I don’t watch much current TV due to my inability to commit to sitting at a regular time every week (and I’m not used to the DVR possibilities yet…give me time.) But TV show seasons on DVD? I’m on it. My current show obsession is Friday Night Lights.
Normally I don’t watch TV with my writer’s hat on. I just want to enjoy the story unfolding without thinking about why it’s good or what the writers did well. TV is supposed to be my brain-dead time. But every time I get done watching an episode of FNL, I can’t help thinking, “Wow, they did ____ so well!”
So I’ve been pondering what, exactly, they do so well and why it keeps me hooked, even though I’m on season 4 and there’s been some turnover of characters. The plot isn’t groundbreaking. It’s a football town…there’s a game every week and all the drama that surrounds it and the people involved with it. It’s not special effects or a particularly unique story world. Which leaves…characters.
I’m fascinated by the shades of gray a character can manifest. I’d much rather have a handful of grays than one really bad, aka “black” character who’s 100% evil…or someone who’s good all the time. FNL has this concept down. They can have a character we generally don’t like, who continually makes bad decisions or does the wrong thing and yet…one episode has that character showing their human side, doing something good.
For instance, Billy Riggins. He’s kind of a loser. He’s got few aspirations other than dating strippers and drinking. There are sympathetic moments built in because he and his younger brother Tim Riggins (hello, abs!) are on their own, no parents, and have been for quite a while, and though very little really matters to Billy, he watches out for Tim, who’s now in high school. So the writers build the foundation for Billy to have some redeeming qualities. (This is important…if they didn’t, then the scene I’m about to mention wouldn’t be believable and would lack the impact.)
When Tim is about to graduate from high school, he tells Billy he’s changed his mind about college. He’ll stay in town, help Billy open his new mechanic business, they’ll stay close, etc. Billy, who is scared of screwing up the business and knows Tim would be an asset, steps up to the plate, so to speak. He says, basically, the hell you will. And he gives him the pep talk of a lifetime, saying how no one in their family has been to college. That the family’s future lies with Tim. That Billy wants his future kids to see Tim as what is possible if they try hard enough, he wants them to be able to look up to Tim, to be like Tim. It’s 90% unselfish and totally supportive of Tim, while sacrificing something for himself at the same time. Big tear-jerking scene.
Then there’s Tyra, the former bad girl who’s spent 3 years getting her shit together to try to go to college. Her mom is useless, her sister is the stripper who’s marrying Billy Riggs. Neither of them understand Tyra. Neither of them is there for her. In fact, her mom has questioned why she even wants to work so hard to go to college. And then…when Tyra hits rock bottom and is convinced she’ll never make it into a school, it’s her mom who’s there for her. Her mom who gives her huge encouragement, who tells her she surprises her every single day and that she doesn’t know how Tyra has gotten so far, but she knows she’s not done yet. And because it’s so unusual for her mom, it packs a powerful punch for the viewer. Because this mostly dark-gray character has lightened about ten shades and done the right thing at the right time.
The other thing the writers do is take a character we love, who is a lighter shade of gray, and show them making a bad decision or doing the wrong thing. And they make us understand the character’s motivations so well that we can’t help but understand on some level. We might not like it. We might scream at the TV about it. But we get where the character is coming from.
Back to Tim and Billy Riggins. In season 4, the mechanic business is running, but not making much money. Tim has dropped out of college in spite of Billy’s speech the previous season. Tim’s down on his luck, but he’s still a basically good guy. Billy, desperate for money because his pregnant wife is having medical problems and they don’t have insurance, starts stripping stolen cars for big bucks. Tim finds out and blows up, because he’s going to ruin what they have. And then…Tim joins in. Yes, he wants money too, to buy some ranchland, but we also know he does it because he’s got his brother’s back. We hate that he makes the decision, but we understand why, and on some level, we have to admire that he’s doing it, at least a little, because of the “we’re in this together” bond he and his brother share.
The writers of Friday Night Lights do this every single episode. They make us understand why characters do what they do. Sometimes they have good reasons, sometimes heartbreaking ones, but the characters are what keep me staying up too late for “just one more episode.” If I can learn to do this half as well in my writing, it’s worth the loss of sleep.
Anyone else a fan of Friday Night Lights? Are there other shows that do an awesome job with characters and motivations? If so, I’ll be checking them out on DVD. All in the name of research, of course.