Since I first watched The Wire, I have only watched one TV series in its entirety: The Wire. As of yesterday, that is no longer true. I have watched Friday Night Lights. And in its own very different way, it is equally magnificent.
Well, "equally" is pushing it. Season 2 of The Wire is a masterpiece of bold and complex storytelling. Season 2 of FNL is crap. Really, really crap. That it was cut short because of a writers' strike may just have been the show's saving grace. From then on in the show lived up to the standards it set itself in the first season.
Though it went through something of an identity crisis, a run-of-the-mill teen-centric drama this is not. If The Wire is really about Baltimore, FNL is really about small-town Texas. These two places might seem like world's apart, and in many ways they are, but the presence of Michael Jordon (a different one) in both shows hints at a deeper correspondence. The two Americas that David Simon likes to speak of are both on display in FNL, though it must be said that there is an (unrealistic?)optimism in FNL that is utterly absent from The Wire. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, that is more a criticism of the latter than the former.
***Spoiler alert for FNL*** That said, I like to see a certain pessimism in FNL which may or not be intentional. One of the most surprising plots in the show is its (tentative) criticism of the military. It leaves us, to some degree, resentful of a soldier. That is something of a miracle for a series which is set in Texas and which aired on network television. In the final montage, we see one of the high school football stars in military gear, headed off to base camp to begin life as a soldier. The scholarship he presumed upon never materialised. He hadn't thought of anything other than playing football. So he hands his State championship ring over to his sweetheart, gets on a bus, and joins the army. This might be meant as a touching moment, but given what we have witnessed in the previous five seasons I have my doubts. Are we not in fact seeing the emergence of a new Saracen family, destined to end in division, resentment, and death?
There is also the character of Julie Taylor, fictional proof of Shakespeare's comment that good wombs can sometimes bear bad sons or daughters. For all the infectious virtue of her mother and father, she is annoying and immature to the end, evidence that life does not always correspond to our formulae.
Where FNL really triumphs - and in this it also mirrors The Wire - is in its development of what appear initially to be throw-away characters. In one way, the show can be said to find its centre in Billy Riggins and Buddy Garrity. More than the Taylors, they embody Texas, and that is what this is all about.
There are many great scenes, numerous inspirational speeches, and excellent passages of American Football action. The game itself - since it is so scripted - is almost designed to be televised, so when it is depicted on television it is just like watching the real thing. But it's not really the winning or the losing that matters. This is hammered home to us in that wonderful portrayal of the final game. The coin is tossed, a sign that fate (or perhaps destiny) has more of a say than we like to think when it comes to winning and losing. There are, after all, things that we cannot control. Fitting, then, that the final shot of the final game is quarter-back Vince Howard throwing a Hail Mary. We do what we can, and then we pray like hell that it all turns out okay. But it's the doing what we can for which we are responsible. Or as Coach Taylor says, it's in the trying that character is revealed.
If I have a favourite scene, it is one that is of little consequence to the plot, but which captures the heart of the show. A few of the high school football players meet on their respective balconies in a hotel before a game. They don't realise that Coach Taylor is also outside, listening in on what they have to say. A lesser show (or season 2 of this show) would have them saying all kinds of stuff that would create drama for later on. This show just has them talk and joke with each other, with Coach Taylor enjoying the moment.