GREY MATTERS: The personal politics of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

by Matthew Seitz
July 29, 2011 4:00 AM
17 Comments
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By Ian Grey
Press Play contributor

Fans are celebrating with dewy eyes and hearts full of happy saccharine the last episode of the last season of Friday Night Lights. Me, I'm more attuned to a sense of things lost. Yes, Friday Night Lights was a formalistically trailblazing act of televisual literature. And yeah, I feel like I know these people, whether it’s the depth of feeling that the names Coach, Tami or Matt Saracen evoke, or the sadness I feel when I realize I'll never find out what the deal is with Epyck or Buddy's son.

But there is something bigger. Friday Night Lights was also this huge, much-needed shot of Southern humanism meant to appeal to the Molly Ivins part of the American soul so profoundly, deeply soiled after eight years of Cheney-Bush moral nihilism, theocracy and torture culture. The fact that Friday Night Lights—or FNL for short—managed to crawl out of that awful era and flourish creatively was miraculous. But its abject failure to find an audience was—and is—a bracing, dark thing. You look at this video and think, Wow, this is what American audiences are turned off by, and you seriously have to wonder.


And nobody could have predicted that, since the show’s premiere back in October 2006, things would get exotically worse. A Rapture-ready, anti-science, professionally homophobic crazy person named Michele Bachmann has ascended to the top of the Republican party and has been assimilated by a magic-based economics cult. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we have a different but equally alarming derangement in the form of current GOP “It” boy, Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose main men insist that Japan’s economic problems are due to the nation’s people having sex with a sun god demon; that Frank Lloyd Wright houses tend to be infested with New Age demons; that birds fell out of the sky in Arkansas because of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; and that Oprah is a harbinger of Satan. Seriously: look here. Or take a look at this. The good governor is also enjoying communications—coming either from God or from his mother; the precise source is unclear—commanding him to become president. In either case, he has taken to the airwaves.

But God bless FNL creator Peter Berg: despite producing TV in a nation increasingly populated by voters best served by Thorazine injections and guys with giant butterfly nets, he tried to offer a principled, humane, alternative vision of life in a devout “conservative” community. Everyone in Dillon—FNL’s featured small town—took flag, church and country very seriously. And every Friday night, everybody went kind of crazy. It was high school football night, with humiliation and redemption on and off the field overseen by Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who offered his players pansy-ass-free support and solace. (The girls go to his wife, Tami, played by the Emmy-nominated no-bullshit actress Connie Britton.)

Beyond all the flags and fireworks, there was a plentiful supply of fleshly hotness, led by Taylor Kitsch’s iconic Tim Riggins, the big-hearted pretty-faced Dillon Panther with the let’s-have-a-tall-one hetero charm and a just-got-fucked amble. Then there was Adrianne Palicki as the ever-troubled Tyra—she of the gimlet gaze and legs too long to fit into a wide shot. And Minka Kelly brought a complex sexual sizzle to daddy-girl Lyla Garrity, a hotness that just intensified when she became an evangelical (inner conflict, how we miss you).

But there was something about the series that was intrinsically at odds with a huge swath of the people living in the part of the country where the show was set. Yes, NBC screwed the pooch from the git-go, marketing to teen boys a show that often centered on Tami giving birth control tips to girls. Then it tried selling at steep discounts online, adding desperation to the mix. Then NBC announced that reruns would appear on ESPN and the female-friendly Bravo network after which it debuted a killer new tagline: “It’s about life.” Finally, NBC struck a co-financing deal with DirecTV. Which meant that at various times, the show might be available on DirecTV only, or DirecTV and then NBC.

