“Friday Night Lights” is a series that, during its five-season run from 2006-11, brought us into the soul of a small Texas town — the angst, the desires, the small triumphs, the loneliness and poverty, the ever-present struggle for meaning. I always think of it as a relatively unromanticized view of an American community, with little of the prettification and simplistic moralizing that we often find on network shows that feature teens.
But “Beartown,” a Swedish miniseries that premieres Monday on HBO and HBO Max, takes the honesty of “Friday Night Lights” to an even deeper and much darker level. The five-part drama, based on the 2017 novel by Fredrik Backman, floored me with its realism, as it digs into the people of a struggling community a lot like Dillon in “FNL.” Instead of football, the people of the rural Beartown are obsessed with hockey, but they similarly pin their hopes onto the local team’s games. The miniseries builds up to one central disturbing event and its emotional ripples: At a raucous party, the hockey team’s star player rapes the teen daughter of the new coach.
The coach, Peter Andersson, is brilliant when it comes to working with his team, just like “FNL” coach Eric Taylor. He knows how to motivate the teens, and he has little interest in their helicoptering parents. But he’s also temperamental, and he is so supportive of his players that he might even believe them over Maya, his daughter. Maya, meanwhile, is afraid to report the crime, aware that the town is cheering on her rapist, Kevin. If Kevin can lead the team to a championship, Beartown won’t have to shut down the rink, and some economic revival could come its way. The story plays out compellingly, as it follows Maya through the agony of re-victimization, step by painful step, and as the town slides into a cruel kind of denial.
After watching “Beartown,” and feeling enthusiastic about this gem, I rushed to mention it to a fellow lover of “Friday Night Lights.” The series pushed all my “FNL” love buttons, not least of all with its ensemble of excellent actors of all ages, and it also socked me in the gut. But as soon as I got to the plot, my friend starkly withdrew her interest. Long story short, she wasn’t going to watch a sustained and at times excruciating look into a teen rape. The intensity was a deal-breaker for her, just as it was for two recent shows I’ve recommended, HBO’s “I May Destroy You” and Hulu’s “A Teacher.” She has no interest in zeroing in on a sex crime — in “I May Destroy You,” it’s a drugged date rape that intersects with issues of consent, in “A Teacher” it’s the grooming of a vulnerable teen — no matter how well-made the series is. (For the record, she is not a survivor who’d be triggered by these shows. That’s a different reason to avoid such programming.)
I’ve heard it before, certainly, many times, most recently with “I May Destroy You,” which was No. 2 on my year-end best of 2020 list. Why do you enjoy watching a series that is only going to bring you to a difficult place — not, say, a serial-killer story, which seems other and distant and, usually, plot-driven, but a more intimate drama that could well happen to you or someone you love?
For me, these shows are essential. If too many of our collective stories were happy and escapist, I’d worry that our culture was heading down a path of denial and delusion. These disquieting series remind us of the troubles life can present to us, and they affirm the troubles life has indeed presented to many people. They invite us to put faces and feelings onto the news events. I’ve read about high school teachers who make moves on their students, but, after watching “A Teacher,” I feel as though a black-and-white story has been changed into color. The series gives us a teen boy seduced by his teacher and, in the years that follow, left to cope with the emotional fallout, which is great. Often, watching a tough series is a compassion-building experience, which is always a gift and a good thing.
The challenging shows in question must be smartly written, powerfully acted, and morally centered without being overly so; I’m not talking about Lifetime movies that exploit women in peril for ratings, and I’m not talking about episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” Indeed, it’s because the junky stuff is so superficial that I am particularly enamored with the rarer shows that are unblinking in their approach. They’re willing to peel back psychological layers. And, like “Beartown,” when they deliver some form of redemption, it has been earned.