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Television: Friday Night Lessons – Five Teachable Moments from Friday Night Lights

The NFL season kicks off today in the USA, and Matthew McAuley says football can teach you valuable life lessons – particularly the excellent, much-missed high school drama Friday Night Lights.

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The town in which I spent my formative years was one dominated in description by its size (small), its location (isolated), its industries (primary) and its love of rugby (cultish). Within a population of barely 700, New Zealand’s passion for that most beautifully brutal of sports was writ enormous; as young sportspeople, the inherent New Zealand desire to be David to everywhere else’s Goliath applied to our own efforts versus anyone from a town with more than one dairy.

Given rugby’s near-total absence from the movies, it was often from American football films that we’d draw our motivation. It didn’t matter how removed from our realities these films were – the fact that they portrayed our relative contemporaries dealing with issues similar to ours made them as good as gospel. I can still remember the nauseous second-hand embarrassment induced by an under-16s teammate’s use of a rousing Remember the Titans speech as a Saturday morning spur (I’m pretty sure it worked though).

When I discovered Peter Berg’s film adaptation of Buzz Bissenger’s classic Friday Night Lights then, I was struck. Though Odessa, West Texas is considerably larger than Tapanui, West Otago, the film’s depiction of a small town’s young footballers reflected honestly and with terrifying accuracy both my actual life and its actual setting. Growing up in such isolation, in an environment usually absent from popular culture, it’s easy to imagine that your experiences are yours alone. Friday Night Lights showed me otherwise.

Given my affinity for the story told by the film, I was deeply wary to learn that its source material had been mined for a totally fictionalised serial version. Luckily, my fears were hopelessly misplaced, because Friday Night Lights is TV perfection. Maintaining incredible pacing and plotting for the best part of five seasons – save for some bizarre attempted ratings-grabs early in the second – it tackles everything from family drama, sports culture and small town politics to socioeconomic inequality, Christian grindcore music and, uh, murder.

Although it travels through undulations, recalibrations and floodlit scrimmages refreshingly clear of judgment, Friday Night Lights remains at its heart a high school drama, one rich in applicable and valuable life lessons. As such, it only seems right that if I’m to explain any further why this show deserves your attention, I should do it like this:

Friday Night Lessons: Five Teachable Moments from the First Season of Friday Night Lights.

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Lesson One (Episode One, “Pilot”):

When we meet our Dillon Panthers and their hewn-from-granite new coach Eric Taylor, they’re in preseason training under the watchful eye of a large sports media contingent. In one of the show’s first pieces of exposition, we’re introduced via talkback radio, an in-chair interview and the effusive praise of a college scout to star quarterback Jason Street, the heart and soul of the team. The consensus is clear and early: Jason Street will comfortably be the greatest player to ever emerge from Texas. Jokes. He’ll suffer a life-changing injury before the end of the first episode.

What’s the lesson? Never praise anyone, lest your praise prove tragically ironic when presented in retrospective montage form.

Lesson Two (Episode Three “Wind Sprints”):

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The Panthers have just lost a crucial game (all games appear to be crucial) against a hated rival (they have many hated rivals), and Coach Taylor is pissed. On top of that new quarterback Matt Saracen is worried about losing his spot on the team; dream hunk Tim Riggins is racked with guilt because he didn’t prevent Jason Street’s injury; and cool running back Smash Williams is giving TV interviews openly disparaging his coach. To get his players’ heads back in the game, Coach forces them to run through a river and up a hill in the middle of the night, in an actual thunder storm. Eventually everyone develops a hypothermic psychosis and gets super into it. Then Coach makes Tim walk home for extra punishment, because he’s a deadset psycho.

What’s the lesson? Avoid team sports. One time at rugby practice, the coach made us warm up by running through the forest behind the main field and I cut a five-inch gash in my knee while trying to negotiate a swamp with a barbed-wire fence in it. He let me wash my knee with a fire hose, then it was right back to up-downs in the mud. Avoid team sports.

Lesson Three (Episodes 11, 12 & 13):

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Matt Saracen is a lovely and exhaustingly busy guy, splitting his time away from the football field between school, work and caring for his ailing grandmother. When his father returns unexpectedly from military service in Iraq Matt’s doubly excited. He can impress a dad who’s long been both literally and figuratively detached, and get some support for grandma. Henry Saracen’s time in Dillon is ultimately short-lived, leaving Matt cycling through a turbulent range of emotions: anxious excitement; anxious pride; generalised anxiety; anger; hope; contented resignation. Basically it’s the human experience, summed up in a bunch of brief vignettes and three episodes worth of great Grandma Saracen quotes.

What’s the lesson? Distance can allow us to romanticise people and situations in unrealistic ways, but their inability to measure up to our expectations doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Also: having responsibilities sucks and getting old is incredibly scary.

Lesson Four (Episode 17, “I Think We Should Have Sex”)

Following a rom-com ready courtship, Coach’s daughter Julie Taylor has decided that she’d like to take her relationship with Matt Saracen to the next level. When Tammy Taylor subsequently spots Saracen shopping for condoms, though, things become tense. Confronting her daughter in a moving and unflinchingly real monologue that’s essentially the Kübler-Ross model made micro, she tries desperately to keep Julie from The Deed. Eventually, though, she realises that her words will likely be futile and her energies are better spent offering genuine support. As Tammy and Coach come to terms with their daughter’s free will, Julie and Matt mutually decide to hold off on the sex anyway.

What’s the lesson? Even if your commandments are well-intentioned, people really tend to dislike being told how to live. Respect the agency of those you love, and they’ll be much more likely to take your good advice.

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Lesson Five (Episode 20, “Mud Bowl”)

A bizarre accident has just rendered the Panthers’ home stadium unusable for their upcoming semifinal. The cumulative stress of their off-field issues and a deep run in the Texas high school football championship has the team a little joyless. Luckily, serendipity is cool and real, so Coach Taylor happens upon a large, perfectly flat paddock occupied only by a few dumb cows. He leases the land and, instead of going full Auckland and building a single bungalow on its 300 acres, enlists his team and a host of locals to create their very own Field of Dreams. This leads to a classic game, made even more romantic by a good ol’ mid-game Southern typhoon.  Afterwards, Smash Williams leads a post-game prayer where he literally thanks Jesus for the rain. It’s filthy and it’s beautiful. Texas forever.

What’s the lesson? Only do what you love, and actively remind yourself why you love it. If your unhappiness with any aspect of your life couldn’t be remedied by a good splash in the mud, adjust that situation immediately. Don’t trust me: trust Friday Night Lights.

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