Inarguably the best sports drama of all time, Friday Night Lights, dropped in its entirety on Lightbox last week. Sam Brooks on why you should watch it – and the other cult classics you might not know are on the service.
Friday Night Lights (S1-5)
I’m surprised this show didn’t incorporate some sort of partnership with Kleenex, because I don’t think I’ve cried more watching a single television show in my life.
It would be easy (and highly incorrect) to write Friday Night Lights off as just being about sports. While the initial pitch might be “it’s about a high school football team”, the more accurate pitch would be “it’s about a small town that has an unhealthy focus on high school sport, it’s about family, it’s about high school, it’s about marriage, it’s about humanity, it’s about managing expectations, it’s about you, it’s about me, and it makes me cry.” Also it might be about Connie Britton’s hair?
There’s a lot to love about Friday Night Lights. The big thing it gets right – and this is very easy to underrate – is its understanding of how families interact with each other. The Taylors are one of the more delicately drawn families I’ve seen on TV, and the Taylor marriage especially so; Friday Night Lights understands the ways that families listen to each other, the ways that they fail each other, and the ways that families pull together in the many faces of adversity. There’s a lot to love and recommend about the show, but I keep coming back to that. It’s goddamned inspirational, aspirational television.
Pushing Daisies (S1-2)
It’s amazing that the show that brought Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, American Gods, Star Trek: Discovery) to prominence seems to be an odd footnote at the bottom of his illustrious career. After the short-lived curios that were Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies was Fuller’s first step into the high-concept and high-design television that has defined his career since.
The concept? Ned, played by the consistently adorable and even more consistently tall Lee Pace, has the ability to bring people back to life with a touch. The catch? If that person is alive for longer than one minute, another living thing in the vicinity must fall dead. The other catch? If he touches that person again, they die again.
Of course, this concept ends up with Ned helping a friend solve murders, but that’s just the overarching excuse for a plot that every show needs. What Pushing Daisies is actually about is the relationship between Ned and his childhood sweetheart, Chuck, played by Anna Friel, who is at her most fragile and winsome in this role. When Ned finds out that Chuck has been murdered, he brings her back to life but can’t bring himself to let her go. Tragic, tortured love ensues.
Pushing Daisies is one of those shows that garnered huge enthusiasm with critics and a devoted following of fans, but it just missed the boat on becoming the true sensation it should have been. It’s a beautiful watch now – the production design is sweet enough to give you diabetes 1 through 25, because also Ned is a pie maker – but what really grabs you is the quiet, sad intensity between Ned and Chuck, who are doomed to a touchless love before they even realise they’re doomed to it.
Also, it gave us a (rightly Emmy Award winning) Kristin Chenoweth belting out ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’, provided below for your viewing delight:
Veronica Mars (S1-3)
Veronica Mars was one of those shows that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. When it first aired it was on UPN, a channel which no longer exists, and in a time when audiences still needed their television in cleanly defined genres. If you weren’t a show about six 20 year olds hanging out in an apartment, or about solving sex crimes, you weren’t being watched!
If you missed out on watching Veronica Mars, you missed out on not only one of the first examples of ‘teen noir‘, but some of the most astutely written and performed high school characters I’ve ever seen on television. It’s amazing to think of this as Kristen Bell’s first big role, because she slam-dunks the role of the popular girl turned outcast (and private detective). The same bruised flintiness that Bell brought to House of Lies and currently The Good Place is present here, and she has the dramatic chops to carry the heavier scenes.
The first season is especially brilliant, focusing on Veronica figuring out who murdered her best friend Lily, while also coming to terms with what happened to her on the night of Lily’s disappearance. The resolution of that storyline isn’t what sticks out for me, though. It’s the beautiful interplay between Veronica and the sunny LA town of Neptune, a town which she no longer considers home. It’s a great, underrated show which holds up a lot better than much of the drama from this era.
“Not even, ow.” was the quote of the day, if you happened to be in my high school circa 2004.
An adult animated show in the vein of Family Guy (potentially not the most favourable comparison, unless you’re a fan of that show), bro’town was a Naked Samoans creation that encapsulates what New Zealand was talking about in 2004. So: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lucy Lawless and Michael Jones.
What elevates bro’town these days is that time capsule feeling. In a way that was unique to New Zealand television – which tends to try to capture a specific milieu (hello, the 80s! Also hello, the fictional town of Brokenwood) or tries very much to be set somewhere unspecific in Auckland (hello, nearly every other television show made in the country!) – bro’town was a clear response to New Zealand popular culture of the time. It was irreverent, it was an inside joke to anybody who lived anywhere else, and it never tried to be anything other than set in New Zealand.
Parks and Recreation (S1-7)
Parks and Recreation is one of those shows that sits in the strange place between cult classic and legitimate classic. If you were on the internet at any point after its first season (which practically everybody involved with the show has disowned as an unfortunate teething period), then chances are you’ve engaged with Parks and Recreation whether you like it or not.
And why the hell wouldn’t you like it? Parks and Recreation is the most relentlessly positive show on television. It’s the show that told you to treat yo’ self, as well you should. There’s no character in fiction who demonstrates the unshakeable potential goodness of humanity quite like Leslie Knope. If Tami Taylor is my hair goals, Leslie Knope is my soul goals. But even outside of Leslie Knope, it’s got one of the strongest ensemble casts in a mid-to-late-aughts sitcom (Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Retta, Aubrey Plaza, Adam Scott, and a killer guest rotation) and every episode leaves you feeling a little bit better about yourself, and humanity.
Mulholland Drive (movie)
It’s David Lynch. He might not be the guy who coined the term ‘cult classic’, because I assume both cults and classics preceded him, but he’s the guy who falls mostly conveniently into the categorisation. He’s the director the guy you went to film school pretended to understand and love, and you went along with it, but then a few years after film school, you watched Lynch’s movies again and you understood them on a deeper, primal level – so much so that they made you cry. This is me talking about a fictional person, obviously, and not projecting my own highly specific experience onto yours.
My point is, Mulholland Drive is David Lynch’s best film, it’s a cult classic, and you should see it and enrich your life. There’s also this haunting song from it:
The Tribe (S1-5)
Actually, scratch what I said earlier. This is the real cult classic – a New Zealand show that was so, so huge overseas, I mean huge, like ‘online communities still obsessed with it’ huge. For some reason, The Tribe was dumped on a Sunday afternoon here, which is the place for either the best television shows in the world or fishing shows, and absolutely nothing in between.
But what is The Tribe, I hear you ask, as though you never lived in New Zealand in the early aughts. It was a show set in post-apocalyptic Not!Wellington (having watched it a few times this year, I could not tell you where anybody is meant to be from). It follows groups, you might even call them ‘tribes’, of teenagers as they try to survive after whatever destroyed most of the country/world.
It’s wild, it’s wacky, and it’s very much of its time – which is what makes it perfect for your weekend hangover binge.
Cruel Intentions (movie)
Look, cult classics come in all shapes and sizes. And one of those shapes and/or sizes is a remake of Dangerous Liaisons starring a practically fetal Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Philippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair.
This film is wild, you guys! The soundtrack is stacked (that Placebo song!), there’s a scene where Christine Baranski is racist, there’s another scene where Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar share saliva, and also Sarah Michelle Gellar has a lot of coke in a crucifix. Is it the best movie? God no. Is it the best version of Dangerous Liaisons? Also no, but jesus, it’s a lot of fun, and the haze of watching famous people do naughty things and be incredibly attractive while doing so settles very comfortably over this film.
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