This evening, NBC will air the third episode of its new series, "Friday Night Lights
." It's of course based on the H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger book
and Peter Berg movie
of the same name. Unfortunately, the show isn't getting very good ratings
. And that's just sorry
, because the tv version of "Friday Night Lights" is as good as television drama gets
So why are so few people watching? A few theories.Been there, done that.
Yes, the tv show is based on the book and movie. So maybe people think it's just a re-made rehash, something akin to the "Uncle Buck"
tv show, starring the poor man's John Candy, Kevin Meany. But it isn't! The book/movie were the true story of the 1988 Odessa High football team, and while there were plenty of good stories in that community, the book/movie stayed tethered to what actually happened. Most notably, the team didn't win a rousing state championship, as probably would have happened in an original work. But the tv show is about the fictional "Dillon Panthers." Sure, there are similarities -- they're both set in a small Texas town where football is king, and the team's star suffers a devastating injury early in the season -- but the tv show's Dillon team has so much more potential for storylines. And, most notably, the tv team can play for more than one season, allowing us to get to know different players and allowing for different endings to the seasons. Plus, the tv show lasts many more hours than the book/movie, so even if it just told the same story, it could tell it at a much deeper level. Here's a nice story
on some of the actors and a behind-the-scenes look at the production.Football burnout.
Maybe the desired audience is just tired of watching football after maybe going to a Friday night high school game, followed by college ball on Saturday and the pros on Sunday and Monday. By Tuesday, maybe they don't want any more football. I have my doubts about this one, and not just because I don't watch the pros and therefore like my mid-week amatuer gridiron fix. First, football is the most popular sport in America, and people watch games whenever they're on, as evidenced by ESPN's programming. Also, in the age of TiVo, viewers could sandwich "FNL" into their weekend football blitzes if they wanted.Women think there's too much football.
Maybe women or non-football fans are turned off by what they assume is a show that's just another football game. (I note that women make up a large percentage of NFL viewers
, though, so I'm just talking about the other
women.) But "FNL" is about so much more. Connie Britton, who plays the Coach's wife on the tv show and had the same role in the film, said on "Conan O'Brien" last week that she wouldn't have taken the tv role if it were just another bit-part supportive-wife character. Her role has been significantly beefed up in the tv series. And we get to see a lot more from the cheerleaders and girlfriends, the boosters, and the players' families, too. The show really paints a picture of how important football is in Dillon, the pressures facing the players and coaches, and what these lives are like. And while it's built around football, it's really about a lot of little human dramas, football being a big one but not the only one. (I loved the scene where the backup quarterback was trying to learn the plays while working at Dairy Queen.) Plus, there hasn't been a ton of football in the first two episodes: other than some practice scenes, the second episode only showed part of a kickoff. I think I can reliably say that you don't have to be a big football fan to enjoy "FNL." In fact, it might be worth watching just to puzzle over how damn important football is to these people, amidst all the other problems in a small town. Gossipy parent committees, the hell of teenagers, money woes, an absent-minded husband, etc. -- even non-football fans can identify with these themes.Men think there's not enough football.
I can see some football maniacs being wary of the show if they think it's just a bunch of heartwarming stories meant to draw in female viewers. But it isn't! One thing I've noted is that the show's writers don't dumb down the football. It wouldn't have been too surprising to see, say, a vapid cheerleader ask, "What's a cornerback?" so the show could have some exposition. But the football is sufficiently interesting and avoids all that crap. True, you don't have to know what a counter is to know that Dillon can't block one, or know what a skinny post is to know that Dillon's receiver can't run one. But a hardcore football fan would feel rewarded for knowing this minutiae, and understand things on a bit deeper level. True, not all the football action has been entirely logical
(although you have to be watching pretty closely to catch a minor yardage discrepancy). But the game action we've seen has been pretty good, and more realistic than those stupid "Briscoe High" Nike commercials
. And, as the season progresses, I'm sure we'll see more. Plus, football fans shouldn't worry -- the whole series is about
football. Even if the show is something more than a game film, everything revolves around football. Hardcore fans can identify with that, and maybe see a little of themselves in the boosters and alumni holding up their old state title rings to remind everyone of their fading glory (or, if you prefer, the town's shining legacy).
I really hope that the reason people aren't watching "FNL" is the competition, ABC's celebrity-dancing show. But if it is, maybe the "FNL" ratings will pick up once that show has its finale next month. Still, what's a shame is that "FNL" is closer to a "reality" show than any Jerry Springer Does Disco train wreck. And that's what makes "FNL" such a wonderful show: it's the most authentic show about modern small town life out there. This essay
discusses this a little more. But I noticed one telling example in the second episode. The town turns to prayer after the star player's injury. Leave aside the fact that "FNL" treats this religious aspect of Dillon's DNA more honestly than any other Hollywood show. The camera shows us a black congregation at prayer, and then the white church the coach's family attends. Way too many shows would have artificially integrated the churches, but "FNL" is too authentic for that. No one commented on it, but nor would they in real life. It's just the way things are in small towns like this. The white fullback and black halfback hate each other, but it's not about race, and that feels authentic, too.
I've gone on long enough that you'll probably think I'm on the show's payroll or something. And by now it should be pretty obvious that I think "Friday Night Lights" is the best show on television. So I really hope more people start watching, so I can see more episodes. You can catch up on the NBC website
; the show airs Tuesdays at 8:00 eastern. And if you think mine is a gushing review, check out this one from the New York Times
(link via Althouse
Lord, is "Friday Night Lights" good. In fact, if the season is anything like the pilot, this new drama about high school football could be great -- and not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting, great in the way of art with a single obsessive creator who doesn't have to consult with a committee and has months or years to go back and agonize over line breaks and the color red; it could belong in a league with art that doesn't have to pause for commercials, or casually recap the post-commercial action, or sell viewers on the plot and characters in the first five minutes, or hew to a line-item budget, or answer to unions and studios, or avoid four-letter words and nudity...And the fact that Peter Berg wrote and directed the premiere of "Friday Night Lights" within the confines of television production -- network television production, at that -- means that it's certainly great...."Friday Night Lights" is a wonder.