Yet FNL was still, for five years running, a continual pop culture presence via new or repeated episodes. For five years it was just kind of, like, around. If you followed TV at all, you knew about it, you knew it was worth watching and having an opinion on and it wasn’t hard to find out where and how to see it. And still, beyond a wonderfully passionate fanbase, the prospect of roping in an even moderate following remained a chimera. Hats off to Peter Berg and his collaborators for having the skill, the vision, the steel-plated balls to create five seasons of simple, messy truths. And there may be more: as I type this, there’s tentative news on the FNL front. Following in the footsteps of Joss Whedon—whose awesome space-western Firefly was violently crushed by Fox after one truncated season, but thanks to fan and creator passion was resurrected into a feature, Serenity—Berg has announced that an FNL feature is also in development. (This would bring FNL full-circle: it was a hit movie before it was a show.)

But if we celebrate, we should do it cautiously, remembering that Serenity tanked, and that all the problems NBC faced with FNL will now be faced by a feature film in a marketplace owned by high-velocity products about superheroes and fast-moving toys. If a feature film does get made, you can bet I’ll be first in line to pony up my fifteen dollars. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose, I’ll think, echoing Coach Taylor’s fist-pump of a tagline.

But I’m afraid it’ll just be for that fleeting moment. And then reality will sink in.

Now, it’s admittedly a sketchy business performing cultural obituaries and looking for meaning in failure. But this is all kinds of different. This series failed to become even a modest hit, despite being ludicrously, specifically good, and having multi-corporate media muscle pushing it (however ineptly) directly but warmly with things that are now driving a country collectively off the rails. Maybe we should look at what’s rusting those rails.

I’d wager plenty that so-called Red State folks tuned into Friday Night Lights, saw all this touchy-feely lame-stream media shit corrupting the imagery and ideas associated with their idea of America, felt they were being condescended to, reacted with disappointment and contempt and clicked away. And to a lesser extent, and perhaps with more bafflement than anger, the other side—the goddamn liberals, the Blue Staters—saw the megachurches, the non-ironic backyard-cookouts-as-social-problem-solvers, the prayers before dinner and the general flag-waving ambiance, and were like, You’re kidding, right?

The tragedy of FNL’s inability to locate and/or connect with even a reasonable sized audience starts here, with both sides of an ossified cultural divide on alert despite, or maybe because of, FNL’s rampant, normal Americanism. It’s simple live and let live: you leave me alone, I’ll return the favor. (Crazy thing: back in the day, this was, you know, boilerplate conservatism.) FNL threw everyone for a loop by consistently refusing to kiss up to one side or another of The Divide (and so gain sticky market share).

Consider the slightly-nimble fingers, big brown eyes and lesbian soul of Devin (Stephanie Hunt), Landry’s bass player. When she first showed up she looked like total alterna-girl bait, like Berg was winking at the South by Southwest contingency and saying, “Hey, these rednecks, right? Crazy.” For cultural conservatives, it must have been maddening to see this quietly out and proud lesbian mixing it up on the TV. I worry that Glee crosses political divides because its kids are so easily identified and typed. Devin was a serious gay menace because unlike Glee’s Kurt, she blended right in—a smiling, Fender-hugging liberal smart bomb. Nothing came of Devin as a theme—and as a lefty, I’ll admit that at first I was kind of bummed that she didn’t do something more LGBT-positive! But immediately I felt like a blithering idiot for wanting this and felt impressed with the show for not doing it.

Problem was, by not turning Devin into a Gay-in-the-South human talking point, Berg lost traction with people who read The Nation cover to cover and with people who see Satan in Neil Patrick Harris’ eyes. The people on this show were just people. If you think you know what Tim Riggins really meant by “Texas Forever” and why cities terrified him so damned much; if you think Luke joining the Army was truly a patriotic act and not something more human than….

Well, there’s that damned word: human. There is no FNL ideology. It was all humans making do with the cards they were dealt, which I always thought was a very American thing. But like I said at the top, the loss of FNL keeps giving me a deep sense of many things lost, not just a TV show. On a very unpleasant, meta level, this great series was—continues to be—a mirror of America.

