Paul Nitze: Tuesday Night Lights
September 29, 2010
Football season’s in full swing, so most of the early-week talk in my office revolves around boy wonder Josh McDaniels and his underwhelming Broncos. Personally, my season hasn’t started yet. I’m waiting for Oct. 27, when the Dillon Panthers take the field.
In case you are one of the overwhelming majority of Americans who don’t watch the show, the Panthers are the fictional high school football team featured in “Friday Night Lights.” Season five of the series starts this fall on NBC, and it will be the last time Coach Taylor screams at his recruits from the sidelines.
A frenzied effort by the show’s fans saved it from being canceled after season three. Peter Berg (calling all “Aspen Extreme” fans) brilliantly adapted Buzz Bissinger’s book, first for the movie, and then for the TV show. But the show has never cracked the top 50 in the Nielsen ratings, and never justified its production costs.
FNL addicts will assure you it’s not about the football. It’s about the setting – scenes are shot on location in Austin, Texas, and the nearby town of Pflugerville. Sets are kept to a minimum and there’s plenty of flatland flavor. It’s also about the casting – Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have both been nominated for Emmys. Each season requires new actors to be cast for the team, so there’s always fresh blood.
Above all, it’s about the story line. Bissinger’s book just turned 20, and is now considered a classic piece of sports journalism. It follows the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, in their pursuit of the 1988 Texas state title. The writing hasn’t gotten stale, but the relentless demonstrations of Odessans’ ignorance are too harsh in hindsight.
FNL’s writers have kept the local color but balanced out the narrative. It’s the rare show that can layer “conservative” and “liberal” plot lines without becoming a pastiche. Season four followed a Dillon student’s anguish over having an abortion without glossing the moral choices. It also told a more traditional story (at least for network television) about a black quarterback’s journey from the drug trade to team leader.
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Compromised characters are the norm. Thursday villains become Friday night heroes. Not much else happens in Dillon, so football’s the thing. People who would otherwise cross the street to avoid each other come together in search of championship rings.
If you’ll allow me the presumption, the show’s guiding theme is that there’s a lot of useful territory between outright distrust and friendship. During the course of a season Coach Taylor has all sorts of people over to his house for dinner – team boosters, players, teachers, parents. The dinners are invariably awkward, with lots of plate-scratching, platitudes and pauses. But the same people who stare at the wall during dinner help each other chalk up wins on Friday night.
It’s a fruitful coincidence that the last season of FNL begins a week before the midterm elections. I’m hoping the Washington political class tunes in. A dose of FNL might help next year’s Congress navigate two years of what is sure to be sickening gridlock.
We’ve got one issue, the economy, at the top of voters’ wish list. We’ve got a general prescription for our fiscal ills, which is a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts. And we’ve even got a bipartisan commission that’s about to produce a set of recommendations to Congress.
What we don’t have is the will to engage. Many candidates this cycle have taken the surreal step of making themselves invisible on the campaign trail. Christine O’Donnell, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Delaware, recently had no scheduled campaign events. Colorado’s own Ken Buck now refuses to speak at most campaign events for fear of being tagged by the Democratic tracker who follows him around.
Candidates only speak to reporters of their own choosing and only go on friendly TV networks. Or, if you’re Sarah Palin, you don’t speak to reporters at all. Debates happen from time to time, but most of the campaigning is done on the airwaves. Both parties are buoyed by huge soft-money ad buys from anonymous interest groups.
If this is the state of the 2010 campaign cycle, you can imagine what will happen when an evenly balanced House and Senate begin work next year. Virtually nothing is going to get done. There will be no Ws to put up on the board after the first Tuesday in November.
FNL stands for the notion that flawed people can occasionally accomplish great things. It shows that a whole lot of misunderstanding and mistrust can be side-stepped in the pursuit of common goals. Too bad Coach Taylor isn’t headed to Washington.
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