Saturday, May 3, 2014

How To Say Goodbye: Coming-of-Age in Friday Night Lights

For those who haven't watched Friday Night Lights, this piece contains some spoilers. Ed.

Episodes 5 and 6 of season four of Friday Night Lights, which aired in 2010, may be the best two hours of television I’ve ever seen. They’re certainly the most poignant, and I couldn’t keep them out of my head for weeks after I watched them. Almost everyone I know loves Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg’s imaginative expansion of the H.G. Bissinger non-fiction volume about high school football in a small Texas town, yet it stayed under the radar and never made it into the running for the big awards. A narrow but steady audience kept it on the air for five seasons, though every year its fans were on tenterhooks, waiting to see whether it would get renewed for another season. When it returned for its second go-round, in 2007, the writers seemed to be caving in to network pressure to make it more conventional by threading in overblown plot lines. But the level of the acting, the series’ most striking element, never fell, and by the third season the melodrama had vanished and the writing was more delicately observant than ever.

The first three seasons of Friday Night Lights focused on the fortunes of the Dillon High School football team, the Panthers, led by Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), and on the lives of the players and of their parents and significant others, citizens of a town where the Friday night games are the most important event of the week and where Monday-morning quarterbacking is not just a tradition but a civic duty. (Eric inevitably has to sweep up the For Sale signs that jokers, probably in their cups, scatter on his lawn during the night after the Panthers lose a game.) In these episodes the Taylors are a thoroughgoing Dillon H.S. family: Eric’s wife Tami (Connie Britton) begins as a guidance counselor and then (in season three) becomes principal, and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teagarden) dates retiring, deeply sensitive Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), whom Eric molds into an accomplished quarterback when the gifted, charismatic Jason Street (Scott Porter) is paralyzed in a football accident in the show’s opening hour. Jason loses his girl friend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) – the daughter of Eric’s best friend, car salesman and Panther booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) – to his pal Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), a talented player whose ascension to adulthood has been hampered by alcoholic indolence, an ease at getting his way through sexual charm, a dearth of good male role models at home, and a deep-seated conviction that he’s essentially worthless. The other major teenage character is Tim’s ex-girl friend Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), a plain-spoken good ol’ girl whose tough act conceals a terror that she’s not good enough to make it into college and the wide world beyond Dillon. In season two she has a relationship with Matt’s nerdy, generous best friend Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and forges an unlikely friendship with Julie; the fact that both are A students suggests Tyra’s secret longing to be taken seriously. In the plausibly incestuous social landscape of the community, Buddy and his receptionist, Tyra’s mother Angela (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), have an affair that breaks up his marriage, while Tyra’s older sister Mindy (Stacey Oristano) winds up married to Tim’s brother Billy (Derek Phillips), who has been his unofficial and semi-competent guardian since their ne’er-do-well father deserted them.

At the end of season three, the writers scramble the original premise of the series, throwing its narrative future into mystery. The Dillon Panthers have picked up a young prodigy, a freshman named J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), whose father, Joe (D.W. Moffett), recognizes no moral restrictions in his efforts to build J.D. into a high school superstar. Eric, who is as devoted to turning his players into men as he is to the sport, insists on developing the boy slowly, as he would any other member of the team, resisting Joe’s tactics. Then he and Tami intervene when Joe, never satisfied with his son’s efforts on the field, shoves J.D. after a game, and the Taylors make enemies of the entire McCoy family. The season concludes with Joe persuading the Dillon boosters to replace Eric, who finds himself starting at the bottom again with a crew of inexperienced players at low-rent East Dillon High, where many more students are African American and there isn’t even money for uniforms.

