Sunday, December 03, 2006

Friday Night Lights - Pilot (1x01)

I'd heard good things about this show back when it debuted, but I was busy watching a whole bunch of other shows. Now that most stuff is going on post sweeps hiatus I figured it was time to take a look, and after one episode, I'm totally wowed. I've mentioned before that in recent years, the quality of pilots has improved a lot, a lot of shows are coming out of the gate fully formed, which just wasn't true ten years ago. In some cases, such as Studio 60 or Lost, the pilot is the series highpoint, and I'm hoping that's not the case in Friday Night Lights, because this pilot is one of the best starts to a series I've seen.

Now, I haven't seen the film the show was based on, so maybe this seems so well formed because it ha the movie to draw from. But, as a new viewer, I was really impressed by the show's use of art cinema style and documentary conventions to create a reality. The show this is closest to is Battlestar Galactica, which has a similar handheld style, making frequent use of zooms and cuts to give the feeling that this is really happening and we're trying to keep up and follow the action. I love this style of filmmaking, to some extent it's become a cliche denoter of realism, but it's nowhere near as cliche as the classical Hollywood conventions that govern most shows. People still have this mindset that shot/reverse shot, wide/close dynamics are the way film should be, and anything else is gimmicky. That simply isn't true, the style used here works really well with the material and does make it feel real.

The standout scenes in terms of this are the diner scene and the party scene. There, we cut between a variety of narrative strands, hearing snippets of conversation then moving forward to something else. In this pilot, rather than trying to specifically develop the characters, the goal seems to be to give you a portrait of the town. So, we meet a variety of people who demonstrate the values of this town. It is an economically depressed area that has largely been left behind, and the one uniting force in the town is the football team. It transcends high school to define existence for all these people. That's certainly weird to see, and the show does a good job of getting you into this world without an outside point of view. To some extent, the news crew is used to give some quick exposition, but generally we're allowed to just view the world on its own terms. I like the fact that no one is there to question their values, instead that act of questioning is left up to the viewer.

I've talked a lot about how TV has surpassed film in many ways. This show is shot better than the vast majority of movies out there. It has the dynamic energy of indie films like My Summer of Love, where the emphasis is largely on creating visual moments rather than conveying all the details of a story. I love the music, and the silent moments where the camera drifts down the street. The radio show is another great conceit, an omnipresent voice pressuring the coach. One of the coolest sequences was the silent practice with the peewee team, which segued into the locker room prayer. I was surprised to see them pray, and I think that's something deliberately designed to confront blue state viewers with the differences of this world.

This all leads up to the game itself. The pacing here is pretty quick and the one thing that struck me as off was just showing the touchdowns. But, once Street gets hit, everything slows down and we get a much better sense of the reality of this moment. I think it's a great testament to the show that for all its art cinema flourishes, it still provides the basic narrative tension that engrosses you in the action. The problem with doing this sort of subtle character development is that it sometimes means distancing the audience. At the same time, using tired editing techniques just to build tension is too transparent. Here, the presentation is so strong, I was on some level aware I was being manipulated, but I just didn't care. When Saracen is given the ball, I really wanted him to succeed. I love the juxtaposition of Street being cut out of his football stuff, really nasty stuff, with the triumph on the field. There's this very quick shift of emotions, and when that final pass is up in the air, you can tell that in that moment, everyone in the stands has forgotten about Street, they just want someone to catch the ball.

But, that moment of triumph is quickly undercut, first with another prayer, and then with the tense ending at the hospital. And that's the sign of a good series, the ability to make you care so much about what happens in the moment, and also realize that, in the long run, it's rather insignificant.

I thought this pilot was fantastic. It created an entire world, with a very distinct mood and feel in only one episode. The characters weren't developed in the traditional TV way, but I already have a sense of them, and I'm curious to see how things develop. There's a lot of potential here, and I'll definitely catch up on all that's aired in the next couple of weeks.

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