Are you ready for some rural idiocy?1
As a card-carrying member of the pinky-extending elite, I must confess that football isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. If you win, you get to have threeways with nubile cheerleaders. If you lose, you’re ground into livestock feed and fed to the hogs. And that’s the way it should be. I mean, if you can’t throw a tight spiral, you are, morally speaking, walking hogslop.
At least, that’s how things shape up in the first fifteen minutes of Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg’s saga of big-time, small-town football, based on H. G. Bissinger’s book chronicling the 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers in Odessa, Texas.2 We meet trash-talking black running backs, shy white boys, obsessive-compulsive dads, quarterback-hungry cheerleaders, a laid-back coach (Billy Bob Thornton, the only name in the cast), and an entire town working itself into a “win or die” frenzy over the coming season.
Will the arrogant running back cruise to a fat scholarship? Will racial tension break up the team? Will the shy quarterback crack under the strain of his “crazy” mother3 Will the fumble-prone fullback crack under the strain of his obsessive-compulsive father? Will the shy quarterback be corrupted by the evil cheerleader? Are the shy white guy and shy black guy gay? Will we get to see the evil cheerleader take off her panties? Isn’t it ridiculous for people to build their lives around high-school sports?
None of these questions gets answered. After fifteen minutes of setup, Friday Night Lights turns into an hour-plus sports video — players bouncing along in slow motion, cheerleaders doing splits and back flips, coaches yelling “Get out there and play some football!”, and lots of soul-stirring music.4 The badass running back is injured and learns humility. The obsessive-compulsive dad cleans up his act. The quarterback gets over his mom. The evil cheerleader keeps her panties on. The shy white guy and the shy black guy just play football. The Panthers play their hearts out and fall one foot short of the championship, losing to Carter-Dallas, an all-black, big-city team that plays dirty.5When scientists have complete contempt for a theory, they say “it’s not even wrong” — it doesn’t even state a testable proposition. Friday Night Lights is similar; how can you criticize a film that says nothing?
Friday Night Lights attains its near-perfect intellectual and aesthetic vacuity by discarding a good 80 percent of Bissinger’s book, which made him the least popular man in Odessa, if not all of Texas. Bissinger caught the Panther spirit, but he caught a few other things as well — for example, that Permian spent more money on overnight rush fees for game films than on supplies for the English Department. He also noticed that many of the top high school athletes were physically destroyed by four years of giving 100 percent to a game that glorified brutality, that few of them had more than an eighth-grade education, and that many of them were morally corrupted by all the adulation and coddling they received.
Is there hope for Texas? Well, I fucking hope so, since I was born there. According to Bissinger, Permian recently spent $1.1 million on a soccer and softball complex, and the last time I looked at the webpage of the Permian American, they led with a photo of the girls’ volleyball team, definitely a step up from the “Peppettes” of yore, who found fulfillment by baking cookies for the boys. So what’s next, books for the library?
- “Rural idiocy” gag courtesy of Karl “City Boy” Marx, who became a revolutionary when he discovered he couldn’t get a decent pousse-café outside of Paris. [↩]
- In the film, Odessa appears to be nothing more than a crossroads. We’re never shown so much as a two-story building. In fact, it’s a city of 100,000 people. In typical Hollywood fashion, all the players are shown as desperate for the state championship so that they can win a scholarship as their ticket out of Odessa. But does everyone in Odessa want to leave? And if they do, why don’t they just get in their car and go? [↩]
- We never find out what’s wrong with her. It was probably too depressing. [↩]
- The first fifteen minutes contain “shocking” bits — a southern matron telling Coach Billy Bob to “run that nigger,” kids boozing it up, girls unbuttoning their jeans — to be put in the trailer to make the film look edgy. Once they’re out of the way, Friday Night Lights is pure PG schmaltz. [↩]
- Carter-Dallas was not really a class act. To preserve the eligibility of its players, the school instituted a grading system that gave a passing grade in any course to every student whose record showed no unexcused absences, even if they did no homework and flunked every test. Several members of the Carter-Dallas team are currently doing time for a series of armed robberies they committed after winning the state championship. The ringleader used his mom’s BMW as the getaway car. Not smart. [↩]