Recently, I began streaming Friday Night Lights on Netflix. I had heard such buzz about this show while it was on, but somehow never got around to actually watching. After all, it was about football in a small Texas town, two things that are completely foreign to me. I was never exposed to the game and always found it too complicated when people tried to explain it. (Also, I think I must suffer from some type of spatial dyslexia because whenever I think I’ve witnessed a great play, it turns out that I’m looking at the wrong part of the field.)
Anyway, I finally got around to watching it and I’m completely hooked. I’m talking addicted as in staying up till 2 a.m. — and I take my sleep seriously. If anything, I look forward to learning more about Coach Taylor, his wife, and, of course, Riggins, Street and Lyla. How did such an improbable show reel me in?
Warning: Spoilers after the cut!
The answer is great writing. And the key to the show’s greatness is character development. FNL is so engrossing because each character is recognizably human. This takes work. Not only does the audience have to see that each is flawed, we also have to understand their motivations, which means giving us a peek into their reality. Building this carefully can take a story line from trite to compelling. Take, for instance, the love triangle between Riggins, Street and Lyla. Street and Riggins are best friends, Street’s girlfriend, Lyla, ends up sleeping with Riggins. We’ve all heard this story before, right?
But the writers understood that in order to make it fresh, the answer was not to come up with some wacky, albeit original iteration. After all, they could’ve opted for resolving it by having all three decide to form a menage a trois and live happily ever after. Original AND modern, yes, but patently fake and ridiculous given the reality of who these characters are (high school students) and where they live (a conservative Southern town). The best solution is to delve deeply into the situation, presenting it as believably as possible without making anyone out to be a villain. So, the star quarterback suffers a horrible accident that leaves him paralyzed and his girlfriend is understandably in over her head. In a moment of extreme stress, she and Riggins, who blames himself for Street’s injury, meet by chance and in her frustration, she lashes out at him. Her rage turns to desire and an affair ensues. But she still loves Street.
They’re all only 17, for God’s sake. In such a situation, any guy who’s been betrayed is likely to respond violently. Wouldn’t that be a cliché, though, since we’ve seen it before? Well, it’d be more original to have Street forgive them right away, but it would also be lazy writing. You’d also succeed in making him a completely one-dimensional goody two-shoes that no one can relate to. Remember, here’s a character who was already a great guy, and a good-looking star athlete. Few of us can identify with such a superstar. Turn him into a Jesus figure with infinite understanding and you’ve automatically alienated half the audience.
The drama here is how a guy can have it all at such a young age, lose it all in one night, and deal with the new horrible reality of his life. It’s not his injury that makes him interesting it’s how he reacts to his changed circumstances. He’s outraged and enraged. Of course he gets violent and punches Riggins in the face. But seeing his character develop, this is no longer a cliched reaction. Instead, it’s a realistic one — the loss of his mobility, sexual function, and identity all build up to that moment of violence. Even though we’ve seen it before, it transcends cliche because it makes psychological sense and because the writers have taken the time to gradually build up to it.
There’s another reason this moment transcends the cliché is because it’s an emotionally complex scene and we as the audience are torn. In most other iterations of the love triangle, we as the audience only identify with the wronged party. When the victim knocks out the other man, we cheer for him. In this case, it’s expected, but dreadful as well. Yes, Riggins has betrayed his friend, but he comes from a broken home and is genuinely in love with Lyla. And Lyla’s backstabbing takes on a different context in light of her obvious devotion to Street and her inability to face the reality of his injury. None of this is ever stated: Instead the writers have slowly and carefully shown us evidence of what’s really at the root of each character’s bad behavior. Our loyalties are divided, making for a refreshingly new experience of a tired old saw.
This is how you write a story that draws in viewers regardless of the subject matter: Get to the emotional truth by developing your characters mindfully and carefully. It’s really hard work, don’t get me wrong. But it also makes for an indelible emotional experience. And isn’t that what art is all about?