For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today’s battle: Maris Kreizman judges Friday Night Lights versus Glee. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.
The hormonally charged pantheon of high-school-TV shows is filled with well-worn tropes and familiar story lines, but I can’t think of two shows more groundbreaking or diametrically opposed in style and tone than Friday Night Lights and Glee. Pitting them against each other only serves to magnify their differences, with the raw realness of life in rural West Texas versus Ryan Murphy’s big, loud, colorful fantasy. The shows don’t seem to take place in the same world, or even on the same planet — imagine the toughest Glee football player and place him in the middle of a Texas high-school game. He wouldn’t last a quarter.
As distinct as they are, at heart, both shows are about ambition; about passionate kids who want things and who, with the help of some inspiring adults, overcome a variety of obstacles to get them. Both the working-class jocks of the Dillon Panthers (and later, the East Dillon Lions) and the lovable misfits of the New Directions value teamwork and digging deep and “having heart.” High-school competitions and the accompanying practices, pep talks, crises of faith, team in-fighting, and chances for redemption provide both a narrative structure for the shows as well as a larger metaphor for the battles the characters face off the field and the stage.
I could write a 50-page treatise comparing and contrasting both, but instead I will employ yearbook superlatives to weigh in on the finer points of each show, using glib categories to make broad judgments about their quality. Because, really, isn’t that what high school is all about?
What a boring category, right? Most of the time, getting called out for being good — in the moral sense of the word — is for suckers. For all its liberal, inclusive values, Glee is the kind of show that would take “nice” as an insult. Glee is diverse in ways that FNL could never be, but it also thrives on snark and witty one-liners and GIF-able insults. One of the greatest triumphs of Friday Night Lights is that it builds a world in which, when confronted with the ugliness of poverty and the close-mindedness of small-town life, goodness matters. The athletes in Friday Night Lights don’t only seek glory and fame, they seek honor. How does FNL make trying hard look so appealing? Well, the acting is uniformly excellent, the story lines are earnest yet never overwrought, and the football scenes are fast-paced and engrossing enough to make even the least-sports-oriented viewer (like me!) feel invested in the outcome.
Winner: Friday Night Lights
Here’s where background bias comes into play: Glee is a modern-day fairy tale for musical-theater nerds, which is how I primarily self-identified in high school. All 16-year-old me wanted was to be able to sing modern-day pop songs along with show tunes instead of having to be in Fiddler on the Roof for the third time. (Growing up Jewish in suburban New Jersey has its own challenges.) I basically wanted to be Rachel Berry, I just didn’t know it yet. Yes, Rachel is overbearing and melodramatic and bossy, but she looks like a Modcloth poster girl and can sing the crap outta both Britney and Barbra; I was so glad to finally see her on TV. I’m not sure if FNL’s Gaius Charles or Zach Gilford can actually play real competitive football, but I know for a fact that Glee’s Lea Michele can sing, that Amber Riley could tug heartstrings with her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to Whitney Houston, and that I’m mad at myself for not having caught Darren Criss’s Broadway turn in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
With apologies to Glee’s Blaine and Kurt, the sweetest standout duo of William McKinley High School, we’re gonna have to step outside of the student body for this one — and no, we’re not looking at Mr. Schue and Ms. Pillsbury (snooze). FNL’s Eric and Tami Taylor, better known as Coach and Mrs. Coach, were the exemplars of #relationshipgoals before such a thing was even a hashtag. In which other shows about high school are the adults the characters that are the most compelling, the sexiest? Yes, the Taylors bicker and spar and talk over each other often enough, but the foundation of their relationship is comprised of mutual respect and knowing when and how to make up. As an added treat, Friday Night Lights frames their most intense conversations with extreme close-ups: Just look at Eric’s face (Kyle Chandler’s facial expressions deserve their own trophy case) when Tami tells him she’s unexpectedly pregnant in the season-one finale, how it moves from skepticism to disbelief to awe to joy. Cry a little. This is how marriage should be.
