The Best Show You're Not Watching: A 'Friday Night Lights' Analysis
Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose
There are certain things that bring communities together. For the people of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, the common thread that held their community together was football on NBC’s critically acclaimed drama Friday Night Lights. The show was marketed “as a ‘network-era’ ‘heartland family drama’ ‘ about football’ ‘about Texas’ and an explicitly ‘red state program’ (Johnson 2010). Because of it’s red state lens, critics were unsure if they could or should like the drama and Johnson points out that “if Friday Night Lights were on HBO or Showtime rather than NBC…the cachet of premium cable would cancel out the Texas jock stigma, and we’d be looking at a major cultural touchstone and probably even a hit” (p. 62). By analyzing the show with the help of Carl Jung’s idea of archetypes and the collective unconscious and the cinematic choices of the directors, I plan to prove that Friday Night Lights, because of its realistic, relatable sentiment, deserved a larger following than it actually received.
It all started with a book by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger of the same name. Then like a domino effect, the book became a movie and finally ended with inspiring the NBC drama. The characters grew from words on a page to characters that entered viewers’ homes weekly. From the shows beginning in October 2006 until the final episode, which aired February 9, 2011, the characters transformed. But without the pilot episode, none of it would have mattered in the end because in that first episode the audience learns so much about the story and its characters.
Before I examine the episode, it is important to first understand the characters and what function they serve with the help of Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is defined by Jung (1981) as “a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its experience to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition” (p. 99). This means that when an audience recognizes situations, images and events that they have not personally experienced, they are tapping into this collective unconscious. Jung says “the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes” (p. 99). These archetypes are found within the characters and as Jung states, they “indicate the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere” (p. 99).
In “Pilot” the first character we both see and hear about is Coach Eric Taylor. Some would be quick to call him the hero of the show because the show does revolve around him and his family but instead, he seems to be the wise, mentor type. Starting in this first episode and continuing on throughout the seasons, Coach, and his family, are the go-to people when problems arise.
The next character that is shown is Tim Riggins. From his rally sign in the front yard we find out he’s the fullback for the Panthers and he is asleep on his couch surrounded by beer bottles. The mixing of the good football player and the drunk make Tim Riggins the dark hero.
Then we meet Matt Saracen who is preparing food for his grandmother before he heads to football practice. Though the sign on his lawn says quarterback, Matt does not actually play. It is not until later in the episode that Matt Saracen steps up as the reluctant hero.
The real hero of the show seems to be Jason Street. He is on the front page of the newspaper and a radio announcer is singing his praises leading up to the game on Friday night. He is interviewed and recruited for college. But in actuality Jason will become the fallen hero by the end of the episode.
His girlfriend, Lyla Garrity, is his anima. She balances out his masculinity as a star football player as one of the rally girls. She is there to support him both on and off the field as she sits beside him during interviews and understands what he needs from her.
Tyra Collette is the complete opposite of Lyla. She exudes sexuality but she’s also rough around the edges. Pair her with Riggins and you have a dynamic duo that is up to no good. And though she “dates” a football player she is nothing like the angelic, sweet Lyla Garrity and she makes that distinction known quite frequently.
Brian “Smash” Williams can be seen as the villain of the characters. He’s arrogant and self-centered right off the bat. His only concern is winning and because of that there are people on the team that do not like him. He is a good player, just like Street and Riggins and he knows it. This self awareness comes off as cocky and Smash sees himself as the team.
As stated above, these characters are recognizable because they are figures audiences see all the time. To differentiate their roles allows people to connect with the story on a deeper level. But Friday Night Lights does not only incorporate the familiar characters. Instead it also presents itself more realistically than most other shows airing at the time. Between the stylistic shaky camera and the realistic stories, the show seemed far from scripted. This is because “it’s realism (as exemplified particularly by the series’ improvisational acting, and handheld, fly-on-the-wall camera-work), its rounded characters and ensemble-based textured narratives, its deep empathy for its characters and locale, and perhaps most significantly, its hybrid attraction for both male and female, adult and youth audiences” (Johnson 2010).
As the show opens, we see high school football being glamorized. Various news stations are interviewing the coaches and players and recruiters talk to parents in the stands. It is easy to see how important football is to the community because of the publicity and the turn out mere practices receive. Football, above all else, is the center of their lives. We see examples of this when Lyla asks Street if he loves her more than football. Another is when Tami reminds Coach that moving to Alaska would bring a less stressful dynamic to their lives. But Alaska is not where Coach’s heart lies. He is Texas football through and through.
The cameras also lend reality to the show. It’s shaky and quick, moving between characters as if a person was watching a tennis match. The back and forth of the dialogue is mirrored in the camera work as if to show everything without missing a beat. An example of this is in the scene Street is getting interviewed in the burger joint. The camera starts on Lyla and Street but moves between them and Smash as he starts to answer the questions with much more exciting answers. Again the camera moves between Lyla and Tyra as Tyra mocks the quarterback’s girlfriend. Even back at the Taylor house this style is mimicked following Tami, Coach and Julie as they try to have a conversation with Coach while he watches the opposing team’s game tapes. When the camera is on the women it moves but when it focuses on Coach it is far more static, just like he is pregame.
One of the most realistic moments of the show is when Jason Street is taken down during the football game. Throughout the episode the characters talk up how good Street is and in one split decision the star quarterback is taken out of the stadium in an ambulance. Even Bissinger stated “I knew at that moment the show was not going to be some easy-reach schmaltzy drama but a show with real themes and real characters and as many dreams shattered as realized” (p. 1). And that sums up the show so much better than I could even try.
The realness comes from the fact that there aren’t many happy endings along the way. In the five seasons so much has gone wrong for all of the characters from losing jobs, losing games, abortions, marriages, arrests and jail time but none of that would have had such an impact without the first episode. As Johnson states “it apparently seemed inconceivable that a rural, Texan, working-class setting, focusing on teen and family life through the lens of football, could be quality TV characterized by sophistication and realism” (p. 61). Watching Jason Street go from being on top to being nothing at all paved the way for a show about disappointment and football. And maybe that scared audiences because it reflected real life too much and television was once their escape from the real world troubles. But no matter what it was, the acclaim Friday Night Lights received was well deserved. And though the lights have since been turned out, the characters will live on forever with “clear eyes” and “full hearts”.
Bissinger, B. (2011 February 14). Turn out the lights. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved
Indick, W. (2004). Psychology for screenwriters: building conflict in your script.
Johnson, V.E. (2010) The Persistence of Geographic Myth in a Convergent Media Era.
Journal of Popular Film & Television, 38 (2), 58-65. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Jung, C. (1981). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Bollingen.
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