From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer was tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket. Today, New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.
Creators of television shows hate it when critics ask them to name their greatest work because they say it’s like choosing a favorite child. In adjudicating the final round of this Vulture bracket to determine the greatest high school show of all time, I know how they feel.
My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights are not just about kids; as we watch them, there are moments when they make us feel as though we are kids again, going through the elation and heartbreak of growing up. Even though it’s inherent to this exercise, I hate having to choose one over the other, because both of these children are beautiful.
My So-Called Life is a suburban drama from Winnie Holzman about the coming-of-age of Angela Chase (Claire Danes); her first great love, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto, who really knew how to lean); her sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) and her earnest yuppie parents, Patty and Graham (Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin); her friends Rayanne (A.J. Langer) and Rickie (Wilson Cruz) and Brian (Devon Gummersall) and Sharon (Devon Cherski), and the emotional struggles of their families and teachers and administrators who have to guide the kids toward adulthood while dealing with their own issues. It was overseen by Holzman and her co-executive producers, Edward Zwick and Scott Winant of Bedford Falls Productions, which produced several excellent dramas, including Once and Again and thirtysomething. The show is intimate and gentle, purposefully quite focused, and empathetic from start to finish. It ran only 19 episodes before being cancelled by ABC for low ratings in 1995 (ratings that would’ve made it one of the more successful series on TV if it had run today, the splintering of the mass audience being what it is — but that’s a lament for another time). It went on to be discovered and widely beloved, deservedly so. It might be the most complex American depiction of the teenage mind since Holden Caulfield donned his hat with earflaps and headed for New York City. (The title, a phrase spoken by Angela that describes her detachment from an incomprehensible nonexistence, is Holden-esque, as is the heroine’s often unreliable narration.)
Friday Night Lights is a portrait of a high school in a small town in a football-crazy part of Texas (as if there’s any other kind, the former Dallas resident typed). Where My So-Called Life is an original piece, FNL is based on a nonfiction book by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger, which became a hit film from actor-turned-writer/director Peter Berg, and then a TV drama overseen by Jason Katims (Relativity, Roswell). It ran for five seasons, two on NBC (which eventually cancelled it due to low ratings, a common fate in this bracket) and three on Direct TV, the series’ eventual co-producer. Its dramatic structure is best described as a series of concentric circles. Where My So-Called Life had that distinctive Bedford Falls look — a Hollywood feature film aesthetic, with elegant, gliding camerawork and brilliant shafts of light beaming in through the windows of school and suburban homes — FNL was deliberately much rougher, blocking the action to create situations rather than set scenes, encouraging the actors to improvise in rehearsals and devise additional character details, and covering it all with shaky handheld cameras and cutting the footage together as if the whole thing were a documentary of moments happening spontaneously. It had the look of a nonfiction film from the 1970s or 1980s, when documentaries were still shot on film (as this show was), and the softness and graininess of the images contributed to a sense of authenticity without seeming affected, no small feat. There was a sense of not just community, but of place, that very few American series evoke: the flat landscapes, the often dilapidated homes, the crowded school halls and frenzied pep rallies and games, all contributed to the feeling that you were observing a report from inside a collective organism, one as detailed and furiously alive as the town on Deadwood, the hospitals of ER or The Knick, or Baltimore on The Wire.
Both shows captured the buzz of teenage attraction beautifully — those moments when you look into another person’s face for a long moment and are suddenly in love because you feel so understood — as well as the push-pull of developing adolescent independence and the adult need to channel or control teenage ambition and hormones, for the sake of the kids’ well-being, or out of personal pathologies, to turn a child into a younger version of whoever the parents believed themselves to be. (A subplot about a teenage girl getting a tattoo on FNL echoes a lot of moments on MSCL where Angela tests boundaries and frightens her parents; both shows feature sprightly, dreamy theme music by W.G. “Snuffy” Walden.) If you were to compare the two series solely on the basis of their sensitivity toward the development of teenagers and the attentiveness and panic of their parents and guardians, you’d probably have to call it a draw, with the caveat that there were simply more examples to choose from on FNL because the canvas was so much bigger and there were so many more types of people (poor, middle class, and rich; black and white) to observe.
In the end, though, I have to fall back on a distinction I’ve made many times while writing for Vulture, as well as on the Vulture TV Podcast. It may strike you as arbitrary, but since the entire nature of this bracket is subjective, hopefully you can accept it in the spirit of the exercise. I’m talking about the difference between “best” and “greatest.”
“Best,” to me anyway, implies consistency of vision and excellence. On that score, My So-Called Life might very slightly edge out Friday Night Lights, even though there are all kinds of asterisks in that judgment. Life only ran one season, which some might say gives it an unfair advantage, albeit one that its creators never would’ve wanted; River Phoenix might have been one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but we will never know if his streak would’ve continued because he left us too soon. But in that less-than-one full season, it never produced a bad episode, where FNL had an entire second season that was often embarrassingly pointless and tonally wrong. At the heart of it was an ongoing subplot where one of the football players, Landry (Jesse Plemons), kills a man who tries to rape his beautiful and but troubled classmate Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and hides the body, leading to an unconvincing love story and murder charge that’s eventually dropped so that the character can continue on the show; there was a lot of other action in that season that was unnecessarily soap opera–ish for a show like FNL — moments where the melodrama seemed contrived to generate the cheap excitement of scandal. It’s uncharacteristic of the series, and it mars an otherwise nearly perfect five seasons that dealt with all manner of hot-button issues, including racial tension, teen sex and pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, and class resentment, without seeming exploitative. Even given that lapse, though, we’re still talking about four great seasons of FNL versus one of My So-Called Life. Again, this is all a matter of network economics (so were the problems in season two, which were reportedly influenced by notes from NBC executives who wanted to get the ratings up somehow; they did the same thing to another low-key classic, Homicide, a life-sized show that suddenly acquired snipers and serial killers and drug lords). So I think if we were determining the “best” show it would come down to a coin flip, with my rooting interests tending toward Life, because it came first and was just so exquisitely realized, so tender and smart throughout.
