5
Oct
2011
Marathoning
Friday Night Lights
Rachel
Marathoning explores what happens when you remove the serial quality from a television show or film series and instead become a habitual binge-watcher. Is something lost when you watch every episode of a show in a single weekend? Is something gained when you explore a set of movies that originally spanned a decade in one night? How do you wrap your brain around an entire body of work without diluting it, or drowning in it?

1999-2006, created by Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, David Nevins

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Aimee Teegarden, Zach Gilford, Jesse Plemons, Adrianne Palicki, Minka Kelly, Scott Porter, Gaius Charles, Matt Lauria, Michael B. Jordan, Jurnee Smollett, Madison Burge, Brad Leland, Derek Phillips, Louanne Stephens

Episodes: 76
Marathon time elapsed: 12 days

As per usual, I was late hopping on the Friday Night Lights bandwagon. I am a Jersey girl who went to a high school where the Model UN team out-performed the football team. I mean, my college didn't even have a football team. So I just couldn't see how a show about Texas high school football would appeal to me at all.

But over the years, despite the show's mediocre ratings, Friday Night Lights managed to accrue critical acclaim and a vociferous and dedicated cult following, two things that typically mark a show I'll like. When Kyle Chandler won his Emmy this year, I responded flippantly, joking "That Emmy says "˜O hey, sorry your show couldn't stay on the air, here, take this shiny thing instead.'" Then I felt sort of guilty, because Chandler was pretty adorable in his speech.



So I finally gave in and did what I'd been saying I was going to do for a while. It didn't hurt that Netflix had recently thrown every season up on Instant Watch. And thus a marathon was born. Five minutes into the pilot and I was hooked. Ask Jordan.



Friday Night Lights tells the saga of the Dillon, Texas football program. The series starts with the much-hyped season of the Dillon Panthers, a team whose fans are zealots, to say the very least. This town lives and dies by the success of its team. Friday night games are religious observances, attended with a fervor and intensity that is at first (for me, anyway) difficult to understand, but by the end of the series, is difficult to resist. Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is the town's new head coach, taking over Texas' number one team after years as a QB coach for the town prodigy, Jason Street (Scott Porter). Street's best friend Tim Riggins (a superb Taylor Kitsch. More on him later.) is the hard-hitting fullback, and Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) completes the trifecta that has the world of high school football abuzz. But in the first game, Street takes a devastating hit, suffering a serious neck injury that winds up leaving him paralyzed. The team and the town are crushed, seeing their dreams of a successful season go up in smoke as the second string QB Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who never saw any field time and spent most of practices running various errands for coaches, takes over for the golden boy, woefully out of place and confused.



Watching Street recuperating from his injury is absolutely devastating. Seeing someone torn down at the pinnacle of his prowess is heartbreaking, seeing Jason's hope grow and waiver, his dreams readjust, is an emotional trial that the show handles deftly and realistically. His convalescence also functions to really pull out the character of the people around him, most notably his girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and Riggins. Lyla is a saccharine sweet good girl who stands by Jason every step of the way (at first, at least), holding his hand and constantly reassuring him that everything is going to be ok. Tim, on the other hand, is completely devastated by Jason's injury. His stunted emotional upbringing leaves him totally unable to process his feelings, most of which are saturated in a sense of extreme guilt caused by his belief that he could have, somehow, prevented Jason's injury. This guilt keeps him from visiting Jason for a large period of time while in the hospital and sends Tim into a self-destructive downward spiral of drinking and generally dangerous behavior. The emotion of the situation also drives Lyla and Tim together, and they carry out a secret affair that ultimately blows up in their faces and causes Jason to attack Tim, the entire Dillon student body to harass Lyla, and sends Jason into a tailspin.



It is the philosophy behind this storyline that remains consistent throughout the show and keeps me hooked to the series. Things are not always pretty, and are very rarely simple. Jason can hope and mope at the same time; Lyla can love Jason and feel connected to Tim simultaneously; Tim can be his own worst enemy, a degenerate and a white knight wrapped in one. Because they're teenagers, after all, coming to terms with who they are. And because they're people, not cardboard cutouts, with multiples facets and nuances and conflicting interests, who do things they know they shouldn't and are driven by things they don't necessarily understand. The major strength of Friday Night Lights, what kept me watching despite the repetition of practice, build up, and game that, with a weaker handle on human character would have become very boring very quickly, is it's ability to balance character development with realistic consistency. Yes, the characters change and grow, particularly the ones like Riggins, Saracen, the Taylors, and everyone else who stays on throughout the entire run of the series. But what becomes even more apparent during marathoning is their consistency. Tim lays out his "Texas Forever" plan less than halfway through the pilot. And that plan is what drives him throughout the series, what keeps him going and, sometimes, unfortunately, holds him back. But ultimately that goal is what helps him get his life together. The bonds established between the various rosters are fantastically realistic: the teammates go from being best friends to rivals to ambivalent acquaintances in a way indicative of most testosterone-fueled, hot headed teenage boys who have been conditioned by a town of admirers to consider themselves gods among men. They come together stirringly when they need to, they fight when they should, and they don't fall into the trap of usual shows centered around teams or similar groups that involves everyone becoming best friends. The audience never forgets that this is a show about teenagers: they're properly annoying when they should be (I'm looking at you, Julie Taylor), angsty and emotional, and ever changing.

