Test Pilot #16: Friday Night Lights
Debut date: October 3, 2006
Series legacy: One of the best dramas of the 21st century
After a short hiatus, Test Pilot is back! Time for more historical pilot analysis – I know, contain your excitement. In case you have forgotten or are new to the site, here’s the general primer: In this bi-weekly feature, I will be joined by a rotating batch of guest writers in an analysis of, you guessed it, television pilots. In this space, we’re hoping to analyze pilot episodes in a number of ways in hopes of discussing its historical, cultural and industrial context. To get a well-rounded opinion, this feature will usually include two perspectives from individuals who have just watched the pilot, one coming from a writer with full knowledge of the series following the pilot develops, the other coming from a writer who is not as familiar with the series (although this isn’t always the case). I’m hoping that this can be a fun way to add some less time-sensitive material to the site, but also expand coverage back through history of the medium.
For the fourth quartet of Test Pilot files, we are dipping our collective toes back into the pool of a specific genre, just as we did near the end of 2010 with a solid look at the last twenty years of teen dramas. The reason this feature took a minor hiatus is because I was having trouble deciding on where to head next but I think the final choice ended up being a good one. OK, it is probably time that I stop setting this up as if it is some sort of reveal.
Over the next four entries, Test Pilot will be analyzing the sports genre. By that I mean we will be looking at scripted programming that heavily features sports, not news or documentary-style programming about sports. In our culture, there are very few things that are more popular than sports and the relationship between sports and television is well-defined in many ways. Televised sport events are some of the most popular and most-watched things on television, across sport and across television network. From the Super Bowl, to the Masters to the World Series to a random collegiate hockey game, there appears to be an audience for live sports in all corners of television. And of course, programming about sports dominates the dial just the same. Entire networks are dedicated to sports and sports reporting and all four of the major broadcast networks try to integrate as much sports coverage onto their schedules as possible. Most of us love sports and television only strokes that fire within society further.
But despite the overarching dedication to sport and televised sport, fan admiration does not appear to translate to the scripted television realm. Millions of people watch ESPN each day, all day and build their entire lives around televised sports, but the ratings for scripted dramas or comedies featuring sports and the general lack of production of series about sports suggests we like to keep our adoration of “scripted television” and “sports” separate. It seems so odd that two of the major pillars of our society can come together in one way (the televised game or coverage of sports) but not in the other (the fictional, scripted representation of sports). This especially true since sports films tend to do well, or at least moderate so, both with critics and at the box office. Not so on television. Try to Google things like “TV series about sports” or “Sports dramas” or something else similar and your results will come up mostly empty. Try to think about your five favorite series that involved sports. It is okay, I will wait. This is going to take a few minutes, at best. I LOVE sports and I LOVE television, and it took me a moderately long time.
Clearly, I’m being hyperbolic and facetious, but the simple fact of the matter is that although we love scripted television and we love sports – perhaps even more than television – very few creative people have figured out to make a series that combines both of these loves, at least in such a way that we will actually watch.
With this batch of Test Pilot files, we hope to come closer to an answer for why this has happened, not just recently, but for decades: Do the genres of “drama” and “sports” just fail to match, especially from an audience demographic perspective? What actually makes up a series “about” sports or one “featuring” sports? Does the difference matter? How important are the historical contexts? What are the most important identifiable conventions of the sports series?
Of course, there is surely more than one answer to these questions and hopefully by looking at multiple cases over the next few weeks will provide us a bevy of possible suggestions that paint a larger picture of scripted programming about or featuring sports. Some of our choices will be more directly about sports than others, but again, that sort of diversity in the selections will hopefully serve as compelling entry point into the genre. The last quartet focused so closely on one major subject (that being NBC), that it was really easy to sketch out context and make some historical sweeps, but I am unsure if that will be possible here. Well, it’s not impossible clearly, but the lack of major connections between each of the series chosen for this theme will make this more challenging to write, but hopefully better because of it in the end.
Here we are at the end of our excursion into the sports television series. I have to say that this group of posts turned out even better than I imagined when I organized it. Not everyone who loves television loves sports and vice versa so it was sometimes difficult to find some help, but I think we have done some really good stuff over the past handful of weeks.
