Having emerged from the full-on, round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week flotation tank of Mr Blue Sky, I am now in the luxurious position – for the first time since Christmas – to occasionally write blog entries about films and telly for the simple pleasure of doing so, which I’m sure is something I used to do?
First, then, let us consider two US imports, both showing on Sky Atlantic (sorry about that, Sky refuseniks), one brand new, the other six years old, both linked by one defining fact. They make me interested in a world of sport that I have zero interest in.
The first is Luck, which comes from HBO, top-heavy with talent from the movies, and created by TV deity David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood – not that I’ve ever seen Deadwood; you may start ordering me to rectify this … now). I am not big on sport in general. I was obsessed by football as a kid, mainly in the 1970s, and could name every ground of every club in the first division, and draw its club badge from memory. I drifted away from it in the 80s, when films and post-punk music filled my head. I’ve never been that interested in other sports. And I’ve certainly never cared about horse racing. Luck, now at its fourth episode, is set in the world of horse racing, and in the subculture of gambling that emanates from it.
Not only do I not care about it as a sport, as an animal lover I am alarmed by the cruel way in which racehorses are treated, and dispatched when injured. I believe I am right in saying that five horses died at the recent Cheltenham Gold Cup? (Apparently, the British Horse Racing Authority say that with 90,000 horses running a year in Britain, this is a minimal fatality rate.) But great drama does not rely upon an audience’s foreknowledge of, nor participation in, a specific field. It should educate and enlighten. Luck does this in dazzling, tactile style. From the moment Michael Mann’s first episode started, we were dropped into a rich ecosystem of trainers, owners, riders, agents, gamblers and gangsters – not to mention animals.
It looks incredible. Even an average HBO series looks as good as any Hollywood movie, and this is above-average. It takes you from the stands onto the track and then behind the scenes, into the stables, and to the places where deals are done, and horses are traded. It then leaks out into the bars and hotels where business continues while the horses sleep. With talent like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Kevin Dunn and John Ortiz on show – not to mention Joan Allen, who’s just been introduced, and Michael Gambon, who’s promised – it’s human drama of a particularly salty type. Mumbled? Yes, Luck is one of those shows for grown-ups, like The Wire or Generation Kill, that speaks its own language and assumes you are alert and patient enough to catch up.
Because of the initial impenetrability of the world it inhabits (and we are looking here at people who appear to do nothing but think about horses – except perhaps Hoffman’s mobster, who thinks chiefly about money), it took me until Episode 3 to truly click with it. But it was a revelation. You have to work at a series like this. But what payback.
So, my Saturday nights are now illuminated and clouded with steaming equine breath by Luck. Friday nights, which actually occur on Tuesday nights, are lit up by Friday Night Lights, an NBC series about high school football which ran for five seasons from 2006 and is now showing, box set style, on Sky Atlantic, having previously been patchily and lovelessly shown on ITV4. Here, again, is a show about sport, and about fanatical local devotion to sport, which is a world away from my own, but which has hooked me right in.
Created by Peter Berg – it began with a movie of the same name – it takes a factual basis and fictionalises it in the made-up small town of Dillon, Texas, where the local Panthers are less a team, more a way of life and death. Regardless of the sport, which still strikes me as lumpy and brutish and detrimentally constructed around intervals, this presents a further layer of devotion that’s foreign to me. But it’s conveyed with such warmth, understanding and empathy, again, you’d be hard-hearted not to get drawn in.
Kyle Chandler plays the new coach, whose reputation hinges on the score of a game at the end of each week, and among the stars of his young team are Taylor Kitsch as the Keanu Reeves-like airhead Tim Riggins, Scott Porter’s paralysed Jason Street and Zach Gilford’s chorus-girl ingenue Matt Saracen. Connie Britton is exceptional, too, as the Coach’s wife. It’s a soap – a description I used on this week’s Telly Addict and which drew some ire from fans of the show, although I would never use “soap” as a qualitative term. FNL is a show that centres around a whole town’s worth of characters and traces their interconnected lives on a weekly basis, which is pure soap opera. And it’s sublime stuff, fluidly filmed in hand-held style, and run on the natural authenticity of partly improvised dialogue and blocking.
I love these two shows, albeit FNL with a more romantic devotion and not a single caveat, which can’t be said for Luck, which will never even reach its second season, let alone its fifth. Either way, I find myself currently caring about the result of fictional horse races and football games.
As for the unhappy fate of Luck: I was naturally horrified to find that two horses were actually euthanised after injury in the making of its pilot and one subsequent episode, although in many ways, the horses were just racing for the cameras, as they would be if racing for real – neither is crueller than the other, you might argue. But after a recent third injury, which also resulted in an animal being put down, Luck basically cancelled itself, with regret, and with representatives from PETA fuming that their dire warnings were not heeded.
Animals can never be categorised as “actors”, as they do not volunteer. You can train them, but they are always working animals, not thespians. And no worker, human or otherwise, should be put in danger.
So, Luck is about to run out, and FNL has already finished (albeit with around 70 episodes yet to air – yippee). It would be better if both shows were broadcast on a free-to-air channel, but Friday Night Lights is already boxed, up to Season 3 at least for Region 2. It really is – as fans have been insisting for some time – one of the modern greats, and worth seeking out.
You won’t see me at Cheltenham any time soon, but then nor would you see me volunteering for the army, and I love dramas about world wars. The best can take you somewhere you haven’t been.
I heart FNL so much. Just be prepared to pretend season 2 doesn’t happen – or forgive it its many many flaws -, it picks back up after that and I cried so hard during the final season.
NPR’s Fresh Air has good interviews with Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler where they discuss the production and filming process that contributes to its naturalism.
Might I suggest ‘melodrama’ as an easier fit than ‘soap’ as soap has particular ongoing storytelling structures whereas FNl and the ilk are episodic serials? If we consider the interpersonal storytelling and focus on emotion and relationships, as well as characters being trapped or delimited, this is a good example of FNL’s storytelling.
However, there is an ongoing discussion in TV studies around processes of ‘legitimating television’ through aligning it with other cultural forms and arguing for the value of recognizing soap opera storytelling in all these high-brow ‘narrative complexity’ HBO etc cable shows. I work hard to make my students stop using ‘soap’ and ‘melodrama’ as a pejorative term. Melodrama is particularly useful when discussing how Downton Abbey problematises issues of ‘quality tv’.
I used to write stiff letters to all sorts of publications to object when “soap” was used pejoratively. I seem to remember a very long one being published in the New Statesman. I hate it when “soap” is used sneeringly, as if perhaps “popular” or “populist” were also automatic putdowns. Having written for soaps, all I know is that writing continuing drama is bloody hard work, and those that toil still at the particular coalface deserve our respect, not our derision.
As for “quality”, I find Downton to be of a very low quality of writing, albeit of a high quality of location.
I’ve not problem with melodrama either. I like silent movies.
“I quite liked the soapy Friday Night Lights, which ITV is pissing away on ITV4.”
Me, here, 12/07/2007.
(Yes, I was so sure I’d called it soapy that I just had to go and find it.)
You are prescient indeed. (Me? I’m always last to catch on, an aspect of myself I find incredibly endearing.)
Yes, please do watch Deadwood – it’s my own candidate for the Best Television Show Ever, over The Wire. The language and acting are just impeccable – I’ve just finished my sixth time watching season one, and it’s still enthralling.
I didn’t try Luck, and now don’t see much point, but I am watching Friday Night Lights – though I couldn’t give a hoot about football, American or ours. I loved the film and the series is brilliant so far, even if the name Tim Riggins does make me giggle for no explainable reason.