By the finale, Tim Riggins has rejected a college scholarship in order to work in his garage business and build his dream house. We see Luke, son of an unstable, Bachmann-esque mother, getting on a bus for service in the Army—but there’s a sinking feeling regarding the wars started by the regime that was in power when FNL premiered. Better to focus on Tyra, whose hard road to education has paid off. She’s in college. Her lovable dork of an ex, the indie-guitar-playin’ Landry, is in college, too. Ditto that picture of soft-spoken Texan gentility, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford); he hightailed it to art school in Chicago (!) where he was ultimately joined by Coach’s liberal, vegetarian daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden).

These last two are adorable, major-key flourishes, supporting the main theme played out magnificently with Tami and Coach Taylor. Tami is given the chance to be a Dean at a prestigious school in Philadelphia—Tami, who’s been a coach’s wife for what, forever?—and Coach gets the chance to coach an actual college team. Tami, who isn’t getting any younger, who has earned this gig in every imaginable way, says yes to the new job. Coach is kind of a grumpy douche about it for a while, but he comes around to Tami’s side. And so one of the most believable married couples in TV history cannot be broken by job offers in this economy. As an epilogue, we see Coach some months later, coaching a team in Philly. Are they college level? High school? Does it matter? No, it doesn’t.

For Tami, what matters is education. For Coach Taylor, who loves a win as much as anyone, what really matters is helping wayward youth and creating a team that centers a community of very disparate people. Kind of a community organizer, you might say.

I am not being cute here: I believe FNL failed to attract a huge part of the national audience, especially one that trended culturally conservative, because it was literally pro-choice.

But choice, in a Red State base defined by ideological purity tests with a 1956—or even 1856—sell-by date? And by the show’s finale, a woman’s choice to put herself above her husband’s idea of family, and not be judged for it, positively or negatively? Seriously, for some viewers, Berg might as well have had Tami tattoo “666” on her forehead and be done with it.

Some theorize that FNL failed to become a hit because it was a “woman’s show” with too much football, or a guy’s show with too much mushy stuff. There’s some truth to that, just as there’s truth to the notion that it was a liberal show in conservative drag, or vice-versa. In general, the show’s problem was that it tried to appeal to everyone, or to represent everyone, and it put a premium on choice itself without worrying too much about whether the results of choice matched up with a political litmus test.

Ultimately, what the failure of Friday Night Lights telegraphs, I think, is that the American political/social divide is deep, exacerbated by media and technological change and designed economic sinkage, and that for all these reasons, the time of shared adult narratives about how we actually live is pretty much over.

Ian Grey’s Press Play column “Grey Matters” runs every Friday.

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17 Comments

  • Ian Grey | July 31, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    @Jayne Hasselroth

    Kyle Chandler? Really? I mean, he's a nice looking fella, no doubt, but best looking?

    With Kitsch around? (My partner is all about Zach Gilford and the clouds he can apparently walk upon.)

    That said, Chandler's eyes and the laser-into-your-braaiiinnn thing he does when he's had enough of this shit--amazing.

  • Ian Grey | July 31, 2011 7:16 AMReply

    Jim Emerson: "In your opening paragraph you say FNL “formalistically trailblazing act of televisual literature.” Please elaborate. I’d like to know more about what you have to say on that score."

    I'm using the word "formalistically" as a dictionary inversion of "formal": "relating to an established procedure or set of specific behaviors".

    And a 3 camera, unblocked, you can make your shots up sometimes, make up your lines sometimes and then, if you will, actual 'direct' the show in the edit--that's messing on corporate dime with pretty much every element of narrative TV syntax around. (Should I have said "formally"? But then people would have thought of evening clothes.)

    "Televisual literature".

    I really really want to divorce classy-good-stuff from the realm of cinema and the assumption of crappy-bad stuff being TV. Plus, the blur just keeps getting blurrier.

    But mainly to emphasize that there is, in my view, nothing intrinsically more 'cinematic' about seeing SPLICE on TV or SERENITY in a theater.

    And as a fiction writer, if that adds any props to my view and maybe it doesn't, but I 100% believe that FNL, VERONICA MARS, THE WIRE, BSG (pre-implosion), DEADWOOD, PRIME SUSPECT, TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH and on and on--I 100% believe that these shows function as literature. They have the same goals, modes of address, narrative shapes, etc.

