Thursday, February 16, 2017

Small Town: Devil Town

[purchase the soundtrack]

Lots of TV shows have been set in small towns, but my favorite, by far, was Friday Night Lights. In fact, I’d argue that season 1 of the show was as good as any first season of any show I’ve seen. While there were some creative ups and downs over the show’s five season run (really, Landry killed a guy?), it still ranks as one of my all-time favorites. If you haven’t seen it, it is available on Netflix, and elsewhere, and you really should.

I’m not from Texas, and I’ve never lived in a place where football held such importance as the fictional town of Dillon, where the show is set, but what made the show so great was the way that it created a world that was nevertheless recognizable to more than small town dwelling Texans. Not only recognizable, but relatable.

The show also used music well. I’ve written before about the role that Explosions in the Sky had, although not as prominent a role as it did in the film on which the TV show is loosely based, but it also used popular music in a way that enhanced and commented on the narrative. Many articles have been written about the show’s music, so it isn’t just me.

One of the most memorable musical moments comes at the end of the first season, a season that started with a tragedy and built toward the Dillon Panthers’ rocky road to “State,” the championship game in (now demolished) Texas Stadium. SPOILER ALERT: The Panthers win, with an improbable second half comeback. Look—it is a TV show, and in its first season, with no guarantee of renewal, so forgive the creators (notably, Jason Katims, who went on to create Parenthood, and used a number of FNL actors as guests) if they wanted season 1 to have a happy ending.

After the triumph on the field, and the requisite hugging and mugging, the scene shifts to the team’s victory parade down the main drag in Dillon, with what seems to be the whole town out to cheer. But rather than set the parade to something easy and triumphant, they used the song “Devil Town,” which is anything but.

Originally written and recorded by Daniel Johnson, a talented songwriter who has battled mental illness, but whose voice, admittedly, is an acquired taste,“Devil Town” has been covered by others, probably most famously by Bright Eyes. In fact, when the Friday Night Lights episode was shot, the editor used that version, but when they sought permission to use it in the final broadcast, Bright Eyes declined. Bad move, Conor. Instead, the publishing company suggested a number of other artists, and the creative team decided to commission Austin, Texas singer/songwriter Tony Lucca to cover the song which was used in the scene.  It was also used earlier in the season, and again toward the end of the series. And in a very creepy promo for the show.

The song focuses on the dark side of a small town, and its references to the town’s residents as vampires resonated as a commentary on the odd hero worship that the residents of Dillon, and by extension, other similar places, had for a bunch of athletically gifted teenagers. Prior to writing this, I watched the episode in question again, to see how the song worked in context—and it really was perfect. The entire season didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of Dillon, while also providing a fair number of uplifting ones.

The show essentially starts with the team’s golden boy quarterback, destined for glory, getting paralyzed on the field, and ending up in a wheelchair. That opens the door for the feel good story of the shy, artistic and sensitive backup quarterback to learn leadership skills, have a relationship with the coach’s beautiful daughter and win the state championship. There are characters who are dealing with missing parents, or bad parents, or no parents, as well as strong families. There is love, lust and betrayal, both by adults and teens. People struggle to survive, and others succeed. The show illustrates both racial divisions and racial harmony. There are dreams achieved, and dreams dashed. There is the pure joy of watching a team come together and triumph, and there are craven boosters who use the team for their own benefit. And during the parade sequence, all of this was summarized in the faces and expressions of the characters, as the song played.

Fittingly, the episode, and the season, ended on an ambivalent cliffhanger. We see the victorious coach, who announced his intent to leave the team for a Division I college job, but had expressed second thoughts to his wife, listen to his paralyzed former star turned assistant coach lecture the team on what they need to do in the off season to repeat as champs, in language that could have come from his own inspirational speeches. He enters the locker room and receives a slow-clapping ovation from his team.

Will he go, or will he stay? Season 2 is also on Netflix.

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