Winner: Friday Night Lights
Sure, FNL has gratuitous hot-tub scenes with buff, shirtless high-school gods frolicking about, but Glee is even less subtle in the wooing of its fans. If flirting is all about making meaningful eye contact, then Glee winks at its audience and breaks the fourth wall with, well, glee. The experience of being a Glee fan was so much a part of watching the show that when it originally aired, Fox selected a Gleek of the Week to be spotlighted during each episode. With stunts and special guest stars — Gwyneth! Idina! NPH! — and musically themed episodes to delight viewers, Glee felt interactive, while FNL was more like the aloof hottie from gym class who doesn’t know you’re alive.
Both FNL and Glee have tremendous highs and then completely off-the-rails moments, when melodramatic and insane plotlines suck the life out of the shows’ best stories. FNL is infamous for its season-two disaster in which Landry (Class Clown!) and Tyra (Best-Looking!) become the worst Bonnie and Clyde of all time, trying to cover up a murder as if they were shitty guest stars on a high-school episode of Law & Order. But after that potentially catastrophic misstep, FNL shrugs it off like a bad call and gets right back in the game. Glee, on the other hand, is more sure-footed in its commitment to WTF moments. Where to begin? How about the overwrought Coach Beiste domestic-violence story line? Or when Quinn plotted to steal back the baby she gave up for adoption? Or how whacked-out cheerleader Brittany too often straddles the line between delightfully ditzy and straight-up mentally disabled? For better or worse, Glee throws more curveballs than your emotionally manipulative ex from junior-year softball.
We cannot talk about Friday Night Lights without spending time perpetuating the objectification of Panthers running back Tim Riggins. Even Lorrie Moore’s 2011 ode to FNL in the New York Review of Books is largely about how dreamy Riggins is, how “brooding, beautiful, and slightly doomed” he seems, and how wonderful he is to watch. Taylor Kitsch brings depth and substance to his role as Dillon’s resident lady-killer, with solid acting chops that (sorry, True D fans!) we haven’t really seen from him since.
Winner: Friday Night Lights
Most Likely to Succeed
Here’s the category where the realism of one show most glaringly clashes with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the other. The Dillon Panthers are genuine high-school celebrities: They’re the subjects of radio debates and pre- and post-game interviews, the recipients of rally-girl cookie baskets and adoration. That they should be having the time of their lives is kinda the point — the likelihood is that the majority of the Panthers will have peaked in high school. Riggins’s post-high-school career includes dropping out of college, serving a prison sentence to protect his dumbass brother, and feeling aimless about the future. Even guys like Smash Williams who go on to play college ball will constantly run the risk of injury — FNL’s premiere, in which star quarterback Jason Street suffers a paralyzing and career-ending collision, hangs over the rest of the show like a warning. The cast of Glee, on the other hand, start out as a ragtag team of high-school rejects, and by the end of the series, they’re winning Tonys (Rachel), opening for Beyoncé (Mercedes), and having double gay weddings (Kurt and Blaine and Brittany and Santana). Pure joy.
Most School Spirit
Take a knee and ponder this question: How many of us love the Dillon Panthers more than we love our own high-school sports team? I certainly do. We love Dillon, and not just the players. We love the town of Dillon, the often cruel and provincial place beleaguered by economic and racial strife, with its sparse and beautiful landscape and used-car dealerships and hometown pride. The town is a beloved character on Friday Night Lights, and also its primary villain — never is this so clear as when, in the season-one finale, the Panthers’ victory parade after their win at State is set to a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” Never did a place seem so plentiful and so ugly. Maybe the glorification of rural small-town life is its own kind of blue-state liberal fantasy, but, with apologies to Glee’s Lima, Ohio, I’d like to wistfully say, “Texas forever.”
Winner: Friday Night Lights
So, what’s better, the campy drama-club blowout that unfurls when the outsiders finally get control of the school, where a Breakfast Club soup of high-school archetypes are represented and subverted? Or the understated dignity of a show that humanizes its athlete characters without making them sing? (Side note: You might consider a singing-in-the-locker-room shower scene on Friday Night Lights my own version of fantasy football.) As a former drama-club kid, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but in this case, I prefer football to musicals. Friday Night Lights is groundbreaking in its simplicity yet enormous in its ambition. It makes us empathize and identify with characters completely unlike ourselves, which is perhaps the ultimate win for a high-school show. Clear eyes, full hearts, etc. etc.
Winner: FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS