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Lights On or Off?

Lights On or Off? The fight for a TV show about truth, justice and high school football

What does it feel like to be under those lights? What does it feel like to have everyone watching you and expecting gold? At Kuempel Stadium outside Austin, dreams are either realized or crushed. This football field usually belongs to Pflugerville High School. But last February, a different team walked onto the grass in the same blue jerseys and helmets glaring under the lights. They had aspirations and expectations, too -- but not the same ones.

The Dillon Panthers are the fictional team on NBC's Friday Night Lights. The actors are from New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Canada. But when they step onto the field to film their game scenes, they look exactly like their Pflugerville counterparts. Their cheerleaders match Pflugerville's, too. This is not a coincidence; the show's producers use Pflugerville's uniforms and tape Pflugerville's games, splicing in the real footage with shots of the actors doing choreographed plays.

Pflugerville's ninth grade principal, David Wuest, says that the show's actors seem exactly like the kids in his school.

"It's almost like they could pick any high school, walk down the hallways and just fit in."

After producers shot the pilot last February, NBC picked up the show, ordering 13 episodes to run this fall. The first season follows Coach Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler, during his first year as the leader of a high school football team somewhere in West Texas -- but not Odessa. Unlike the 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. 'Buzz' Bissinger, and the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights, directed by Peter Berg, the television series does not follow the Permian High School Panthers through their 1988 season. The show takes place today. One character has a father in Iraq; another is a Katrina refugee who shops around for a team and eventually settles at Dillon High School. Topics and themes from the original work -- racism, the local oil economy and educational issues -- permeate the show. The series has also retained another crucial element: Peter Berg, who developed the show for TV and remains an executive producer, visiting Austin between other projects.

Exuberance, passion, pride and fear of failure abound in Friday Night Lights and not just in the scripted drama. On the set, feelings are the same. Fall pilot television seasons, like fall football seasons, last a matter of weeks. The show's got to find an audience right away or it's off the air.

"It's similar to my job as a coach and coming here and winning this game with the best quarterback in the state," Kyle Chandler said, promoting the show before the first episode aired. "We're starting a pilot and I think we got one of the best pilots you've ever had, so the bar is set high for us going from here. And everyone's aware of that, too. Everyone's aware, from the top all the way down, how good the pilot is."

But in the end, potential doesn't matter. On Tuesday, October 3, the show debuted at 7 p.m. By this point, most reviews were already out.

USA Today called the show "heartfelt and sometimes heart-piercing." The Washington Post's Tom Shales called Lights "extraordinary in just about every conceivable way." But perhaps the most enthusiastic review came from The New York Times.

"Lord, is 'Friday Night Lights' good," critic Virginia Heffernan proclaimed -- and that was just the first line. Heffernan effusively commended the show's acting, authenticity and attention to detail. She spent four paragraphs explaining the significance of the sound of a surgeon cutting a player's helmet.

Okay. But the show's about Texas, and it's filmed in Texas -- so what did Texans think? The Austin American-Statesman said it was "one of the season's best new series." And Mike McDaniel of the Houston Chronicle gave it a B+. "We suspect the show will get a big sampling tonight," he wrote.

For $2.6 million an episode, Lights is working hard to convey real Texas life. There are no sound stages or traditional studios. Besides using Pflugerville High School and other local schools, producers have rented homes around Austin for filming. That means, on many days, that some quiet, normal neighborhood with election signs, Halloween decorations and neat lawns has roughly a dozen huge white trailers lining its sidewalks. For a few hours, 125 people swarm in and out of one house. Then, everyone is gone.

Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the sweet cheerleader whose quarterback boyfriend is paralyzed in the pilot episode, "lives" in this nice suburban world. On TV, Lyla's bedroom looks rather small and cramped. In actuality, it is. On a recent Wednesday, the cast and crew met at this location from 1-6 p.m. to film several scenes.

