When Lorrie Moore wrote her New York Review of Books review of the Friday Night Lights phenomenon—the television series, the book, and the movie–she made sure she prefaced it with talk of ‘guilty pleasures’:
On my way to a Manhattan book party recently my mind was wandering to cultural guilty pleasures: sprightly but inane movies, or half-baked television programs no sophisticated person would admit to watching, as well as other aesthetic uncoolnesses….So it was, then, with great and satisfying surprise that almost immediately upon arriving at the party, I found myself locked in enthusiastic conversation in a corner with two other writers, all three of us, we discovered, solitary, isolated viewers of the NBC series Friday Night Lights. We spewed forth excitedly, like addicts—this was no longer a secret habit but a legitimately brilliant drama. Though the title might make the uninitiated think of shabbat candles, the show is actually about football in Texas, a state that I felt just then had not been this far east since the Bush administration.
In quoting Moore’s review–in a venue like the NYRB!–I am, it should be clear, getting my ‘guilty pleasure’ disclaimer out of the way. (Friday Night Lights–the television series–has plenty of weaknesses and some of them are apparent even in the first season. Nevertheless, I intend to watch it through to the end.)
Moore’s review concentrates on the show as drama, its characters, storyline progressions and the like. But how well does the series Friday Night Lights work as a sports drama? It employs the standard clichés of its genre in its game segments: the hyped-up aggressive opponent that gets its comeuppance, the come-from-behind last-minute victory hinging on a dramatic, unconventional play, the slow-motion tracking of the play, the internal tensions between team-players, dramatic conflict between coaches and players, sideline shots of anxious, disgruntled spectators, and so on. (A standard in the school sports movie genre is the struggling team taken to new heights by the inspired coach. Friday Night Lights does not follow that template; it begins with a successful team being taken over by a successful coach; their real problem is living up to the expectations of their town.)
These clichés are such an integral part of the sports drama lexicon and grammar that I’m entirely unsure of how any product of that genre could do without them. What makes them work in Friday Night Lights is that the show is only incidentally about football; it is about high-school life in a small Texas town at a particular time in America. (And thus, it brings us the Iraq war, drug abuse, racism, sexism, and all of the rest.) If there was any more football in Friday Night Lights, it wouldn’t work; the sports clichés would overwhelm us. The reason they work in Friday Night Lights is because the show–in somehow convincing us gullible types seeking ‘guilty pleasures’ that the players are school-going athletes prone to their vulnerabilities and foibles–manages to make the football both sideshow and centerpiece. It realizes, as smarts sports movies do, that the sports on the field is only interesting when the characters involved in the game are. To that end, it brings out the entire bag of tricks available to storytellers of the television story and throws them at its material. This method is transparently, shamelessly, and finally, effectively manipulative.