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The One Show that Can Save America: Friday Night Lights (part 1)

April 5, 2011

Part One in my out-of-order breakdown of Friday Night Lights, what John Ashbery might call, “the One Show that Can Save America“.


By unity, I mean that described by Aristotle:  unity of place and time. Dillon is a completely self-consistent microworld in which the characters operate almost exclusively.  The pilot episode spends most of its energy demonstrating just how small this town is and the resultant pressure it places on the new football coach, Eric Taylor. Instances in which characters leave Dillon signify great change, or a great gamble. The first instance is the team’s first trip to the state high school championship wherein Cowboy stadium is filmed to portray its totemic status: here is where their fate will be decided. When Coach Taylor takes a job at TMU, the viewer senses that his separation from his family and his team must be short lived; the world of the show is based in Dillon and such a schism is untenable. When Tim Riggins enrolls in San Antonio State, the land calls him back.  Of course, characters do leave Dillon to pursue their lives, as they must, but they effectively disappear. When they do reappear in town they are effectively unrecognizable as their former selves (a la Tyra).

It’s not that change is viewed as bad in the FNL ethos; if anything, the show promotes relocation as a route to self-discovery. But in order to raise the stakes as high as possible, the show draws the lens to a sharp focus. Every little moment carries significance. In the more cosmopolitan settings of most dramas, stakes need to be made artificially higher: characters are “the best in the world” at what they do, millions of dollars are changing hands, murders are frequent and increasingly gruesome. In the world of FNL, you don’t need to be the best quarterback in the country, you just need to be the best on the team… and it doesn’t hurt to have a jerk for a dad.

The coziness of the show is why the murder of Tyra’s stalker felt so out of place. The stakes involved with two high school students killing a man and disposing of his body were too high for the show, inadvertently reducing the other characters’ dilemmas to trivialities (the Swede-Jules-Saracen love triangle). The main point of FNL is the demonstrate how meaningful we can be to each other in the smallest of ways. Or as Kyle Chandler put it: “It’s about a small town and the people who live in it and the importance of their ordinariness.”

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