The Toxic Mythology of the Post-‘Friday Night Lights’ Sports Doc

Friday Night Lights' Coach Taylor isn't real, but a lot of recent documentaries would have you believe otherwise.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

You know the shot. Maybe you’ve even tried to replicate it. The towering fieldlight, glowing in front of some big sky sunset — elegance where you’d least expect it, and an exciting sign that some sports (almost certainly football) are about to happen.

For me, that shot is most associated with the TV series Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg’s beloved ode to a (quite sanitized) version of West Texas football (shot in Austin, of course; couldn’t send those Hollywood types out to Odessa, home of the source material, for such a long stretch). The pilot’s pretty shot of the titular Friday night lights probably did a lot more to sell me, and plenty of others, on the show than we’d like to admit; it was an appealing angle on a thing that many of the cosmopolitan types who would come to love the series might have otherwise turned up their noses at. 

Field lights in "Friday Night Lights" (2006)
Field lights in “Friday Night Lights” (2006)
scene of field lights from "Last Chance U"
Field lights from “Last Chance U” (2016)

That shot and plenty of others helped situate the show’s setting — a fictional West Texas town called Dillion — in a very specific kind of small-town reality, one that was dingy and drab enough to feel authentic but not so poor and worn that FNL’s smart cinematography and signature handheld cameras couldn’t make it look appealing (the fact that all the actors looked like, well, actors, also didn’t hurt). It’s like the lightest possible version of poverty porn, something that could only be attractive when you don’t have to live with it.

The show very effectively turned a movie about a nonfiction book about the futility of trying to use high school football to resolve the intractable problems of post-oil boom West Texas into a cast of friendly, lovable characters who fight for what’s right and each other while playing football. That’s a little ungenerous; there are some nods to the fact that Dillon isn’t really a place most people would want to be. But saying that isn’t really the same as showing it. Ask most fans if they want to go hang out with the Riggins brothers at the Landing Strip, and I’m sure the answer would be yes. Such is part of the problem with fiction shrouded in some of the visual conventions of documentary (again, the handheld cameras) — it feels that much more real.

last chance u eagles

But however disingenuous FNL’s aesthetic and ethos might be by comparison to its source material, it is still fiction. Its irresponsibility can be rationalized by poetic license. Harder to swallow is the persistence of both its visual language and its philosophy in a slew of recent docuseries that Netflix is now calling “docusoaps:” Last Chance U, Cheer, Titletown High, QB1: Beyond the Lights (which was also directed by Peter Berg) and more. Snoop Dogg even has his own Coach Snoop, where he tries to reach “at-risk youth” through football. 

There’s nothing new about following aspiring athletes to see if they might make it — obviously the foundational sports documentary Hoop Dreams explored that exact topic almost 30 years ago. The story has been serialized, too: MTV had a reality show called Two-A-Days following a high school football team that aired roughly concurrently with FNL

But these new series are no Hoop Dreams, and they’re barely related to the book Friday Night Lights — two stories that despite being set in almost opposite places, Chicago and Odessa, Texas, come to the same conclusion: kids should not be put in a position where their entire futures are dictated by their athletic ability, and the fact that some of them are is a symptom of much bigger issues than whether or not they get a scholarship, or whether or not they win the state championship. There are no happy endings in either story, just vivid, striking depictions of two broken corners of our broken country. The kids are collateral damage. The Friday Night Lights movie, despite missing much of the book’s nuance, still drives home this point: the Permian Panthers don’t win at the end, and the players more or less move on with their lives regardless of football.

What FNL the show finds itself arguing, mostly through the endless charm of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach and Tami Taylor, is the opposite. Players and towns can be redeemed by sports; pep talks work, and scholarships are available as long as you leave it all on the field. Coach Taylor is a nearly all-knowing guiding light; Tami can fill in everything he doesn’t. The kids are safe, protected by them; the big sky glows with a brilliant sunset. Wherever there is poverty or ill intent, someone is ready to make it manageable. It’s a TV show.

Despite the fact that they are following real people, the post-FNL sports “docusoap” takes much the same tack. Last Chance U is the most obvious spin-off, with clear analogues for the wise coach and the harried but charming guidance counselor. Its reductive ethos is evident even in the title: this junior college football team is its players’ last chance. Sports are all they have and isn’t that sad, that’s why you have to root for the coach and the guidance counselor to save them — if they don’t do it through football nobody will! No one dares to even consider that the football team and the coach may not actually be good for anyone, least of all the players (despite the fact that at least one such coach was compelled to resign in disgrace). 

These shows project an FNL-esque redemption arc over the lives of very real people, entering with the idea of watching sports’ live-saving magic at work rather than the motivation of a more credible documentary — to simply watch what happens and go from there. As a result, people are caricatured, and places even more so, cut and spliced into nice shots of sad looking buildings and empty spaces. Its intent is the same as FNL: to tug heartstrings, to hook people in with a superficial empathy. Look at this sad place and these sad, poor people, don’t you love it? But it’s real and the players — already pushed into exploitative circumstances — are further exploited for our entertainment. 

The FNL visual shorthand helps elide the transition between reality and fiction, fact and myth. Friday Night Lights felt true, and so do these; maybe this coach really is like Coach Taylor, maybe this kid is the next Matt Saracen. Maybe football really can save people.

last chance u

When you talk to any of the coaches who are actually trying to be like Coach Taylor, who coach because they want to help kids — not because they want to become reality TV stars or even win games — they will tell you that it can’t. They will tell you that they are exhausted by trying to save people through football, that they can try their best but they’re not superheroes. They’re just people doing their best to help some kids in a broken system, and it goes wrong constantly. I know because I talked to them; specifically, coaches who were just trying to keep their players alive, and failing. 

We need to stop looking for Coach Taylor; for redemption in the beautiful church that is a high school football field on Friday night (it’s not hard to imagine why basketball versions are less popular; they are less Aesthetic). Sports are a symptom of so many problems that they start to become problems themselves — imbuing coaches with God-like authority and approaching them with as much reverence is a major one that hurts many of their charges, and one that’s rarely addressed in these kinds of series.

Overcoming unfairness and fighting through tragedy should not be reduced to wins and losses, to a spot on the team or a college scholarship. It is a beloved arc in sports media far beyond these kinds of shows — a player’s deepest family trauma rarely goes unmentioned and may even be evaluated as part of assessing his or her “character,” whether they have successfully used their pain as motivation to improve or if they still let it hurt. 

Our fixation on these kinds of stories comes back to an obsessive need to believe that we as individuals can solve every problem alone if we put our minds to it; that all the motivational posters are true and we can get there better than everyone else. We can’t. We are not Coach Taylor. Our tragedies might not be beautiful, and they might overwhelm us. That’s why we need each other, whether we’re on the team or not — to think beyond the familiar stories and arcs and images; to imagine something new.