Wow. And it's not like we haven't seen this story before. It wasn't intricately plotted or all that inventively written. But it was organic, it earned its emotion, it stunned the eyes and rang the ears. Call Ginny Heffernan, because if she's looking for a buddy who'll drink wine with her and make painful comparisons between FNL and The Iliad, I'm her gal.
So the episode rushes through five days of preparation for the big game on Friday with a sort of unstoppable force. The signature Peter Berg handheld camerawork just as readily peers and jerks its gossipy glance across a packed Applebees as it unfolds the horizontal Texas landscape that's by turns bleak and sublime.
We meet the football players, most living in various states of disarray in shadowy ranch houses or cramped A-frames with grandmothers or older brothers. Jason Street, the golden boy quarterback, is the best the Notre Dame scout has seen in twenty-five years; Tim Riggins, a young drunk, has dead eyes but a joyfully violent presence on the field; Smash Williams, the fast-talking African-American running back, gives the whites what they want (big smiles, sassy attitude), hoping to take what he can get from them; and Matt Saracen, the unassuming second-string quarterback who we know will get called upon later in the episode. We also meet the girls, the coltish town bad girl Tyra Collette; the upper-class cheerleader Lyla Garrity, Street's girlfriend who will be tested when the golden boy tarnishes; and the coach's daughter, the bookish Julie Taylor, who can extend a metaphor with the best of them. Add the restrained and anxious coach Kyle Taylor, his wife Tami, who's game for it all, and a whole town full of drawling close-talkers wearing Texas hospitality on their sleeve while hiding knives in their pockets, and you've got the ensemble.
The main focus in the pilot is on the heavy expectations the town (the fictional Dillon, Texas) has for its seemingly state-championship-bound football players -- from the Pop Warner kids looking for heroes, to the tough-talking lady mayor (who instructs Street to listen to Black Sabbath to help him get a little meaner), to the reporters who swarm the kids before, during, and after school. When we finally get to the big game about 2/3 through the episode, it isn't much of a surprise that these put-upon kids start choking in the second half, and it isn't really a surprise, exactly, that someone gets seriously injured during this season opener. But it is visceral, the moment when an entire town loses hope as Street is rushed off the field on a backboard in an ambulance. Sometimes people come together and focus their energy so forcefully on one thing that they destroy it. By the time Coach Taylor makes it to the hospital (after Saracen steps in and leads the shaken Panthers to a win) and slips his hand into Street's (still anesthetized after spinal surgery), I'm hooked.
Let's get a few things out of the way here. I don't know too much about football. I know a lot about eating nachos and sipping beer while football is on in the background, but because I usually I have my nose in a book while reaching for those nachos, I must confess that I am not the person who'll be able to elucidate the more arcane matters of, um, whatever arcane football issue that I don't know anything about. But, I do know lots about beautiful things, and this show -- for however long or short its run may be -- looks to be a beautiful thing.
We open at dawn, the camera -- which we may as well agree to discuss as if it were a character on this show, because it has about as much to say about the story as anyone -- rolls through a town full of electricity towers, telephone wires, the visual white noise of modern day sprawl. A spare and processed guitar strums in regular rhythm, the word "Monday" floats on the screen, and a radio announcer's voice fades in, wishing its audience good morning and reminding them all that Monday morning just means "four days until Friday night." The camera keeps moving; the eponymous "lights" glow in the grey dawn light, a man climbs the enormous light pole, we cut to the football field, an empty stadium looms around Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) -- who we find out, as a female caller exposits to the radio host, is "new," under a lot of pressure to win, and being followed around by news crews everywhere he goes. Taylor gazes downfield at a news van as the female caller asks, "Who does he think he is? Mack Brown? He's no Mack Brown!" An anonymous man stands high up on the bleachers, arms folded, looking down on Coach Taylor.
The camera continues driving through town, casts a passing glance at a shabby ranch with a sign out front declaring it the home of "Riggins / Running Back / #33." We cut inside to find Tim Riggins shirtless and sprawled on a shoddy black leather love seat in the now-golden morning light, coffee table laden with beer bottles in front of him. The radio host continues conversing with the woman (and with us), saying that Taylor has stepped onto the number one team in Texas, and suggesting to her that the news crew is there to remind Taylor how important his job is.
The camera keeps blowing through the worn-out town, shooting a quick backwards glance at a junky shotgun house with a cock-eyed sign (Saracen / #7 / Quarterback) out front. The sign is just one more collectible amidst the broken wrought-iron chairs and empty flower pots, poverty's estimation of the American dream. Inside the house, an older woman sits watching the Home Shopping Network. Saracen peers at her without her knowing; his expression is hard to read, he's totally impassive. He finishes rinsing out his glass of orange juice and tells her, "O.K., grandma, I made you two tuna fish sandwiches and put your medicine in the green gatorade." She sits in her velour pull-over robe -- the one with the ruching at the bust, the one your grandmother wore, too, unless you've been so unlucky as to not have had a grandmother who wore a velour pull-over robe with ruching at the bust -- and taps her foot (a foot wearing a sock inside a slip-on Isotoner or Payless slide) on the linoleum floor.