Friday Night Lights:
Original Television Soundtrack
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2007, Volume 14, #8
Written by John Metzger
Tue August 7, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
The Emmy Awards has become something of an enigma. On the one hand, the ceremony has recognized excellent television programs that the public largely has ignored — such as Arrested Development and, absurd as it now might seem, The Office. It rightly celebrated 24 for its 2005–2006 season and snubbed it for 2006–2007. By contrast, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has an annoying habit of making the same nominations, year after year, regardless of merit — Two and a Half Men, anyone? Last year, after winning a statue for best director in a drama series, 24’s John Cassar declared, "We’re working in the new golden age of television. Let’s enjoy it." Whether Cassar’s statement truly resonated with anyone is debatable, but the fact of the matter is that he was absolutely right.
Contrary to popular belief, television isn’t a vast wasteland anymore. Sure, there still are a lot of terrible programs on the air, but in recent years, numerous captivating and thought-provoking series have sprouted in some unlikely places. Television’s renaissance famously was led by HBO. In reshaping the manner in which the medium was viewed, the makers of The Sopranos were able to delve far deeper into the hearts and minds of their characters, thus covering more ground and providing more insight than they could have done via a two- or three-hour movie. For the most part, the show has fared well at the Emmy Awards, but in what has become a typically puzzling pattern, its successors — Six Feet Under and, more egregiously, The Wire — have been unjustly ignored.
Regardless, the ideas that The Sopranos introduced thankfully have infiltrated network television. The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s masterwork, premiered nine months after The Sopranos; two years later, the groundbreaking framework of 24 followed suit. In 2006, Friday Night Lights, which was an unlikely spinoff of a theatrical film, raised the bar even further. Arguably, its 22 episodes composed the finest and the most consistent debut season of any television program — ever.
Although Friday Night Lights revolves around the world of high school football, its purview is, in actuality, much wider. By utilizing documentary-style camera movements to capture the happenings in the small, fictional town of Dillon, Texas, series creator Peter Berg lends an intimacy to the proceedings that makes the emotional turbulence of his characters’ experiences all the more palpable. If football is viewed as a metaphor for war, then Berg unpretentiously is examining the impact of a post-9/11 world on middle America. It is an unflinching, psychological study of what makes people — and more specifically, Americans — tick.
The key to Friday Night Lights is its setting. Is there a better place for creating a microcosm of society than the confines of a high school? Probably not. It is precisely this backdrop that allows the writers to work their magic through a remarkably diverse set of characters. There are traditional families and single parents, and their make-up cuts across both class and ethnic lines, thus allowing a variety of issues to be explored fully. The manner in which the high school football star, his family, and his town react to his paralyzing injury is, of course, central to the storyline. Likewise, the plague of steroid abuse — which long has been the dirty little secret of high school, college, and professional sports — is viewed through the lens of someone who believes, rightly or wrongly, that his football career is the only possible way that he can lift his family out of poverty.
At the same time, Friday Night Lights has delved into a broader range of topics, which have run the gamut from alcoholism to teenage sexuality, from racism to rape, and from the war in Iraq to America’s failing health care system. No judgment is ever passed, and the events that transpire never appear as if they have been forced into place. Much like real life, they simply happen, and as their repercussions ripple through the town, every possible viewpoint is presented. It’s here, within the show’s honest depiction of life in America, that Friday Night Lights gains its heart and soul.
Still, there is one area where television, particularly on the major networks, continues to lag behind the cinema. For years, the best movies have had a tendency to utilize music as a means of bolstering and flavoring the ideas and moods that are presented on the screen. Songs are carefully selected, and scenes are fastidiously constructed so that one medium can inform the other. Martin Scorsese, for example, incorporated a lengthy list of tunes into Good Fellas, and none of them felt out of place.
On television, however, the usage of music frequently feels like an advertising campaign. This undoubtedly is a direct result of the fact that there isn’t a traditional framework available to serve as a guide. The larger factor, however, likely stems from the heavy-handedness of corporate suits who are operating within an increasingly consolidated entertainment environment. Instead of directors having the freedom to choose a song that is best suited to a scene, material is presented based upon what the record labels want to push.
Commerce and art have been intertwined for centuries, of course, but whenever business concerns become the determining factor for an artistic vision, problems inevitably develop. One of the more notorious consequences is that scenes frequently either are added or extended beyond what is reasonable simply to give exposure to an up-and-coming performer. Last year, both Corinne Bailey Rae and Amos Lee benefited immensely from this practice, though the programs in which their work appeared had a tendency to suffer because their songs became a distraction that pulled the viewer out of the unfolding drama.
Although it hasn’t faced anything nearly as blatant, Friday Night Lights has not been left untouched by this frustratingly prevalent advertising phenomenon. Its soundtrack has found room for everything from rapper Jibbs’ Big Big Kid to Whiskeytown’s Everything I Do and from the operatic roar of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s So Divided to Jose Gonzalez’s pensively moody Storms. Other intriguing selections have included Dead Man’s Will, a haunting collaboration between Calexico and Iron & Wine, and Drive-By Truckers’ somber Goodbye.
All things considered, Friday Night Lights has featured a rather good slate of music. The only real revelation on the resulting soundtrack album, however, is Tony Lucca’s picture-perfect reworking of Daniel Johnston’s Devil Town. Johnston would have hated it, of course. Yet, there’s no denying how well Lucca (with the help of Conor Oberst, whose arrangement he essentially copped) transformed the tune from its original lo-fi recording into something that is palatable without losing touch with the pain and anguish of Johnston’s perceptively honest perspective. Although the soundtrack to Friday Night Lights provides a solid survey of the current alterative and indie rock scenes, Devil Town is the one song that actually fits seamlessly into the framework of the program.
In the end, one has to worry that, despite its being the best show on television, Friday Night Lights’ chances for extension beyond its second season very well may boil down to the success of its soundtrack. Irresponsibly ignored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and improperly marketed by NBC, the program has struggled to find an audience. It desperately needs a break, but it’s running out of chances to get one. For all of the care that has gone into framing the implications of each plot point and each scene, Friday Night Lights’ only weakness remains its creators’ inconsistency at tying the music directly to the drama taking place on the screen. Sometimes things fit. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, a more traditional orchestral score would have fared better. One gets the sense that mastermind Peter Berg knows this, but if the soundtrack is what ultimately draws viewers to the show, one also has to hope against hope that the network heads who decide the program’s fate won’t work even harder to jam ill-fitting songs into its scenes simply to sell another line of products. After all, Friday Night Lights is not The O.C., rather it is a work of art that ought to live and die on its own merits.
Friday Night Lights: Original Television Soundtrack is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
Friday Night Lights: The Complete Series (DVD) is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box