The Idiot Box: Friday Night Lights

As an ardent defender of television as a valid art medium, I came across two quotes on The Onion AV Club this week eloquently backing my position.
"It does thoroughly enrage me, though, when anyone brags about the fact that they don't watch television. Congratulations. I understand not having much of an interest in television, and even not owning a television, because you can watch a lot of TV online, but being proudly dismissive of an entire medium—probably as part of a futile effort to make yourself sound smart—is just dumb." - Amelie Gillette

"I'm somebody who didn't own a television for 15 years. I didn't watch TV from the time I was 18 'til my mid-30s. And then I got a TV to watch The Sopranos. I realized, 'Oh, TV is really interesting.' TV has never been better. Someday, we're gonna look back on this period as this golden age of experimentation, where the networks started dying, and the cable channels started proliferating, and there are so many channels that to get our attention, programmers had to try everything, including quality." - Ira Glass
There are a number of reasons television is so easily dismissed, but one of the biggest shifts in how television operates has been accessibility. If a friend recommends a movie, you don't have to change your schedule around...if you don't catch it during multiple daily screenings at a theater, you can rent it when it comes out later. Either way, it's a two-hour commitment.

But with Hulu and Netflix, television is suddenly much more accessible. And here's what happened with accessibility: these days, television is to film as novels are to short stories.

Take Friday Night Lights. H.G. Bissinger's book about high school football in Odessa, Texas was first turned into a film, and three years ago was worked into a television series for NBC. Despite relatively low viewer turnout, FNL has eked out an existence over three seasons and 50 1-hour episodes.

Consider, for a moment, the depth of character development and heightened drama that could be built over those three seasons, and compare it to the film's run time of 118 minutes. In fact, consider that the television show will spend more time developing its characters than most novels.

Despite all the great things I've heard about Friday Night Lights in the last three years, the constant pleas from critics and fans to for the sake of all things holy watch this show, I only relented a few days ago. I'm someone who'll promote a show into the ground to everyone I meet, but I still find myself hesitant to follow the recommendations of others. I think a lot of us are this way.

And it'd be good if we could get over that. I've been missing out, and I'm fortunate those die-hard fans held on to this show, and that FNL has become a guinea pig for new media experimentation. This fascinating piece on NPR explored the show's innovative marketing a few weeks ago.

The show's great strength is in extraordinary writing. Each character is painted in loving layers. FNL's high school-aged characters behave like actual high schoolers. They don't speak in rapid-fire comebacks and eloquent soliloquoys delivered in self-confidence. They speak in awkward, stilted lines. Take this scene, where two characters attempt to pick up two separate girls.

Mix CDs and stuttering...yep, that's pretty much how I remember it.

But realistic dialogue isn't usually a good thing in television, which is why people like Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin's television producers and presidential staffers speak in machine gun witticisms, giving the impression of forward momentum even when the characters are saying nothing at all. FNL maintains a similar dramatic pace through glances and pauses, and pulls its viewers in.

Television is usually decried as a passive, thoughtless experience, but shows like Friday Night Lights and The Wire seem to spur conversation, especially when watched in groups. And when you consider FNL is a relatively clean network show, how is watching an hour per week with family so less noble than everyone reading a book separately?


I wanted to mention how excited I am about NBC's upcoming Kings. Ian McShane + Futuristic Monarchy + based on the story of King David. I'd say that sounds sweet.


  1. Welcome to the fold.

    I managed to finally convince my wife to watch the show and she's hooked.

  2. now you have to catch up on all the episodes.

  3. Man, I've been trying to tell people for 3 years to WATCH THIS SHOW! I look forward to this hour of TV more than any other. And for people who think it's about football...it's not really. Football is the setting for a lot of it and sometimes it even serves as a metaphor for what's going on in the character's lives, but it's not a sports show.

  4. other than LOST, this is probably Erica and I's favorite show on TV.

    I thought the second season was a little TOO light on the football, but it's hard to complain. Always happy to see FNL get some great pub.

  5. I read the book in high school and it inspired me to go to college; never did I think that one day I would be a children's minister....damn football....

  6. While I haven't ever watched FNL, there's been several shows that I've been sucked into over the years and have come to adore. I've just been rewatching the first three seasons of The Office, and even though it's a comedy, it's great to see such depth of character development that when you get to the Season 3 finale, you're left with something really heartwarming and real.

    It's also why I'm a West Wing junkie and own the complete series box set. Watching that series from beginning to end (all 45 DVD's and ~110 hours of it!), is really a cinematic experience and brings you to such a place where you feel like the characters are real people that you could sit down and have lunch with. The virtues they expound are deep and emotive, and cause you to really think. Anyway... I agree, TV in and of itself isn't all bad. Just mostly. ;-)