Kyle Chandler & Zach Gilford
The show strives for a complex, layered naturalism in the writing, the direction (the visual style is documentary realism, densely edited from the footage from multiple cameras) and the acting (which is semi-improvised). The genre is coming-of-age drama, and the writers, headed by Jason Katims, are especially skilled at getting the varieties of adolescent confusion – social, sexual, moral, identity – and the temperature of parent-child interactions. And except, perhaps, for Joe McCoy, none of the characters has a predictable arc: everyone is capable of bad decisions and redemptive actions. When his East Dillon team gets not only trounced but physically beaten up during the first game of the season, Eric forfeits his match at half-time, a move that nearly costs him the loyalty and respect of both the novice players and his hold-over, Landry, who had to switch schools when the school districts were rezoned (one of Tami’s initiatives in her new appointment as Dillon High’s principal). Buddy Garrity, Angela Collette, Billy Riggins and Matt’s estranged mother Shelby (Kim Dickens) are among the characters who show sides we wouldn’t have expected; Buddy’s desperate efforts to win himself back into Lyla’s good graces after his indiscretions tear up his family provide some of the most touching scenes in the show’s first season. Not one of the dozens of parent-child encounters the series has dramatized since 2006 feels warmed-over or derived from TV and movies rather than from the bumpy, contradictory conversations that real fathers and mothers have with their real teenagers. In the first two seasons, while Jason Street has to learn to accept the permanency of his paralysis, the most talented Panther, Brian “Smash” Williams (the extraordinarily charismatic young actor Gaius Charles), struggles with a temptation to take the easy route, to bask in his stardom, to grab at the most lucrative offers from college recruiters, while Eric and Smash’s righteous mother (Liz Mikel, a big black woman with a magnificent gospel presence) work continuously to remind him that he has other values to honor. Eric and Tami, powerful mentors for so many young people – it’s Tami’s encouragement that eventually convinces Tyra she has it in her to be the first person in her family to attend college – have to learn to negotiate Julie’s teenage behavior as well as to acknowledge her sexuality. (Chandler, a far wittier performer than I’d imagined before seeing him on this show, has turned Eric’s masculine instincts into prime comic material, both in his scenes with Britton as his outspoken wife, a woman of many emotional colors – they have the sweetest, funniest and most realistic marriage on TV in this era – and in his scenes with Teagarden as his lovable but sometimes spiky daughter.) Even the McCoy father-son dynamic doesn’t go the way we might have guessed. For a while it looks as if Eric is playing good father to Joe’s bad father, but when he calls the cops on Joe, he loses his chance to offer J.D. an alternative model for how a man might conduct himself in the world. Instinctually, Joe leaps to his dad’s defense, and afterwards he’s firmly under Joe’s influence. In the fourth season (his last) he loses the vulnerability that initially made him seem so urgently worth saving, and he seems poised to turn into a juvenile version of his father.

Connie Britton & Aimee Teagarden

The most difficult challenge in sustaining a TV show through multiple seasons is the need to keep it fresh without violating the given personalities of the characters, which always feels opportunistic and random. (Eventually I stopped watching Gossip Girl, which I’d found lively and companionable, because the teen characters’ behavior had grown so inconsistent from week to week that they sometimes seemed to have been body-snatched.) The flip side of that problem, especially in a series that focuses on adolescents, is the need to allow the characters to develop while the audience, hooked on the familiar (and in love with the characters as they were introduced), wants them to stay the same. The best impulse – the novelistic impulse – is to move them past the comfort zone of the audience, but it almost never wins out on television; even on Alias, where the first couple of seasons were sensational, the dramatic situation eventually shifted back to the one the show had started out with, as if the slate had been wiped clean. And though most long-standing programs, of course, drop characters, it’s the very rare drama that knows how to say goodbye to them; getting rid of a character is often merely a commercial ploy, especially in high-octane shows like 24 or Lost, where the advertising promises that someone is going to die in the next episode. (ER was for many years the master at handling death and departure; the eulogies its writers crafted for its beloved women and men were among the show’s high points.)

Taylor Kitsch & Zach Gilford
Friday Night Lights always embraced its mandate as a coming-of-age series in a completely realist style, and as valedictories are a significant part of any boy or girl’s growing up, the moving-on theme is central to the narrative. Smash makes it to college; Jason leaves town to pursue employment opportunities in New York. When season four begins, Tyra and Lyla are both away at university. But Matt has opted to turn down a scholarship to a Chicago art school so that he can stay in Dillon to help Shelby take care of his grandmother (Louanne Stephens), who has bouts of dementia and whose son, Matt’s dad, is in Iraq – and to remain with Julie through her senior year. He gets a job delivering pizza and signs up for art classes at a local community college. Tim, too, walks away from a (football) scholarship; he’s bored with university classes and feels out of place, so he heads for home, where he thinks he can move back in with his brother and Mindy and go back to work in Billy’s automotive shop. But Billy and Mindy are expecting a baby and Tim’s in the way, so he has to rent space in a trailer in the back yard of a sympathetic barmaid (Alicia Witt) with whom he’s had a one-night stand. Meanwhile Matt is ill at ease. He knows that Julie will be going off to college in another year, so even if he doesn’t leave her she will eventually have to leave him. And his interactions with his art teacher and the sculptor he interns with, a cynical drunk who’s also a gifted artist, make him wonder if he’s made the wrong decision.

