When Friday Night Lights first premiered, NBC executives made the mistake of pitching it as a show about football. While football is the central premise on which the show is based, that is not what it’s about.
The true heart of Friday Night Lights comes from the personal experiences of the coaches and players associated with the team. Football is simply a means to bring the characters together, but it is everything else that makes the show one of the best dramas in recent memory.
The fictional city of Dillon, Texas, is inhabited by a seemingly endless slew of flawed people. Every character faces monumental challenges, with some having more success overcoming them than others.
More importantly, the issues faced by individual characters reflect large-scale societal problems: Poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic abuse, absentee parents and racism. These are very real troubles faced by countless everyday Americans, and rarely are so many found in one network TV show.
What keeps the show grounded and interesting is that the writing never gets too fixated on those problems in and of themselves. They are always present, like a dark cloud hanging over characters’ heads.
But the writing is not about the cloud, it’s about how characters struggle to get out from under it. That is what makes everything so relatable. Every character has a battle they must fight every day, and we as an audience can empathize with what they’re going through.
The writers manage to avoid the old TV cliché of easily-solved issues. Other shows have their characters run into a problem, and then after a few episodes they resolve it and move on. Then a few weeks later they’re presented with another problem. Rinse and repeat.
But on FNL, the writers examine the different ways in which one basic factor of a character’s life seeps into everything they do. That one aspect of their life continues to pop up week after week, breeding new small obstacles to overcome.
A prime example is the character arc of Matt Saracen. The one central issue of his life is the deployment of his father to war overseas. That one issue breeds countless others: He must get a job to support his family, he is forced to balance his time between three things pulling on him at once, and he struggles to keep everybody in his life happy.
Week after week, the audience sees Matt suffer through a daily battle until he finally breaks down. He faces much more than any teenager should, but it is all because of one significant episode of his life. (unfortunately I can’t embed this video, but take the time to watch this clip. You won’t regret it)
That pattern holds true for just about every character. Jason Street is paralyzed after a hit in the pilot episode, Smash’s family lives in poverty, the Riggins brothers have no parents, Vince’s father has been imprisoned. Every one of those characters has demons to overcome, and all of them can be traced back to one significant issue.
It’s that constantly-running narrative thread that makes all of the characters seem like real people rather than just actors playing a role. And because the characters are so fully realized, the actors are able to display pure and raw emotion.
Television directors and showrunners often shy away from having too many intense emotional moments for fear that it will be too disturbing to the audience. Viewers tend to want feel-good moments without any emotional buildup, which could be one of the reasons why Friday Night Lights never garnered a large audience.
The show makes a conscious effort to get in the audience’s face. Cameras zoom in until the only thing in frame is one actor’s face, and the frame shakes slightly as the emotion ramps up. Actors are allowed to show all the emotion they can muster, and the camera work gives each of them their own spotlight.
The result is that the audience stops noticing it is watching a TV show and instead feels like it is spying on a personal and private moment. Sometimes those moments are angry, others sad and others sweet. But in every episode, there are scenes that you could swear were part of a documentary they feel so real.
And that is where the greatness of Friday Night Lights lies. It has nothing to do with football. It’s in scenes of emotional distress, when we have such a vivid understanding of a character that we do not need to be told why they are reacting the way they are. When the writing, acting and direction combine to create one of the most realistic and raw moments of which television is capable.