Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 144: Friday Night Lights

"Considering the circumstances of their lives, how could they be expected to accept the harsh reality of studies showing that of the 30 million children taking part in youth sports in the United States, only about 200 go on to become professionals in any given year?”

Dates read: May 5-12, 2017

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: The New York Times bestseller

Graduating from law school in 2010, it turns out, was one of the worst things I could have done for myself. There are articles about it and everything. After I moved back to Michigan and took (and passed) the bar, I started carpet-bombing the Ann Arbor area with resumes. Crickets. I came close a few times, getting to second interviews, but it wasn't until February, a full nine months after I graduated and five months after I passed the bar, that I got a job. Which meant I had a LOT of downtime. I did do useful things, but I also watched the entire run of a TV show that has become a barometer of true excellence in storytelling for me: Friday Night Lights.

I knew there'd been a book, and then a movie, and that the show wasn't especially closely related to either except in broad strokes. But I'd always harbored a curiosity about the book that had inspired one of my favorite shows of all time, so I picked up H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights to finally experience the source material. In it, Bissinger tells the story of the Permian Panthers, a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, in the late 80s. But he doesn't just tell the story of the the subtitle ("A Town, A Team, And A Dream") suggests, he places them in context. He tells the story of Odessa, of the boom-and-bust oil economy in Texas with which Odessa lives and dies, the racial tensions that are ever-simmering, and the way that a community needing something to cheer for and feel good about can place so much hope and feeling into a sports team.

That enormity of public emotional investment into the team has real ramifications for the people who make it up: the coach and his family, of course, but also the players. The coach (only very vaguely reminiscent of the beloved Coach Taylor) is at least a well-compensated professional, but the players are just teenagers. You can see the loose outlines of some of the characters who would make up the core of the show: the hot-shot, big-talking running back, the reserved, wary quarterback, the trouble-making, fast-living halfback. But the players themselves are kind of inconsequential: they are merely the bodies inside the uniforms that have such symbolic meaning. It's Permian that the crowd roots for year after year, even as the names on the jerseys come and go.

Reading this after seeing the show is the opposite of the usual reaction: the screen adaptation is so rich and beautifully realized that the book has a hard time living up to the comparison. Part of that is because they're telling similar stories in two very different ways. The book is more interested in looking at the broader social picture and the way that team fits into that picture as a whole, and only then in its component parts, while the show takes the opposite storytelling tack and focuses on the people and their relationships making up the team, filling in the charged atmosphere around them but leaving it as mostly background. So by nature the book is more impersonal, more clinical and removed. The show, on the other hand, focused on realistic character development in a way that even many authors I've read could benefit from learning from. Of the two versions, I'd recommend that literally everyone watch the show, but the book is good-not-great. If you like stories about football and/or small town life, you'll likely enjoy it. If not, it's skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what are your favorite TV shows?

One year ago, I was reading: The Year of Magical Thinking

Two years ago, I was reading: Life Itself


  1. I couldn't agree more about the TV show, Friday Night Lights. I never wanted to watch it because I HATE football, but a friend of mine kept insisting that I would love it despite the football and she was so right. Tammy and Eric Taylor were that perfect couple and perfect/not perfect parents everyone should emulate. They even fought fairly. The acting was so natural and so spot on it seems to me you could have used the show in acting school as a lesson plan. Since you asked about TV shows: West Wing; Boston Legal; Sherlock; and many more that I have forgotten until they come up in conversation like Friday Night Lights.

    1. I badger anyone who hasn't watched FNL to watch it relentlessly! Even if you're not into sports, it's so good! Though the less said about the season 2 "Tyra and Landry do a murder" storyline the better. And shamefully, despite being a professional political nerd, I've only seen a handful of episodes of The West Wing! There are so many seasons that it just feels intimidating to really get started

  2. AGREED!!!! FNL is my all-time favorite TV show by far. Luckily, I read the book before I watched the show....but, the show is infinitely richer than the book. Whenever I get asked for a movie adaptation that's better than the book, this is always my answer...except I mean the TV series, not the movie :)

    1. The book was fine, but the show was so good that nothing really could have lived up to it!