As the director films Lyla on her bed upstairs, at least 40 people tiptoe around downstairs. In a room on the first floor, Peter Berg sits behind three television monitors watching live filming. Today the show is shooting its tenth episode. Berg says he tries not to get "too caught up" in the great reviews. The New York Times review got passed around the set, though.

 

"I've never written a letter to a critic before," he says. "But I wrote a letter to that woman. That was a review of someone who really watched the show closely."

Yet despite critics' approval and the director's efforts at authenticity, Lights has terrible ratings.

For the pilot episode, the show placed "a distant third" in the national ratings; the next three weeks, it was in fourth place nationwide, according to the Fast National ratings on www.zap2it.com. Lights runs at the same time as the top-five smash hit Dancing with the Stars on ABC. It also competes with NCIS on CBS and baseball programming on Fox.

After the pilot aired in Houston, "The Roula and Ryan Show" on 104.1 KRBE had a segment asking viewers: "What's on your television probation?" (Basically: what shows excited you once, but aren't necessarily worth your time anymore?) Roula Christie mentioned Lights's poor local ratings -- "pathetic" for a show about Texas football culture, she thought.

"If the state of Texas can't get behind Friday Night Lights, the rest of the country is not going to, either," she said in a phone interview a few weeks later. "They have no hope. New Yorkers aren't going to jump on Friday Night Lights when there is a repeat of CSI."

The day of the "TV probation" segment, callers had other dismal comments about the show. Mostly, Roula remembers, they didn't approve of the portrayal of Texas.

"If you already have this impression of Texas as a bunch of podunk hicks in the country and all we care about is football and having sex on washing machines -- like in (the movie) Varsity Blues -- this just totally supports that," says Roula. "It's the anonymous Texan town and all they have going for them is that Friday night game."

At the same time, even though ratings are unpromising, other critics are now literally begging viewers to watch Lights.

"Your correspondent finds himself at full grovel, crawling toward Nielsen households, begging that they flip on Friday Night Lights," wrote Slate television critic Troy Patterson. Then, towards the end of the plea, he compared Friday Night Lights to Moby Dick. The Washington Post's Tom Shales also devoted a recent column to extolling the show's virtues.

Friday Night Lights, the movie, was released in 2004. According to the Associated Press, the film was "a minor hit," grossing $61 million on a budget of $30 million. Buzz Bissinger's book, on the other hand, has been anything but a slight success.

With more than a million copies in print, the book has been selling steadily since its debut. It was a New York Times best-seller in 1990 and again in 2004 when the movie was released. ESPN named it the "Best Sports Book" of the past 25 years. Back in the late 1990s, Bissinger told The Odessa American that he received between three to five requests for interviews a month. These days he gets between three to five requests a week, says his publicist Lissa Warren.

"He has never turned down an interview request," she says. "He is still committed to talking about this book not only because he's its author but because a lot of the themes are still prevalent in society today."

Prevalent or not, the television series is clearly not a hit like the book or movie. "Survival is up to the network," Peter Berg said on the set. And the announcement was not far off. If you asked anyone, they knew when it was coming: "Two weeks!"

That was two weeks ago. So word should be arriving any day now.


The idea for Friday Night Lights had been stewing in Buzz Bissinger's brain for decades. When he was 13, Bissinger read a magazine story about a football player in Abilene. The kid was "the god of the town," Bissinger recalled in a recent phone interview. "Everyone knew who he was."

Flash forward to 1986. Bissinger, then a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was taking a year off at Harvard University to complete a Nieman Fellowship, a prestigious program for journalists. He'd passed 30, had two young kids and was thinking of writing a book. At the end of his fellowship, Bissinger made a road trip out west, journeying through Texas. Driving through all the small towns, he noticed a curious, reoccurring theme: their stadiums were gorgeous.

