The first time I set foot on American soil was in Houston, Texas. The flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Texas is one of the longest in the world, passing over many hundreds of miles of ocean and up through Mexico. It was my first time travelling alone in a foreign country. The first thing you notice, of course, is the heat. There is nothing quite like Texas heat. It’s not a dry heat, but humid doesn’t really cut it when you try to describe it. More so than perhaps anywhere else I went in the United States, I got this sense that Texas is uniquely, naturally America. Here is a vast, multicultural, ever-so-slightly bonkers melting pot. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and it’s true – things feel heightened there. I remember the way greens of the trees felt so very bright, the hiss of cicadas so very warm, those red sunsets, the overwhelming kindness of so many of its people. Living in Texas I spent my time between Austin and Houston. It is a unique and unsettling feeling, being so far away and seeing a place you love hurting in the way Texas, and in particular Houston, are hurting now. Being back in New Zealand, aside from the obligatory calls and messages, the constant checking of Twitter and the news, the donating of what you can, when you can, what do you do to connect to a place that means so much to you, but which is so far away? For me, that required going back to where my Texas journey started – a television series about a high school football team in the small town of Dillon, Texas.
I find it hard to return to Friday Night Lights these days, so immense a place it holds in my formative years and so brutal its emotional force when you dig just a little below the surface. The uninitiated frequently look at me quizzically when I try to explain just how important a piece of work the series is, personally – easily one of my all-timer television series – and to those who went on the journey with it, yes, but also as a cultural artefact of modern America, and of Texas in particular. Texas can feel somewhat inaccessible from a distance – the landscape, the food, the clothes, the people, the football – the things we see in films and on television, from thousands of miles away feel hyper-cinematic, almost unreal. A land of cowboys and guns and rodeos, of Beyonce and Willie Nelson, of coyotes and armadillos and deserts and barbecue. It definitely doesn’t seem like a place with people who may just be feeling and struggling with the same everyday and not-so-everyday things that we all struggle with – growing up, falling in love, falling out of love, facing familial and social pressure, greeting new life, dealing with the death of a loved one, wondering whether anyone will show up to watch your shitty band play. This is the true power of Friday Night Lights – get past the ‘football show’ label it was smacked with, and find within there is an unforgettably raw, real show about ordinary people just trying to get by and help each other.
Like much of the most emotionally tumultuous art, it is these stories about good people trying to be there for each other that pack the most unsuspecting emotional wallop of all. Yes, Friday Night Lights is a crying show. Few shows have ever wielded scenarios entirely unique to their location – in this instance a small, football-crazed town full of dreamers with a tangled, thorny social structure – with such bare emotional force. When Friday Night Lights gets you, it hits you like a truck. If you’d have told me I would invest my entire emotional well-being in whether Saracen would throw that goddamn football towards the other end of the field (or however it works), I would probably have told you there was more chance of me playing for the Longhorns than there was of that being true. What’s remarkable about that is the fact that the series makes the specific universal – the elemental power of wanting to do well for yourself or for those you care about, or of struggling to make something of your life, or of the stress young people experience under the pressure of their parents, teachers, coaches and towns are the kind of scenarios most everyone has faced at some point.
The magic of Friday Night Lights is the way it opens Texas to all comers, the way someone coming to Texas the first time may hopefully feel, as I did. In the town of Dillon, everyone is Texan. It is an intoxicating, unshakeable feeling, one that I can’t say I’ve ever seen replicated in another television show. Friday Night Lights gets Texas. It isn’t any one element – not the superlative work of its cast, whose performances here are never anything less than entirely real, nor its subtly masterful camerawork, nor its timely and important storylines – it is the spirit of Texas, that elusive, enthralling special ingredient that the show lives and breathes, somehow bottled within five seasons of modest yet totally brilliant episodes. There aren’t many ways that Friday Night Lights and Twin Peaks intersect, but if there was to be one it would be this – both are instinctively dialed into the way America’s small towns are a unique home to elements of both light and darkness, acknowledging the fact that neither could exist without the other. It is no secret that the show’s unofficial theme song is Tony Lucca’s cover of “Devil Town”, whose title alone hints at the undeniable truth of Friday Night Lights and, incidentally, of the act of living – that with the good, eventually comes the bad.
Last year while I was living in Texas I was lucky enough to be able to attend the ten-year Friday Night Lights reunion. It took place on one of the original football fields the show filmed on, and was attended by a huge portion of the cast. Being there, in Texas, watching Friday Night Lights with the cast and all those who had flocked from all over the country (and beyond, as it were), to share in this event, it occurred to me that Friday Night Lights is a special show. Like that news footage we’ve seen post-Harvey of regular Texans facing life-or-death situations to help their fellow man or woman, Friday Night Lights shows Texas (and America) at its best, sometimes in spite of itself. It is a show about the inherent value of humans and humanity, something all too easily forgotten in these dark times. As I worry about and fear for and love my home away from home, it is in returning to Friday Night Lights that I can feel the spirit of Texas wherever I am.