In any event, when initially coming up with this theme, I wanted to stray away from Friday Night Lights. When I think of “television series with sports,” it’s the first that comes to mind and it’s so much better than anything else in the genre that it is almost unfair to put it in the same conversation as things like The White Shadow or Sports Night. But the more that I thought about it, I couldn’t leave FNL alone. If we are going to talk about the sports television genre, it seems pertinent to talk about the best representation of what that genre can be when given the right sort of care and dedication. Friday Night Lights is an outlier in so many ways, but its use of sports and sports themes should be celebrated and discussed. Thus, here we are.
I think you all know that I’m very well-versed in all things Friday Night Lights, but our newbie contributor had literally never seen an episode before, so that’s fun. Taking on that newbie role and watching her first episode of the series is Melanie Kohnen. She is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech. Her book, Queer Visibility, Sexuality and Race in American Film and Television: Screening the Closet, is forthcoming from Routledge. You can find her on Twitter @_mesk. Melanie, what are your thoughts?
Before I watched the pilot of Friday Night Lights, I didn’t know much about the show aside from its basic premise. I also knew that the phrase “clear eyes, full hearts” is meaningful to fans of Friday Night Lights. As a regular user of Twitter, I had also picked up on the fact that Friday Night Lights has a devoted following among TV critics and scholars, who seem to appreciate the way the series handles character development and relationships. While a character-driven drama with strong narrative arcs is usually right up my televisual alley, the main reason why I hadn’t checked out Friday Night Lights earlier is due to my lack of knowledge of (and interest in) football. I think the pilot didn’t resonate very strongly with me because its plot relied so heavily on being able to understand a passion for football as a sport and as a way of life.
The pilot of Friday Night Lights invites viewers to witness the week leading up to the first game of the football season in Dillon, a small town in West Texas. From the opening scene onward, the pilot makes it clear that football is a central part of the town’s identity. Signs on front lawns proclaim support for the football team, the local media covers practice sessions and provides profiles of the players, and Coach Taylor is the guest of honor at the opening of a new car dealership. All in all, it seems as if Dillon and its residents live and breathe football.
The characters’ close identification with football made it difficult for me to relate to them. Indeed, watching the characters lead lives that revolve around the weekly high school football game was quite alienating. The narrative and characterizations didn’t provide moments that invited me to understand why everyone in Dillon was so invested in the Panthers and their success. Rather, all the circumstances that could explain this deep investment in football, such as the sense of community in a small rural town, ultimately only seem to confirm stereotypes of the rural American South that I find too simplistic. I’ve picked up enough knowledge about Friday Night Lights in passing to understand that the series does a lot of work to unpack simplistic ideas about the football culture in West Texas, but the pilot’s focus on football, God and country only provides the smallest glimpses of a complex portrayal of Dillon.
When the pilot tries to critique the local media’s and the residents’ investment in football, it does so along predictable lines. For example, the emphasis on quarterback Jason Street’s brilliant future in football spells doom from the beginning, and his severe injury during the season’s opening game does not come as a surprise. I’m not even sure what to take away from this particular storyline—is it indeed a critique of the pressure to perform and to give everything to the game, or is it merely an acknowledgment that sacrifice is a necessary part of football and that the residents of Dillon understand that sacrifice? Perhaps I should credit Friday Night Lights for maintaining that uncertainty. I hope that subsequent episodes develop stronger narratives that allow viewers to understand why football occupies such a central role in the characters’ lives while simultaneously offering a critique of the bleaker aspects of football culture.
Speaking of characters, I wish there had been more room for character development in the pilot. I could barely remember anyone’s name after watching the pilot, which, to me, is an indication that I haven’t had a chance to spend a lot of time with individual characters. Most of the characters barely move beyond types—the quarterback and his cheerleader girlfriend, the outcast who saves the day, the coach and his supportive wife, etc. Characterizations take a backseat to plot in the pilot. Much of the plot revolves around the question of whether or not the Panthers can live up to the pressure of having to win the first game of the season. The second half of the pilot is devoted to the game itself. I imagine that these scenes, especially the final scenes leading up to the Panthers’ last-second victory, are more compelling for viewers who understand and appreciate football. I found the last-second victory rather disappointing as it feeds into a “triumph over adversity” narrative structure that is not exactly innovative. I hope that the contrast between Jason’s devastating injury and the Panther’s victory lends some tension to subsequent episode plots and characterizations.
