Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Friday Night Lights (2004)
seen on TV @ AMC

It's hard for me to think of Friday Night Lights as a successful TV show or movie much of the time because I always think of the book before anything else. I remember buying the book, written by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, after reading an excerpt in Sports Illustrated (you know this was a long time ago if I was still reading SI). 

I've never been a huge football fan. I rooted for the Giants and Jets growing up, naturally, and I was excited when the Giants had their Super Bowl season in 1986. If there was any reason why I stopped following football, I suppose it was a result of when I stopped following baseball. After they cancelled the World Series, I guess you could say it killed my interest in sports in general.

New York sports fans love their pro football, no doubt, but when it comes to college and high school football, the relationship between a town and their team is different. I experienced this first-hand, of course, when I lived in Columbus, home of the Ohio State football Buckeyes. Actually, the "football" part is superfluous; though OSU has lots of other athletic teams, in Columbus, there's no doubt who you're referring to when you say the name Buckeyes.

Here in New York, we have so many different things that help define who we are as a community to the rest of the country. Sports is a big part of that, but it's only one part. A smaller town like Columbus has many great things to see and do as well, but on the national level, their successful college football program is something that's automatically identifiable with the place, and that's a huge point of pride. Buckeye fever even infected me, to an extent. Last weekend I was having lunch with friends in a pizza parlor and I got caught up in the OSU-Michigan game on TV.

And if this mentality applies to college teams in small towns, it's magnified to a greater degree in smaller towns and high school teams, and that's what the original Lights book explored: the way a high school football team can embody the hopes, fears, values, realities, politics, economics, sociology and philosophy of a community. 

Bissinger followed a high school team, the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, for a season. The Panthers had a winning tradition in place for years, and as a result, their alumni and fans came to expect nothing less than success at all costs, in a similar way that fans of teams like the Y-nk--s in pro baseball, the Celtics in pro basketball, Notre Dame in college football and Indiana in college basketball have also come to expect. This means that these kids, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years of age, carry a tremendous burden year after year, as do the men who coach them.

Lights explored this theme from a wide variety of angles: race, class, education, economics. One angle that the film version touches on lightly, but not enough, in my opinion, is the concept of athletes as a privileged caste within high school, and the town at large. In the book, we see Panther players get preferential treatment from their teachers, who bend over backwards to accommodate their football practice schedules and to make sure that they pass their classes (and remain eligible to play) regardless of their academic ability. Indeed, Permian teachers interviewed for the book lament that students in general simply aren't as motivated academically as they used to be. 

One teacher discusses how the curricula in other departments suffer in comparison to football:
..."I don't mind that it's emphasized," she said of football. "I just wish our perspective was turned a little bit. I just wish we could emphasize other things. The thing is, I don't think we should have to go to the booster club to get books. I don't think we should have to beg everyone in town for materials." 
But that was the reality, and it seemed unlikely to change. The value of high school football was deeply entrenched. It was the way the community had chosen to express itself. The value of high school English was not entrenched. It did not pack the stands with twenty thousand people on a Friday night; it did not evoke any particular feelings of pride one way or another. No one dreamed of being able to write a superb critical analysis of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake from the age of four on.
...a history class that met a few yards down the hall did not have a teacher. The instructor was an assistant football coach. He was one of the best teachers in the school, dedicated and lively, but because of the legitimate pressures of preparing for a crucial game, he did not have time to go to class. That wasn't to say, however, that the class did not receive a lesson. They learned about American history that day by watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on video.

The classroom-versus-gridiron conflict also factors into the story of the team Permian plays in the movie's climax, the Carter Cowboys, who are gonna have a movie of their own pretty soon.

Lights is not just one of my favorite sports books, it's one of my favorite books, period. It's late-20th-century America in microcosm, and almost 25 years later, little has truly changed. And while I like the film version and I recommend it, despite its changes for artistic license, I can't help but feel that the book is better. (Bissinger has even written a sequel!) Then again, if the film tried to be more like the book than it already is, it would probably be four hours long.

So when director/co-writer Peter Berg, a character actor turned filmmaker (loved him in The Great White Hype) decided to turn Lights into a TV series, I was worried that everything that made the book so special would get... I dunno, diluted somehow, being further removed from the original source as it would have to be. But if thirteen Emmy nominations and three wins are any indication, the show seems to have made the book even more special, and credit must be given to Berg for that. Berg is actually Bissinger's cousin (which I totally did not know!), which would explain his involvement with both the film and the show, but I think it's safe to say that both were labors of love for him.


  1. I know this makes me sound unAmerican, but I am not a sports fan at all. I tend to shy away from sports movies (except for some reason, I like baseball movies -- I think it's because, while real baseball can be very long and boring, movies about baseball just use all the really exciting stuff). I should probably venture out and read this book and/or see the series. You give it a good review and it does sound like something I should try.

  2. It is much, much, much more than a sports book. It touches upon so many important aspects of American life, things that still affect us today. I believe you'd like it.


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