Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Looking back at Friday Night Lights: Tearful eyes, sad hearts, we lose.

Tearful eyes, sad hearts, we lose.
Looking back at the end of Friday Night Lights
by rick olivares

I was in Hong Kong the past weekend to do some holiday shopping. One of my usual haunts there are HMV at iSquare and Hong Kong Records at Harbour City where I get my CDs and DVDs.

I picked up for the first time the complete Friday Night Lights DVD set from Seasons One to Five. I had the individual Seasons One and Two but was unable to get the others until now. I had seen Season Three and a portion of Four but was unable to watch everything until now.

And after a Friday Night Lights marathon weekend that saw little sleep and zero writing, I with all my emotions from watching one of the best television series ever, have decided to put all my thoughts down and write about it.

The game of American football might not be global in scope (although it is watched in dozens of countries around the world) but as far as American cinema is concerned, it has produced some of the best if not memorable films of all time.

The first film to feature the sport was the Marx Brothers’ 1932 film, Horse Feathers that revolves around a game between two colleges. While it was a comedy (it was a Marx Brothers film after all), the audiences loved the idea of sports or in this case, American football that encapsulates all the emotions, drama, hardship, and challenges of real life. They are perfect metaphors for rising above adversity and teamwork wherever one may be.

Here are but a few: Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, The Longest Yard, The Gridiron Gang, We Are Marshall, Rudy, Any Given Sunday, Brian’s Song, Jerry Maguire, Invincible, Radio, and – gasp – The Waterboy.

What makes FNL one of the very best television series ever? Three things: the production, the characters, and the music.

The production:
Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, The Rundown, Battleship and the upcoming US Navy Seals true story Sole Survivor) gave the film and the television series its signature with its raw and three-camera set-up style, its documentary feel, and largely ad-libbed scenes in which characters were given freedom to extemporize while staying faithful to the plot. Most scenes were shot very quickly and without too many retakes. That gave the series a stamp of authenticity.

That translates into how much the actors embraced their characters and understood what needed to be said and done.

When Berg, who developed the show and directed its pilot, relocated the entire cast and crew to Austin, Texas where the entire series was shot, FNL nailed down small town America down to the last detail. In contrast, one of my other all-time favorite television series, Hill Street Blues, recreated inner city Chicago in a sound stage in California. 

Said Berg of FNL: “The core philosophy of the shooting style is the cameras should react to the actors. The cameras should organize their movements and behaviors based on what the actors are doing. Often times the actors are brought in and they are told to a series of marks. If an actor suddenly says, well maybe I want to move over here that it becomes a whole big deal. Our strategy was to do it the other way around; to let the actors kind of come in and have control over a working environment first then the cameras and cameramen sort of like a documentary crew would sort of like come in and go after all the action. “

So FNL kept it real. Real life is reel life!

The characters.
In the very first episode of Season One, Kyle Chandler’s main character of Dillon Panthers’ head coach Eric Taylor shrugs off the hold of football on the town with a very vapid remark, “It’s only football.”

Only it isn’t. The fictional town of Dillon, Texas is practically ghost town when the lights come on every Friday in the football stadium. Dillon’s people talk about the game and its team 24/7. And coming from a school that goes nuts over its college men's basketball team, boy, do I understand.

As much as football is an important aspect to the series, what gives FNL its charm are the characters. The cornerstone for the entire series is the Taylor family: Chandler, Connie Britton’s Tami (who plays a guidance counselor and principal), and Julie (their rebellious teenage daughter). Chandler and Britton give the series its moral center.

Coach is consumed by the game. He loves his family but struggles in terms of which is important at times. He even drags out his team in the middle of a rainstorm and late in the evening just to drive home a message of focus and the importance of their season that is teetering on the brink after the loss of starting QB Jason Street to a career-ending injury.

He is prideful and sometimes makes indirect apologies to Tami who constantly yields and keeps her patience.

The chemistry between Chandler and Britton is incredible. The lack of any sex scenes (that was vetoed by Chandler in real life) are perfect in hindsight. Their relationship is never cheap but golden and poignant.

And there are the Dillon Panthers beginning with quarterback Jason Street.

Street is projected to be the next in a line of great Texas quarterbacks but a career-ending injury suffered during the first game of the season hangs heavy for the entire first season of the television series. Without QB1, the tension is magnified as Dillon with its tradition of State Champion teams is suddenly rudderless.

Zach Gilford’s character of backup quarterback Matt Saracen is an enduring one. The soft-spoken and awkward person is forced to the forefront of the team and finds himself in the process.

There are people who you will recognize from someone at the various signposts of one’s life: there’s the egotistic and brash running back Smash Williams (played by Gaius Charles), the directionless tight end Tim Riggins (played by the new generation Matt Dillon in Taylor Kitsch), the geeky but well-meaning Landry Clarke (the kicker).

Landry, like Julie, are two of the most annoying characters during the entire run but I couldn’t help but follow their lives with great interest. But isn’t that how life is?

There’s Lyla Garrity, Street’s cheerleader girlfriend who cheats on him after his accident. Garrity was played by actress Minka Kelly in a role that shot her to stardom. She strives to be perfect despite her limitations.

Trivia: In one of Peter Berg’s first television series, Wonderland, a controversial Australian series that was cancelled after two episodes about life in a mental institution, he had a character named Lyla Garrity. Berg loves his characters in reel and real life. In fact he used Plemons and Kitsch in his film, Battleship.

There’s Tyra Collette (played by the incredible Adrianne Palicki who also found stardom outside FNL), Riggins’ on-and-off girlfriend who is scatterbrained at first but develops into a more mature person by series’ end.

