Home > Reviews (TV), Television > Friday Night Lights and America

Friday Night Lights and America

Having just finished an abbreviated re-watch of Friday Night Lights, it’s impossible to deny that it is anything less than astonishing. It is a television show that doesn’t outwardly reach for artfulness, but certainly achieves it. In an age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad — with The Soprano’s, The Wire and The Shield just in the rear view mirror — anti-heroes are all the rage. What is it about Friday Night Lights that allows it to be so universal? So American? So heartfelt? It is a show with indisputable heroes, yet it is often referred to as “down-to-earth” and praised for its realistic depiction of rural America (specifically, West Texas). How?

Friday Night Lights accomplishes this with faith. Not blind faith, but a kind of faith we don’t hear about in this country very often — rational decency. Churchgoing citizen or not, it is clear that these characters walk the walk. Proponents of Secular Humanism emphasize morality over faith and encourage a moral code derived from the Golden Rule — do unto others and whatnot. But Friday Night Lights demonstrates how much effort is lost in the debate over faith. Despite the fact that Christian scriptures lay out a meticulous system of rational decency, the debate has shifted. Rather than focus on leading a life of basic respect, we all try to prove or disprove God.

Friday Night Lights passes from extraordinary to transcendent by subverting this maxim. The show espouses a centrist ideology that American politics no longer support. In that way, the show couldn’t be less American. But by tapping into the lost belief in universal respect, Friday Night Lights (FNL) manages to deliver a one-of-a-kind critique of American ignorance and obsession. And, unlike Sorkin’s American fantasies, the show manages to avoid didacticism. Mistakes (the Landry/Tyra plot of season two, for example) that remove the show from its footing seem more painful because of the consistent realism that FNL usually observes.

Much of FNL’s realism stems from its audacity. It may not be immediately clear, but the show takes regular risks. No other show is so earnest about underage drinking. Tim Riggins is rarely seen without a beer in his hand. He is 20 at the end of the series. Much of the time it isn’t even acknowledged. Characters go to a party, get drunk, go to football practice and get on with their lives. Hardly ever is it the source of drama. In fact, in “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy,” Coach Taylor coaxes Tim into taking J.D. out for a good time. After J.D.’s domineering father finds out, he is forced to apologize directly to coach. In this case, underage drinking is even aligned with the most heroic figure in the show — Coach. Most corners of reality involve high schoolers drinking and still managing to succeed.

The same type of risk is taken with Julie’s character. While off at college during season five, she begins an affair with her married TA. Julie often functions as the “result” of Eric and Tami’s parenthood — which, on paper, isn’t encouraging; underage drinking, losing virginity at 16ish, and striking up extramarital affairs. But she maintains respectability. I would argue that this is true of most of the characters. They are rendered as flawed humans. And we are far more likely to project our flaws onto fictional characters. If they were made too heroic, we wouldn’t buy it. Just like the show seems to typify America by being un-American, the characters are made heroic by being un-heroic. Take a moment and think about the moral problems that are built into FNL — The Landing Strip, steroids, infidelity, just to name a few. It’s not easy to find a show that would allow Lyla to sympathetically wind up with Tim — remember how she cheated on wheelchair-bound Jason with him? There are so many examples of characters that might seem more flawed than good, but through understanding their humanity we are allowed to trust them.

This is the reason Eric and Tami possess the most believable marriage in television history. Their struggles are numerous and not trivial — their relationship dense with sacrifice. But the audience is able to believe in their steady affection because it is always tested. Of all the characters on television with whom I would want to buy a drink — Don Draper, Walter White, Roger Sterling, Meadow Soprano, Ron Swanson, etc — I would invite Coach. We attach ourselves to these characters because we believe that they’re not impossible archetypes. Sam Fuller once said that a hero needs to be flawed so that we can see ourselves in the Final Heroic Act.

This brings us to the series finale, “Always.” Eric Taylor had been telling us how to be a real man for four years at the time of that episode. He had endured subversion and job insecurity (that did lead to the most successful reboot of any series that I’ve ever seen — would anyone argue that seasons 4-5 are less enchanting than 1-3?) to reach State once again. However, of all the plots to wrap up in this season finale, the primary one was with Tami. Offered the position of Dean of Admissions at a school in Philadelphia, the Taylors are faced with a big decision. I can hardly imagine what it would have looked like if they stayed in Dillon — then again, that outcome was never possible in this universe.

Fairness is a hard truth in FNL. Almost invariably, characters pay for serious indiscretions — often emotionally. Tim’s jail term is a great example. His anger towards Billy is made complex through our understanding that Billy has undergone serious emotional strain and has tried to give back by coaching football. The finale shows them both working on Tim’s house together. In fact, the entire final montage is in the business of settling issues of equality. Jess is coaching in Dallas. Vince is the star quarterback of the Panthers, wearing his ring. Luke is headed for the military — an honorable choice when we understand that he was not the best student and couldn’t play Division 1. Finally, we see Eric coaching in Philadelphia. Tami comes on the field before they walk away together and the lights turn off. FNL has never used football as a grand metaphor. It functions dramatically and is depicted as a way for boys to be crafted into men of good character — and in the final season, with Jess, girls into women.

The final montage works as drama and moral tool. Each character is finding success but also making sacrifices to enjoy that success. Vince is playing with the superteam that they fought so hard to avoid. Becky and Luke’s issue should be clear. Jess was forced to move to Dallas. And Coach is not in Texas anymore. The only segment that doesn’t fit this concerns Matt and Julie. However, their separation from their respective families is both necessary and sacrificial. FNL always traded in sacrifice and fairness. It ends that way as well.

Friday Night Lights is a rare example of a television show that doesn’t preach or advance a political fantasy. Rather, it displays characters who encounter difficulty and attempt to solve problems — sometimes successful, sometimes not. Most of the characters are practicing Christians, but the show is not interested in conversion. Rather, it tries to hand us a mirror. Every show tries to do this in one way or another, but FNL is incredibly good at allowing us to project our own triumphs and anxieties on its cast of characters. It’s this relationship that makes the show both great drama and great social argument.

  1. January 21, 2013 at 4:49 AM

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    • December 16, 2013 at 1:38 AM

      Brittany – Oh my gosh! where were you when i was 11?? its a georgous room, i love your sllthgiy woodsy spin on everything you do, its so unique and wonderfully put together. i love love love it!!! i’m trying to pick something that is my favorite but its hard to do! the houndstooth pillow is fantastic, and the sweet little birds on her chair are so whimsical! if i ever get a little girl, this room will definately be a huge source of inspiration!! thank you SOO much for sharing, you are just amazingly talented!!December 10, 2012 8:43 pm

      • January 12, 2015 at 2:20 AM

        The exrsptiee shines through. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

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