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Thursday, February 10, 2011

12 Things Television Can Learn From 'Friday Night Lights'

Get out your hankies: The series finale of 'Friday Night Lights' airs Wednesday on DirecTV, and the show's hourlong swan song is as wonderful and moving as you'd want it to be.

Most FNL fans are not going to see the series finale until it airs on NBC later this year (the show's fifth and final season arrives on NBC April 15, and if you can't wait that long, you can get the season 5 DVD set April 5). For that reason, I'm not going to dwell on the particulars of the finale here (for those watching on DirecTV, I'll post a piece on 'Always,' the final episode of the show, on Thursday).

What follows is a non-spoiler-y celebration of what the show accomplished in the past five seasons. 'Friday Night Lights' was very good when it started, but it quickly developed into one of the most innovative, moving and thoughtful shows of the modern era. It wasn't perfect, but television as a whole could learn a lot from what FNL did well.

There will never be another Dillon, Texas, but if the storytellers of the small screen take these lessons to heart, one day, we might get a show that touches our hearts as often FNL did.

Lessons Learned From 'Friday Night Lights'

Stories About Teenagers Don't Have to Be Stupid
Let's face it, most television stories involving teen characters are boring, clichéd or irritating in the extreme. Instead of being depicted as complicated human beings navigating a challenging time in their lives, teens are most often shown as bratty, self-absorbed whiners (in our house, due to frequent use, we've abbreviated this complaint to STP -- Stupid Teenager Plot). 'Friday Night Lights' was that rare show that depicted the turbulent lives of teenagers without being condescending, predictable or sensationalistic. It occasionally fumbled in this arena, but most of the time, the show gave us teen characters who were not only realistic and compelling but occasionally quite admirable.

Committed Couples Can Be Fascinating to Watch
If you want to make a television critic's head explode, tell him or her that it's better if television couples with great chemistry never get together. That belief -- much beloved by some network executives and writers -- was proven wrong time and time again by Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor. For five seasons, it was tremendous pleasure to see realistic married life, with all of its challenges and victories, depicted on the small screen. It helped that Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler gave such truthful, nuanced and well-calibrated performances, but the real lesson here is that viewers will wholeheartedly embrace characters who are deeply in love if the relationship is approached with subtlety, intelligence and a sense of humor. The story of a relationship can be far more interesting than the endless flirtation that some TV executives seem to think we want.

Silence Is Golden
I love clever TV dialogue -- up to a point. But on 'Friday Night Lights,' which famously allowed its actors to improvise and use the script as a jumping-off point, characters talked like normal people. They hesitated, they stumbled, they found unlikely eloquence, and sometimes, they said nothing at all. Coach Taylor's heart-piercing locker-room speeches are of course one of the show's great legacies, but when FNL is gone, what I may remember most are a series of charged, silent moments between characters. FNL followed these characters so closely that we knew what they were going through without having to be told. The show knew that sometimes words fail, and love and heartbreak live in those spaces.

A Show Can Recover From a Seemingly Fatal Mistake
I don't want to specify what FNL's biggest mistake was, because I don't want to reveal too much to those who want to catch up with the show later via DVD. And if you're wavering about that, let me be clear: Whatever its fumbles and foibles, FNL is well worth watching in full if you've never seen it. But fans know that the show made a very big mistake at the start of one season, an error that nearly upset the show's delicate equilibrium for good. it took a while, but somehow the show righted itself after that, and better yet, FNL clearly learned from that mistake. We didn't see anything like it in subsequent seasons.

Location, Location, Location
In the last couple of years, dozens of new shows have looked cheap, generic and boring. Whether they're airing on network or cable, far too many shows look like they were made in Anytown, USA (or, more likely, Anytown, Canada). 'Friday Night Lights' was very clearly rooted to a particular place and culture, and producers' decision to film only in existing locations in Texas turned out to be a genius move. There was an authenticity to this tale of life in a small Texas town, and that's because every single scene was shot in a real place in or around Austin. Many of the actors in smaller roles came from the area, and some weren't even actors (an example of the show's local-flavor greatness: A season 1 Landry-Saracen scene set in a jewelry shop. The local merchant cast in the scene killed). Here's the irony for penny-pinching network types: 'FNL' was very economical to make. Shooting quickly with three cameras at once, using mostly natural light and filming in a relatively cost-effective locale made FNL a bargain, production-wise. And it looked like nothing else on television.

