Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Win? The End of Friday Night Lights and the Popularity of Glee

You’ve got to hand it to Heather Havrilesky. She had the guts in The NY […]

David Zahl / 6.6.11

You’ve got to hand it to Heather Havrilesky. She had the guts in The NY Times Magazine to expose one of the most egregious cultural travesties currently being foisted on the American public. I’m talking, of course, about the world of high school television dramas and the undisputed commercial and critical victory of Glee over Friday Night Lights. By every measure available – Emmys, ratings, DVD sales, iTunes downloads, cross-marketing campaigns, etc – Americans prefer Glee. Indeed, criticizing the show, or withholding/protecting one’s music from its horrifying a cappella-ization, has become a do-so-at-your-own-peril endeavor… Just ask Kings of Leon.

I find Glee hard to watch, especially when Jane Lynch isn’t on screen. Not simply because it’s inconsistent and not very funny, but because 1. I find its portrayal of high school fundamentally sanctimonious (and therefore alienating) and 2. Some of us still consider a cappella groups to be an assault not just on the ears but the soul. Besides, the whole “high school outcasts” thing has already been done as well as it ever could be with Freaks and Geeks. That show had more empathy for the outsider, not to mention abreactive juice, in its pinky than Glee will ever muster.

You may say, stop being a hater, Dave, this is apples and oranges – Glee is pure fun, nothing more. It intentionally defies being taken seriously, that’s the whole point. Fair enough, I’d respond (in my best high school sneer), then it’s clear to me that what some people consider fun, others/I consider totally l-a-m-e. And that’s coming from a guy who frequented comic book stores during his adolescence. The best I can say about Glee is that at least it’s doing something to fill the post-MTV music video void. I guess I also appreciate what it’s done for Journey’s profile.

Havrilesky gets at the fundamental irony of what’s happened. Namely, that Glee, with all its pretense about being a show for/about ‘outcasts,’ is the ubiquitous mainstream phenomenon of the past year. Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, a drama about something ostensibly more ‘conventional’ (small-town football), is the underdog. In fact, I’ve been genuinely surprised by the resistance I’ve encountered in my proselytizing for FNL. Call it reverse snobbery, call it condescension about the South, call it a sincere lack of interest in sports, whatever you call it, there are prejudices at work here, and ones that I’m deeply familiar with, having resisted the show on those grounds myself. “I’m not a football guy,” I would say – whatever that meant – while now I want to, um, sing from the rooftops that I am a Friday Night Lights guy, through and through. To quote Jack Donaghy’s response to an inquiry from Tracy Jordan about whether or not he likes Phil Collins, “I’ve got two ears and a heart, don’t I?”

One of the other great ironies about Friday Night Lights is that it’s a show about football for people who don’t necessarily like football. The legions of die-hard NFL fans simply did not get into it, at least if the ratings are to be taken at face value. Proudly “open-minded” culture vultures like myself – i.e. most of the people that now swear by the show – had to sidestep in some cases significant personal baggage to engage with the subject matter. No wonder it failed to find an audience. That it evinces what is probably the least patronizing attitude toward Christianity that’s ever found its way to the small screen (at least in anything of HBO-level quality), not to mention the most explicit and moving Sydney Carton moment of the new millenium, seems sadly not to have registered with those who might have appreciated those aspects most.

This is a case where theology can help explain things. These two shows represent the opposing viewpoints which you’ve read about on here before: a theology of glory vs a theology of the cross. Glee, despite its (superficial) underdog trappings, is a show about overcoming adversity, not letting the man grind you down, and being yourself no matter what the cost. It is fixated on personal glory and stardom. FNL, on the other hand, is more interested in exploring the redemptive possibilities of defeat and hurt – their relation to love in particular. Far from depicting life as an endlessly upward trajectory, in Dillon, TX, value and meaning are found at the point of weakness, not strength. Real power is manifested in humility – a dynamic underlined by the show’s handheld aesthetic, which has proved utterly brilliant at capturing the ‘small moments.’ God’s grace comes to the needy. Blessed are the meek. Go Lions!

To use another TV analogy, given the choice between the life of Mad Men‘s Don Draper (glamorous, wealthy, powerful, ascendant) and FNL‘s Eric Taylor (gritty, financially tenuous, scrutinized, downwardly mobile), most of us would choose Draper’s. But given the choice of which man we would rather be, the tables turn (ht RJH). Draper is defined by deceit, self-hatred, cold-hearted manipulation and loneliness, while Taylor is fiercely loved, has a strong backbone (and knows how to use it), genuine self-respect and is capable of meaningful relationships with others. He is the happier and healthier person, by far. The kicker here (pun intended) is that, as human beings/sinners, we are instinctually drawn to a theology of glory – to cast ourselves as the hero of our particular story, the master of our domain, if you will. We want to believe that we’re on the side of the angels, that if we dig deep enough, we can summon what we need to triumph. We don’t like stories about pain or defeat, however touching/honest they may be – we tolerate suffering only to the degree that it pays off – we want our Easter sans Good Friday, thank you very much. The urge is to see through our Calvary, rather than take it for what it is: a death.