But what we’re really searching for here is the “greatest,” which implies a level of complexity and ambition, of bigness or grandness, of audacity and imagination. I applied the same thinking to the final round of the 2013 sitcom bracket, which pitted Cheers against The Simpsons, and to a lesser extent, the conclusion of the drama bracket, in which The Sopranos squared off against The Wire. Through the “greatest” lens, the show has to be Friday Night Lights. Life is a beautifully wrought bungalow; FNL is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Life is a chamber piece, FNL is Beethoven’s Ninth. And because the scope of Friday Night Lights never destroys its intimacy — an intimacy comparable to the best of My So-Called Life — I want to concentrate on that for a moment. It’s a consummate high-school drama, but it’s also a great portrait of a town, of an American way of life and way of seeing life. Its reach encompasses nearly everything that its esteemed predecessor Life did, plus many, many other things that were entirely outside Life’s purview.
At the center of FNL is the football team, overseen by a brusque but caring coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), one of the most accurate depictions of a high-school football coach (particularly a red-state coach) in pop-culture history. The next circle consists of the school, the students (who are too numerous to cite in this paragraph; it’s a Games of Thrones–huge cast) and the teachers and administrators who run it; their boss is the principal, Coach Taylor’s wife Tami (Connie Britton), who often finds herself resenting her husband’s team because of all the funding and energy it draws away from other areas of school life.
The third circle consists of the town, represented by the parents of the various children. Some of the parents are boosters of the football team, contributing uniforms and equipment (including a Jumbotron, the disposition of which figures memorably in season three) but often with strings attached. One booster even moves his family and their talented quarterback son to town specifically so that he the kid can be mentored by Eric Taylor; after a brief period of pretending that he’s fine with all of the coach’s decisions, he starts leaning on him to put the kid in and take the starting quarterback out or minimize his presence, with the implied threat of losing money if he doesn’t.
This has ripple effects on the school, the other teammates, their parents and their friends and girlfriends. The starting quarterback is devastated and it changes his perception of himself, which alters his friendships and love relationships as the show goes on, just as the change in the team roster shifts the fortunes of the team and the dynamics in the locker room. I mention this one example not because it’s a peak for the show (though it is quite strong), but because Friday Night Lights featured dozens of similar predicaments as subplots in each season, and it’s a key reason why the series proved to be so unusual and surprising. I’ve never seen a TV series about adolescents, including My So-Called Life, that took government and money and adult ego into account so consistently when detailing the lives of the children. There are long stretches of FNL where the series feels like a Robert Altman or Richard Linklater film, seeming to view the action at ground level, but also from a God’s-eye perspective; the latter even seems literal at times, given the role that religion plays in the town’s life, which is also something you rarely see on TV. The show never lets on that it believes in God or Jesus or Heaven or Hell as anything other than words that people use when describing their lives, even though the church scenes were deeply felt, and a good many characters on FNL are agnostic or atheist (including the Taylors’ daughter Julie, played by Aimee Teegarden).
My So-Called Life showed the ripple effect of individual predicaments, too, especially when Rayanne Graff, a hard-living kid with a single mom who often seemed more like an older sister than a mother, got in trouble, or when Rickie, who felt like an ostracized outsider due to his sexual orientation and ethnicity, withdrew or disappeared or succumbed to depression or anger. You saw the parents and teachers (including Scandal’s Jeff Perry as a gay teacher who helped Rickie during his darkest hour) fretting over these kids, and sometimes misunderstanding or steering them in the wrong direction. But you saw that on FNL too, every week, along with a sensitivity to the currents of the wider world that Life, with its hothouse focus on Angela and her immediate circle, couldn’t match.
Every disciplinary action on the team or in the schoolroom, every battle over the allocation of funding to the football team as opposed to academics, every fight between the Taylors about their money troubles (many of which were related to Eric’s love for his players) always came back to the school, and the individual kids. High school was not a metaphor on this series any more than it was on My So-Called Life; yet often, with seeming effortlessness, it did feel like a metaphor, for the relationship between sports and the wider society, or between the military and civilian expenditures (a comparison between FNL and the remake of Battlestar Galactica might be fascinating in that regard). But the real never got lost in metaphor or seemed like its handmaiden. The show was nearly tactile in its presence — you could smell the turf on the football field. And throughout, there were little, unexpected visual or sonic details reminding you that these were people living in your world, such as the faint buzz of florescent lights in the locker room or the school hallways, or the persistent whine of a freezer kicking in when characters talked to each other in a diner, or the whirr of cicadas as young lovers argued with each other on a small town street at dusk.
I can’t stress enough that we’re talking about two beautiful children here, each with their own temperaments and interests, and if I wrote this next week, there’s a chance that I might lean toward Angela and company. But Friday Night Lights narrowly ekes out a victory here, in the last few seconds of the fourth quarter. Cut to Rayanne raising an eyebrow.
Winner: Friday Night Lights