The Friday Night Lights series pilot opens with new football coach, Eric Taylor, driving and listening to a high school football devoted radio program, anticipating his team’s first performance on the field. This voiceover radio show is our first exposure to the complex, circular discourse of the faithful followers of Dillon football. The camera then pans over quick, artful, moody scenes of the expected teen drama stereotypes: the gorgeous, violence addicted drunk fullback (Tim Riggins); the promiscuous popular girl (Tyra Collette); the egotistical, out for fame running back (“Smash” Williams); the untouchable, handsome quarterback (Jason Streets); the perky, pretty cheerleader (Lyla Garrity); the red faced booster club good old boy (Buddy Garrity); and the loveable, sheepish underdog (Matt Saracen). The show is, admittedly, a teen soap opera, but the show’s writers and producers work to debunk these all too easy labels in nuanced, complex ways—the shaky handheld cameras, artful shots, and grainy documentary realism all condition the way we see these characters, including an often repeated shot from above and behind Coach Taylor’s head and back as he walks onto the field. Taylor and his wife, Tami, are the emotional and moral center of the show.
Coach Taylor is obviously a father to the many fatherless of this show: Smash, Tim, Tyra, Matt, and multiple others; as the Taylors participate in the stories of these teens, the stereotypes carefully, gradually dissolve almost without our noticing. We see likenesses of ourselves. In a powerful voice over during the climactic ending of the pilot, Coach Taylor prays these words: “We are all vulnerable—and we will all at some point of our lives fall…”.
Beneath the artificial, airbrushed hierarchies of Dillon, the show is full of dissonance. Even the often-lush indie tunes are a contrast to this conventional, all American way of life. In one of the more poignant scenes, the team nervously anticipates an important game while cheerleaders practice energetically, and the town closes down in preparation for the night’s big win. Tony Lucca’s cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town” plays over these traditional images of our cultural mythology: “I was living in a Devil Town / Didn't know it was a Devil Town / And all my friend were vampires / Didn't know they were vampires / Turns out I was a vampire myself…”. Johnston’s lyrics critique the reality behind the facades, and the music played over the characteristically “happy” images is the most intense. This juxtaposition of dissonant, almost violent, music with slick images, as well as that of the shaky camerawork with sleek soap opera subject matter encourages the viewer to contrast perceived reality with actual reality, projected image with real humanity. We learn her chaotic backstory. We watch him grapple with difficult moral questions. We see their pain, both collectively and individually.
What are the producers and writers of Friday Night Lights trying to tell us? What about the images they (and we?) work so hard to project? And most importantly, what about our harsh critiques of those who try but fail to maintain those facades? In an oft quoted section of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, the Whiskey Priest tells us that “When you visualized a man or a woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity… that was a quality God's image carried with it… when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”