There’s Buddy Garrity (played by Brad Leland), Lyla’s father, former Panther and a current booster who starts off as being arrogant but becomes an important part of the series later on.

The characters are compelling and flawed just like you and me. They make mistakes (some bigger than others), they can be annoying, prideful and hurtful, and are both inspiring. The changes in one’s life are arrestingly stunning and sudden such as Coach Eric’s sudden firing from Dillon and switch to East Dillon where he takes the Lions to a 2-8 record to the State championship.

The move from West Dillon to the Eastside comes as a shocking twist in Season Three and that brings in nearly an entire new cast. This allows the show’s creators to avoid the mistakes (and yes there were plenty in the first two seasons especially that murder thing that seemed so off key). And the new cast is even more interesting and compelling.

Michael B. Jordan, the East Dillon Lions’ quarterback is one of the most memorable characters of the entire run as he develops from an angry young man who finds salvation not only in football and school but also in Eric Taylor.

Luke Cafferty, the running back played by Matt Lauria, is like Saracen but only a little more aggressive.

Dallas Tinker, the team’s offensive lineman played by LaMarcus Tinker, gives the Lions’ their moral center despite his seemingly rough and ready to rumble exterior.

Hastings Ruckle, the Lions’ wide receiver only joins the cast in the final season and is largely underdeveloped. He remains nevertheless an interesting character.

Becky Sproles replaces Lyla Garrity as the person whose presence creates sexual tension for Riggins and Cafferty.

Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) is Julie Taylor done right.     

The casting was spot on for everything all the way down to the end.

The music
When is Explosions in the Sky not Explosions in the Sky? When it’s W.G. Snuffy Walden. Sure his name sounds like Mr. Snuffleupagus’ cousin but he’s got Explosions in the Sky down pat.

The post-rock atmospheric and breezy guitar musings of Austin, Texas-based band Explosions in the Sky provided the soundtrack to H.G. Bissinger's incredible book about high school football . In the film soundtrack, some of the music was provided by U2 producer Daniel Lanois who began to work with the Irish band and co-producer Brian Eno on “The Unforgettable Fire”. If you listened to that classic U2 album, the guitar work by The Edge is given a more atmospheric bent by Eno and Lanois. No doubt, providing some influence to Explosions in the Sky and ultimately, W.G. Walden.

And for the television series, William Garrett “Snuffy” Walden, former guitarist for the Eric Burdon Band who scored The Wonder Years, Felicity, and The West Wing among many others provided the same feel of Explosions with his evocative and cinematic music that was perfect for the entire series.

Of course, the show made use of other music once in a while but Walden's soundtrack added so much to the emotions of the show. Witness the parts when the characters are driving across the Texas plains. You can feel your heart trying to beat its way out of your chest.

The Lights Go out
In the final season, the final episode isn’t only DONE RIGHT but it is PERFECT as it goes back to its roots. Who says you cannot go back home again?

Matt Saracen proposes to Julie outside the Alamo Freeze, the scene of so many early scenes.

Tyra makes a surprise return and ignites the possibility of her getting back with Riggins.

Eric and Tami Taylor are starting out anew in Philadelphia (in Season One they were new to Dillon). In the final season, there’s a lot of tension between Eric and Tami as the former receives a five-year contract to coach a unified Dillon team while Tami is invited to be the Dean of Admissions in a Philly school. In their 18 years of marriage, Tami has always given in to Eric. Right before State, Eric says that he turned down the Dillon job and he asks her to take him to Philly.

There’s a nod to military service as Cafferty signs up (Matt Saracen’s father was in the army and served in Iraq).

Jason Street is back as a sports agent this time trying to get coach to move to Florida.

The last few minutes of the final episode, as the State championship game kicks off, there is no more dialogue. The music takes over heightening the emotions.

In the final three seconds of the game there is a brief dialogue between coach and quarterback. Howard tosses a 63-yard Hail Mary to three Lions receivers amidst a gaggle of Hudgin Hawks in the end zone. The spiral is picture perfect however, the result of the final play is not shown.

We then see where everyone in the cast eight months after that play.

We find Eric and Tami in Philadelphia.

We see Vince Howard wearing a championship ring. Dallas Tinker and Buddy Garrity Jr. joining the Dillon superteam. Luke Cafferty leaving his ring with Becky as he ships out for military service. The Riggins brothers (Billy and Tim) reunite.

Then Coach asks his new team, nicknamed the Pioneers, to take a knee. “Clear hearts, full hearts…” he says expecting them to complete the signature catchphrase (the complete line goes: Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose.).

The Pioneers stare at him unsure of what to say or do.

“We’ll deal with that later,” he says as he dismisses his team.

As Eric and Tami walk out of the stadium, the lights are turned off for one of the best television shows ever.

By February 9, 2014, it will be three years since Friday Night Lights ended its stirring run. Five seasons were just right. I would have wanted it to go on but the show's producers told everything they needed to do. If it had gone it that would have been pushing it. Like any good thing, there has to be an end. 

It was a marathon weekend watching the entire series from the first to the fifth season with all 76 episodes spread across 22 DVDs. And just as it was for FNL’s very first episode (where Jason Street is injured and Matt Saracen steps into the breach) and in the finale titled ‘Always’ it stirred a lot of emotions and coaxed quite a few tears.

I wholeheartedly recommend this show and the complete series because you can’t lose.


Friday Night Lights: The complete Series - five seasons, 76 episodes, 22 DVDs with lots of bonus features. 

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