I wrote about this once before, a long time ago. But I need to write about it again. There is no better television show currently on the air than Friday Night Lights. And chances are, you've either never heard of it, or you dismissed it because it's "about football."
It's not about football. It's about drama, relationships, family, high school, marriage, and small-town America, wrapped up in a football package. It's a double shot of life with a football chaser.
Friday Night Lights is filmed in an almost documentary style, all hand-held cameras and tight frame shots and unconventional angles, which combined with the superb acting leads to the feeling that these are real people, with real joys and sorrows, and we're all being granted a beautiful opportunity to share in everything. And Coach Eric Taylor, his wife Tami, and his daughter Julie are hands-down the most genuine family in television history.
It's like a reality TV show if reality TV didn't suck.
And this season (the show's fourth, which is currently airing exclusively on DirecTV but will come to NBC next year) may be the best of all, as it puts Coach Taylor in an impossible situation (reviving the dirt-poor crosstown high school's football team with a bunch of scrubs and no funding) and still manages to make his failures almost absurdly heroic.
(Also prominent in that scene: the Sufjan Stevens version of "Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing," a perfect example of FNL's impeccable taste in soundtrack. Most incidental music in the series is provided by West Texas ambient-rock band Explosions In The Sky, a group I can't recommend highly enough.)
Look: if you like football, you need to watch this show. If you couldn't care less about football, you need to watch this show. (I privately suspect that more than a couple of girls I have dated enjoyed watching FNL with me more than they enjoyed, you know, me.)
If you are at all interested in good television, you need to watch this show.
It sounds more impressive than it is. I say it that way because I want it to sound impressive. I want it to imply things that aren't necessarily apparent. (Or, like, you know, true. Like that I'm funny and witty and outgoing and can hold the attention of a crowd like a real actor. I'm not, and I can't, at least not all the time. But it's a nifty little trick of self-delusion.)
"Work" is hardly what it could be called. What it was, was that I fell into an association with a few of the improv folks through my brother's friend Clark, who was part of the troupe. They needed keyboard players. Not super talented, complicated, professional musicians, but just someone who could hold down simple chords and follow the actors as they invented melody and lyrics. I happened to play the keyboard. Things seemed to work out.
It gave me something to do on my weekends while I was still in high school and early in college (back when I fretted about having things to do on the weekends, instead of what I do now, which is basically nothing, so I guess not much has changed, except that I don't fret about it now).
They paid me a paltry $20 for every night I played, so it was hardly a "job." I'd have done it for free. It made me feel like part of something that was undeniably cool, even if my personal coolness level was up for debate.
One thing it didn't do for me, however, was get me introduced to any girls. Too much of a Provo date scene, the Comedy Sportz. Plus, nothing's sexier than a funny guy. The guy who sat in the booth at the back and played Ben Folds off the top of his head in between scenes? Not so much.
The story I'm about to tell is the one exception.
The club is pretty full tonight. Full of young lovers and less young lovers, of awkward freshmen on first dates and established couples who sit with relaxed postures and embrace after each laugh with an intimacy that makes me wince in jealousy and frustration.
I'm flying solo again, as I usually do when I play. I'm allowed a cast comp every so often, and sometimes I manage to convince a girl or a friend (never a girlfriend) to tag along, the prospect of free comedy and a minimum of required interaction with me just tantalizing enough to make it worth the effort. It always ends up awkward, though; the friend-person has to sit by themselves as I do my music business, and then I have to bid them farewell as they leave before the late show begins, to get on with the real activities they have planned for their Friday or Saturday night, the stuff they actually wanted to do in the first place.
So yeah, most nights are like this one, with me sitting on a woefully unstable office chair in the raised sound booth at the back of the theater, the Yamaha keyboard with the worn buttons in front of me, the sound guy on my left blaring out catchy, inoffensive pop mixes through the less-than-ideal speaker system.
It's frustrating, the being alone, because despite the self-deprecation I'm feeling way more confident than usual. It's late summer, and I'm preparing for my freshman year at BYU, and the thought of starting a completely new experience, especially one where no one in my classes will know my name or my power-nerd background or my ridiculously stunted romantic encounters, is exhilarating. I've even developed something of a new look for myself: product-filled hair that I would later come to associate with J.D. from Scrubs; my favorite white and green ringer T-shirt with the hand-drawn logo on it; wraparound shades with yellow lenses that make me look somewhere between Bono and a downhill skier but that I somehow manage to pull off, even indoors. They're ludicrous affectations, all of them, but they're MY affectations, and the fact that I enjoy them imbues me with an energy I rarely find in myself, and I know I need to roll with it for as long as I can.
So with all this mojo working, I have no one to use it on, and this dampens my mood a little. But I know that soon the jokes will start flying, and I'll have opportunities to drop in bits of melody from whatever pop culture reference is made on stage (a feat that never fails to delight the actors in its off-the-cuff, by-ear alacrity), so I won't have too long to feel morose.
Near the end of the first half of the show, we catch each other looking.
She's with a group of girls, a last hurrah between friends or roommates before separating for the summer, perhaps. It's dark in the theater, but I can see her shoulder-length black hair tucked loosely behind her ears, and she has the kind of large dark eyes and open face that hold my attention.
