Part 21: Friday Night Lights...Grow Dim
Since last Friday night I've been in a funk. Actually I'd call it more than a funk—I'm downright depressed. Over the past five years I've had the opportunity to visit Texas (i.e. the homeland) each Friday night, at least vicariously, thanks to the producers of Friday Night Lights—arguably the best program on TV. (Yes, my Chicago brethren, it was indeed better than Mad Men.) However, last Friday evening this remarkable program concluded with a breathtaking, if somewhat understated, series finale.
Like a teenager anxiously anticipating the latest Twilight or Harry Potter movies, I waited patiently over many months to learn the fates of (coach) Eric and (high school counselor) Tami Taylor, the shows protagonists, as well as many other unforgettable characters from fictional Dillon, Texas. Now that it's over I am left with an emptiness that I cannot seem to fill regardless of the countless programs available on more than 500 cable TV channels.
Neither my ever-growing stack of books on my nightstand nor my massive Netflix queue can fill this void. The only possible palliative my feeble mind can conjure is to purchase all five seasons of Friday Night Lights on DVD. In truth, however, now that it's over a second viewing wouldn't be the same either. I already know what happens; I've already experienced the emotions and enjoyed the ride. A roller coaster is never really quite as good on the second trip once you know all its twists and turns.
Friday Night Lights (FNL) was based on journalist Buzz Bissinger's best selling non-fiction book and the subsequent film of the same name, directed by the author's second cousin, Peter Berg. Bissinger's engaging narrative offers an authentic—and often quite harsh—sociological portrait of Odessa's Permian High School football team and the obsessive, myopic, parochial—and acutely racist—culture that surrounded it. More than two decades later, Bissinger's book is regarded as a classic. Football is secondary to the oppressive culture that surrounds and obsesses over it. Still, in spite of all the bigotry, misdirected priorities and cultural ugliness depicted by Bissinger, readers will find themselves rooting for the team and its diverse cast of characters.
Berg transformed his film version for television and created a rich, fictional adaptation with characters rooted in the Texas archetypes from Bissinger's book. He smoothed over most of the rough edges, especially the ugly racism from the book, without sacrificing any authenticity. In spite of their occasional ugliness and misplaced priorities, Berg's characters—from coaches and players to boosters and school officials—are always authentic and multidimensional. For instance, consider "the booster," Buddy Garrity. Unlike so many one-dimensional villains from movies and TV shows of the this genre, Garrity, a prototypical obsessive high school football booster and former player (nee, former state championship football player) is tenderly portrayed as a complex, real character. Always overbearing and often misdirected—and frequently manipulative—Garrity turns out to be a warm-hearted guy who occasionally does the right thing against all odds.
What I miss most, however, is the authenticity of FNL—especially with respect to its depiction of Texas and Texans. Filmed on location in Austin, FNL had the true look, feel and sounds of home. Moreover, like real life in Texas, the small, intimate dramas of suburban life are punctuated with scenes from epic battles on the football field. Indeed, football is the cultural glue that binds Texans to their communities and to one another, whether it's Friday night at the local high school (go Duncanville Panthers), Saturday afternoon at the nearby college campus (go SMU Mustangs), or Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. (Of note: Houston has a third rate NFL expansion team, but like most things from Houston I prefer to ignore its existence.)
Sounds from the football field create the soundtrack to our lives as Texans—at least from August through January. The clashing of helmets and shoulder pads and the banging of drums coupled with the flare of trumpets and trombones emanating from the marching band in the corner combine with cheers and chants and the roar of the crowd to create a dissonant, staccato symphony that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever attended a game, whether at Darrel K. Royal Stadium in Austin or Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, not to mention the thousands of high school stadiums from the Piney Woods of East Texas to the Llano Estacado out west. This may sound odd, if not downright silly to Yankees and other non-Texans, but most Lone Star natives will likely understand and agree with my sentiments. For this homesick Texpatriate in Chicago, FNL helped fill that silence each Friday night.
"Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over"
Now that FNL has concluded its run on TV I have to look for something to replace my sixty minute psychic sojourn to West Texas football stadiums each week. With the Longhorn Network—a new cable channel devoted to all things UT—about to launch plus the return of J.R. and Bobby Ewing of TV's Dallas on TNT next year, I will have plenty of Lone Star replacements for Friday Night Lights. Yet, somehow I already know that nothing will be quite as good.