Young Actors, Given the Right Material and Environment, Are Capable of Extraordinary Work
Like the teenagers that Coach and Tami took under their wing, the younger FNL cast members were placed in a nurturing environment in which much was asked of them -- and they delivered. For many of these young actors, FNL was their first major gig, and one shudders to think what would have happened if they'd been cast in some throwaway, copycat drama instead. They might well have coasted on their good looks and never attempted to grow as performers. But season after season, the show's younger cast stepped up and delivered astonishing work. They learned from their elders (Britton and Chandler were clearly excellent teachers), and the young actors' careers have prospered as a result.

Broadcast Television Is Capable of Nurturing Greatness
Everybody, including me, likes to beat up on the broadcast networks for largely bypassing challenging dramas in favor of copycat procedurals and by-the-numbers "event" programs. Last fall's failure of another Texas-set drama, 'Lone Star,' made many TV critics even more fearful that the networks would give up on ambiguous, complex stories altogether. So it's worth remembering that, at its lowest point, NBC commissioned this gem and largely left its creators alone to make the show they wanted to make. Credit where its due: Kevin Reilly (now of Fox) gave the show life and kept it going during his tenure at the network, and, though it kills me to give Ben Silverman any praise for anything, during that executive's disastrous time at NBC, the network made an innovative deal with DirecTV that ensured that that we got a total of 76 episodes of FNL. Sometimes extraordinary things rise from the ashes of mediocrity.

Innovative Thinking Can Lead to Long-Term Survival, Which in Turn Leads to Long-Term Profits
For years and years and years, people will be buying FNL in whatever formats techies dream up. Perhaps future generations will have Panthers games beamed directly into their brains. However it happens, FNL will live on and continue to make money for those who showed faith in it. Props to NBC Universal and DirecTV executives for seeing a future for this show when it would have been an easier decision to cancel it or pass it by. Let's hope current and future TV executives are as forward-thinking.

"Controversial" Stories Can Be Handled With Respect and Thoughtfulness
Too many shows shy away from hot-button issues, or use them as stunt fodder during sweeps periods. But FNL took on abortion and racism; it featured characters who got in trouble with the law and drank too much; it gave prominent roles to interesting, complicated characters in wheelchairs. And my goodness, we saw dozens of examples of bad or non-existent parenting. But the show did not make these topics fodder for Very Special Episodes: These themes and ideas were woven into the characters' everyday lives and presented without condescension or timid predictability. It's not that FNL handled each of these complex issues perfectly; it was occasionally a bit heavy-handed. But what's admirable is that the show took on these issues at all, without issuing tidy judgments about what the audience should think.

Revamping a Cast Doesn't Have to Be a Disaster
Most shows hit a speed bump when characters go off to college or otherwise move on with their lives, but not FNL, which has now cycled through a few different cast lineups. Though it took time for each new round of actors to settle in, and not every character left a mark on the show, FNL has been remarkably successful at getting the audience to invest in each new crop of Dillon residents. Of course, bringing back season 1 and 2 characters for transitional farewell arcs helped, as did having a solid foundation of Dillon residents who never left the town. There's part of me that will always love the Season 1 cast best, but as new people entered the Taylors' world, I came to care about them more than I would have thought possible.

Try Focusing on Communities, Not Just a Few Lead Characters
By the end of the show's run, Dillon was the star of FNL. We got to know these people and this town over time, and we got to see how the residents learned to look past each other's faults and draw strength from each other. Perhaps the wellspring of FNL's brilliance was the way in which it celebrated connections of all kinds. "Story line after story line on FNL is about having responsibility for someone else,' Time critic James Poniewozik wrote in an excellent appreciation of the show. "...The underlying theme is, we need each other. Everyone, even a teenager, is part of a web of dependence." This portrait of a small, beleaguered yet resilient town was so detailed that it was impossible not to feel compassion for the people in it. I'll take that over some star vehicle about a hot-shot lawyer any day.

'Friday Night Lights' Proved That Grown Men Can Be Made to Cry by Something Other Than Pixar Movies and 'Rudy.'

I'll have much more to say about the show in a piece on the finale that will be posted Thursday. Fans of the show will probably want to check out these FNL celebrations: TV Guide's history of the show (here, here and presumably Part 3 will be posted here Wednesday), Poniewozik's essay and critic Alan Sepinwall's look back at the show's high points (which does discuss plot details of previous seasons).

Stepping into the wayback machine, my coverage of the first four seasons of 'FNL' can be found on my old site. During show's first season, I was lucky enough to visit the set of 'FNL,' where I interviewed most of the show's cast and wrote a long story about the show's innovative production style. All of those stories can be found here. Forgive the blast from the past, but that visit to FNL in Texas remains one of the high points of my career.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.


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