“Pilot” (season one, episode one; originally aired 10/3/2006)
Friday Night Lights is very much a show that teaches you how to watch it. That’s something we bandy around a lot, in TV-critic land—but often, I think also certain shows teach you how to watch other shows. Girls trains you, to some degree, to understand Looking; Friends teaches us how to watch How I Met Your Mother. Most shows are built on longstanding tradition, so most of the time, they’re relying on their audience to know the grammar and syntax of television already.
Friday Night Lights is remarkable for many reasons, but the first thing that hits you, in the pilot, is how different it looks and feels from other shows on television. It’s not totally revolutionary—really, it’s borrowing and amplifying a lot of techniques from film. But the first episode of Friday Night Lights feels more like a long, detailed music video than it does an episode of an NBC drama—the takes are long and shaky; the setting takes up a lot of the show’s interest, as the camera tracks by Texas landscapes and the signs in front of houses in Dillon.
Looking back on this pilot—because this is only the second time I’ve watched it—it’s satisfying to realize that the show already was demonstrating how magnificent it was going to be. Not that the show isn’t flawed—it is. But it’s clear that the people behind Friday Night Lights—a collection of producers, helmed by Peter Berg, who developed the series for television—had a vision for what Friday Night Lights was going to feel like. And whatever ended up being the first season of Friday Night Lights feels very much like the full realization of that vision. That’s rare enough, on TV, which is a medium built by committee.
Berg’s background was more film than TV—he directed the movie Friday Night Lights, which preceded the television show (and was based on the book by Buzz Bissinger). TV ended up being the right medium for Friday Night Lights—or, at least, the most immortal. This isn’t a story about a beginning and an end; this is a story about continuance. Continuance and repetition; the same things happen every fall, when football season starts. It’s built for serialization.
With the exception of a few crucial scenes, the entirety of this episode is told in overlapping layers. The sound mixing overlaps—the radio interrupts itself and the scenery and the dialogue between the characters and sounds of playing football and even the non-diegetic music that accompanies a few of the moments. The camerawork overlaps—no one is filmed head-on, steadily, deliberately. Everything is approached from the side, shakily, at an angle, or for just a quick moment. It’s a kind of pastiche—a patchwork of impressions of Dillon, that together make up a shifting, constantly changing whole. The show privileges impressions over cohesion—the chatter of a community over any one monologue.
It wouldn’t be possible if the show weren’t obsessed with detail. The show is almost impossibly rich with detail—from the accents and verbal tics that crop up in Texas speech to the state championship rings worn by the older men in town and the signs up on everyone’s lawns, proclaiming that a football player lives here. (The detail that particularly gets me is the little good-luck tap every football player gives the Panthers sticker that is up by the door in the locker room.) What makes Friday Night Lights evergreen—and what makes it more than just a very good high school soap opera—is how detailed and authentic the production is. Peter Berg, reportedly, made filming in Texas a requirement for producing the show, and a good thing, too. Texas is too unique and particular to film in L.A. and pretend it’s somewhere else. And the unique beauty and hardships of the place come out even in just the opening shots, which are seemingly filmed out of cars driving through town.
The filming style of this show is also key. I’m relating what I learned from Maureen Ryan’s writing on the show at the Huffington Post here, but: The producers deliberately steered the show away from set pieces and steadicams and blocking. Scenes were instead scripted and then immediately filmed, without rehearsal. Actors were given the freedom to interpret or change the lines as they saw fit. When Friday Night Lights says “authentic,” they mean authentic. The show is lived-in and organic and evolving, and right from the first episode, the actors all seem like they have lived in their roles for years.
