The Melancholy of Friday Night Lights

June 19, 2010
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The production history of NBC’s critically lauded, but chronically underperforming series Friday Nights Lights has always had much in common with its scrappy, winsome characters. Endearingly, often heartbreakingly, both perch precariously on the verge of losses ranging from the mundane to the existential. The show’s moribund status was nowhere more evident then when NBC decided to release the 13-episode fourth season solely via DIRECTV in the fall of 2009, and then tarry for over six months before making it available to everyone else. Reportedly, the fifth season of the show will be its last. Watching the season four network debut over the last few weeks (the first episode was shown on NBC on May 7th, 2010), and yet knowing how belated that viewing was, I began to wonder if the writers of the series were already mourning its demise through the lives of its characters. Having graduated some of the show’s stalwarts, and sneakily retracted Eric Taylor’s (Kyle Chandler) celebrated position as head coach of the Dillon Panthers, Friday Night Lights and its viewership seem suddenly caught in a state of nostalgia, uncannily aware of how very much there is to lose, and what has already been lost.

The fourth season so far has been sans so much—central characters, prestigious jobs, any real sense of innocence—that the show’s agonies are a fitting reflection not only of the show’s relationship to its network, but also to an American nation slogging through its own disappointing economic realities and a seemingly never-ending war. These are depressed and depressing times for the heartland and elsewhere, and a prevailing sentiment of resignation has permeated every plotline on offer this season. Eric’s transition to a difficult coaching position at a newly reopened East Dillon High, the ugly, underfunded stepsister of the flagship school Dillon High, has highlighted the easy overconfidence of that formerly prestigious institution–once the show’s centerpiece, Dillon High has been recast as cocky, overvalued, and corrupt, a tonal shift meant perhaps to invite comparison with the smug bravado that once characterized the American economy. Similarly difficult has been the death of Matt Saracen’s (Zach Gilford) absent soldier father, Buddy Garrity’s (Brad Leland) self-inflicted excommunication from the bloated booster club, and the capricious return of no-longer star Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who ditches a college scholarship only to find that the place he once called home ceases to be quite so hospitable. Watching the first episode of the season, which ends with Eric conceding an unwinnable game before its end for fear his battered, inexperienced players will sustain serious injury, a friend pointedly asked me, “didn’t this show used to be more fun?”

Well, no, not really, if we recall that the season one opener featured the shocking on-field paralysis of the team’s likeable star quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter). But the show’s current tone is more melancholy than melodramatic, an emotional resonance related to the fact that its unstable production and narrative history mirrors that of its national moment. Never allowed to be comfortable in its privilege, the show has taken class consciousness to a new level this season, with a willingness to engage seriously and painfully with the state of a bruised America. The class disparities that always informed the show now elbow into center frame—it is not so much sport, or sports, that drive the show, but rather images, such East Dillon’s barren, patchy playing field, its dilapidated buildings and its disaffected students. In response to such neglect, nihilism encroaches. Flashier narratives, including sport triumphs, puppy love, and jocular humor now read as luxuries of a previous time of youth (and previous seasons), replaced by often brutalizing grief. In this respect, the show is both recasting its history and mourning its losses, as we, its American viewership, simultaneously mourn and recast our own. If one accepts that this was once at least in part a show about adolescence, Friday Night Lights seems to be growing up fast.

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