Friday Night Lite

October 4, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
I watched the first episode of “Friday Night Lights,” the new NBC show about high school football in a Texas town. The New York Times critic had given it a rave review, repeating words like “great” and “art.”
Art it may have been (the Times critic was especially impressed by the show’s sound editing, an artistic touch that viewers like me aren’t likely to notice, and not the sort of thing to make us want to tune in next week). But great? It was about football, about teenagers playing a football game. As such, it played on one long-standing idea in American movies and TV: all moral questions, all questions of character, can be settled in a contest. Typically, the story sets out some difficulties for the hero —conflicts with the society, conflicts with some other person or organization, conflicts within himself. It all leads up to some climactic confrontation. Usually the hero wins, occasionally he loses. But the outcome doesn’t matter so much as the nobility of the fight, for win or lose, the hero has fought, and that seems to resolve all issues. The classic example is the old Western with its quick-draw shootout, which resolves issues like economic conflicts between ranchers and farmers over land use. But sports and games figure prominently, especially one-on-one contests like boxing. Rocky is the obvious example, but there are lots of other fight films, and many of them have this same quality: the match seems to melt all problems no matter how complicated, no matter how seemingly unrelated to the match itself—problems between a man and a woman, a son and father, friend and friend.

My own list includes movies about everything from airplane dogfights to chess. Some are classics (“The Hustler,” which ends in a pool match, or “On the Waterfront,” which ends in a fistfight between a worker and a union boss), and many are best forgotten (“The Cincinnati Kid,” which ends in a poker game, or “The Karate Kid” and many, many, others).
More recently — and I guess this will be true of “Friday Night Lights”— the hero is not so much an individual as a team, as in all those “coach” movies. But the assumption is the same: getting ready for the big game and then playing it leads to triumph over all internal or external obstacles in life.
Last night’s episode of “Friday Night Lights” clutched at one other American cliche— the Hollywood Ending. The team is down by ten points with three minutes left; their star quarterback is taken off the field on a stretcher, possibly paralyzed for life with a spinal injury; the substitute quarterback muffs play after play. At this point, I turned to my son, who was watching too, and said, “If they win this game . . .” Guess what. No, you don’t even have to guess. You know. You’ve seen so many American movies that you know what happens.
Again I am reminded of what the Iranian immigrant in “The House of Sand and Fog” says (see the Sept. 27 entry in this blog) — Americans always wanting the sweet taste.

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