Friday Night Lights Will Guide You Home

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.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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  • Matt

    I don’t have much to add. I’m just commenting to boost the comment count because this might be my favorite tv show ever.

  • Alan Noble

    Agreed. One of the most overlooked tv shows.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Really, it’s not too much of a surprise… it’s basically the same reason big blockbuster movies are more pursued than indie films… most people want a shot of dopamine or adrenaline from what they watch rather than sadness or thoughtfulness.

    But man, do I love this show. So sad to see it end. As Bill Simmons has pointed out, probably the greatest depiction of a marriage in TV, ever.

    And let me make sure to say, this is a fantastic article, Nick. Love the way that it gives me hope for how my marriage can benefit the people around me, too.

  • Nick

    Thanks for the very kind words, Ben.

    Hey, speaking of Simmons, did you see the awesome “oral history” piece on FNL over at Grantland.com?

    Really, really interesting.

  • http://blog.christianitytoday.com/women/2009/03/karen_swallow_prior.html Karen Swallow Prior

    Nice Coldplay reference.

    Great article!

  • Erin Newcomb

    I am still catching up on this show–still in Season 1. A line from it struck me the other night, when Tami turns to Eric and says “You know, we’ve been parents the same amount of time…” and then describes how they’re basically winging it a lot of the time and can do that because of their faith in each other. It was a really poignant moment that I think you’ve expressed well in a greater sense here–that they are able to make it through so many of the uncertainties in life because of their certainty in the covenant. Nice work, Nick. Makes me want to hurry up to catch up on the season!

  • http://popparables.com/ Keri @ Pop Parbles

    I’m so very sad to see this show ending. It is by far my most favorite drama ever on television and one of the few worth watching. I’m so sad that there is not much that I can add to this convo. As a mom of 3 boys, I can only pray that their involvement in team sports allows them to learn such incredible life lessons as were portrayed on this show. Maybe I’ll tack the motto up in their room: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Okay, so I haven’t seen this yet (I have a hard time getting past football as a premise). I’m completely conflicted here because all of you are applauding the show pretty wildly (which almost makes me want to give it a shot) but at the same time, all of the things being described (especially in the article) sound like the show is one big after school special, with the coach and his wife providing the stable element by which the problem child of the week’s episode can find healing and a good moral (which just sounds icky to watch).

    So what’s the scoop? It must not be as bad as it sounds, so what awesome thing makes it not the equivalent of a series of forty-minute The More You Knows/One to Grow Ons/Knowing Is Half the Battles.

  • Ben

    Seth, I’ve waited a long time to say this… YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT! Heh, that was fun and totally worth it.

    Let’s just say it simply; you need to try a few episodes. I read Blankets (and loved it), you can do this.

    Friday Night Lights portrays life well and is hopeful nonetheless. The viewpoint Nick took above is an excellent one, but the show is too multifaceted to categorize easily. One episode almost never looks like/follows the same formula as another. Instead, episodes remind you of a thousand different moments in your own life, while still giving empathy for what is (for Yankees like me) a different way of life.

    Some episodes are about leadership. Others are about failure. Some are about love, some are about inconsistency, some are about disappointment. Some are about the failure of the church. Some are hopeful. Some are not.

    You need to try it out.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I know I have no idea what I’m talking about.* That’s why I asked ^_^ Pulling the Blankets card was a smart move. I’m only partially skeptical since basically all of you recommend the show, but I guess I’ll give it a shot before I have to give up InstantWatch.

    *note: I’m just glad that this is the first opportunity you’ve had to ask!

  • Ben

    :-) You know I wouldn’t pull out the Blankets card if I didn’t mean it.

  • Nick

    Seth,

    I probably should have mentioned this in the post, but Ben is right: FNL is quite a multifaceted show. I just heard today of a professor who uses the show as provide an example of “three dimensional characters.” I know I made categorizations – they are still true – but I’ve made broad ones. And the show does not portray them cheaply.

    That said, my goal was to focus on what particularly made the show special – and I do think it was the Taylors’ marriage. I think this is confirmed by Peter Berg and others if you read the oral history that was posted today over at Grantland.

    I will add, too, that the show was very good at capturing varying kinds of “moments” from the high school setting that most people would enjoy as a very nostalgic kind of moment. Which is also to say: the show was not *just* about high school kid messing up and Coach and Tami to the rescue. It is certainly about much more than that.

    Oh, and just from the standpoint of form – the show is very well done…unusually well for television shows not on AMC.

    Definitely give FNL a look when you get the chance.

  • Rich

    Loved FNL, ‘cept for the crazy Season 2 near shark jumping Landry/Tyra subplot.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Nick–loved the post–it made me want to give FNL a second chance. I would argue that it is the second best to Parenthood but then again, I only made it a few episodes into season 2 of FNL.

    @Rich, its funny that bring up the Tyra/Landry subplot from Season 2–that was the final straw for me in FNL’s characters/plot being believable. Perhaps I should give it another shot but I was just worn out on both on how irrational Tyra/Landry were about that as well as by the fact that apparently every high school student in Dylan seeks to solve their problems the same way–find someone hot to have sex with. Tyra/Landry were kinda the last straw in that regard and I dropped the show.

  • Rich

    The show actually got much stronger, and more nuanced in Seasons 4&5 after the setting was moved to “East Dillon” which was a poor school across town. The Vince Howard character which is introduced then is beautifully developed, written, and acted.

  • Chris Oakes

    Tim Riggins is one of the most well-developed TV characters of the last two decades. The viewer could love him and hate him – sometimes in the same episode!


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