Television

Friday Night Lights in Long Beach

Can more drama be wrung out of high school football?

Still from 4th and Forever. Click image to expand.
Dabness Atkins in 4th and Forever

As the clock runs down on NBC’s airing of the last season of Friday Night Lights, it’s clear that Peter Berg’s fantastic show has upended and imaginatively exploited any number of sports-drama clichés—and also inspired a few new ones. Just two nights ago on ESPN’s Sportscenter, narrating a highlight reel of the Mavericks-Thunder game, anchor Stuart Scott punctuated Dirk Nowitzki’s draining of a three by quoting FNL’s most famous line: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” While this was less prosaic than saying something like “Dirk Nowitzki drains a three,” it wasn’t terribly meaningful in the context of a 10-time NBA All-Star doing his thing. A motivational motto has become a bro-ready catchphrase that nonetheless gets you every time.

4th and Forever (Current, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET), a high-school football docu-soap, takes moves from the FNL playbook in terms of story arc, cinematography, and possibly even word-for-word dialogue. Because the team we’re following is burdened with a reputation as “an unstoppable football force,” the coach must lecture his charges that “every game you play, you are the targets”—a sentence surely breathed by Kyle Chandler at some point. But no fictional character has ever dared to go on about how it’s “redemption time” as blatantly as 4th and Forever’s nonfictional characters do, unless it was in the context of being delivered from sin or collecting deposits for soda cans.

The new series tracks the varsity football team at California’s Long Beach Polytechnic High School. “Long Beach Poly is what Long Beach has to be proud of,” one player says at the top of the first episode. That overstates the case a bit, I think, giving short shrift to Snoop Dogg, the Queen Mary, and the JetBlue terminal at LGB, but we take the point. Like FNL’s Dillon, Texas, Long Beach is not the happiest place on earth, and like the Dillon Panthers, the Poly Jackrabbits are the soul of the city, especially those segments of it smogged by gang violence. The personal dramas about playing time, teenage parenthood, and the temptations of delinquency play out against a backdrop of general blight. Still, the saturated green of the field glows like money, and the sun shines just a touch gratuitously upon the American flag.

The players are driven by a strong desire to make Long Beach proud and also by an even stronger desire to get the hell out of Long Beach. Everyone’s got his eyes on the college recruiters who’ve got their eyes on them. There’s a cornerback who wants to go to Harvard and a linebacker who wants to go anywhere. The LB is Devin, a charmer with a mega-watt smile and rather dim father. 4th and Forever is best read as a text about families and parenting, and it richly conveys Devin’s frustration in a scene where his dad meanly nags him to “to bring home nothing less than a B” in French class, just after the kid, who was trying to study, said he was getting a B+. Later, ridiculously, we see Devin working his after-school job—selling kitchen knives door to door. There is no need for the producers to lay it on thick when he rings a booster’s doorbell, offers a firm handshake, and starts slicing tomatoes very thinly.

For a quarterback controversy, we get a duel between Emmanuel, who is the coach’s son, and Chaiyse, who is not. “It’s gonna be a tough decision,” says Coach, repeatedly, in a tone that is either measured and professional or as rote as any reality-show competitor fretting aloud about whom to vote out of the house. Everyone’s a bit stiff in front of the camera here in a way that signals both authenticity and its opposite. In any case, Emmanuel does his part to make the decision easier by not quite achieving competence.

Then there’s Jeremiah, a running back with a tough mom and a cute son. At first I felt guilty—as complicit in the exploitation of a young athlete as your average SEC athletic director—watching a slow-motion replay of Jeremiah crunching his shoulder in a tackle. Then it emerged that he had only suffered a deep bruise affecting his wussy streak. Back at home, with the flag flapping and the living room overrun with his older brothers’ football trophies, the kid’s mother told him to suck it up. “Ain’t nothin’ but a litttle stinger. … Take that shit and keep it movin’.” She grabs a worn family Bible and commands him to swear that he’ll suck it up and bust his ass. 4th and Forever swears sincerely that the American way leads straight to the end zone.