America is gearing up for football season in ways large and small. The NFL is back on TV, college and high school teams are looking forward to their first games, and the sports pages run glowing profiles of the star athletes who are going to lead their squads to victory.
So it's an appropriate time of year to be watching Friday Night Lights, the acclaimed NBC series based on the 2004 movie, which was itself based on H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book about the Permian Panthers, perennial champs based out of Odessa, Texas. We had caught up with a few episodes of the series in reruns months back, but since it's a serial, it made a lot more sense once we starting watching the season DVD set from the beginning.
What's arresting -- and endlessly fascinating -- about the show is its rootedness in the rituals of football culture. The way the coach interprets his job to be as much about inspiration as technical skill -- a kind of highly concentrated vision of the complete leader. The influence of the depth chart on social position. The orbiting rings of support groups that encircle the team -- boosters buttonholing the coach in the diner, rally girls making homemade treats for their assigned players, parents putting up big signs in their front yards announcing their sons' numbers and positions.
And something about the quasi-documentary style serves the material well. Football may take place on identical measured grids, but it's outdoors, and the quality of light along with the frequent out-the-car-window establishing shots make the Texas location absolutely indelible. It's a whole nother country, as they say, and appropriately enough, this show doesn't look or feel like anything else on television.
The new fall schedule may look bleak right now, and some of us are still mourning favorites canceled in the last few years. But looking at Friday Night Lights, it's easy to believe that we're still in that new golden age of television.