Turn on the Lights

The first episode of the 5th (and sadly final) season of TV's best show, Friday Night Lights, aired last night. It's absolutely tragic that only 9 more episodes remain in what TV history will surely document as one of the sharpest highlights of the waning days of the network era. NBC's creative arrangement with DirecTV to co-finance Lights and air the show twice (I'm watching it on DirecTV now... but it will air on NBC sometime in 2011) is a fittingly transitional model for a show that thrives on the tension between old and new, nostalgia and moving on.

That tension was especially thick on last night's episode, which among other things showed two beloved characters (Julie and Landry) departing Dillon to go off to college. I love that Lights dwells in a reality that acknowledges transience... letting its characters grow up and move on, as new ones come in to have their own growth spurts and struggles. The show reflects so gracefully the human constancy of change--that we are all constantly "moving on" and that few relationships, communities, and dynamics are ever as stable as we want them to be.

I'm going to wait until this season (and series) is over before I write a long form, reflective essay on Lights, synthesizing my many thoughts and feelings about it from over the years. But in the meantime, here's an excerpt from a piece I recently wrote for Relevant magazine's Sept/Oct cover story ("5 Shows Saving TV"):

Lights is a show about contemporary life. Small town, Texas life. Drenched in nostalgia, adolescent angst, and Midwestern truisms (Dairy Queen, sports radio, Applebees), the show bursts forth with quotidian drama. The Emmy-nominated, Peabody Award-winning show is elegant, mature American art, at once a soft spoken tone poem—recalling the literary Frontier of Willa Cather, Horton Foote or The Last Picture Show—and a tumultuous tableaux of soap opera with the kinetic Americana of Thomas Hart Benton or Aaron Copland.

But it’s much less high-falutin than that sounds. It’s really just a show about everyday life: family, friends, community—all deeply enmeshed in a culture of Christian values and red state conservatism (Bud Light keggers, church potlucks, and teen pregnancy included). ...

Throughout the series, moral dilemmas are the centerpiece of conflict: Should we sleep together? Are steroids ok to use? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor? The show wrestles with thorny topics (issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, vocation, etc) with uncommon grace, but almost never with a didactic “nice tidy lesson” wrap-up. It’s a show that gives reality its messy, unromantic due, even while it almost always tips its hat in the direction of hope.

Though the show’s cast of characters includes an array of teenagers—football players, nerds, cheerleaders, outcasts--the heart of Lights is its centerpiece family: the Taylors. Coach Eric and Principal Tami Taylor (Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton) and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) are as good as TV families get. They are the show’s rock. They are a good, loving, shockingly functional American family—not without their faults, but always tender and utterly believable. It’s something of a miracle that a contemporary network television show could so vividly remind us of what is wonderful about families who stay together, struggle together, and grow together. We so often only get the struggle.

What makes Lights so special is that it gives us goodness—in the form of families that rally around each other, communities that still believe in small town heroes, and teenagers who make bad decisions but ultimately strive to do what’s right (as opposed to, say, the amoral adolescents of Gossip Girl type shows).

On an average episode of Lights, Eric and Tami Taylor will have a moment where they sit down together on the couch, or in bed after a long stressful day. They’ll talk about their days, their struggles, their needs. Sometimes they’ll just look at each other and laugh. Sometimes they’ll fight or flirt. It’s a picture of marriage as a partnership and a balm, soothing the struggles of everyday life through companionship.

It’s a metaphor for how life is meant to be lived—in tandem, together, as a team. In football, and in everything else.