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Friday Night Lights: On the Page and on the Small Screen

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Just as Rick Perry has been haunting the announced Republican candidates in Iowa in preparation for his own entry into the campaign, Texas has been haunting me in the past week. Everywhere I look: Texas. I got through a marathon viewing of season four of Friday Night Lights only to discover that Netflix wasn’t making season five available for instant viewing and the network was only making the final few episodes available on the net. Most of Mao’s Last Dancer, a film I picked up earlier in the week, takes place in Houston. One of the books I have been reading, The Shooting Salvationist, deals with a true crime and trial in Midland and Austin; and the other which I have just finished in my Friday Night Lights binge is the H. G. Bissinger book on which the TV series was based.

While that may be just about as much Texas in one week as any Northeasterner can reasonably be expected to suffer without some long-term damage, I must confess that the TV series sucked me in with a passion. If George Bush’s Texas was anathema, Coach Eric Taylor’s was another thing altogether. Sure they were football crazy, but here in Steeler country that isn’t necessarily something to be disparaged. And, although as the episodes progressed with romances (teen and adult), divorces, and abortions, the series began to take on something of a soap opera aura, it was still compelling enough to keep this viewer watching and intrigued enough to check out the original source even though it was now over 20 years old.

It is interesting how much more critical of Texas football and the social environment in general Bissinger’s book is compared to the TV series. It is not that the TV series shies away from the problems. Race, economic disparity, fundamentalism, educational issues—all these problems are dealt with in one way or another in the course of the series. Indeed in many respects these are issues that become even more important than the fanaticism about football that is the major focus of the book. It is not that the series sugarcoats these problems. It treats them as seriously as they are treated in the book. The difference is that the series creates a fictional Dillon, peopled with characters who may have their faults but who have their good points as well. They are shown trying to deal with all sorts of problems, often problems not related to football. The real Odessa is a much starker place. The only people Bissinger is really concerned with are the football players and perhaps some of their family members. Moreover everything is seen as it is related to football. It is always the game that is front and center.

Coaches in the book, for example, are much more callous than those on TV. Coach Taylor as played by Kyle Chandler is hard on his players but he cares for them deeply. He will go out on a limb for them; he is there for them when they need him. He is there for them even when they don’t want him there. Coach Gaines, Odessa’s Permian coach, is hard on his players, but once they can no longer help his team, he has no interest in them. If he has any interest in anything beyond football we never hear anything about it. Coach Taylor has a home life; Coach Gaines exists only on the field and in the locker room. Gaines never really emerges as a human being.

It is by humanizing characters that the TV series takes a truly interesting sociological study and turns it into a work of dramatic art. It is by giving the coach a wife who has more to worry about than fans complaining that she stands in their way during the game; it is by giving him a teenage daughter with a mind of her own, and then adding a newborn to deal with; moreover, it is by making their problems just as important as his. And what is true for the coach is just as true for most of the other characters on the show.

While traces of the characters in the book seem to find their way into some of those in the series—the introverted undersized quarterback, the rowdy hard-drinking running back with his string of girls, the black star looking for a scholarship to a major college—these are only traces. Over the weeks of the series, they develop; they become rounded individuals. Quality drama depends on character. It is in the careful development of character that the TV series excels. Bissinger is less interested in drama; not that he excludes it—he pumps the football games for all they’re worth—but his concern is sociological reportage. What he wants is just enough drama to make his point. Obviously the book and the series are doing two different things, and they are both doing them well.

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About Jack Goodstein