In every show that proves a successful marathon, I usually seize on one character and pick him (or, much less often, her) out as my major connection to the show. For Friday Night Lights, that character is, undoubtedly, Tim Riggins. The opening of the first episode is pretty representative of his arc over the course of the entire show: he wakes up, half naked and half drunk, and then gets thrown to the ground by a bunch of people, but somehow manages to pick himself up and do it again. Tim is fantastic, not only for his tendency to look constantly disheveled (I don't think he ever once manages to have his shirt more than half tucked in throughout the entire series) and brooding in the most adorable way possible, but also for his silent gallantry tinged in his innate tendency to not care at all about what people think of him. In his own weird way Tim always manages to do the right thing. He falls in love quickly and is almost always punished for it. He is surprisingly chivalrous, and yet also manages to be incredibly self-destructive. He is confused and damaged from a lifetime of never being loved the way he should have been, sensitive yet guarded and always putting the people he loves before himself, even as he struggles to figure out how to trust. My personal favorite Tim moments come particularly in seasons two and four, when Tim forms close bonds first with Coach Taylor's daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and then with the daughter of his new landlady (with benefits) Becky (Madison Burge).

It would be easy to make Tim into a total degenerate who uses and abuses, continuing the cycle of his own miserable upbringing. But Tim is much more than that, a boy with a heart that is clearly too big and that has the tendency to get him into serious trouble, who watches Oprah and goes the extra mile to make sure people are safe and happy and secure, which he'll do on his way to picking up a six pack. I mean, the boy goes to prison to protect his deadbeat brother Billy and give him the chance to be a proper father to his new son. Very few people would do that. But Tim has a tendency to put everyone else before himself, despite the parallel tendency of those around him to constantly put him last and think the absolute worst of him. Tim would make a fantastic older brother, and, I imagine, an even better father, driven by that impetus of people with shitty parents, to be better than what they came from. And while typically the audience would be desperate for Tim to get out of Dillon, to overcome his obstacles and become a "better person," the show ultimately lets Tim be Tim, establishing himself in Dillon, buying the land he is so inextricably tied to, living the simple life he has always dreamed of, proving that you don't need to leave the place you come from to grow up.



Friday Night Lights also manages to overcome a major hurdle for shows centered on high school: replacing it's main cast as students move on and graduate. There is a bit of inconsistency with Riggins' age, and he winds up being younger than we originally expect (or he stays back a year. That would be totally understandable but it's never really explained), but it's a minor glitch in the grand scheme of things (and perfectly acceptable because it keeps Tim around). The first team moves on and a new team comes in, this time led by a new QB prodigy JD McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter). But unlike Jason, who was always kind, polite, and unassuming, McCoy is an unrelenting asshole, first dominated by his awful overbearing football father, before releasing his inner douchebag and becoming your typical hotshot quarterback. McCoy causes troubles for the developing Saracen, proving a crappy leader and an even crappier human being.



When, at the end of season 3, following a disappointing season driven by tensions caused predominantly by McCoy, Dillon splits into two separate high schools, Coach Taylor takes over the East Dillon Lions. East Dillon is, without a doubt, the wrong side of the tracks, but it offers a resurgence of Coach Taylor at his best: molding these boys, making them into something they can be proud of, taking kids who no one believes or invests in and giving them the chance to prove everyone wrong. The new QB Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), is an extraordinary talent dampened by his surroundings, attempting to get out of the perpetual cycle of shit the world has planted him in. And it is Coach Taylor who empowers them to rise above.



From the outset of the series to its end, I have no trouble understanding the loyalty that bonds the team members to Coach Taylor. Chandler plays Taylor perfectly, as a delicate balance of hard-ass football coach and exceedingly understanding, empathetic, and wise human being. He somehow always manages to find the right thing to say without being overtly sappy. He loves his job, loves his players, loves his family. That's what makes Taylor so compelling: he loves his life, even when it's hard, and is always willing to go to bat for the people who mean something to him.



