Giles Coren: How The DVD Boxset Changed Tv (And Soothed My Marriage)

An ode to Friday Night Lights – and the joy of cult viewing

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On a slow day, when the rain is lashing against the windows of my concrete eyrie in Archway, north London, and the words won't come, and I've drunk as much tea as a man should, and all I can do is pace the floor of my office and rail at the loneliness and sorrow of a writer's life, I sometimes fire up my Twitter page and write "Clear eyes, full hearts…" into the message field, then sit back on my creaky old office chair, and wait.

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For a few minutes, nothing will happen. Maybe a score of question marks from puzzled followers. And then, perhaps from an insomniac in Melbourne or a teenage boy doing his homework in Tuscaloosa, the response, "Can't lose!"

Then, gradually, one or two more will appear. From a night watchman in a Seattle shopping mall: "Can't lose!"

From a suicidal adolescent in Kirkcudbright: "Can't lose!"

From a garage attendant in Mombasa: "Can't lose!"

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There will be no more than half a dozen responses from among my 140,000-odd "followers" – while a daft joke about Come Dine with Me might have 6,000 of them up and pumping their keyboards in reply — but each of them will be quite certain and unfailing: "Can't lose!"

And to each of them in turn I reply, "I can't hear ya! CLEAR EYES, FULL HEARTS…"

And they reply, without falter: "CAN'T LOSE!"

And I reply: "Let's go gentlemen, let's play some FOOTBALL!"

And that is that. I go back to my day. And they go back to theirs. Although it is not impossible that a few hours later, as the sky begins to darken and my thoughts turn to home, that I will tweet, "Texas forever".

And each of my correspondents will reply, in their turn, "Texas forever". In that set of exchanges, I am Eric "Coach" Taylor, star of the critically acclaimed but almost entirely unwatched NBC drama series Friday Night Lights, which ran in the US from 2006 to 2011, and my respondents are members of the Dillon Panthers — such as hard-drinking full back Tim Riggins, big-mouthed running back Brian "Smash" Williams, tongue-tied replacement quarterback Matt Saracen, or physics-nerd-turned-kicker Landry "Lance" Clark. Although those who are deep into the fourth series may in fact be speaking as East Dillon Lions, but I can't go into that now without spoiling everything for you.

Not that I give a damn about you. You watch FNL if you want to, and not if you don't. That is the way of things in Box Set Land. Here, television is not a communal activity and the fact that half-a-century of everyone watching television at the same time is coming to an end does not bother us at all. We do not cling to the few remaining time-specific television events — X Factor, Doctor Who, Call the Midwife — and gain a special sense of belonging from the knowledge that 10 million other sad bastards are watching the same thing as us. We do not need to tweet "OMG" at the very moment some sap gets voted off a talent show to get our "belonging to the world community" buzz.

We belong to something bigger. We belong to something that stands outside of time and makes its own days and weeks with the little silver discs in the five double boxes on the coffee table at our feet. We belong to the Dillon Panthers (or the East Dillon Lions). And we're going to "State"."State! State! State! State!"
     
Okay, it's just a TV show about a high-school football team in the imaginary Texas town of Dillon. It's mostly about cute cheerleaders in tan tights, handsome young men doing the right thing and weepy last minute touchdowns after a rousing speech from Coach Taylor. It's basically Field of Dreams crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But I love it. And I would do anything for it.

We took to FNL, my wife and I, when Breaking Bad got too dark in series five, and neither of us could face another miserable fortnight of Scandy Noir. No more of that Killing, Borgen, Bridge bollocks, with their endless nights and the same old miserable Nordic faces. We needed to lighten up.

We didn't want comedy — we gave 2011 to 30 Rock and no Arrested Development or Parks and Rec can ever bring that back — but we wanted no more death. We wanted something more uplifting. Like Heroes before it got fucked by the writers' strike in series two, or the way The Wire would have been, if they had only ended on the last frame of series three, with McNulty strolling his beat on that sunny afternoon, and never dived into the moral chasm of endless death that was series four and five.

This time last year, we had an 18-month-old child and another on the way. The days were long and the nights had to be early to make the mornings possible. There's no time for watching a whole film between an 8pm supper and a 9.30pm lights out, and I wasn't prepared to watch actual television. I simply won't. I am too much of a snob. I can't bear to piss my life away like that.