    Even flawed or limited shows certainly have true literary merit (X-FILES, SEX AND THE CITY, THE LOST ROOM, ANGEL, TWIN PEAKS, THE LOST ROOM). And these are all recent shows.

    I'd actually argue that long-form TV has a better shot at functioning in a literary fashion than do most cinema-based films.

    And that, in what I really meant not to be didactic, was what I meant by that phrase.

  • Ian Grey | July 31, 2011 6:55 AMReply

    You're all kinds of right about the Landry-murder-spree-snafu. Nice recovery job, eh?

    With Buffy, I meant vibe-wise, that people back in the 20th century were less apt to go bug-frack-crazy-Dollhouse--just because, in Buffy's case, it had a silly name (although that was a problem for years, is my understanding.)

    But yeah, the numbers were probably exactly in line with what you're saying and Yes to AMC/FX etc as dispensers of lower risk awesome.

  • Joan | July 31, 2011 3:10 AMReply

    Ian, nice to meet you too. I just wish the second season hadn't opened with Landry's 12-state murder spree./sarc If the beginning of S2 had been as strong as pretty much all of S1, FNL might've been able to build and hold onto more of an audience.

    One thing I think you're guilty of here is apples-to-oranges regarding ratings. Shows like Sex & The City and Buffy were not on Big 3 networks, and could be declared "hits", even "huge hits," with ratings that would've got them cancelled at ABC/CBS/NBC. Think about what's happening now with great AMC shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, or FX's awesome Sons of Anarchy and Justified. (Damn, there's a lot of great tv on these days.) If FNL had been an AMC or an FX series, it could've had the exact same size audience and been declared a rousing success.

    I haven't crunched the numbers but I'm pretty sure I'm right on this. The more I think about it, the more I realize how big a miracle having 5 seasons, however brief they were, is.

  • Carlos G. | July 30, 2011 12:07 PMReply

    "designed economic sinkage"


    Brilliant line. Very appropriate for the political idiocy of the last few weeks.

  • Jim Emerson | July 30, 2011 11:42 AMReply

    In your opening paragraph you say FNL "formalistically trailblazing act of televisual literature." Please elaborate. I'd like to know more about what you have to say on that score.

  • Ian Grey | July 30, 2011 10:39 AMReply

    Hey Joan--Just read/enjoyed very much your FNL piece at House Next Door.

    There was one more thing I was going to add to my piece, but it would have opened a huge can of meta.

    It has to do how people are just so incredibly tightly wound about *anything*, and the 'net amplifying the intensity and speed of these hyper-reactions. And throw in definitions of America like FNL did all the time and, well, you read my story and I'm stickin' to it. :)

    And I think FNL's failure was an extension of that, in all those super-reactions you addressed.

    I mean, when Buffy came out, there was the initial " *Vampire slayer*; Are you kidding???" negativity.

    But whatever audience the show gained piled up pretty fast once people dropped that instant rage at the obvious awesome.

    Ten years later, nobody on my side of the classroom would cut Dollhouse a break.

    The extreme left people I know were screaming"Joss sold out! He's objectifying women! He's wants to gain audience by showing rape!!!" (I kid you not)

    I must have spent months going, "You know, I think Joss has sort of earned our trust on womens' rights and such--maybe this is *about* objectification, or maybe its Fox screwing things up--whatever--we should see how this plays out."

    Forget it. Even when Fox stopped meddling and it started to become clear what Joss was up to, and by the second season (that I think is crazy-brilliant) the die was cast: Dollhouse was *proof* that Joss Whedon now hated women and that the show enjoyed selling sex trafficing for ratings. Incredible.

    It's nice to meet you.

  • JakeR | July 30, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    Thanks anyways for this. Great, typical liberal hollywood BS. Bachmann and Perry don't belong in any article critiquing FNL...

    p.s. Obama's doing real good eh!