In a town full of dead beat dads and crappy husbands, Coach Taylor remains an outstanding individual, always a refuge for his players in their times of need both on and off the field. It doesn't hurt that the Taylors have the most adorable relationship ever. They aren't your typical TV couple. Yes, more marriages work on TV than they do in the real world. But Dillon is pretty close to the real world. People split up all the time. The Taylors, however, have an incredibly compelling, believable, and enviable connection, one that keeps them together in the good times and even more strongly in the bad. The child of divorce myself, I was always confused by my friends' parents who still actually liked each other. But the Taylors are still deeply in love, and even more so, they're partners in every sense. I'd move to Texas if it meant I could have a relationship as honest and true and amazing as this one.



One of the interesting things about Friday Night Lights is that the characters don't all end up the way you'd expect, or the way you really want them to. But somehow, they end up the way you know they should, if you think about it and give up the typical romanticism that pervades the premature end of a cult favorite show. There is a tendency to end shows like Friday Night Lights, shows with a loyal fan base that, for some reason, never gained significant mainstream support, in a neat and tidy way that makes the core supporters warm and fuzzy as a way of thanking them for sticking with it. But Friday Night Lights doesn't do that. At least not entirely. People have died. People have failed. People have left and never come back. But the town of Dillon, Texas, and its inhabitants, past and present, somehow manage to maintain the tenacity that made their football teams so successful.




The Little Things

-"Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose."

-"I just like to hurt people." Tim Riggins, ladies and gentlemen.

-Minka Kelly. She is pretty awful. Perhaps one of the most frustrating parts of this series is trying to understand why Tim is so perpetually in love with Lyla. But it makes sense, when you think about it, because Lyla represents everything that Tim is not, but is told to be. And he tries to be that for a while, before realizing it isn't really possible for him. But he always carries the torch for the possibility, and therefore remains consistently enamored with the picture-perfect Garrity. That being said, he is super adorable throughout their relationship, giving Lyla the chance to be a real person rather than a golden idol.

-While I marathoned this show, it would definitely survive watching over an extended period of time. Really, you should just watch it, in whatever way you can.

-If I were to spend time in this column on all of the characters I loved, it would never end. Important ones, other than Riggins (who is definitely the apple of my eye) include: Landry, Saracen, Tami, Luke Cafferty, and Becky.

-Ok actually lets talk about Tami for a second. She's pretty baller. Just like Coach Taylor, she is a true educator, investing in her students first as guidance counselor, then as principal, and then again as guidance counselor. She is everything the American educational system needs: invested, involved, willing to go the extra mile to do what's best for students, impervious to cynicism and tenacious. If every school had teachers or staff like the Taylors, I'd have way more faith in the future.

-The cinematography of the show is also fantastic, particularly in the first and final seasons. Interesting angles, shaky, pseudo-documentary camera handling, fast pans and dollies that make you feel like you're right in it.



-Every interview I've seen about this show basically has every actor say the same thing: the environment was one that fostered creativity and growth as a character, actor, and person. Each actor seems really connected with the role they were playing, which is probably why they were all so compelling. Also have I mentioned I love Tim Riggins?


Notable Episodes

Season 1: Ep. 1 "Pilot"; Ep. 6 "El Accidente"; Ep. 10 "It's Different for Girls"; Ep. 11 "Nevermind"; Ep. 14 "Upping the Ante"; Ep. 19 "Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes"; Ep. 22 "State"

Season 2: Ep. 3 "Are You Ready for Friday Night?"; Ep. 4 "Backfire"; Ep. 8 "Seeing Other People"; Ep. 10 "There Goes the Neighborhood"; Ep. 12 "Who Do You Think You Are?"; Ep. 13 "Humble Pie"

Season 3: Ep. 2 "Tami Knows Best"; Ep. 5 "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"; Ep. 6 "It Ain't Being JD McCoy"; Ep. 8 "New York, New York"; Ep. 10 "The Giving Tree"; Ep. 13 "Tomorrow Blues"

Season 4: Ep. 4 "A Sort of Homecoming"; Ep. 5 "The Son"; Ep. 6 "Stay"; Ep. 7 "In the Bag"; Ep. 9 "The Lights in Carroll Park"; Ep. 10 "I Can't"; Ep. 13 "Thanksgiving"

Season 5: Ep. 3 "The Right Hand of the Father"; Ep. 5 "Kingdom"; Ep. 6 "Swerve"; Ep. 8 "Fracture"; Ep. 10 "Don't Go"; Ep. 11 "The March"; Ep. 12 "Texas Whatever"; Ep. 13 "Always"


Need another binge? Check out more Marathoning here
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