Alex Massie

Friday Night Heartbreak

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Yay! Friday Night Lights returns this evening. If I hadn't already seen the first episode of series two online I'd be setting the Tivo. If you haven't seen the first series yet I highly recommend you do so soon because, alas, I fear the second series may prove a disappointment.

If I'm right, it will be because NBC has killed the show in an effort to save it. It's pretty well known now, I think, that despite all the (entirely-merited) critical acclaim it received, FNL struggled to find an audience throughout its first season. Was it a show about Texas high school football? Or was it a show about families and relationships and their struggles in a small and somewhat-down-on-its-luck town in the middle of nowhere? NBC couldn't make up their minds.

But we can tell they have now. In the first place the show is being moved to Friday night. This might, you may think, make sense. Heck, it's the title ain't it? But of course this also means that since Friday night is High School football night, those most interested in high school football will not be watching. No surprise then that NBC has decided that there shouldn't be as much attention paid to the football.

This seems silly. I concur with Matt Feeney when he says:

I'm rooting for FNL's continued survival, but I'm also prepared to honor its glorious early death.

The first series worked because it was centred around the football team. The football team is Dillon's flagship. The success of the Dillon Panthers is a barometer for the health (psychologically anyway) of the town itself. To fail on the football field is to let down, even betray, your community. The football team defines the town. By any standard, that's a remarkable  - perhaps even wicked - burden to expect teenage boys  - and the football coaching staff - to carry.

Take the football away and you remove the context and, indeed, the point of the show. Football was the prism through which we saw life in rural Texas. Almost every interesting question or conflict or contrast in the first series  was tied, one way or another, to the football team. To whom does your loyalty lie? Your family or your team-mates?  Can you be true to your principles as a man and as a coach? What price victory? How do you juggle personal ambition - as a coach or a player - with what you owe your family or team-mates? As a player, how can you remain uncorrupted by the star-status you enjoy as a member of the football team - a status measured in easy sex, having your academic studies done for you, repeatedly finding your appalling behaviour excused and even encouraged etc etc. Can you even remain friends with people who aren't on the team? By contrast, if you're a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, how do you come to terms with - or rise above - the knowledge that no-one gives a damn about your future when you know that if you had a brother who played football he'd be taken care of. And so on and so on.

Cumulatively, these elements created an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. The Dillon Panthers - and the monomania they inspire - might be bad for the kids involved and for Dillon itself, but it made for great television. Remove or even slacken that tension and you hollow-out the shows' raison d'etre and make it just another television show. Something similar happened to The West Wing once it became more above "people" and less about "politics". Stripping politics out of the show made the characters less interesting and more generic. Context and circumstance matter: they provide the backdrop for the drama. Without that, the show is but a pale version of what it once was and could have been again. Football doesn't have to be in the foreground all the time, but remove it from the background and you got nothing.

So I am not optimistic and agree with Nancy Franklin who cautions:

As good as it is to have “Friday Night Lights” back, the first episode of the second season may leave you with some worries about the show’s direction. The principals don’t disappoint, but there’s a twist in the episode that is absurdly melodramatic and unbelievable, and will have enormous consequences. The plot thread could easily overwhelm the show and kill it. If that happens and the ratings go up, executives at NBC will think they’ve scored a touchdown, but fans of the show will know that the network dropped the ball.

PS: What is it about the American high school experience that makes it such a great arena for drama? Or rather, why does the American teenage experience seem so much more real or work better, dramatically speaking, than, say school days in Britain or elsewhere? And is it just familiarity with the tropes of the genre that gives American high schools an oddly universal quality?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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