Loving “Friday Night Lights”

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, July 12, 2010 13:43 EDT
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We DVR the show, so I haven’t seen the abortion episode everyone’s talking about yet, but I have a good idea on how it’s going to play out. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m stoked to see that the two leads of the show—Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton—got the Emmy nods they’ve long deserved. Like Gloria Feldt, I strongly admire the show for its startlingly accurate portrayal of West Texas. Every week, I find myself incredibly impressed, not just with how well they get the accents down, and the set design (which is hemmed in a bit by the fact that they film it in Austin and not West Texas, but all the trees are a minor detail compared to how well they portray the housing). Above all, they capture the kind of people you run across in West Texas, the rhythm of daily life there, the weird mix of pride in your home and grim loathing of how small-minded and limited everything is there. And, of course, they capture the ridiculous, over-the-top enthusiasm for high school football.

Outside of the trees issue, I do wonder sometimes about why the show doesn’t have any major Hispanic characters. It’s the biggest strike against their realism. The football team that Coach Taylor is heading up this season has a mix of black and white players, and we meet a mix of black and white students in general, not just the football players. The thing is, Dillon, TX is quite obviously based on Odessa, TX, which is 41% Hispanic, 50% white, and about 6% black. My high school football team—we were about a 3 hour drive from Odessa, plus change—had a lot of Hispanic players, many of them being the Big Men on Campus because of their status as mini-heroes in the world of small town high school football. I accept that may not be true in Odessa, which is about 10 times bigger (though still small—under 100,000 people) and therefore has more room for more high school subcultures for kids to wedge themselves into. But there are non-football-playing students as characters, and you see Hispanic people a lot of the time as ancillary characters and background extras. It’s a weird oversight to not include any Hispanic characters as regular characters on the show, especially on a program that’s otherwise so spot-on that on occasion, I either cringe or cackle with recognition, depending on the circumstances.

“Friday Night Lights” is a great antidote to the constant political noise about middle America, especially some sort of mythical rural Real America where people have common sense and disdain for big city ways. The antidote isn’t to bash a place like West Texas, and the show doesn’t go there, choosing instead to render the people who live there with nuance and even affection. But they capture with utter brilliance the stagnation of the place. People live there because that’s where they work, and they work there because that’s where they were living when they looked for a job. And some people live there because they’re genuinely afraid. When you live your whole life in a small world, the big world is legitimately scary. Characters like Tim Riggins flirt with getting out and pursuing paths that have way more economic stability than you get in a place that is survivable only because it’s cheap, but they don’t have the imagination to really grasp what it takes to get out. Some folks don’t get out because they have family obligations that make it impossible to leave. Some never even consider the idea of moving away, because they have no idea where you’d go. But you also get a good portrayal of the people who stay because they actually like it there, and often it’s because they really get a rise out of being big fish in little ponds. I’d even argue that the main characters are those type of people, and, true to life, those folks actually put a lot of their considerable resources towards making absolutely sure that their own kids get out. Going to college nearby is often considered the kiss of death, and basically forbidden by those parents.

They get these big details right, and then they sell them with little details that are so accurate that you have trouble believing they let them put it on TV. Like the relative freedom the teenage kids have to roam around, or that fact that a high percentage of teenage kids don’t actually live with a parent, which becomes more common when you’re in economically marginal situations. I was pleased they introduced a character who lives on a ranch, and is constantly struggling with a father whose sympathy for his kid’s desire to go to college far away ends when he needs an extra pair of hands. Or the way they show Tim Riggins living in an Airstream in someone’s backyard that he pays a pittance for. Because of all this, they get away with a lot of really interesting social commentary, and especially with portraying the rarely-seen realities of working class life. The storyline that’s shaping up about the older Riggins brother falling into illegal work because he doesn’t have health insurance and his wife is pregnant could have been ham-fisted. But it works really well, because they spent years establishing how limited his economic options are, and they had the good sense to understand that his wife’s stripper friends don’t actually swim in cash that they can give them. In Hollywood, strippers are assumed be swimming in dough, and in real life, they often barely make a living wage. True to form, “FNL” picks reality over fantasies.

It’s the perfect program for our economically stressed times, because it’s one of the few that actually bothers to show the cash-strapped America that usually gets ignored on TV. The fourth season is brilliant, so far. It was courageous of them to actually separate Coach Taylor from the Dillon Panthers and put him in charge of the East Dillon Lions, but it’s been working super well because it gives the show an opportunity to portray, without hitting you over the head with it, the huge differences between Texas schools that have a lot of support and a wealthier tax base and schools that don’t have those things. And of course what that would mean for a football program.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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