For a second too long, in fact. Because she glances up towards the sound booth -- she's sitting in just the perfect part of the theater for this -- and our eyes meet for that tiniest sliver of time where you suddenly realize you've been staring, and she knows you've been staring, you both know, and no amount of shuffling or pushing buttons or looking busy can hide it.
Before I jerk my eyes away, I see a ghost of a smile play across her lips and a spark of mischief in her eyes.
During the intermission, I argue with myself. I've got nothing better to do for the ten-minute duration, and she already knows I was looking, and she doesn't seem too bothered by it. On the other hand, I think, she's got all her girlfriends with her, doesn't want to be hit on in front of them. On the other hand, she really is cute, and you never take opportunities like this. On the other hand, the reason you never take opportunities like this is because they always blow up in your face. On the other hand...
I pull this Tevye act through the whole intermission, and before I know it, the lights are dimming again and it's time to be funny.
Curt is running the show tonight as the "ref," and he's always careful to thank the door staff and the sound and keyboard guys as he's starting things back up. He and I also have a standing joke, stemming from my ability to play by ear, which he sometimes uses as a warm-up to get the audience laughing again. And Thespis be praised, he's using it tonight. Perfect.
"You know, Layton is such an amazing keyboard player, he actually knows every song ever written. True story."
The audience chuckles.
"In fact, you can even test him on it. Seriously, somebody just yell out the name of a song. Any piece of music. Something really obscure."
Several things are yelled out, the clearest of which is "the theme music from The Exorcist." (Side note: I have not seen The Exorcist.)
"There we go... Layton, do you know the theme music from The Exorcist?"
I look straight at the stage, my face expressionless. "Yep."
"... See, told ya he knew it."
Laughter and applause. I sneak a glance at the girl. She's grinning at me. I grin back sheepishly. Bingo.
For the rest of the show, I can barely keep my mind on my cues. I'm feverishly trying to come up with something to say to her, the right way to approach her, how to smoothly acknowledge the rest of the party she's with while focusing on her. New look and confidence notwithstanding, this is never something I've been good at, and I'm both thrilled and terrified.
As the show ends, the actors run out onto the street to greet the audience as they exit. She's across the audience from me, so I have to wait for her and everyone else to get out the door before I can leave the booth. She wiggles a wave in my direction as she walks out. Ignoring my instinct to charge through the lingering crowd like a rampaging rhinoceros, I play it cool. I can catch her out on the street when the crowd thins.
I make it out the door and lean against the wall of the theater, scanning the crowd. She and her friends shake the actors' hands, then stand talking and laughing to each other for a moment. It's now or never.
I don't even know what happened, but I couldn't move. I think I tried -- I must have tried -- several times, but I felt like I was sleep paralyzed, like the dreams I have when I'm trying to play basketball and I suddenly can't dribble at all, can't even bounce the ball once, and I jolt awake and realize I've been trying and failing to move my arms and legs. This is like that. At least I think it is. I seriously can't remember.
By the time I come to, she and her friends are a ways down Center Street, getting into a black SUV. Unless I want to run down the sidewalk after her, it's not happening. And I can't believe that I've managed to screw this up so badly.
The black SUV pulls out, flips a U-turn, and motors east on Center. I wave as it passes, one last desultory effort at saving some face for myself. It doesn't help.
Until the SUV flips another U-turn. And pulls over. And the door opens. And suddenly there she is, walking towards me.
She's wearing a simple light yellow top and shapely jeans that hug her petite frame in just the right way. She's grinning at me again. For heaven's sake, man, stop staring! You can do this!
My mouth opens, speaks. They may or may not have actually been my words -- I can't tell, because I can't remember thinking them. But it is my voice, and it's even got a note of guilty, playful confidence in there.
"You know, I was just sitting here kicking myself for not coming over and talking to you."
"I know." Still smiling. I have to will myself not to grin too widely back.
We shake hands.
"How'd you like the show? First time?"
"Yeah, I loved it, never laughed so hard in my life. So, did you really know that song?"
"Um. Maybe." Now I can't help but grin. "Okay, I had no idea. Don't tell anyone or I'll get fired."
She laughs, and my mind goes blank again. I don't even remember how I pulled it off, but somehow I came away with her phone number, and the advice that she was leaving for school in Idaho soon, so I shouldn't wait to call.
I waited to call.
I haven't seen Swingers at this point in my life, so I don't know that two days is industry standard, or that three days is kinda money. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. At eighteen years old, and having kissed exactly one girl, one time, in my entire life, I have no idea what to do next. Do I just ask her out, the two of us? Do I get a group of friends? Do I have any friends that will agree to it? What will we do? Where will we go? What do I say to her? No idea. (Still don't, sometimes. I don't think girls know how much stress and effort guys put into thinking up things they hope girls will like, and that's not something that has passed with age.)
In the end, it's over a week later before I manage to work up the courage to dial.
(voice quivering just a little) "Hi, is Valerie there?"
"No, I'm afraid she's up in Idaho for school."
"... oh. Okay. Thanks anyway."
I keep her phone number for several months. I don't call again.