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Still the Brightest Light on TV

Still the Brightest Light on TV

With a writers’ strike putting a halt to many prime-time TV favorites, NBC’s Friday Night Lights remains one of the only new shows still on the schedule. But with spiritually compelling plot lines and beautiful cinematography, new episodes aren’t the only thing that keeps FNL fresh.

And after watching it every week last season and just recently watching it again on DVD, I can honestly say it is the best television series I’ve ever seen.

For those of you who have seen it, you know how wonderful it is. For those who haven’t, listen up: Do you ever love something so much that it pains you when other people don’t see it or can’t experience it? Then for my sake and (trust me) yours, please watch this show.

It’s not enough to say that Lights is “about more than just football.” It’d be more accurate to say that this is a show about everything. Well, not terrorists or conspiracies or superheroes or islands … but real life. Yes. Set in the dusty Texas town of Dillon, where strip malls and Dodge dealerships and Applebee’s define the landscape just as much as golden horizons and aging oil pumps, Lights is a microcosm not just of small towns, but of all the problems and joys and heartbreaks that come with this American life.

It’s a show that finds high drama in the mundane experiences of a typical high school (cliques, rivalries, dating, sex, homework, cheating, etc.), as well as the everyday challenges of marriage and family. The heart of the show is the family of Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler): his wonderful wife, Tammy (Connie Britton), and prissy-but-sweet teenage daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Not only is this trio the most affable, adorable “TV family” out there, but they are also probably the most representative as well. So rare is it to see a stable, loving, comfortable family dynamic portrayed in the media. But the Taylors make “good family” look incredibly appealing. The scenes between husband and wife are especially good. There’s no more nuanced, personal, empathetic, flat-out great acting happening anywhere else on television.

The rest of the cast is amazing as well, pretty much down to the last extra (and the show just won an Emmy for its casting director … much deserved). But just as wonderful is the show’s intimate photography, exquisite editing, realistic set design (all real locations), melancholy musical soundtrack and so on. It’s really hard to find anything wrong with Lights (and as a critic, that’s endlessly frustrating but also a sort of holy grail). Every now and then a network show comes along that redefines the medium’s artistic horizons and proves that cinema has no monopoly on forward-thinking style in the world of moving images. Lights is such a show. It’s not just feel-good and life-affirming; it’s a pivotal show in the history of television.

Beyond the technical aspects, perhaps the chief appeal of Lights is that it is not condescending to middle America, even while it relishes in pointing out its quirks and contradictions. For those of us who hail from (and adore) the sprawling rural midsection of this country, it’s rare to see a portrayal that gets it so right. Part of Lights‘ success is the show’s unflinching and empathetic incorporation of evangelical Christianity, which is portrayed in almost every episode (whether in a Sunday service, or church potluck, or Christian metal band concert). Faith is simply a given in the show, and while its characters are not perfect, Lights is clear in its insistence upon virtue, morality and shared values. What is right versus what is easy is the central schema of the show, and yet it is never didactic or moralizing. Rather, it is refreshing. Very refreshing.

As good and acclaimed as Lights is, the show has been in constant jeopardy of cancellation since it began last fall. Only because of incessant critical praise and a passionately loyal (albeit small) fan base was it renewed for a much-deserved second season. This season, I’m making it my mission to insist that everyone I know, and anyone who even remotely respects my opinion, gives this show a shot. I’m only asking for you to watch a couple episodes, or at least Tivo them and watch them later.

Watch this show because it is more than just a funny diversion (The Office) or heart-pounding serial (24). It is these things, but it is more than that. It’s a show full of truth that needs our support. And it’s a piece of art: a swooning love letter to youth and family and the blazing furor of imperfect Americana.

This story was adapted from a recent article that appeared in the 850 WORDS OF RELEVANT newsletter. To subscribe for free, go here.

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