  • Joan | July 30, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Thanks for the instant analysis, Jayne, because, you know, I obviously didn't watch the show either.

    Ian, you -- and I -- were hooked right off because something about this show appealed to us. But let's face it, we're not the average viewer, from either the left or right side of the aisle.

  • Joan | July 30, 2011 8:37 AMReply

    "I believe FNL failed to attract a huge part of the national audience, especially one that trended culturally conservative, because it was literally pro-choice."

    Oh, for heaven's sake. How many conservatives do you count among your friends or co-workers? When is the last time you went out for a beer with a conservative? You don't have a clue about conservatives and yet you spend entire paragraphs demonizing them. What are you really hoping to accomplish here? If the cultural divide were responsible for FNL's low ratings, is this your attempt to bridge it?

    The number of factual errors in this piece further undercuts your point because it seems as if you weren't really paying attention. By the end of the series, Riggins was an ex-con who had served time to protect his brother. Matt Saracen's artistic abilities were highlighted throughout the series, it wasn't a surprise he ended up in art school. Coach was offered his old job back with the Panthers since the Lions' program was disbanded. Tami did *not* say yes before Eric made his decision, and she emphatically did not "earn this gig in every possible way". I'm still mystified that she was considered qualified for the dean's position, considering she'd been a guidance counselor for a couple of years and a principal for another.

    There are a lot of reasons this show never found an audience, many of them having to do with scheduling and promotion, but shaky-cam in the first season turned off a lot of people right away. I know liberals (including all those tv critics) and conservatives who loved this show. If I had to say why it didn't find a bigger audience, I'd say for the same reasons that Firefly failed: the world it showed was too alien (and the camera technique to off-putting) to hook most people's interest long enough to get them to invest in the characters' stories. Small-town, football-crazy Texas just didn't have enough resonance to draw an audience the way high concept shows like Parenthood can.

    Conservatives are used to taking huge doses of liberal politics with their entertainment; it's unavoidable. If conservatives acted as you seem to think they do, there wouldn't be much of a television audience for anything.

  • Ian Grey | July 30, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    One other thing, Joan--you also said

    "Urbanites are not interested, rural dwellers seeking escape think, “Why would I watch that, I’m living it?”

    I live in Manhattan. Why was I hooked on this right off?

    As for why would people watch what they're living--why did urbanites love Sex and the City?

    And do small town people look like Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly? Are they as good with an inspirational as Coach? As steely determined as Jason Street?

    All I'm saying is, we always want to see our lives on screen--only prettier, smarter and more awesome. Which FNL delivered in spades. And still failed to gather dust.

  • Ian Grey | July 30, 2011 7:36 AMReply

    Joan said "the show itself never pandered to any particular target demographic, and the very first episodes were literally not easy to watch"

    That was the point of the entire article. That we've gotten to this point where unless you boldface and underline that this is a left of right thing, people automatically check out.

    "There are millions of people who don’t shudder at the names George Bush, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann."

    I don't think Bush belongs in there. I think Bush was a moral nihilist who also exploded the size of government--irony alert--but was he demonstrably insane?

    No. But Bachmann and Perry? I'm sorry--either they're just crooks or there's no sanity test on the globe they could pass.

    Birds dying because of gays rights and economies crashing because of sun demons--if I said that to you at work, how long would it take you to call HR and say I'd lost my freakin' mind?

    So yes, people should shudder at Perry's literal Armies of Christ and Bachmann's husband teaching 9 year olds to hate themselves for God so they don't 'turn gay'.

    Needless to say, but before Nixon--who dreamed of a Southern, theocratic GOP--conservatives would have upchucked at all this madness.

  • Jayne Hasselroth | July 30, 2011 7:03 AMReply

    This is a great show with interesting stories and character studies. These people are more like real people than any show on TV. I thought they were quite neutral as far as politics went and let the people see situations and judge for themselves. The shakey camera disappeared after the pilot show.

