”
Berg’s talking about the scene that inspired my May 26 column (“Friday Night Lights Hits Home”), and before I go any further I have to say that had those placid ruminating cows really been “wild bulls,” the coach and his wife would have beaten a slapstick retreat rather than sharing one of FNL’s finest moments.
What struck me the first time I saw the sequence, along with the pastoral setting, the cows, and the rising sun, is the way Chandler plays it: the coach trying to impress on his wife the appeal of playing football on a makeshift field instead of in a stadium; he’s holding her face in both hands, telling her to close her eyes and pretend she’s 10 years old again, “playing, just playing.” She’s listening, smiling, eyes still tightly closed when he kisses her, moved by her look of child-like expectation — it’s as if she really were 10 again and they were kissing on the schoolyard. What comes together in that moment is the way his love of the idea becomes one with his love of the person whose response means the most to him.
At this point, 20 episodes into the first season, we care about these people, their lives matter to us, we’ve come to know and pull for this attractive, believably unglamorous, down to earth, middle-aged couple, and now here we are with them, close-up, on that special morning.
When Kyle Chandler was first suggested for the part, Berg was underwhelmed, remembering the actor from another series, too handsome, too pretty; but then they met for lunch: “He rode up on a motorcycle. He’d been drinking for two days with his buddies. He had a beard and bags under his eyes. He was clearly hung-over …. and I just said, “ ‘You look like a Texas high school football coach!’ ”
More Than a Wife
As Tami Taylor, Connie Britton plays a coach of sorts herself in her role as the school’s guidance counselor, a job she does so well that she becomes Dillon High School’s principal in the second season, taking over as the real “head coach” — her husband’s boss. She and Brad Leyland are the only two actors in the series who also had roles in Peter Berg’s 2004 film, based on H.G. Bissinger’s book (DaCapo 2000), she as the coach’s wife and Leyland as the pushy, impassioned booster. In both cases, the characters played were shadows of the fully developed ones in FNL, the series. Britton made sure of that herself by demanding something more meaningful than, in Berg’s words, playing “the Pretty Wife Clapping in the Stands.” She didn’t sign on until Berg assured her: “We’ll give you a job. We’ll give you dimensions. We’ll give you a real voice.”
A Marriage of Equals
At first Berg was worried because Britton and Chandler “developed a very flirtatious, precocious relationship right off the bat.” When they announced they were going to drive to Austin together from L.A., Berg considered it “a horrible idea.” But they ignored him: “Connie dismissively told me she knew what she was doing and she didn’t need my advice. I was convinced they would be having some torrid affair by the time they reached Santa Fe and Kyle’s marriage would be over by the time they got to Austin. I was wrong about that, thank God.”
Said Britton, “We met on set the first day of shooting and we just started talking about how we envisioned it: the marriage, the characters, and we just absolutely agreed, a hundred percent across the board.”
Executive Producer Sarah Aubrey remembers the early scene “where they have the entire team over, and Kyle’s given Connie no notice that this is happening. They have the huge fight, and they’re whisper-fighting under the table. They’re so furious with each other, and it’s so real. Even though they want to rip each other’s throats out, you know they love each other. It’s all there.”
Looking “Inside Ourselves”
The pilot episode’s “demolishing” of the star quarterback immediately creates a situation befitting a series grounded in character and moral stamina, not least the challenge faced by Jason Street (Scott Porter), the fallen, quadriplegic high school football hero who struggles, despairs, suffers, masters wheelchair rugby, fathers a child, and ultimately comes to terms with his lot.
More important, it’s in the hushed aftermath of the accident that we hear the voice that above all others speaks for the series, its abiding and undiminished spirit. The whole gaudy glittering opening night scene — cheerleaders leaping about/band playing/crowd cheering — has been shut down in a shock-and-awe instant. Someone needs to make a statement worthy of the occasion, and the coach comes through with a thoughtful, straightforward impromptu prayer created on the spot for everyone, players on both teams, people in the crowd, and television viewers everywhere:
“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives … fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts … that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.”
Chandler weighs the words, making the silences speak, as he does with the pause between “in our lives” and “fall,” and when he says the words, to look inside ourselves, we’re being given a preview of all the come-from-behind moments he inspires on and off the field. Besides shining a light on the heart of the show, the last sentence could serve as a caption to each of its numerous, wisely placed, perfectly timed close-ups, one of the series’ absolutes.
Feeling Like Life
In his introduction to A Friday Night Lights Companion, Will Leitch refers to how the show “has often been praised for its unflinching handling of hot-button issues like abortion, racism, and war,” but finds the phrase “hot button” crass, “an insult to the show.” As an example, he suggests that if someone in your family is contemplating an abortion, you think of it as a family issue, “dealt with in personal terms, privately.” Mentioning a specific episode involving a character played with great charm by Madison Burge, he says Friday Night Lights “made me feel like I was on the inside … part of the family … more a part of real life than actually being a part of real life….” Terming it an example of “what great art can do,” he says a large part of the genius of the series “is that it never seems like art, and would never be as powerful and moving if it did…No, it feels like life, the way we would like to imagine life is…full of huge-hearted, achingly human characters wrestling with tragedy, with fear, with pain, … and ultimately winning.”
We watched Friday Night Lights on Hulu. Check online for other possibilities. The entire series is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.