I imagine that making plot a priority over character development is due to the fact that the main purpose of a pilot is to sell a series to a network. Particularly the second half of the pilot, with its focus on an intense game of football, works well as a selling point from a network perspective. Even though this plot ultimately didn’t work for me, I can see how the emotional roller coaster of the last-minute victory combined with the question of Jason’s future offers viewers a reason to tune in the following week. My guess is that pilot of Friday Night Lights is one of those series premieres that contains core elements of a series, but is also very different from the mature tone and focus of later seasons. I’ll leave it to Cory to comment on how my guess relates to his viewing experience of Friday Night Lights in its entirety.
Thanks, Melanie. Again, as most of you probably know, I love Friday Night Lights. You can check out the various things I’ve written about the series here on TVS if you’d like, but I’m really happy that Melanie had such strong and oppositional feelings than I do about the FNL pilot. I’m not necessarily looking for major disagreement when I ask people to take part in TP, but it is certainly nice when the guest and I don’t really agree. This is one of those times. Before I get to the major thematic analysis, I’ll outwardly admit that this pilot is near the very top of my list of favorite pilots. Outside of the Lost pilot, I’m not sure there’s anything that can really touch this episode for me. Every time I watch this episode, I’m nearly in tears by the end.
Nevertheless, Melanie’s perspective on this episode brings up one of the major questions we haven’t outwardly addressed in this theme: Do you have to love or even understand sports to like television series about/featuring sports? Melanie mentioned how she has no real interest in or knowledge of football, which most certainly colors her reaction and enjoyment of this episode. This is one of the primary tensions with any series about a very specific world or premise and one that makes producing television about sports risky in the eyes of networks, channels and production companies. The assumption is that people who love dramatic television, especially dramatic television so focused on character, will not be interested in the sports portion of the series and vice versa. Unfortunately, the ratings for things like FNL prove this assumption to be correct. But obviously, that doesn’t make people like Melanie wrong. Sports aren’t for everyone and in the case of FNL, football is such a primary element of the series that it is hard not to be turned off if you’re turned off by the sport alone.
What is interesting to me, however, is that before I saw Melanie’s section of this piece, I planned on writing almost the exact opposite of what she ended up saying. From my perspective, the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights ISN’T about football, it’s about the community of Dillon and what football means to their communal bonds. Yes, so much of the episode is spent on football-related moments and the characters are still mostly defined by the stereotypes we expect from a sports series (hothead, egomaniac athlete, star QB, virtuous cheerleader), but for me, it feels like so much more than that. Not only are many of the performances very good, but the characters are, from my perspective, fairly well-established in the beginning. Riggins and Smash obviously have more subtle shadings later on, but their personas are embodied realistically here. Just because many of the characters are stereotypes doesn’t make them untrue.
Most importantly, Peter Berg’s representation of a small town and the kinds of people who populate it is one of the best creations of its kind in the history of the medium and Dillon feels so real from the opening moments of this episode. Football is everything to these people, but it is how they express their love for it through ritual and communal events that makes this so appealing. By the time Street gets injured a little past the mid-way point, the stunned silence isn’t just because a player’s hurt. The entire town just watched its identity get blown up in an instant and everyone is left reeling. As someone who grew up in a small town in the midwest, I can relate to this portrayal, even if my local teams often sucked tremendously. I’m from Indiana and we’re known for our obsession with basketball. In my wildest dreams, I would love to see television series make it to air that’s about Indiana basketball that looks just like Friday Night Lights. Texas has football, we have basketball, but the feelings and the reactions are just the same. When you live in these rural areas with nothing else to do, sports quickly becomes integral. It’s an overwhelmingly great feeling for those who care (most of the characters here) and completely suffocating for those who do not (Tyra, Landry).