 

"I was fascinated by high school football, Texas and the movie The Last Picture Show," he says. Thoughts about the Abilene football player resurfaced in his head and fused with his desire to abandon his regular life and do something completely different for a while. He recounted the feeling in the preface to his book: "Maybe it was where I lived, in a suburb of Philadelphia, in a house that looked like all the other ones on the block. Or maybe it was my own past as an addicted sports fan who had spent a shamelessly large part of life watching football and basketball and baseball. I just felt something pulling at me, nagging at me, a soft voice telling me to do it, to see for myself what was out there and make the journey before self-satisfaction crept in for good."

He wanted to find that perfect team. He briefly considered places in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. But, no "scientific search" was necessary. In the end, there was nothing quite like Permian High School.

In March of 1988, Bissinger visited Odessa and met with Permian's coach and a few other people. By the start of the fall season, he'd moved to Odessa with his family. At that point, he'd won the 1987 Pulitzer prize for Investigative Journalism for his series "Disorder in the Court," about transgressions of justice in the Philadelphia court system.

The people of Odessa eagerly anticipated the arrival of Bissinger's book. When it was published in 1990, they were shocked by its portrayal of the town's racism. In 1998, The Odessa American published a ten-part series about the book's repercussions, local reaction and the city's changes in the last decade. The first article was entitled "Coaches: Author painted an inaccurate picture."

"It was supposed to be a joyous time in Odessa, one where all the virtues and morality of a town defined by its beliefs was laid out for the entire world to see," the article stated. "It was supposed to be a time when a big-time football team from small-town America became the 'Hoosiers' of the gridiron. It sounded like such a good idea at the time."

Gary Gaines, who coached the 1988 Permian team, claimed that no real racial bias existed during the season.

"It's just one of those deals where you can drag up dirt everywhere if that's what you choose to do," he said in the article.

Gaines acknowledged that he'd never read the book, though his wife read it so he knew the gist. In the same article, all the players backed up Bissinger's story -- even when it highlighted the negative aspects of Odessa.

"Everyone has prejudices, and they express those when they don't think they'll be quoted," said Don Billingsley, a former running back for the Permian Panthers. "I had my share of quotes in there that I wish I could take back, but I loved every one of my teammates."

In a recent interview with the Houston Press, former Permian tight end Brian Chavez also commended Bissinger's book.

"I always thought it was funny," he says. "If you ever talk to anyone who thought the book wasn't truthful or accurate and then your second question is, Did you ever read it? The answer is no."

Chavez says Odessa's perception of the book has flipped "180 degrees" since the movie came out. In the early 1990s, Bissinger received death threats before coming to Odessa to promote the book. He canceled his trip. Then, when the movie filmed in town, locals "kind of welcomed him with open arms," says Chavez.

"It's Hollywood. People get stars in their eyes," he says. "Hollywood kind of tends to do that to people. Having a bunch of stars in town and being filmed, everyone kind of got excited."

These days, Chavez says, people are disappointed that the television series isn't set in Odessa or retelling the story of the Permian Panthers. With or without the Friday Night Lights attention, the Panthers remain a central part of town culture. Their Web site, http://www.kylgrafx.com/mojo/, has youtube-esque video clips of each player stating his name, grade and positions on the field. There are also links to the "Mojo Museum," the "first virtual museum for a high school football team." Nowhere on the front page is Friday Night Lights mentioned.

Chavez himself went to Harvard University after graduation. He was recruited to play football, but the team didn't compare to his Permian experience, the intensity of the coaching and playing with his childhood friends. At Harvard he went to a Friday practice and a Saturday varsity game and then decided to quit.

 

"They were just too terrible," he says. "It wasn't for me. I ended up playing rugby."

Back in the 1990s after the book came out, Hollywood struggled to pull together the movie, according to another article in the Odessa American series. A former high school quarterback himself, director Richard Linklater wrote a script, scheduled a 51-day shoot in Odessa and found former football players to pose as the Permian Panthers. Then Universal Studios pulled funding for the project in 1998.