Matt's father's funeral service
These problems come to a head for both young men in the back-to-back episodes “The Son” and “Stay.” In the first, Matt gets the news that his father has been killed overseas. The hour is constructed around Gilford’s remarkably detailed and emotionally transparent portrayal of a boy who, having had to shoulder a man’s share of responsibilities throughout his high school career, now has to figure out how to balance his anger and grief when a father who has been unavailable to him all his life unexpectedly departs from it forever. Inherently modest, Matt tries not to make a spectacle of his profoundly mixed feelings, and he’s uncomfortable with the efforts of the people who love him to watch out for him and linger about him to meet needs he can’t yet identify. Matt is a well-brought-up Texas kid, polite and understated, but the pressures of his dad’s death bring his emotions right to the surface, and he can’t control them. He becomes unmoored, wild-hearted. Gilford has the adolescent fine tuning and go-for-broke emotionalism of a young James Dean, but he’s no showboater; a gentle, lyrical actor, he’s perhaps closer in style to Dean’s contemporary Montgomery Clift. (I don’t mean to use “showboater” as a pejorative here; Dean’s showboating is glorious – it has a grandiloquent musicality.) Gilford is such a superlative actor that he even managed to pull off Matt’s uncharacteristic falling-apart scenes in the second season, when the potboiler plot had him drinking too much and acting out in class. In “The Son,” however, Matt’s unusual behavior is entirely grounded. He admits to Julie and to his friends that the eulogy he wants to write for his father would list all the reasons why he hated him. When Joe and J.D. show up at the house with flowers, he slams the door in their faces. When the young soldier who accompanies the body, in a kind effort to say something comforting, recalls how funny his dad was, Matt looks at him as if he’d lost his mind and wonders aloud if the army might have sent the wrong corpse home. At the Taylors’ dinner table he can’t eat because, he says, he doesn’t like carrots and they’re touching the chicken on his plate – a response that he knows is childish and rude and that he immediately apologizes for. It’s as if some animus inside him were preventing him from setting his usual modesty in motion. That spirit, of course, is the wounded child who still wants the daddy who never paid enough attention to him. Then he has a sort of breakdown, while Julie looks on in tears, helpless to figure out what to do for him as he bursts into the street. Eric’s instincts, typically, are both generous and accurate: he simply walks the boy home in silence. This is a trademark move for Eric, who often hits a point with his boys where he doesn’t know what to do – you can see it in Chandler’s eyes – and reaches out blindly for his first impulse, which is often precisely the correct one. If we didn’t see that moment of bafflement – and if he didn’t make his share of mistakes – the show would be in danger of turning into Coach Knows Best. The writers of Friday Night Lights appear to have taken all the perils of this kind of drama into account from the outset.

The writing in this scene (by Rolin Jones) is beautiful and insightful, and it has a poetic rightness that the director, Allison Liddi, underscores. It follows a sequence that is almost as good. The funeral director strongly advises Matt – and Tami, who comes along to negotiate the funeral expenses for the inexperienced boy – to keep the casket closed, but later on, after drinking a few beers with Landry and the Riggins brothers, Matt works up the nerve to show up at the undertaker’s and demand to look at the body. He keeps his more intoxicated buddies at bay so the undertaker won’t mistake him for some wasted kid acting inappropriately, and then he keeps them from seeing what he sees in that coffin. Liddi is tactful enough to keep us, too, from seeing a man whose face has been shot off. And of course we don’t have to, since what Matt sees is reflected clearly in Zach Gilford’s stricken face.

