I’m starting up a new little segment on the blog that deals with the more academic side of television. Although I majored in Film, I took several TV classes in college as well and found myself fascinated with this age of “quality television.” A great film is like a great short story–beautiful and contained. A quicker experience that you can revisit over and over again, should you choose to. But a great television show is like a novel. You see development and change in your characters. It requires a commitment, but is ultimately incredibly rewarding.
Although I’m not a student anymore, I still plan to continue familiarizing myself with the major points of television history, which is why I started watching Twin Peaks last night. After a few more episodes, I’ll try to delve into why it was such a pivotal moment for television in the early 1990s.
But in the meantime, let’s take a look at a more recent TV favorite–the NBC drama, Friday Night Lights. Specifically, let’s look at the execution of the show’s the pilot.
In his article, “The Sense of Place in Frank’s Place,” Horace Newcomb says, “the South is a place, charged with meaning” (32). Texas falls into that same category—a place that the viewer already has countless perceptions attached. Newcomb explains that location becomes place when the latter takes on “far more specific meanings of its own” (31). The “Pilot” episode of Friday Night Lights looks to first establish the location of Texas and then transform that into the specific place that is the Dillon community.
Before the Friday night game, Riggins has everyone cheers to Texas. “Texas forever,” he says. The first half of the episode effectively reveals these clichés and preconceived notions of Texas. Newcomb writes: “This sense of gentle, gradual, fragile, almost blurred entry suggests a bridge to a world only partially familiar, a world in which to see without being seen, to ‘listen in,’ to move about as freely as the camera will allow” (30). “Listening in” is perhaps the best way to explain how we as the audience are first exposed to Texas and to Dillon. We are constantly hearing snippets of people talking about football on the radio. The camera moves throughout Dillon, allowing us quick glimpses into the lives of the characters we will later know as people. We hear Saracen’s grandmother talk about tuna sandwiches, Coach Taylor’s wife go on about his and her closets, Lyla’s brother tease her about her relationship with Street, and Riggins’ brother lecture him on “real life.” At the opening of the car dealership, the camera moves us through the crowd and grants us bits of conversation as if we were a real inhabitant of this town, observing people around us and taking everything in.
All of this paints a portrait of Texas in the medium of expectations—the idea we already have of Texas in our heads. But as this happens, characters and relationships are already starting to take place. We get a view of Julie reading at home with her parents and her turning down football players in the local burger join—she is becoming more dimensional. Friday Night Lights sets itself up as a show about who Dillon is underneath the cliché of Texas football. Who is Street now that his All-American quarterback identity is going to be taken away? Who is Lyla without her plan to follow him to college? Who is Smash underneath all of his bluster and trash talk? Friday Night Lights is a crystallized example of Newcomb’s point because the whole show is about moving from location (who we think we are/who we are supposed to be) to place (who we actually are).