It’s a very journalistic style—which speaks to the Peabody award that Friday Night Lights won during its run—but it’s also exciting. This is a show presenting the many authentic layers of Dillon, Texas. It lets you, the viewer, sneak in under one layer and over another to be in the action. It presents the show as a story about a whole community—not just one coach, or one player. It also demonstrates a lot of flexibility on the part of the show itself—the combination of light and sound that comes through your screen. When Friday Night Lights wants to be energetic and enthusiastic, the entire tone of the show ramps up—the layers come faster. When it wants to slow down, the pieces move more slowly, and begin to blur in slow motion.
There is something about this style that can become a little grating. At times, Friday Night Lights verges on sanctimonious and self-serious—Texas isn’t all happiness and sunshine, as I think most Texans would attest to. The authenticity at times makes some characters pretty infuriating. Some of the characters, over the course of the show, lost all their charm for me.
But today we’re in the pilot, and the pilot is gorgeous.
The first three characters we see are Coach Taylor, looking out over his football field; Matt Saracen, cleaning up after his grandma; and Tim Riggins, passed out drunk on the couch. You hear about Jason Street before you see him—everyone else is talking about him. Tyra sneaks into the frame as part of Riggins’ life; Landry as part of Saracen’s. Using all of this overlapping and sneaking, Friday Night Lights introduces you to all the characters by using very careful, very precise editing: That must be Jason Street. Tyra hates Lyla Garrity. That girl must be a cheerleader. That kid and Riggins don’t like each other.
And using that editing, the first episode builds up a lot of tangible atmosphere, very quickly. (This is, on the whole, a very atmospheric show.) At first there is expectation and anticipation; then, the crashing aggression of practice. Then the circus that is Coach and Mrs. Coach fielding social inquiries at the dealership. Then the music-only montage with the kids’ league. Then the quiet, close conversation with Lyla, Riggins, Tyra, and Street. And then the game, which heightens the anticipation even more now that you know all these people are. By the time those lights actually turn on, it’s almost painful, how much you need the game to start. It also feels significant—because the show has worked to make it significant.
It’s not, however, until Jason Street takes a bad hit on the field and permanently injures its spine that the pilot finds cohesion, though. All of this pastiche and atmosphere-building is lovely, but the episode doesn’t ground itself until Street’s injury becomes a town-wide problem. (I really think of it as “the drop” in a dubstep song; it’s a tonal drop, but still. You might be enjoying the first part, but you’re still waiting for the drop.)
My editor and desk-neighbor Erik Adams laughed outright at me when I was re-watching this episode, because I audibly gasped at a few of the critical moments of the game. I don’t even like football that much. But the way the game is shot—and the coherence of the plays, even for a rube like myself—is still captivating, even though I knew exactly how it would end.
It ends with Jason Street in the hospital, unconscious while a rookie wins his game for him. The doctors cut through his jersey and drill through his helmet and cut him open. They are literally eviscerating him, because football is literally everything he is. Ultimately, Jason’s story isn’t my favorite in the series, but it is important, and for now, it is what the story is built around.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- Welcome to the TV Club Classic reviews of Friday Night Lights. After this week, I’ll take on two episodes each Thursday, and then tackle the finale on its own terms. That’s 14 weeks of Texas goodness.
- Also, I’m sorry this one came in well after the scheduled 3 p.m. Central time.
- “Extra room in the bathroom has saved more marriages than Oprah and Dr. Phil combined.”
- “Lyla, I love you more than anything in the world.” “More than football?” “More than almost anything in the world.”
- “Let’s touch God this time, boys.” Tim Riggins is the series’ poet.
- “Do you think God loves football?” “I think everyone loves football.” “Me, too.”
- The Family Coach: I love that in this episode, the show immediately establishes just how much the Taylors love and rely on each other, even though they’re often speaking totally different languages. Tami keeps repeating “his and hers closets” like it’s a magic spell and Julie is annoying her dad about Moby Dick. Also the Taylors have the best marriage, and I will be spending a lot of time talking about that, so buckle up.
- “Lock up your daughters, sit down, and shut up: It’s game night!” Apparently they got actual color commentators from the area for these voiceovers, which makes it all the better.