    Who knows why many people didn't tune into the show. Time slots were bad, kept changing, and Friday night is most peoples night out. Doesn't matter to me. I found it and watched it over and over again.

    It is a wonderful family show in these troubled times. I hope they win the Emmy's they so deserve for such a quality show with quality performances.

    Best Looking...Best Actor...Kyle Chandler!
    Jayne

    Joan, you sound like my friend from KY. She is in her 80's and set in her Republican ways. She didn't watch it, so she really has no idea.

  • Joan | July 30, 2011 6:00 AMReply

    There were excessive shaky-cam, extreme close-ups, and weird camera angles in the first few episodes. Many people commented on it at that time -- you could look it up. Many found it off-putting. They toned it way down as the series went on.

    "I really don’t think there’s any liberal propaganda for small ‘c’ cons at all."

    Of course you don't.

    You're working off a very small sample size, there. There are millions of people who don't shudder at the names George Bush, Sarah Palin, Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann. Millions of people who don't find the idea of religion abhorrent. Millions of people who don't care who you sleep with but who don't want to redefine marriage. Millions of people who want the government to get smaller and quit spending money it doesn't have. Until you get the idea out of your head that they're all evil and stupid, you're always going to come off the way you do here, which, as usual, puts the lie to the liberal's belief in themselves as tolerant and open-minded. Oh, yeah, you guys love everyone... as long as they agree with you.

    "So you’re saying that the cultural divide I’m talking about is *worse* than what I wrote."

    No, I said that the show was initially too off-putting to get people to pay attention to it. Small town, football? Urbanites are not interested, rural dwellers seeking escape think, "Why would I watch that, I'm living it?" Theoretically any show should be able to build an audience, esp with the critical acclaim FNL collected, but the show itself never pandered to any particular target demographic, and the very first episodes were literally not easy to watch. Those of us who stuck with it were rewarded, but the typical lazy tv viewer didn't want to work that hard.

    Most people don't bring their politics with them to the sofa when they're switching on the tv.

  • Ian Grey | July 30, 2011 3:33 AMReply

    The important thing I want to address that Joan said:

    That FNL failed the same way that FIREFLY failed, for showing a world that was just too alien for America.

    So you're saying that the cultural divide I'm talking about is *worse* than what I wrote.

    That small town America now is more alien than a show that takes place 500 years in the future where prostitution is a respected craft, where everyone speaks Chinese, where a fascist Alliance is after your ass all the time and where cut-face monster-people chase your spaceship everywhere.

    I mean, damn. We *are* f_cked.

    >Conservatives are used to taking huge doses of liberal politics

    Do you mean small 'c', sane conservatives like my stepdad who believes in small government *and* a certain amount of taxes because, you know, roads and electrical grids are good things, that state and church should be kept 500 miles from one another, who understand that America is a retrofitted country where 100% pure socialism like Medicare can exist within a framework of hyper-capitalism, that sort of conservative?

    I really don't think there's any liberal propaganda for small 'c' cons at all. It's isn't like the kids on Glee sing mash-ups about socialized rail.

  • Ian Grey | July 30, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    Hi Joan.

    >How many conservatives do you count among your friends or co-workers?

    Let's see, there's my partner's oldest friends--who's a gay hardrcore fiscal conservative; there's my stepfather, whose an old school paleo-conservative who I assume voted for Obama because of his disgust over Palin and fear of such a loathsome entity being an inch from running things and McCain's despicable calculations on that--his willingness to trash the country so he could be prez. There's my other stepfather, who *was* a Fox New conservative until all the religious lunacy turned him into a sort of by default Democrat and so on

    As for Riggins--I didn't have space to go into his jail *backstory* by show's finale which does indeed find him wanting his job and land

    Tami was going to take the job--that was the entire dramatic crux of the finale!

    I find it impossible to think that shaky-cam had anything to do w/ anything seeing as almost everything is shot that way to some degree. And anyway, FNL isn't always all that shaky

  • Brett | July 30, 2011 3:00 AMReply

    Thanks for this. Great, great piece.

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