Warning: Some plot spoilers ahead
The late Tom Landry one said “Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest.” If you venture into the Lone Star State, you will find a sports culture unlike any other. Whole towns come to a standstill when the high school team plays on Friday night; Texas has twelve teams playing in the highest tier of collegiate football and the Dallas Cowboys once spent over two decades being considered the greatest football team in America.
Friday Night Lights: A town, A team and a dream is a 1990 non-fiction work that follows the 1988 season for the Permian Panthers, a high school football team from Odessa, Texas. The book is not only a fascinating insight into high school football and its effect on the town around it, but also the journey of the author, HG Bassinger, who goes from looking to write an uplifting piece about high school football unifying a town to writing a much more cynical piece as he uncovers the darker truth about how much Texans love their football. Bassinger’s work was the basis for the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, which is a largely faithful adaptation of the book with Billy Bob Thornton taking on the role of Coach Gary Gaines. The film then served as an inspiration for an NBC drama of the same name, which is what I’m here to talk about today.
Before you stop reading, let me tell you that Friday Night Lights isn’t just a high school sports drama with a ‘game of the week’ format. It is a heartfelt series which really personifies the title of Bassinger’s work- a town, a team, a dream. The show follows the fictional Dillon Panthers, who must work to meet the high expectation placed upon them.
The cast of characters is diverse and likeable (or deliberately unlikeable). The show’s characters are split into three overarching categories- the Taylors, the team and the town. The show’s lead characters are Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami, and daughter, Julie, as they return to Dillon in the pilot episode after a number of years elsewhere. The struggles faced by Coach Taylor that is the main basis for the show. As you would expect from a show about high school football, the team roster changes as classes come and go. For the first two seasons, we follow the on and off field lives of star quarterback Jason Street (who is paralysed in the pilot episode); his replacement Matt Saracen, a sweet and sensitive boy who defies, and struggles with, the jock lifestyle; the arrogant and verbose running back Brian ‘Smash’ Williams, who has to learn to cope as one of the few black members of a largely white team as well as how to play nice with his teammates; and the sullen, often drunk fullback Tim Riggins, who is the show’s anti-hero character. After season 2, there are few squad changes, except for the departure of Smash and the introduction of the socially awkward Landry Clark, who had previously been a secondary character and a close friend of Matt Saracen. The other big change is the introduction of JD McCoy, a talented quarterback and Matt’s rival for first string quarterback. The biggest changes come in the last two seasons of the show, when Coach Taylor is transferred to the newly re-opened East Dillon High School. The major players that are introduced are Micheal B. Jordan’s Vince Howard, a boy from the rough part of town trying to make good, and Luke Cafferty, a nervous yet talented running back. Completing the cast is the rest of Dillon, showcasing the mentality of a football obsessed Texas town. Many of the characters are romantically or linked to players or are their family, such as Tim’s on and off girlfriend Tyra and Jason’s loving yet ultimately fickle girlfriend Lyla. We also meet Matt’s grandmother, who is slowly losing a fight to dementia, and Tim’s deadbeat brother Billy. The show also focuses on the relationship between Coach Taylor and the Boosters, the primary source of the funding for the football team. We especially see his relationship with former player and influential booster Buddy Garrity, who often comes as single-minded and rude but deep down, he’s just trying to do everything he can for the team.
As I said before, the show isn’t just about football and its in-season arcs do cover a wide range of issues. We get an insight into how football players are treated in Texas, with one story following a Hispanic player who assaults a fellow student but lies and says that he was racially provoked. Coach Taylor is torn between standing up for the victim and protecting his player. As you would expect from a Texan set drama, race is explored thoroughly. Most of the core cast get a few storylines thrown their way. The show deals with abortion and sex, both near taboo topics in Texas. Essentially, the show goes out of its way to create a snapshot of rural Texas and the issues that high school students and their town as a whole may face.
If you are looking for a good drama to watch, and you don’t mind a little football thrown into the mix, I’d definitely recommend Friday Night Lights, which you can find on Netflix.
Have you seen the show? What do you think of it? Let me know!