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Hometown Heroes

If you're looking for heartland truths, Smallville's soap-opera fantasy beats the "reality" of Friday Night Lights.

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Friday Night Lights

WHEN Wednesday, 7 PM

WHERE Channel 5 (NBC)

Smallville

WHEN Thursday, 7 PM

WHERE Channel 9 (WGN/the CW)

Friday Night Lights, a new series that NBC insists on running on Wednesday night, purports to be a scrupulously realistic look at life in a small west Texas town, but that's just a cover story. For every Andy Griffith Show that imagines small-town America as an Edenic Mayberry, there's been a Green Acres trashing it as a nightmare dadaist hicksville. It's as though TV executives in New York and LA are consumed with anxiety about what kind of apparitions might confront them if they somehow found themselves stranded in flyover country. Think of genial old Bob Newhart going into Vermont and finding it inhabited by mountain men out of Deliverance, or Northern Exposure's Dr. Fleischman discovering that in the backwoods of Alaska reality is as squishy as a Dali watch.

Friday Night Lights breaks new ground in surrealist dread. But you'd never know that from looking at it. In the trendiest mock-documentary style, every single shot is jiggly and out of focus--there's so much bobbing and weaving you'd swear somebody was trying to wrestle the camera away from the guy operating it. The action is subdued, undramatic, and inconclusive; the big expected TV moments either don't happen at all or are shrugged away offscreen. The dialogue is punishingly inarticulate and repetitive, as though some avatar of David Mamet were stuck in hell. Here's a representative snippet of conversation between two brothers:

"What's your problem with dad?"

"What's my problem with dad?"

"Yeah."

"What's my problem with dad?"

"What is your problem with dad?"

"What's my problem with dad? You want to know what my problem with dad is, Tim? You want to know what my problem with dad is?"

But all this microrealistic texture adds up to a kind of occult vision. Everybody in this town is so psychotically obsessed with football that the fate of their local high school team is more important to them than life itself. Our hero, the high school coach, goes through his days persecuted by hordes of shrieking harpies who threaten his job, his home, and his family if he doesn't deliver the state championship. Worse still, the sole topic on the local radio station's talk show, which appears to be on the air 24/7, is how badly the coach is blowing it on the field. The only thing that would make the psychic atmosphere more oppressive--and I'm beginning to worry that this will be the season-ending cliffhanger--is if it turned out that the radio station didn't exist and that all the disembodied voices we heard on the sound track were really in the coach's head.

The show is ostensibly not a fantasy at all, but an adaptation of a nonfiction book about a real Texas town. I haven't read the book, but I do know about towns like this firsthand--my father grew up in one

in Oklahoma, and I have relatives scattered around them in Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas. So I believe I'm entitled to point out that even at the frothing peak of football season, you can find people in these towns who don't give a damn about the state finals and who think that in general football isn't a fit preoccupation for grownups.

But Friday Night Lights stacks the deck to make the town more monomaniacal than its real-life counterparts could ever be. We learn absolutely nothing about the coach except that he's into football, and nothing about his wife except that she's married to the coach. Their daughter is ostentatiously made into a reader of books, but the one time she's allowed to speak of this curious hobby, she interprets Moby-Dick as an allegory about football. Still, that's more independent thought than is allowed the town's other teenage girls, who are all cheerleeders and "rally girls" who exist only to service the football team. The team itself is the vaguest of blurs: by my count, only five players have even been given names or lines of dialogue. And consider this: the show is set in a high school, and yet not once in the first eight episodes has there been a scene in a classroom or a word spoken by a teacher. The school consists entirely of a locker room, a corridor, and a football field.

It's a vision of America as a kind of fascist state, where the thought police purge every hint of a nonfootball universe. It's so bad that when the star quarterback is left paralyzed after a bad tackle, not one character stops to wonder if it was worth it. Even the coach shrugs it off: "It's football," he says. "These things happen." That's pretty damn cold. Is this Texas, or the far side of the moon?

I'm not saying the heartland isn't a weird place. But what I find so insufferable about this show is its bleak tone of condescension, its airless certainty that people out there couldn't possibly care about anything except the most philistine rah-rah values. If I'm going to watch a fantasy about the heartland, I much prefer Smallville, over on the CW. It gets absolutely no respect (unlike Friday Night Lights, which came in among the top five scores for new TV shows on Metafilter): people dismiss it, not inaccurately, as nothing more than a dumbed-down knockoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But if you can get past the idiotically recycled plots and the gibberish backstory about Superman and Kal-El and Kryptonite and all the rest of it, what you've got is a curiously optimistic and plausible take on growing up in a small town.

The great idea of the show--well, actually, it's Buffy's idea and they stole it--is that from inside, American adolescence really does feel like a cross between a soap opera and a superhero comic. In Smallville's take on the story, Superman doesn't start out as a baby with all his superpowers at full throttle, the way he did in the original comic book; he has to discover them as he grows up. He doesn't know that he has super breath, for instance, until he sneezes for the first time and blows out the barn door. At the same time, his self-discovery is paralleled by an education in earthly realities: he learns that the local megaconglomerate doesn't necessarily act in people's best interests and that the hearty all-American farmers of Smallville are bringing in illegal migrant workers and treating them as expendable slave labor.

The result is an image of the heartland that's garish, dark, artificially sweetened, surreal, and pop-colored all at once--which is to say, pretty much like the real heartland. Superman's world is filled with vivid, complicated people, the way any small town in America is. It's particularly nice that the female characters are actually individualized. Oh, all right, so they look like the usual bunch of jailbait runway models, but they talk, they're supplied with emotions and ideas, and they're not weak-kneed with awe for the hero--even though he is, you know, Superman. Compared to the interchangeable fembots on Friday Night Lights, they're like something out of Ibsen. And there's also the arch villain Lex Luthor, intriguingly reimagined as Superman's childhood best friend/eternal nemesis. It helps that Lex is so ferociously played by Michael Rosenbaum; better still, his father, the even more arch-villainous Lionel Luthor, is the outrageously feline and sinister John Glover. The exchanges between father and son are the highlight of the show:

"Son, I've always thought of my employees as family. Does that surprise you?"

"Not at all. It explains their complete lack of loyalty."

So it isn't "quality" TV. But take another look at that dialogue between the two brothers on Friday Night Lights, and ask yourself which show has more wit, more imagination, and more truth.

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