What makes this world so realistic is how sports impacts everything. Shops close up, the radio hosts have nothing else they want to talk about and Coach Taylor’s livelihood completely depends on how the Panthers do in this first game. Fans of the series always talk about how realistic the Taylor marriage is in its portrayal of the emotions, the arguments, etc., but what I always found so interesting is how honest it the relationship is about the impact a job has on a couple. In most series about marriage, the characters work, but we either primarily see them when they come home or they’re not together when we see them at work. But on Lights, Coach brings his work home with him, many times literally, and it completely alters and shapes how he and Tami interact. Again, there isn’t so much of that in the pilot, but the seeds are planted.
And much like The White Shadow, Friday Night Lights uses sports as a way to tell important stories about characters and some issues. Coach Taylor is a lot like Coach Ken Reeves in that he’s tough and idealistic, but ultimately interested in helping his players become much better people. There isn’t as much of that in the FNL pilot is there is in the Shadow pilot, but I think you can still get a good indication about how much Coach Taylor cares about his players. The game of football is supposed to be there to teach lessons about what means to be a better man. Later in the series this becomes much more apparent with Smash’s steroids use, Riggins’ countless problems, Matt’s issues with his father and the relationships Coach has with a handful of other players.
Turning to this theme’s biggest question, I think I can say without hesitation that Friday Night Lights is a series about sports. Sports impact and dominate the lives of everyone in this community, for better or for worse. Football is used as a device to tell more important stories. Again, this is most definitely more true with future episodes and seasons, but the ways in which Berg establishes the world of Dillon here still emphasizes that element of the story well. In 44 minutes, we get a very good idea of how important football is to Dillon and that never, ever changes. I personally think that is the best kind of sports series, but perhaps that is what turns people off of Friday Night Lights.
And so, here’s the question we probably need to address: Do I just feel this way because I really, really love football and sports in general? Am I watching this series with rose-tinted glasses because before I became obsessed with television, I was obsessed with sports and now those two things jockey for position in my heart? Perhaps, but I know there are a number of people, from critics to personal friends, who adore FNL and don’t really care about football/sports. Again, this doesn’t make Melanie wrong in any way, shape or form. The point is that our separate reactions to an episode like this proves to us why the sports genre isn’t more popular or attempted on television. In this instance, Melanie isn’t the odd-ball, I am. There are more people who love television and don’t care about sports (and vice versa) than there are people who adore both equally.
Throughout this theme, I’ve been trying to figure out why sports television series are so few and far between. I’ve wondered aloud if there was anything more to it than just “people who like sports don’t like drama, people who love drama don’t love sports,” and four different series later, I’m still sort of unsure. I would like to say that there is a better reason, that there are more intelligent and intuitive conclusions to come to, but I’m not really sure that’s the case. Outside of interviewing all the television viewers and sports fans in the country, we’re left with assumptions.
The thing is, Friday Night Lights is absolutely, 100 percent, completely, THE BEST the sports television genre has to offer. It gets the sports right (well, at least the drama, maybe not the scenes themselves), it gets the community surrounding sports (especially in a small town) right and it gets the characters (mostly) right. If there was ever going to be a hit series about/featuring sports, this. is. it. And yet, the series limped along for two seasons at NBC (and probably on survived to a second because of NBC’s terrible state) before being heroically saved by DirecTV in one of the most innovative business deals in recent memory. The final season episodes that are currently airing on NBC are averaging around 3.5 million viewers and less than a 1.0 in the 18-49 demographic.
We as a viewing populace had the chance to watch the best example this genre had to offer and we didn’t really care. If that’s not an indictment of how audiences feel about the sports in our scripted television, I’m not sure what is. It will be really interesting to see if one of the four major networks ever tries a sports-centric series again. The three broadcast examples we discussed in this theme were all commercial failures. CBS and NBC didn’t really know how to market The White Shadow and Friday Night Lights and ABC tried to market around Sports Night‘s sports-ness. The genre could be dead on broadcast television. Maybe it’s fitting that the best series the genre produced is the one that killed it, maybe it’s not. But if the genre is dead (at least for now), this is a hell of a way to go out.
Conclusions on legacy: A fantastic representation of what a sports television series has to offer, but perhaps that fact makes it inaccessible to those who don’t feel strongly about sports