What is best about most good American television programs is usually hidden well under the surface. In popular shows such as House, M.D., CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Grey’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives, interesting ideas and moral insights are largely hidden behind a veneer of ultraviolence, hypersexuality, and/or snarky individualism.
This has increasingly been the way of TV programming since the mid-1960s, but in recent years it has become a definite formula. As TV producers try to have it both ways by luring viewers with sensationalism while sometimes offering something serious to think about, it is fairly unusual for a program to be explicitly concerned with higher things. NBC’s new drama Friday Night Lights is one of those rare programs. It is also the most openly and consistently Christian new network TV program since Seventh Heaven.
Showing Tuesdays at 8 P.M. EDT on NBC, and based on the popular movie of the same name (which itself was based on a book of the same name), Friday Night Lights tells the story of a small Texas town’s high-school football team as it makes a run for the state championship.
In the two episodes shown so far, the team begins a new season with a new coach facing the town’s expectation that they will win the state championship; narrowly wins its first game; suffers a huge loss as their star player is injured severely on the field; copes with that loss and the realization that it clearly dashes their hopes of winning the championship; undergoes internal dissension as the heightened pressure causes players to react badly; and prepares for game two while the townsfolk express their unaltered expectations for a championship and their doubts that the team can accomplish it, and threaten social ostracism of the players and coaches if the team falters as expected.
The show’s ostensible subject matter, high-school football, might seem to limit its appeal, but as the foregoing description suggests, the producers use this context to tell stories that are about much more than sports. The central interest of the show is what each character sees as his or her purpose in life and how they pursue it. We are invited to judge the characters on their view of what their purpose is: glory, pleasure, honor, service, etc.; and on how they go after it — by hard work, chicanery, manipulation, planning, intuition, etc. The show gives realistic looks at the obstacles the characters must overcome and the disappointments they endure.
The expected conflicts arise — injuries, fans’ unreasonably high expectations, the tough decisions both coaches and players have to make, the difficult choices in individuals’ personal lives, and the like. The show, however, deals with these personal difficulties in a thoughtful, mature, and morally concerned way. The alcohol problem of the team’s fullback, for example, is certainly not excused, but it is not simply condemned, either. Its affect on his judgment shows that this immensely talented individual is risking disaster when he could achieve so much. But there are so many other problems the coach has to deal with, he can’t attend to this. The fullback’s brother, his only family we see, should help him, but the brother is himself a wastrel and a bad example.
This is a particularly interesting subplot in light of the degree to which sports team coaches are now being held publicly responsible for the private behavior of their players (as was so unfairly done in the case of Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler). As the alcohol subplot in Friday Night Lights makes clear, coaches have far less control over their young charges’ off-field behavior than most people seem to realize. Moreover, shifting the responsibility away from the players and their families removes an important incentive for these people to clean up their act.
Also highly realistic is the way the program depicts the languidly hedonistic lifestyle that is so common among today’s high-schoolers. Sexual temptation and the lure of intoxicants are ever-present in the program, and resistance requires a constant battle. The producers, however, never give in to the temptation either to gloss over the ugliness of this lifestyle or to moralize openly. We see it all for what it is, and it is perfectly clear which characters’ choices are going to turn out well and which will not.
As in the movie and book on which the series is based, a large part of the pressure on the team comes from the fact that the town of Dillon, Texas, has so little else going for it. Many businesses have closed, and jobs are scarce, so the people place all their pride in the town’s superb football team. As a result, the coaches’ and players’ friends and neighbors put tremendous pressure on them to win, buttonholing them at every opportunity, exhorting them to victory, threatening dire consequences should the team fail to win the state championship or go undefeated, and offering comically fatuous advice on how to win the next game. The patience with which starting quarterback Jason Street listens to the absurd football advice of an elderly matron in episode one is familiar and truly comic.
A scene in the second episode, between Coach Taylor and the local automobile dealer, shows the ugly side of this passion. The dealer states that the team’s victory in the season opener, in which their star quarterback was paralyzed while making a tackle on an interception return, was a fluke, and that a loss in game two would be devastating and unacceptable. He openly threatens that if the coach fails to win the state championship he will be fired, while he refrains from saying exactly how an automobile dealer will accomplish it. We all know that he will make his threat stick.
The players and their families, however, are less experienced in bearing the burden of these high expectations. In the second episode, the players prepare for the second game of the season while their star quarterback, on whom they had depended, lies in a hospital bed paralyzed from the waist down, probably permanently. As the former quarterback shows his bravery in contemplating a future tragically different from what he expected, his teammates reveal their shortcomings as the group is torn apart by a variety of players seeking ineptly to fill the leadership void.
Meanwhile, the backup quarterback, just a sophomore, struggles to learn the complex offense and get ready to step in as the starter. The results in practice are dreadful, and the coach worries about how to get the boy in the correct frame of mind. It happens that the quarterback, Matt Saracen, is from a humble, low-income background, and when the coach goes to his house to talk with him, Matt is reluctant to let him in. But the coach insists, and he later points out to Matt that the boy should never be ashamed of where he comes from: he should be proud of what he has achieved in rising from such a humble origin. It’s a very moving moment.
As this scene suggests, both Coach Taylor and wife Tami are noticeably Christian in their behavior toward others, especially in their willingness to turn the other cheek to people’s rude behavior. Several of the other major characters exemplify Christian behavior, and those that do not do so stand out as personal failures — and candidates for redemption.
Even more unusual is the fact that the major characters pray openly, unabashedly, and in Christian terms. The players’ and coaches’ prayers in the clubhouse before and after games are not particularly surprising to see, as showing them is a matter of simple realism — though one could easily imagine the producers discreetly skipping it. But the characters pray at other times also. In episode two, for example, the star quarterback’s girlfriend visits him in his hospital room and tries to encourage him to believe that he may be able to walk again someday, even though the doctors say it’s a near impossibility. The two young people pray together, and the content of their prayer is fascinating: she thanks God for the challenge he has given them, and they pray that he will lead them through it to whatever his plan for them may be.
That is an utterly moving and poignant moment, and a truly amazing thing to see on a current-day network television program.
Of course, such an unusual show does not have a guaranteed audience, and Friday Night Lights deserves a much larger following than it has found so far. The show has had to fight for attention opposite two very popular programs, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and CBS’s NCIS, and the hill will only become higher when House, M.D. returns to Fox after the MLB playoffs finish.
But the program is well worth audiences’ attention, and we can only hope that NBC gives it a chance. If Friday Night Lights makes it, TV producers and programmers might just be encouraged to produce more shows where the moral insights aren’t hidden by a repugnant surface. And that would be the answer to a lot of people’s prayers.
– S. T. Karnick is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. His website is http://stkarnick.com.