The star quarterback throws the football, but it’s intercepted and the only thing the coach can do is to watch. The opposing player runs down the field, charging towards the goal line. Everyone watching the game knows that if he scores that touchdown, the game is over- the Dillon Panthers won’t have another chance for a win. Then BAM! Jason Street, the quarterback that the entire town of Dillon admires like a county god, stops the man in his tracks. Thank god, the Panther have another shot…but Street, having gone down for the tackle isn’t getting back up. Just like that, the star quarterback— perhaps the only player that is keeping the team together— is paralyzed for life. And the only thing the coach can do is to watch.
Coach Eric Taylor, in his first year as the head coach, remains powerless on the sidelines as the world crashes before his eyes. His most talented player gets carried off the field, but he fights on with the hopes that he can win the game with his second string quarterback, Matt Saracen, whose name the town can’t even pronounce properly. Developed by Peter Berg, Friday Night Lights follows the rookie coach tell Matt and the rest of the team, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
At first glance, this TV show is about football and a Middle American town’s obsession with the sport. It clearly paints what influence high school football has on the people involved. But this is just the context- the context does not make a TV show good or bad. Friday Night Lights is a heartwarming, powerful TV show because at second glance, it’s not about football; it’s about a man striving to be a better man and asking those around him to do the same. It strips away the superficiality of a sports film and goes right to the bare bones of the spirit and the heart of what being a man means.
Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he’s gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself.
It is this moment in the pilot when our protagonist realizes that the road isn’t paved for him to win the state championships. With Jason Street, he was expected by the entire town to win with ease…or else, he’s going to lose his job. But this seems like any other sports films out there. It’s about what you learn in the sport, rather than the sport itself blah blah blah. Raging Bull is about a man whose tragic fall is caused by his obsession over boxing rather than his relationships. The Blind Side is about a woman who develops a boy and learns to let go. It’s never really about the sport or winning the championship.
What sets Friday Night Lights apart is the honesty in the performance. It’s evident that the show is a writer-actor medium rather than the crew’s. Once in a while, one might be able to catch a glimpse of the source of light that would usually be hidden behind the camera. The three camera set up is used here for the actors to play out the scene without having to stop for each cut, making the performance genuine and believable. From the very beginning of the hero’s journey, we are pulled into their world and we pull them back into ours because these characters are so relatable through the performance.
In fact, the cinematography gives way for the actors to give an honest performance. There are many stunning visuals that support the anthropological autobiography of a fictional– yet highly believable– town, but the performance forces the cameras to be handheld at most times and for there to be many close ups rather than a variety of shots that would cinematographically make the visuals much more interesting.
What this gives way for instead is the sound. If sight gives reference to objects, sound reveals the world about a person. It’s apparent that the show isn’t too focused on the visuals. Take a look at films that do exactly the opposite, such as Wes Anderson’s The Budapest Hotel or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. These two directors’ visual styles are so distinct– with high emphasis on composition and color— that in order for these styles to work, the sound designers made sure to do minimalistic sounds. In their cases, it worked, but there’s something about a style like Friday Night Lights that brings us in more into the characters. We get to hear their voices and hear their worlds, making us closer to their hearts and to really be in their homes.
And this is what Friday Night Lights encaptures. In the beginning, as a new head coach, Eric Taylor’s job is to think about the game and the players and how he can bring the town to the state championships. But by the end of the last season, he comes to terms that it’s not Texas that brings him his home, but rather the people around him. In his final moments, he decides to leave the town that brought him two state championships, leave the job that he has desired and has strived for in order to be with his wife and family, where true happiness lies. The man who decided to stay at a football game when his player got paralyzed now decides to do what he believes makes him a better man. When the show declares “Texas Forever” in the first season, the definition of that changes as the seasons go on. It’s not about Texas. It’s about what Texas embodies: Family. Home. Man.