One fumbles, one scores

Two ambitious high school football dramas, "Two-A-Days" and "Friday Night Lights," hit the small screen this season.

By Allen Barra

Published October 3, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

According to NBC, its new football drama "Friday Night Lights," which premieres Tuesday night, was inspired by H.G. Bissinger's best-selling book, but the truth is it's derived more from the 2004 movie based on the book. Despite its gritty look, the film, directed by the author's cousin Peter Berg, sentimentalized most of what Bissinger had put a sharp edge to. Bissinger's overall picture, echoed in the West Texas landscape, was one of bleakness. If the book was about anything, it was about the false promise of salvation that football held for the players and their families. The book's vision was unsparing; the film undercut the truthfulness of the real-life stories with a message of hope -- if these boys only worked hard enough and believed in themselves, the movie kept telling us, they would succeed.

We know, of course, that this can't be true. Only a fraction of the boys who risk their bodies in high school will ever make it to college on a football scholarship, and just a tiny percentage of those will make it to the pros. Anyone who tells us otherwise is lying. While I watched Berg's film, I kept thinking of the line from Springsteen's "The River," "Is a dream a lie that don't come true, or is it something worse?"

Considering the difficulty of selling anything that isn't titillating or inspiring to a network audience, "Friday Night Lights" the TV series, judging from the first three episodes, isn't bad. For one thing, it doesn't put a gloss on the conditions of life in Bush country; in every car ride across town the camera lingers on rows of shut-down storefronts, and viewers quickly grasp the point that everyone in the community is desperate. The parents are desperate for their kids to succeed; the kids are desperate not to wind up as desperate as their parents. The community is desperate for a distraction, and the coach, Eric Taylor (played winningly by Kyle Chandler, reprising Billy Bob Thornton's role in the film), in a peripatetic profession, is desperate to finally establish a home for his family.

Chandler's coach Taylor is the show's most interesting character. He knows he's in the community but can never be of it, and like all smart coaches he knows that the only real discipline is self-discipline. He's the only father figure many of the players, particularly the black players, have, and he knows it. He also knows that he's the buffer between his boys and the community when things don't go right. The coach's family can't pull into a parking lot at Wal-Mart without someone stopping them to offer football advice; at a women's book club meeting, his wife is bombarded with arguments on the relative merits of an offense based on running or passing.

Someone who knows the territory has had a hand in these scripts; at the gala opening of a car dealership attended by the coach and his team, a middle-aged woman tells the quarterback he should listen to early Black Sabbath because, she says, "It will make you mean." The football is pretty good, too, and the show does a good job of explaining it to the average viewer, reducing insufferable football jargon to layman's terms. For instance, a coach tells his quarterback how to "read the coverage" -- "That means throw the ball to our guys."

On the downside, we could all do without the shaky, hand-held camera, which aims for a reality-show look but instead makes us overly conscious of the presence of the camera. The show's sense of realism is further undermined by the actresses, nearly all of whom look more like fashion models than they do the girlfriends and wives of football players and coaches. Credibility is strained by the idea that such women would have no other option than to hang around a dreary little town rooting their men to victory. And talk about depressing: Outside the football games there seems to be nothing more to look forward to in this town than dinner at the local Applebee's, which seems to function as the center of the community. (In case you haven't heard, in the age when viewers can TiVo around commercials, advertisers are now spending their money on product placement.)

It's obvious that "Friday Night Lights" can't go on being about the big game every week, and clearly the primary appeal of the show will be to teenagers identifying with the off-field problems of the players and their girlfriends. Refreshingly, the background music is low-key even during the most dramatic moments, as it is in "Degrassi," the long-running series about life in a Canadian high school whose audience the producers of this show would no doubt like to co-opt.

Though it is twice removed from its nonfiction source, "Friday Night Lights" sometimes seems like a documentary compared to MTV's hugely successful reality show "Two-A-Days," which was just picked up for a second season. "Two-A-Days" (the title refers to the practice schedule) is about the Hoover Buccaneers, a team in an affluent suburb of Birmingham, Ala. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have firsthand knowledge of the high school football mania of the area, having graduated from nearby Mountain Brook High, where I was kicked off the football team before the end of the second practice.) Very little of "Two-A-Days" suggests reality as most people would define the term. First of all, as with all so-called reality shows, the air of unreality is accentuated by the participants' eyes constantly shifting to the camera and their self-conscious half-smiles.

Second, the private lives of the players and their girlfriends, as revealed on the show at least, don't seem to be like those of high school students outside the immediate culture of football. The girls have no apparent life aside from the boys, and the boys have no lives outside football. Indeed, how could they, since, in the words of former basketball great Bill Russell, athletes nowadays "have been on scholarship since the eighth grade"? The smug sense of entitlement and privilege is expressed by one of the Bucs' stars who, when chided by a teammate for some transgression, replies with a snicker, "It's not like I'm going to get punished."

What "Two-A-Days" utterly lacks any sense of -- and "Friday Night Lights" is about -- is what high school football means to the community. We see the aerial shots of the bumper-to-bumper Friday night football traffic heading for the stadium, but we never see or hear any of the fans who fill the seats and find out what dreams of theirs are being played out on the field. For that matter, we never really learn anything about what role the football team plays in the daily life of the school itself. I watched "Two-A-Days" with my daughter, a sophomore at Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J. Her comment was, I think, interesting: "In real life, not everybody is involved with the football team. On this show, you never see anyone who isn't a player, a cheerleader or someone in their family." She's right, and the scary possibility that the teams in big-time high school football factories exist as entities entirely apart from the rest of the community isn't even touched on.

Scary, too, is the near-fanatical behavior of the Buccaneers' coaches, particularly head coach Rush Propst, a bargain basement Bear Bryant, who, after the team's only loss of the season, browbeat his boys mercilessly, threatening to hurt their chances of a college scholarship if they didn't turn things around the following week. (They did win the next week, by the way.) Unlike Bryant, the legendary University of Alabama head coach whose specter dominates all high school and college football in the South, Propst never gives the slightest acknowledgment that his coaching rather than his players' effort might be at fault.

A phony controversy has arisen regarding Propst's use of profanity: Dan Washburn, director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, says he did not see the episode of "Two-A-Days" in which Propst was bleeped for cursing his players during a halftime tirade. But, Washburn recently told the press, "Profanity has absolutely no place in high school athletics." Washburn is either a hypocrite, or he spent his formative years in a seminary. Propst's language, and, alas, most of his bullying tactics, are standard practice by the overwhelming majority of high school coaches in the country.

What Washburn and other educators ought to be concerned with is a school system that puts young men through the tortures of the damned for no discernible good to most of them. Most of the boys who played ball for Bear Bryant were the first in their family ever to graduate from high school let alone attend college, and they all swear, to a man, that Bryant's discipline helped them succeed in life. The problem with big-time high school football now is that for most of these boys the lure is not personal fulfillment but rather a distant, and probably outright unattainable, carrot on a stick, an NFL contract.

Propst is correct when he says his boys are "starved for discipline"; all boys could use more discipline. "Friday Night Lights," though it is fiction, is about the kind of discipline that prepares them for life. "Two-A-Days" is about the kind of discipline that just leads to more football.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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