I have a marathon pile of grading to get through this week, an essay to finish, and another to begin. Oh, and a few lectures to finish writing for the coming week. Plus two jobs. At three years into this PhD, I know the drill, but sometimes it’s hard to motivate – especially because it’s a one-person game. No substitutions. No extra time. Although I have a pretty good pep squad (cat, better half, friends and family) it’s sometimes tough keeping my eyes on the end zone when it still seems so far away. I’m running as fast as I can, but touchdown moments – real “YEAH! I did it!” scenarios – are few and far between.
Ok, that’s all the football metaphors I have for you because – well – I know nothing about football apart from what I have learned in the last three weeks watching Friday Night Lights. I know I am almost certainly the last one to the party, but this month I’ve become completely addicted to FNL (and this is no hyperbole – all questions get answered now with “what would Coach Taylor and Tami do?”). For the uninitiated, Friday Night Lights is a 2006 TV adaptation (there was also a 2004 film) of the non-fiction book of the same name written by journalist and author H.G. Bissenger, published in 1990. A document of small-town life in Odessa, Texas, Bissenger wrote about real events surrounding the high school football team and their attempt to make state championships, using these characters as a lens through which to investigate socio-cultural issues of race, class, and life in everyday Middle America. On TV, Odessa becomes fictional Dillon, and the Permian Panthers become the Dillon Panthers, complete with cheer squad and Coach Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler) screaming from the sidelines.
This has become my main source of visual culture stimulus this month, and though it may be rather infra dig to admit it: Whitney Biennial and Keith Haring show, be damned. I tell you this with only a small glimmer of embarrassment, and perhaps even a little gloat as my tardiness in finding out about the show means I am still at the beginning. I still have five glorious seasons to watch. Or four-and-a-bit – I’m almost at the end of season one, right where Lyla’s dad just totally got taken down outside church by Tyra’s mum after he (spoiler alert) ended their affair, the Panthers are still at playoff stage, and Jason is in Austin trying out for the U.S. Paralympic team. Let me be clear here: I’m not attempting a critique (ironic or otherwise) of American pop culture via a cult TV program. I love this show in the same simple way I loved Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, My So-Called Life, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at different stages through my very British upbringing – FNL is just another means to indulge my fantasies of what might have been had I grown up going to an American high school (without the pain of being a spotty, bookish, gangly teen in said environment). It is unbridled escapism from school and work, but escapism that nonetheless has provided some unexpected mid-semester motivation.
It’s a show that, on the surface at least, is about things I’m happily distanced from – organized sports, parental rules, teen angst, and curfews – and I was going to write about something completely different this month (ie. something germane to Art 21 and Open Enrollment, something to do with contemporary art and graduate school life). Then I realized I’d fallen for it so quickly because it wasn’t that wide of the mark in terms of current experience (hence my overextended football metaphor at the start). I have to admit that I was hooked as soon as the opening credits began with the symphonic guitar arrangements of Texas-based post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. I spent a lot of time a decade ago in the fog and rain of Glasgow completing my undergrad essays in a rather grim library building listening to EITS and Mogwai, and both (along with other staples of that time – Arab Stap, Belle & Sebastian, the Manic Street Preachers) are almost synonymous with the slogging tedium of sitting for full weekend days (and nights) ticking off one academic deadline after another before starting all over again on Monday morning. Like another recent favorite, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, which perfectly captures the confusion of the first summer of post-undergraduate life, FNL invokes the nostalgia of teenage-hood, when everything mattered so intensely (though unlike Dunham’s well-observed navel-gazing, the FNL kids all have part time jobs at Applebee’s and the local burger joint, rather than an artsy parent to go home to talk over life with). FNL reminds me of a time when homework ended, and spring nights were for running around aimlessly with friends in fields, in back yards, out of the eyesight of parents – and I shamelessly luxuriate in this easy nostalgia (I, too, grew up in a small town where contact sports and post-rock ruled). It reminds me to take pleasure in the parts of school that still matter, still so intensely, while slogging through the Applebee’s/grading/minimum-wage aspects of grad school life. Or, let’s be honest, it just lets me forget about those parts for 43 glorious minutes….
The goal of the Dillon Panthers is to win state championships, and even though I don’t completely understand what that means (a little like a mini Superbowl?), having an episode to look forward to after grading ninety essays is one way to combine goal-oriented rewards in real time with similarly goal-oriented drama modeled in Netflix-time. Actually, if I have to justify it somehow, the jagged camerawork and improvised blocking and dialogue of FNL is not so far removed from, say, any old Ryan Trecartin film. Except exponentially better, like Cathy Opie’s images of high school football (currently at Mitchell-Innes & Nash) combined with great one-liners (the best of which – “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose” – should be hollered randomly on the street at passersby for maximum effect). Finally – did I mention Tim Riggins (aka Taylor Kitsch) is also
very extremely cute? No? Well, he is. So is Lyla. And Mrs. Coach is always spot on in terms of advice. Really, there’s something for everyone. Just like the Whitney Biennial.