Comics Ate My Brain

May 13, 2007

Playoffs, hype, and "Friday Night Lights"

Filed under: tv — Tom Bondurant @ 11:07 pm
“Friday Night Lights,” one of my favorite new shows, has been renewed for a second season. I liked the first season very much, and I found it much more endearing from the start than either “Heroes” (which grew on me) or “Studio 60” (which squandered its potential). I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore, but I will gladly make time for “FNL.”

It’s a hard show to define. It focuses on a small-town Texas high school’s football team, so there are lots of sports metaphors, but there are also meditations on the nature of fandom, religion, family life, and growing up. It has a large cast, but all of the characters have at least some nuance; and while It’s not teen-centered, it sure doesn’t put the teens in the background. Mostly, it deals with the obsessions a small-town success story can produce, and the expectations which go along with those obsessions.

Last season, the team struggled to cope with the first-game loss of their star player, and (SPOILER!!!) their trip to the state championship. Accordingly, the TV season spanned a total of about 3 months, from late August/early September to late November. This gives “FNL’s” second season some options. It can tell some stories from the remainder of that school year, but those won’t have the constant pressure of each week’s football game as a backdrop. It can also pick up at the start of the next year’s season, with the players that much older, but the viewers having missed out on their maturation.

What’s this have to do with comics? Well, sometimes I thnk that superhero world-maintenance has a lot in common with athletics. The average “Hero A fights Villain B” story, like the average scrimmage or game, shows our hero flexing his muscles in a natural, everyday setting. Individual games have meaning in football, more so than in other sports, but as “FNL’s” Dillon Panthers showed last season, you can lose a few games and still come back to win it all. Therefore, not every game has to be the one to change everything.

However, a team in the playoffs will quickly find itself in a lose-and-go-home situation. In that sense, the stakes are a lot higher, because every game is potentially the last — maybe for the season, maybe (if a player’s gone as far with the sport as possible) for good. Of course, a lot of good teams come out of the playoffs having been eliminated, and depending on how good the team was supposed to be, often that elimination can seem premature. Thus, those outcomes combine with fan expectations to color the perception of that particular team for a long time. Big crossovers, and big events generally, are like the playoffs, because the hype is front-loaded and we fans are conditioned to expect the same kinds of altered perceptions. However, while it might be reasonable to expect to see superheroes in the “playoffs” on a regular basis, the real growth happens between the games and in the off-season.

I wanted the Dillon Panthers to win the state championship this season, because for a show on the ratings bubble it might be the only shot they had. Now that I know it’s not, the question then becomes how they will handle losing the next year. Not that a high-school football team can’t repeat; but it’s not dramatically plausible. This season was about fulfilling expectations, so next season can be about coming up short (just not in the ratings department, I hope!). Sure, the playoffs are important, but fans shouldn’t feel entitled to a certain lofty outcome year in and year out. Likewise, superhero publishers and fans shouldn’t have to rely on big events to produce those lofty outcomes year in and year out.

“Friday Night Lights” demonstrates that a show about football can put football in the background a decent amount of the time and still be dramatically successful. I’ll be waiting for its return, to see how it builds on that success.

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