As I continue to slowly make my way into the world of Prestige Television—I’m still about 15 years and a couple of dozen series behind—I just finished Season 2 of Friday Night Lights. The first season was a Christmas gift from Scott and his wife Jackie, the second season I borrowed (Scott again); he doesn’t have the third, but I think I can rent it out from Queen Video in Toronto.
With a few reservations, I like it a lot. Not as much as Mad Men, and not as much as Six Feet Under, but after a slow start—two or three episodes into the first season, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue; the non-stop close-ups and overall grimness were oppressive—it started to lighten up some, and from there it’s just gotten better and better. There’s less actual football than at the beginning, and a correspondingly greater amount of time given over to the show’s soap opera-ish romances and crises, but that’s okay. The characters get better—more shaded, less schematic—and that’s more important than whatever’s happening at any given moment. The music’s been getting better too, and towards the end of Season 2’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” there’s a sequence that felt like the first time where the music really reached me, and therefore felt like it might be worth writing about.
Most of the music in Friday Night Lights has been completely unfamiliar to me. When they do use something I know, as often as not it falls flat: “September Gurls” and “I Will Dare” could barely be heard a few seconds after they started up. (T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” during the poolside mayhem that opens Season 2 was much better.) One of the weirder musical interludes was Patsy Cline’s “Back in Baby’s Arms” in the middle of Lyla’s dinner over at Chris’s house—it sort of worked, it just seemed to be parachuted in from nowhere. As for all the stuff I don’t know (some of which I’m sure is well known to anyone who followed new music closely through the 00s; I’m still catching up with a lot of that, too), it can’t really be categorized neatly, a plus. Early on, there seemed to be a lot of heartland, Mellencamp-type guitar-rock (I remember thinking that that must have been one of the reasons Chuck Eddy was such a fan of the show), mixed in with hip-hop whenever Brian “Smash” Williams was around. (Something of a caricature early on, Smash is now one of my favourite characters.) But lately, there seems to be more of a move towards recent singer-songwriters, probably drawn from the indie/alternative/whatever world, but basically just sounding like what was once quaintly referred to as “folk.” Which is where the sequence from “Who Do You Think You Are?” comes in: Devendra Banhart’s “Now That I Know” plays, loud enough to be heard and in its entirety.
I remember Banhart turning up high in year-end polls a few years ago, maybe just for one album or maybe even for two or three years running. As is often the case, enough people ridiculed him, and his historical reference points seemed self-conscious enough (Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, etc.), that I never felt the need to investigate; his appearance in Friday Night Lights was the first time I’d ever heard him. Maybe I would find him impossible to take for more than a song or two, I don’t know—seeing as I like both those people, I don’t know why I jumped to that conclusion. In any event, “Now That I Know” sounds as strange and as mysterious to me as Bert Jansch’s “Running from Home,” and Friday Night Lights does it justice.
The song starts up as Riggins is driving alone at night, listening to Lyla and her imminent new boyfriend Chris as they do their Christian call-in radio show. Lyla tells a caller who’s being mocked at school whenever she prays that she needs to stay true to herself and not hide from the world. “Damn it, Lyla,” mutters Riggins; “All right.” (One of the funniest things for me about Friday Night Lights is the way that literally everyone closes out conversations with “All right”; it’s used like SCTV’s McKenzie Brothers used “Eh?” And it can mean a bunch of different things, depending upon the context. Sometimes “All right” means “Good luck,” sometimes it means “Fine, have it your way, but I want to end this conversation right now.” It can signal a kind of wry incredulity: “Really? Are you sure you’ve thought this through?” With Riggins responding to Lyla it’s something like, “Okay, I’ll take you at your word.” Sometimes, now and again, it means “All right.” Someone needs to do a dissertation on the semiotics of “All right” in Friday Night Lights.) Off he goes to buy flowers, ready to stop hiding from the world and declare his love for Lyla.
From there we get a device I’ve become increasingly attentive to the past few years: a montage of various characters linked by a single song. The first time I ever really noticed this was the love-it-or-hate-it “Wise Up” sequence in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (a special case insofar as the characters are actually singling along with the song—even cancer-stricken Jason Robards, evidently a bridge too far for some viewers). I’ve since made note of other examples, both before and after Magnolia: Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, where the characters also sing (1967), Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. (1977), Kieslowski’s Red (1994), Donnie Darko (2001). Mad Men used the device at least twice, with “By the Waters of Babylon” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It may be a lot more common than I realize: when I posted about these examples on ILX, someone responded that “Feels like that happened at the end of every third episode of House, Sex and the City, even Entourage…?”
From Riggins we cut to Saracen returning home to find a note on his bed and Carlotta gone (“She was a nice girl,” says Saracen’s mildly-AD grandmother); to a roughed-up Diego returning Buddy Garrity’s watch, something done at great personal cost; to Smash and his sister keeping quiet about their terrible night at the movies; and eventually back to Riggins discovering that his great noble plan was complete folly. Each vignette, after Riggins’ initial epiphany, catches someone at a moment of great sadness, and Banhart’s song deepens that mood (in terms of its sound, anyway, with whispered vocals and a drony, mournful fiddle; the lyrics are typically obscure). The sequence (and song) ends with a bit of daylight: Coach Taylor and his wife drop off Gracie Bell at daycare, ready to put behind them the separation anxiety that’s been complicating their lives.
I’ve still got three seasons to go. Even if the show never gets any better than this, it’ll be enough that it introduced me to “Now That I Know.”