I recently proposed to a couple of friends that critically adored, unwatched Friday Night Lights (first 4 seasons now available on Netflix!) is superior to critically adored, unwatched The Wire. It was a provocation to be sure, and although TV critics mostly love FNL, The Wire reigns supreme in most minds with its coherent vision, scope, and depth. The Wire grew as a strange, beautiful anomaly, almost existing outside the world of TV entirely — a revolution in episode format.
In this light, Friday Night Lights is just so darn quaint. It doesn’t break any ground plot-wise; there are no political struggles to chart or social issues to pioneer. There’s no attempt to depict the world as “real”; the show breezes by plausibility, entirely content with television reality. Where The Wire sprawled its cast over a huge ensemble without any “main characters,” FNL fixes itself on a coach’s family and a football team.
And yet, FNL and The Wire both study the stark contrasts in the way they view America. FNL is rural; The Wire is urban. FNL is all about the prospect of moving up to middle class success; The Wire is about how success is almost always impossible from the perspective of poverty. FNL revels in its genre tropes — the cheerleader torn between her boyfriend and the “bad boy,” the coach’s daughter and the quarterback, the last-minute play that saves the day; The Wire refuses almost all genre trappings of the police/crime procedural — the police don’t solve the cases; the good guys don’t win; and everything is painted in shades of maddening gray.
These differences, from the cosmetic to the fundamental, create two diametrically opposed worlds. At their cores, these two shows believe in love and community in different ways, though they construct their worlds in similarly authentic ways (both shows filmed heavily on location — The Wire in Baltimore, and FNL outside Austin, TX). For The Wire, the physical place of Bulletmore feeds its own malignancy, spreading its tendrils into its newest residents and binding them closer to its poisons. Love may help mend wounds, but it is always secondary to the dynamics of power (see Beadie and McNulty). For FNL, Dillon’s strength is its community, a family built around the super-family of the Taylors that can hold together the most difficult residents. Love is an afterthought for The Wire, but it builds the essential foundation for FNL. Love here is not a means to an end or a distraction for side plots; it is the main attraction. If anything, the football almost distracts from the characters we care about.
I acknowledge Friday Night Lights has all the cliches and tropes and types of a high school drama, in the vein of 90210 or The O.C. et al. Attractive 25-year-olds play 16-year-olds, facing all the teen pregnancies, rivalries, petty disagreements and rebellion of teenagerdom. But FNL rises above its predecessors, and even comparable contemporaries (One Tree Hill comes to mind), in its willingness to take these characters and their problems sincerely. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, in particular, do phenomenal acting work as Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor, providing that ever-so-rare element in a show about teenagers — realistic, strong adults in a solid marriage. The show possesses a workmanlike quality — lunch-pail “git’er done” heart and authenticity that the characters wear easily.
Consider a scene in which Tami counsels her now sexually active daughter, Julie — a scene that in the wrong hands can land anywhere from treacly to sermonizing to horribly unbelievable. In any other teenage drama, this becomes either a joke where the parent is totally clueless, or an eye-rolling performance by the sullen teenager. Instead, the series gives us a tear-jerking moment of a mother at once scared, protective, resigned and understanding, while her daughter takes in the wisdom of her mom. The lines themselves are nothing special, but so are the lines we say at the most important times in our own lives. No one talks like Aaron Sorkin writes, but everyone feels the way that characters on FNL feel. When a human being says to another human being, “I’m proud of you,” those words can mean nothing or they can mean everything. On FNL, every word means every bit of itself.
A recent study of television programs finds that the most popular shows for tweens (ages 9 to 11) no longer uphold community values as their chief virtue, choosing fame instead. American Idol, iCarly, Hannah Montana, et al. provide a world where fame and fortune can open doors for any teenager, while a sense of deeper community and friendship is left behind. In this sense, then, Friday Night Lights was truly transgressive — a show in a time of massive urbanization, soundstage sitcoms and prepackaged stars that dared to hold its backwater football-obsessed hick town as a crucible for the molding of great men and women.
And this, to me, is where Friday Night Lights rises past The Wire or The Sopranos. Those shows are inherently about power and politics — wrangling for position in an endless game. Their characters are engrossing; their plotlines fascinating. FNL elides those complex webs of power and struggle, in search of the emotional core of humanity. Even at its most dramatic, The Wire never made me cry. (SPOILER ALERT) When Poot can’t bear to shoot Wallace or when Carver finds Randy in the hospital, I am captivated, but not moved. Friday Night Lights pulls me off the couch, throws my fists in the air, drags tears from my eyes, and makes me wish that everyone could live in Dillon, Texas and have Coach and Tami by their side through life. In that way, FNL takes the bigger risk, by refusing to be cynical, even in a world where one can’t stop losing or ending up in the same place.
The television was supposed to be a magical invention (“through the magic of television”) that could beam a friend or a moment or a piece of fantasy into your living room. The Wire may provide a window into a multilayered complex of struggles and desires, but to me, it doesn’t capture that magical essence of all that television can be. I love Friday Night Lights the way I love Capra movies or Gene Kelly musicals: they show me the way that we could be, the better angels of our nature. In its quiet way, FNL sneaks through the door conversations about race, religion, family, and love that only the fabric of community can resolve. None of us is perfect, but together, perhaps, we can all make it.
Clear eyes, full hearts, and, well, you know the rest.