CC Issue 18 / Film / TV / Sport

How Friday Night Lights is like learning to read

In the Fall of 2010, I spent a month of Saturdays hanging out in the TV den with my husband and my father-in-law watching rows of indistinguishable boys run. This was college football to me, honestly, foozball-meets-stormtrooper pieces shuttling back and forth. But one afternoon, I Wikipedia-ed the rules. Gradually the waves of runners took a hazy shape, and I spent the next month of Saturdays asking my husband absurd and confused questions. Objectively speaking, the rules are truly nonsensical. Why *four* attempts? Why an extra point for kicking it over the pitchfork-thing? But it was good to ask those questions then, because a year later we found ourselves at a large state school with a college team that holds up the hopes and dreams for a state that lacks an NFL franchise. In this environment, I could at least fake a little literacy.

It’s not just the rules of football I struggled with, but the whole frenzy of cheerleaders, tailgating, band, halftime shows, multi-million-dollar commercial spots for a sport where, as an outsider, it just looked like grown men just needed brute strength and a good arm. But, I think I am finally coming around. And all it took was a little narrative.

I have been watching – no, correction, thanks to Netflix – bingeing on Friday Night Lights. This show is probably old news to many (and don’t spoil it for me because I’m only halfway through Season 2 – which is actually kind of impressive because I only started watching a week ago). I’ve heard many die-hard fans tell me, “It’s not really about the football.” For people who have migrated out of rural America, the show is a microscopic study of small town life where the types become these recognizable and intimate individuals. And even for me, somehow the directors create a cinematic nostalgia for grubby carpet and chain-link fences as the camera pans down streets and enters houses.

I get that it’s a series that is primarily about the insular dreams and ruptures of a small town, but for me it has also been about the power of narrative to enliven a sport I had little understanding of before. The story slows down to expose the polarities in the team, the camera indulges in slow-motion glances and multi-angle passes — it’s (for me) a deeply needed imagined reality to what might be stacked behind a few seconds of an actual game.

As I reflect on the nuances of the characters and the game, I have had to confront my past tendencies to perch on a cosmopolitan high-chair where I would write off football culture as this anthropological oddity. Last year, I remember seeing high school football games on ESPN 2. I was appalled. I thought back to my former high school students in Hong Kong, who poured their guts and their nerves into basketball and soccer, and I couldn’t imagine how bright lights and national camera crews might dangerously warp their self-image. But, oddly, seeing the intensity of the Friday Night Lights characters and the centrality of football to the Dillon, TX identity, I can now at least understand why it might happen.

Friday Night Lights creates this really fascinating territory for thinking about the American heartland. Where many other popular portrayals of the same subject matter veer into glamorization, parody, kitsch, or indictment, this show hits on every stereotype you might imagine – the cheerleaders, the tailgating, the jocks, the promoters, the drunkards, the trailer trash – and lights up each with this deeply empathetic and utterly unflinching cinematic gaze. I’ve been staring with that gaze for seven days now, and am gradually coming to terms with a more vibrant and dimensioned impression of football culture and small town America. I tentatively say that it’s been a humbling experience to “crossover” and begin to appreciate a sub-culture that I’ve dismissed for a long time. I don’t know how the rest of the series will go down, but so far that’s a pretty respectable takeaway for a television series.

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