All the while, Peter Berg had his eye on the prize, too. Berg and Bissinger are second cousins. Back in 1990, Berg received an early print of the book and called his cousin saying he wanted to make it into a movie. By the end of the decade, he was finally involved with the project and visiting Odessa.

Bissinger didn't feel the need to consult on the film, but when his cousin called, he expressed his opinions. He also flew in for filming and sat on set for the final game scene in the Houston Astrodome. There, he had a conversation with another producer about how all the book's themes and issues couldn't be compressed into the movie.

At this point, the seedlings for the series were growing. Berg also had similar ideas.


Berg talks about Texas high school football culture as if he is part sociologist, part proud cult member. Before filming the movie, he spent seven months observing football programs in Austin-area high schools. The television series explores topics from the book and his experiences that he couldn't fit into his movie.

"Showing racism, education or lack thereof -- there were whole story lines in the script that we had to cut," he says. For example, the book recounts a cheating scandal at Carter High School, the team that eventually defeated Permian. After a teacher revealed that a Carter student flunked a class, the school board of Plano filed suit to bar Carter from the playoffs, so Plano could move on. Originally, that story was slated for the movie, but Berg thought it would take a half hour to show.

These days Bissinger is involved even less with the series than he was with the movie, although he did fly out to meet the show's writers.

"And 'good luck,'" he says. "Please don't turn this into some glossy version of The OC in Texas."

Bissinger enjoys the ratings-starved show as it is now and hopes producers just stick with the current style, themes and quality of the series.

"America's getting what America deserves if they want to watch second-rate celebrities dance around," he says. "We're heading for the cultural gutter. We're rapidly becoming second rate."

Which brings us back to the ratings. Despite small audiences, NBC has continued to push for the show, rather than drop it immediately or shove it over to some poor time slot. After the third episode, the network announced that it would show Friday Night Lights on Monday, October 30, right after Heroes, NBC's most successful new show. That night, the show's ratings improved; but when NBC aired the episode at its regular time slot the next day, it came in fourth again, according to zap2it.com. NBC has now posted all of the season's episodes online.

Besides this boost, NBC executives have also ordered more scripts to be written for the show. Now there will be enough scripts for a full 22-episode season -- whether or not NBC chooses to use them.

Meanwhile at Pflugerville High School, some football players seem like they could care less if the series survives.

Senior outside linebacker Taylor Sturdivant says that a senior pep rally was canceled because of shooting conflicts. Lots of students watch the show, he says, but it's not a major topic of conversation in the halls. The football team is less enthusiastic than the rest of the school. It's a "huge distraction," he says -- and oftentimes, he wishes things would just go back to normal.

As for the authenticity of Friday Night Lights, Sturdivant says some aspects of the football culture are portrayed correctly, others not as much.

"It's accurate in a sense that it's that hard -- but the coaches, that's not realistic at all. They yell at you a lot more than what's shown on TV," he says.

Senior quarterback Karl Brown also has lukewarm feelings about the show. His classmates aren't obsessed with it either, he says.

"It's cool to see our stuff on TV, but it's not something people talk about every day -- like 'did you see it?' It's not like that. It's like some people see it, some people don't."

 

Both guys echoed a similar sentiment: during the season, practicing, winning and maintaining focus on football were their top priorities in life.

At Katy High School outside Houston, senior outside linebacker Sammy Shelden says he watches the show when he can. But he isn't a devoted fan.

"I'll probably watch it, but it's not a must-see kind of deal," he says. So what does he prefer? "Two-A-Days is pretty good," he says. "I like that. But that's off the air now."

Meanwhile, other insiders are singing a different tune. Chris Doelle, cohost of the "Lone Star Gridiron High School Podcast" at lonestargridiron.com, reports weekly on high school football. He says he's watching the show -- as is everyone he knows.

"The coaches are watching it, the press is watching it, the officials are watching it, the players are watching it," he says. "The people who aren't watching it are the people that wouldn't go to a Friday night game anyway."


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