Matt (Zach Gilford) begins to fall apart upon the death of his father

In “Stay,” what seemed to be small missteps in earlier episodes turn out to have been essential preparation for what the series had in mind. (“Stay” was written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Patrick R. Norris.) I found the earlier scenes between Matt and the sculptor a little forced, though the punch line – Matt’s discovery that this drunken lout, who denies him the smallest kindness or consideration, is capable of exquisite work – had resonance, and certainly their relationship was more believable than the one between ornery, self-involved Mark Rothko and his assistant (played by Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne) in the West End-to-Broadway transplant, John Logan’s Red. In one scene, Matt leaves Julie in the car while he drops something off at the artist’s home, and she wanders into the yard where the man is working and introduces herself. “Oh, so you’re his ball and chain,” he observes, adding, “Think I married you twenty years ago, babe.” This encounter freaks Julie out: she begins to wonder if she really might be holding Matt back. You can see why the show needed this exchange and Julie’s self-doubt in order to set up what happens between them in “Stay.” The episode parallels two farewells. In the aftermath of his father’s funeral, Matt wants to lose the embarrassment of his grief and the confusion of his mixed responses as quickly as possible. He keeps insisting to Julie and Landry that he’s fine, making it difficult for either to reach out to him. Landry reminds him that they’ve been best friends since they were five, and Matt acknowledges the bond. But they’re standing in Matt’s back yard, tossing a football, and the old tire swing has never looked sadder. (As one of my friends expressed it, Matt looks as if he’d die if he had to spend one more hour tossing the football with Landry.) Julie tries a leap of faith: she scores a pair of tickets to an indie rock festival in Austin and ignores her mother’s objections to her missing two days of school for something so frivolous, then neglects to tell Matt that she couldn’t secure her parents’ permission for the trip. You see both adult and teenage perspectives in the argument between Tami and Julie over the Austin road trip: of course Tami can’t allow Julie to go, and of course Julie knows she has to. Maybe she even senses that it’s her last chance to spend time with Matt, that he’s slipping away from her. He’s affectionate on the trip but his focus is wayward, and their conversation keeps veering into dangerous places. Did he stay in Dillon just for her? What happens when she goes away to college in the fall? When they say goodbye, he doesn’t tell her what’s going to happen next but she knows; she can barely get into her house before sliding onto the floor, weeping inconsolably, as she tells Tami that she thinks Matt is leaving. He drives to his house and peers through the window at his mother and grandmother, but the need to get out of this town is so strong that he can’t even pause to tell them he’s going, and how would he frame it anyway? He just keeps driving.

Taylor Kitsch & Minka Kelly
The other farewell is the delayed one between Tim and Lyla. Tim’s way of dealing with the physical distance between them when both were at college was, typically, to avoid dealing with it: he simply stopped calling. But she comes home for mid-term break and sees him at the funeral, and the next day she shows up at his trailer. They pick up where they left off, but she knows it’s only for a few days. He floats the idea of her sticking around to live with him and become a sort of glorified receptionist at Riggins’ Rigs, an idea so preposterous yet so sweet that it makes her smile. (“That’s your pitch, huh?” she asks him, in a softly needling tone.) “Stay” gives equal weight to Tim’s heartbreak and Lyla’s, and Minka Kelly, whose performance began to repeat itself in the second season, stakes out a whole new emotional region for herself. Tim’s landlady has a teenage daughter, Becky (Madison Burge), with a crush on Tim. (He isn’t interested but, with the kind of tenderness he’s always been capable of, he plays the role of older brother to this girl, who’s been neglected by both her absent father and her mother.) When Lyla comes by looking for him, Becky, who sees that he’s hung up on her, asks her questions about her life at college, and she’s able to express her own confusion. “I don’t know what I’m doing here,” she admits. Lyla and Tim are both trying to hold onto something that she knows – and he should know – she’s grown past. It’s not their love for each other, but the environment that engendered it, and Lyla has to throw the first away with the second; there’s no other way for her to grow up. After he sees her off at the bus, he goes back to Becky’s to drink beer and think about what he’s lost. Becky tries to cheer him up with some well-meant smiley-face doggerel about old loves and new loves. But just as in her scene with Lyla, the three-year difference between this high school sophomore and the departing lovers might as well be three decades; earnest and likable (though she tries too hard), Becky also seems impossibly callow and untried. As nicely as he can, Tim asks her to shut up – so he can nurse his heartbreak. In his great “Child’s Song,” the Canadian singer-songwriter Murray MacLachlan gave expression to a young man’s decision to leave home, a move that is at once natural and wrenching, inevitable and fraught. “Stay” is television’s purest equivalent to “Child’s Song.”

Friday Night Lights continually charts the distance between innocence and experience – not just through the juxtaposition of children and adults but also through the juxtaposition of young people who were children just a short season ago and teenagers who are entering the realm from which, hearts smashed, their older counterparts are now exiting. (When we watch Lyla in “Stay,” we remember the girl from season one who kept telling Jason that he would walk again and that she’d never leave him. Her two kinds of faith – Christian and romantic – couldn’t effect either of those miracles.) The show keeps reminding us that life doesn’t give us the choice about when to grow up and that we resist its push at our own peril. In “Stay,” Tim takes Matt camping and, clinking bottles of beer, they repeat the toast that we used to hear Tim and Jason intone, “Texas forever,” but now it sounds hollow and mournful. Texas isn’t forever, and these young men know it. Nothing is forever, and in the life of an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, nothing ought to be.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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