My wife will watch fat girls off council estates singing like filth in the hope of making enough money for lipo and a crack at the big time, or a load of pikeys cooking dinner for each other in fancy dress, but I won't. Popular culture is a grand delusion of idiocy and fake experience and I will have no part in it. I don't want to watch what other people are watching. Other people are idiots. To know that I am doing something that millions of others are doing at the same time is to cheapen that thing irredeemably. If I want communal activity, I'll go dogging.

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And I don't want to watch something the critics are writing about either. I don't care what they think about what I do in my front room, with my wife, with the curtains drawn. I do not want my evening dreams deflated by their cruel snobberies. The critics all said to watch Game of Thrones, so I fucking won't. You watch goblins being raped by elves if you want to, but I can get all that with a swift Hentai wank off YouPorn and be back in front of some wholesome mid-West entertainment three minutes later with my wife none the wiser.

So it has to be box sets, the closest thing to a book you can get — in the sense of a solitary cultural interaction with another mind at your own temporal and spatial convenience — without having to actually read.

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Netflix and its competitors are no good, because they pander to the drooling neophytes even more than network telly, and are all about being in an elite group that is the first to watch some edgy, crowd-funded thing. More mindless communal eye-bilge. I did subscribe to it to get House of Cards, but then felt endlessly cheapened by people wanting to talk about the show at dinner parties.

"Fuck off!" I would say when asked how I had enjoyed episode three. "When Spacey leans into my sitting room and reveals his nefarious plans, he is talking to me and me alone! Not you! He doesn't give a shit about you. You're just a dribbling English telly-watcher."

But box sets are all mine. I own them. I can touch them. I can lend them to you when I am done with them, if I choose to, and allow you to feel what I have felt, without anything as emotionally icky as doing it together.

And I will certainly lend you Friday Night Lights, now that I am done with it. For it is an amazing thing. You can perv over teenage girls because the actresses are all legal adults playing younger than their age, and anyway your wife or girlfriend is meanwhile dreaming of being dragged down an alley by her hair by Tim Riggins and fucked over a rubbish bin. At least, I'm pretty sure mine was. Maybe yours will dream of doing it in a nice clean bed with Coach, who is 45 and shoulders the responsibility of his family with dignity and humour. Lucky you.

And it's not just sex. "What would Coach do?" has become in our house the equivalent of "What would Jesus do?" He's just so strong, so brave, so right (our son, Sam, born halfway through episode six, series four, came within an ace of being named 'Eric' in his honour). And his marriage to Tami is the only realistic happy marriage I have ever seen on television.

In Dillon, it is always sunny. Lyla Garrity, Tyra Collette and Julie Taylor, in their skimpy kit, show us flashes of flesh but never strip off (nor does anyone swear). And Riggins and Saracen and poor old paralysed former-quarterback Jason Street (we call him 'Wheels' but wouldn't if we met him) do their best to get with them. There are racial flare-ups, booze problems and drug issues ("No Smash! Not the steroids!"), failing schools, unwanted pregnancies, scary Christians, continual barbecues, parenting problems and a whole lot of "y'all"s.

In the end, it is probably just a soap opera, but that's no terrible thing. In fact the last time I was so fully transported to another time and place, dreamt of it nightly, and felt so miserable that my life is lived in this world and not that one, was a quarter of a century ago, when Kylie and Jason were living on Ramsay Street and Plain Jane Superbrain was about to flower like a butterfly.

Last night, we watched the final episode. Vince (of the Lions) threw a pass so long that it sailed out of the stadium (like Robert Redford's fly ball in The Natural) and into history. Saracen and Julie got engaged, Riggins said "Texas forever" for the last time and Coach, in his new job many miles away, gathered a fresh bunch of kids after practice and said "Clear eyes, full hearts…"

And the joke for us was that none of them had heard it before, so they gave no reply.

But we did, my wife and I, from the sofa, through the tears.

"Can't lose!" we said.

And then one more time, in case Coach couldn't hear us:

"CAN'T LOSE!"

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MORE FROM GILES COREN:

Giles Coren On: School

Giles Coren: Sex, Martin Amis and Me

Giles Coren Gives Up Booze

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