Anyone who is unfamiliar with the critically-acclaimed drama, Friday Night Lights, may assume that it is merely a show about football and teenage culture, or just another example of triviality dipped in glamor and thrill – reflecting another attempt to cash in on two of Americans’ present-day idols: violent competition and sexualized young adults. On the contrary, it’s likely that the show struggled to achieve high viewer ratings because it did not, like most network television shows, pander to vices such as these. Instead, Friday Night Lights has made emotional demands of its viewers. It has challenged them with the profound consequences of self-absorption, and the difficult, beautiful and necessary quality of marital covenant-keeping, as well as the positive impact such a promise can have on community life.
Depicting the fallout from the collapse of family life in Middle America, this suburban Texas drama unfolds via the roles filled by Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) as high school football coach, and his wife Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) as high school guidance counselor/principal. When the scrutiny involved with Coach Taylor’s job seems overwhelming, it is repeatedly the reliability of his marriage to Tami in which he finds respite. But the Taylors’ marital promise to one another also creates a social/moral ecology in Dylan that goes beyond simply sustaining one another amidst life’s mounting pressures; it creates a refuge for the hurting people around them. And, indeed, a cursory glance at the main characters and their familial circumstances reveals that the primary source of their turmoil is in their lacking precisely the type of covenantal enclave that the Taylors enjoy.
Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) lives with his grandmother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. He must take care of his grandmother (and himself) alone because his father is in Iraq on military duty. Meanwhile, Matt’s mother left him when he was just a boy. Prideful star running back Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) comes from a single parent home with no father figure in sight and sees football as a gateway to create some semblance of dignity and security for his family. Brooding and regularly-drunk fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) lives with his irresponsible older brother – together abandoned by their parents. The lead cheerleader, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), experiences the destructive pain of her parents’ divorce after it is discovered that her father, Buddy (Brad Leland), has been cheating on his wife with the single mother of the other leading high school lady, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki). Tyra’s older sister is a stripper at the local club, and their father is nowhere in sight. This trend has continued with the newest batch of characters in the last two seasons as evidenced by Vince’s troublesome home life with a father freshly out of prison and a mother freshly out of drug rehabilitation.
These fractured families are but the foundational beginnings of these high schoolers’ problems. In various (often salacious) ways, these young characters consistently lack self-restraint because they come from homes where the boundaries necessary have been obstructed for various reasons related to selfishness. The Taylors function as binding parental figures, providing the structures of love that only the powers of promise-keeping can construct. Between the promise-keeping implicit in the Taylors’ marriage and the brokenness exhibited by nearly all of the main high school characters under their care, a sharp contrast is formed which allows the viewer to fully consider what it means for freedom to be intimately bound with responsibility.
One of the most haunting scenes which exhibits these themes is when Coach Taylor throws drunken and depressed Matt Saracen into a bath tub. In an emotionally charged scene, Coach confronts Matt’s uncharacteristic irresponsibility saying, “A lot of people rely on you to make right decisions . . . and you had better stop being so damn selfish and start making them.” After alluding to his father having left him, the Coach’s daughter, Julie, having dumped him for another guy, and Coach briefly having left him for a college football team, Matt, amidst sobs and tears, yells in response under the pouring water, “Everybody leaves me!” He pauses and wonders out loud, “What is wrong with me?”
The late Lewis B. Smedes – a highly regarded former professor of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary – asserts in his 1983 article, “Controlling the Unpredictable – The Power of Promising,” that “[w]hen we make a promise we take it on our feeble wills to keep a future rendezvous with someone in circumstances we cannot possibly predict. We take it on ourselves to create our future with someone else no matter what fate or destiny may have in store. This is almost ultimate freedom.” The marital covenant between a husband and wife is perhaps the most significant example of a “sanctuary of trust.” Smedes goes on to say that, in the act of promising, “[w]e limit our freedom so that we can be free to be there with someone in his future’s unpredictable storms.” The marital covenant is so powerful not simply because of the power of the promise between husband and wife, but also because of the freedom this promise affords the married couple to be a unified, generative force to the hurting people around them. Smedes alludes to this relationship between promise-keeping and community life when he asserts, “We can have a human community only if persons within are able to keep the thread of their identity amid all their life’s passages. A person, in the long run, gets this identity from the promises he makes.”
One criticism which some people have made of the Taylors’ marriage is that the family’s life revolves almost exclusively around Eric Taylor. That Tami is affectionately referred to as “Mrs. Coach” is, for some viewers, a devaluing of Tami as a person under the shadow of her husband. For a coach who consistently demands sacrifices of his players, Eric seems, at times, to require more sacrifices of his family than he’s willing to make for them. While the criticism is understandable, it seems slightly misguided in that it presumes that Tami wishes throughout most of the duration of the show’s story arc to be somewhere other than Dylan, and it presumes that she does not ultimately find the highest value in her identity as her husband’s wife.
On the contrary, Tami seems to flourish in the role as Coach’s wife. Tami’s being called “Mrs. Coach” is not simply her being defined by her husband, but, rather, it is that she has quite the similar identity and passion that her husband does. As guidance counselor, principal, wife, and mother, Tami is a “coach” in her own right to countless teenagers in Dylan – and, at times, to her husband, too. Conversely, Eric seems to gain an increasing willingness to counsel his players because of the influence of his wife. While personal ambition is often a source of marital conflict in modern society, what matters is not that Eric and Tami avoid all such conflict, but that their commitment to one another always sustains them in the midst of conflict, and that the high value they place on this commitment will always bring them together to a resolution. The object of one’s personal ambition – a career, a goal, a hobby – may fade, but finding one’s identity in a promise kept to another person is of supreme value because it will not change – even if everything else is falling apart.
For these reasons, there has been no finer example on television of an authentic and committed marriage as the one between Coach Taylor and Tami. It’s not that they don’t experience their own parenting problems with their daughter, Julie, or that they do not experience their own marital valleys. Rather, when these problems threaten to collapse their commitments, they have an anchor to remain steady. They are, undoubtedly, the key to the show’s story arc. This is because they – being nearly the only thriving marriage depicted on the show – are the one constant in the Dylan community in the midst of life’s confusing sorrows. On Smedes’s terms, the Taylors are a sanctuary of trust in the midst of a community beset with brokenness. Because of their undying devotion to one another, Coach and “Mrs. Coach” can afford to be hospitable when nearly every home in town lacks the quality of sustainment that makes genuine personhood, family life, and neighborliness possible.