The theology of glory will trump the theology of the cross every time… in the ratings. It was no coincidence that the crowds cried out for Jesus to be crucified. This is why FNL is about to finish its final season and why we’re in store for a bunch of Glee knockoffs this Fall. But Havrilesky makes the case better than I can. Suffice it to say, these two shows represent polar opposite takes on narcissism, love and life:

In its pilot episode [of Friday Night Lights], the star quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), suffers a career-ending injury that lands him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Over the course of the first three seasons, the smack-talking hotshot running back Brian (Smash) Williams (Gaius Charles) goes from dreaming of a full college scholarship and glory in the N.F.L. to accepting a walk-on position at Texas A&M, where his pro-football ambitions seem likely to fade. Even our hero, Coach Taylor, finds himself marginalized at the run-down, underfinanced East Dillon High after mixed success at Dillon High. For the denizens of Dillon, trading in big dreams for lives of quiet compromise amounts to just another local rite of passage, as common as breaking out or getting braces.

“Glee,” by contrast, pays lip service to teamwork, but the unintended moral of its story is the opposite — that you’re really not much of a star until you’re the Star. For all of the deaf children singing poignant arrangements of “Imagine,” for all of the lovable antics of the wheelchair-bound Artie (Kevin McHale), the show choir’s leader, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), is placed front and center, over and over again.

Sure, the plucky chorus geeks of “Glee” offer a steady flow of heartfelt (and unrelenting, and tedious) talk of supporting one another and giving voice to the voiceless, typically in a speech to the whole school, in which we are told, at the speech’s conclusion, “This song sums up exactly how I feel.” (As if we didn’t just suffer through the painful details of how you feel already.) Their outsize verbosity and precociousness is like a freakish clown-show version of the subdued mumbling of the teenagers on “Friday Night Lights.”

…perhaps most incredibly of all— rather than looming around Dillon forever, the lead characters of each season of “Friday Night Lights” have, one by one, moved away from town and been replaced by younger kids. If there has ever been a clearer stand against solipsism and center-of-the-universe thinking on television, I can’t think of it.

If “Glee” mines the same interplay of individualism and team spirit as “Friday Night Lights,” it does so with none of the latter’s subtlety and not even a smidgeon of its humility — not to mention even the slightest effort toward consistency or restraint or slow-burning story lines or understated dialogue. Yet “Glee” is a huge hit.

The most obvious explanation for this disparity in ratings, of course, is that the show’s flashy, demanding style — a dizzying grab bag of face glitter, snide rejoinders, hip thrusts and earnest soliloquies — naturally upstages the unpretentious modesty of “Friday Night Lights,” with its muddy football fields in the rain, stuttering apologies made to girlfriends always a little too late (such realism!) and gentle bickering between married couples on a threadbare couch.

But the real difference between the two shows lies in how each one mines the conflicting forces of the individual versus society, narcissism versus selflessness, winners versus losers. This premise is utterly in step with the times, of course, and doesn’t concern only teenagers. Many have argued that narcissism is the defining affliction of our age, whether evidenced by current pop lyrics or by research on the uses of social media. But while “Friday Night Lights” and “Glee” each explores the solipsism of those formative years with feverish enthusiasm, the particulars of each show’s message could not be more different.

Despite Coach Taylor’s inspiring talk of victory for those who fight together, “Friday Night Lights” is essentially a show about losing. In fact, aside from “The Wire,” no show on television has painted quite so vivid a picture of the agony of defeat.

If “Glee” is about expressing yourself, believing in yourself and loving yourself all the way to a moment of pure adrenaline-fueled glory, then “Friday Night Lights” is about breathing in and appreciating the small, somewhat-imperfect moments that make up an average life.

It’s not hard to see why “Glee” would be more popular right now, but its moment, like the moment of glory it celebrates, feels likely to come and go. Recognizing the impermanence of such moments, “Friday Night Lights” embraces the rough edges, the fumbling, the understated beauty and uncertainty of the everyday. It’s rare for a TV show to acknowledge that happiness is a fragile, transient thing. Although the tenure of “Friday Night Lights” may have proved just as fleeting, its exquisite snapshots of ordinary life won’t fade from our memories so quickly.

Ultimately, of course, the factors that prevented FNL from being more widely enjoyed will cease to matter. Its undeniable quality will become apparent over time. It can’t not! Just as Glee will eventually fade into the cultural white noise from which it emerged, taking its place in the endless parade of glory stories. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Friday Night Lights went down as a modern masterpiece, a 21st Century epic of frankly literary proportions, which both captures and transcends the Zeitgeist. Whatever happens, I’ll keep assigning it as mandatory viewing for the maritally challenged, the hopelessly aging, blindly immature, sports-inclined and -disinclined, snobby Yankees and wise Southerners, all the grace-starved souls I can find – my fellow Dillon Panthers, East Dillon Lions human beings in other words. Discounting the 2nd season, of course…