Monday, August 20, 2007

Black eyes and broken hearts

Only someone who grew up in, or has spent a significant amount of time in, a small town (I'm talking 20,000 people or under) can really understand the strange relationships that form between and among people in that environment. People often find themselves friends with the most unlikely of people, simply because when there isn't anybody, as soon as you find someone you have even the remotest of connection with, you latch onto them. Or you're often thrust into unusual situations, or you're connected in the most direct of ways to someone through someone else you know. Rarely is anything random the way life in bigger cities tends to be. But even that randomness is often overstated, I think, especially in art. Movies like Magnolia, Short Cuts, Heights, or a myriad of other motion pictures, play up this scattershot effect in relationships, but it's usually totally contrived and unbelievable.

This, I think, is the blessing of the TV show Friday Night Lights. Obviously, it's rarely a show about football, and actually a show about relationships, and the people that play football, and the literal religion that it can be in small towns. (Which is another thing I think only people who grew up experiencing it can really understand.) The relationships in FNL are complicated, messy, and have real, lasting effects. Nobody gets an easy out. You have to give props to a show, much like Six Feet Under, that constantly pounds you over the head with how rotten everybody is, but refuses to judge, moralize, or condemn. In other words, the writers treat the characters like the flawed, but ultimately (usually) good-hearted people they really are. Just like in real life.

People make a lot of mistakes and hurt a lot of people in FNL, and seeing that it's such a small town, no one can avoid anybody else. It's all right out there, the gaping wounds and letters of shame. There's nowhere to hide in a town like Dillon, Texas, and everybody knows your story. And yet, the drama feels real. It never (well, rarely) feels contrived, and while the people of Dillon learn a lot of painful lessons about life, love and loyalty, the show doesn't shove it down your throat.

In the pilot episode, the town's beloved star quarterback, and the boy who's going to take them to state and fame, Jason Street, is plowed down in the season's first game and breaks his spine. We learn very soon after that he is paralyzed and will never walk again. (That's no spoiler; we learn that in the second episode, and it's strongly hinted at in the first.) The show never shies away from the painful reality of a strong-willed boy being struck down in the prime of his youth, with so much promise and potential. His own recovery and psychological journey is compelling enough, but throw in a small town in utter turmoil and despair, and the ensuing social fallout from people who ultimately care more about the game than about the players, and you've got the makings for drama of biblical proportions. The show does a great job of going from being a show about football in the first few episodes, to gradually expanding the plotlines to involve the more peripheral characters who have little attachment to the game except by geographic proximity.

A lot happens in the first season of FNL, considering there are 22 episodes, and it occasionally gets bogged down in its own melodramatic angst, but never for long. Bad, ugly and painful shit is always gonna happen, but how you react to it makes it dramatic or not. The writers of FNL know this, and usually go to great lengths to temper the drama with level-headed and mature reactions. Thus, for the most part, rendering it exciting, moving and sweet, instead of overblown and falsely sentimental. It figures that a show this smart, funny, insightful, and genuine is struggling so badly. The DVD's come out next week, and NBC is pushing them for $20 for the whole season. That's a steal. I can't recommend highly enough that you get it, and start getting to know the fascinating people of Dillon, Texas.

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