Recently, Taylor Kitsch, the improbably named hunk who plays brooding, unkitschy Tim Riggins, running back for the Dillon Panthers — Go Panthers! — on NBC’s high school football drama Friday Night Lights, graced the cover of Men’s Health. The goal was to help promote the TV show and the magazine’s “five laws of staying lean”: 1) Always start with protein; 2) Front-load your carbs; 3) Avoid fast-digesting foods; 4) Strike a balance; and 5) Monitor more than your abs. It was the lead piece of the “malegrams” section of the mag, and the editor kindly front-loaded three shirtless pics of Kitsch exuding the benefits of toeing the line.
Unlike Kitsch, who beams pride in his physique, his character, Riggins, glowers in the hallways of Dillon High, and, between explosive runs and tackles on the playing field, he’s a mute heartthrob. Expanded from executive producer, director, and writer Peter Berg’s feature film, which in turn was based on HG “Buzz” Bassinger’s best-selling book of the same name — a moving portrait of the citizens of Odessa, Texas, whose emotional investment in the local football team has, season after season, focused their attention away from the strife of their tough lives — Friday Night Lights grapples, more tenderly and yet harrowingly than anything else on mainstream television, with the diminishing returns of earning a so-called living wage and with the body, overweight or lean-and-mean, as a primary survival technology.
For those not yet part of the Panther’s pep squad, let me back up a bit. Currently on mainstream American noncable television — which, in addition to PBS (public television), means CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, and, in major metropolitan areas, UPN and CW (the latter broadcasts the better-than-you’d-think Superman drama, Smallville) — there’s very little to watch that isn’t either crimeand/or police-related (Law & Order, CSI, their spin-offs and ilk) or “reality TV.” (The proliferation of the latter is due in no small part to the rabid success of American Idol, about which, Kids, enuf sed.) My theory is that most people want to see enacted a world, where despite murderers, child molesters, embezzlers, and even terrorists, possibly living next door to them, where in an hour or, at most, over the course of a network season, the crime is solved, the perp cuffed, and the terrorist attack averted just in the nick (or Jack Bauer) of time. They want to see justice, the legal system and the nation state secure. (Considering that we live under an administration that’s run roughshod over everything from the Constitution to the Geneva Convention, encroaching on personal freedoms and eliminating safeguards, tick by quiet tick, this taste for justice is deeply ironic.) Those who don’t want to watch fantasies of personal and national security opt for American Idol, where, for many people, voting for the winning contestant proves, I guess, more effective than voting in actual political elections.
No matter how “ripped from the headlines” or seemingly moment-by-moment either of today’s genre staples seem, each bears only the vaguest relation to the reality hardly anyone wants to watch yet inhabited by all. Of course, the first and last time someone dared to track some semblance of such a homegrown reality, in An American Family (1973), everything, from blood relations to sexual norms, was revealed, loudly, to be more fragile and up-for-grabs than anyone wanted to see.
The actors and creative team behind Friday Night Lights know that for many, maybe most, times are hard, local economics harder. FNL demonstrates that the body, that woundable engine, is the best and only bet some people have for getting out of town or bettering their situation.
At the start of the first episode, dreams of college scholarships and glamorous pro careers distract most of the key players; by its end, the star starting quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), has been paralyzed during a botched tackle. Over the course of the season thus far, Street has worked through physical therapy, bonded with wheelchair-bound peers, shone on the Murderball-like paraand quadriplegic rugby team, and returned home to face the rest of his unexpectedly altered life. In a remarkable moment, his cheerleader girlfriend pushed beyond Street’s still-fresh reluctance to deal with their changed relationship, by playing an instructional video on the positions and maneuvers can make quadriplegic sex enjoyable and vital. Without making explicit the allegorical and analogical potential of this quietly matter-of-fact scene, the show deftly reminded any thinking viewer that there are wounded young vets returning home whose girlfriends are having to teach them things the military never got around to covering when it encouraged its recruits to be all they could be.
FNL observes contemporary masculinity in all its glory and imponderability. The difficulties of communication between team mates and brothers are highlighted by how many fathers are missing — due to divorce, service in Iraq, or some other, indiscernible reason — and reflected in the coach’s stern paternal concern for his players. Tim Riggins’s formerly wayward older brother, a one-time Panther, tries to hold together a home life for him; their parents have gone off somewhere, unable to deal. Riggins’ teammate and main rival, “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), lives with his mom and sisters and sees himself as the man of the house since his father’s death (the consequence of drunk driving), with football his only hope to help his family achieve the life he wants them to have. Small for a running back, Smash opts, after a bad game witnessed by a college talent scout, to bulk up. He tries to convince his mom to give him money for an SAT study course for which he’s supposedly signed up. The money isn’t there, but just when he thinks his only option is crime, the congregation of his mother’s church — invested in helping one of their own, already a local star — donate the money, unaware that they’re paying not for education but for steroid cocktails.
Unlike the steroid quality of so much American television, FNL offers the frisson of the hard-won life. Early episodes find the shy backup quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), practicing his passes at home alone, cooking for his grandmother, and sometimes videochatting with his father, who’s stationed in Iraq. Matt hopes his dad will get leave soon, not least so that he can help him care for his grandmother; but when his dad does come home, what celebration there is, ends quickly, everyone at a loss as to what to do with the new circumstances.
That a television program can not only portray a sweet QB helping his dad, a vet, secure a sales position at the local football promoter’s successful car dealership, but also show the dad failing to acclimate to the job and civilian life, gives me hope, however faint, that someone sees how desperate things have become and might be monitoring, more than abs, absurdity — not with the salubrious acidity of South Park or The Colbert Report, but in a different mode of care.