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GREY MATTERS: The personal politics of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Press Play By Matthew Seitz | Press Play July 29, 2011 at 4:00AM

By Ian Grey Press Play contributor
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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.

This article is related to: Television, GREY MATTERS (Ian Grey)


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