Didn’t Know It Was a Devil Town: I Finally Watch “Friday Night Lights”

Didn’t Know It Was a Devil Town: I Finally Watch “Friday Night Lights” June 14, 2015

For years people told me I had to watch Friday Night Lights. And they all said the same four things: “Coach and Tami Taylor have the best marriage on television. I love how Dillon is its own character, and the show honors those who stay in their nowhere hometown instead of going Somewhere to be somebody. Ugh, skip season two, some dude kills a dude and it’s just a soapy mess. Oh and you don’t have to care about football, seriously, it’s not a show about football.”

Some of this is true! Here is my own very spoilerous take on all five seasons. And there’s a lot of criticism in what follows, but I watched all five seasons eagerly, so the flaws didn’t stop me from wanting to spend more time with these characters and this setting.

The Best Marriage on Television is the union of Billy and Mindy Riggins. Mindy and Billy >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Coach and Tami.

It’s not that I disliked Coach and Tami (although Tami Taylor, Nice White Lady, grated on me for real during much of seasons four and five). And the show sometimes did seem to know what it was doing in portraying their flaws. But the weirdest thing about FNL for me was the show’s fetishism of tough love.

It’s not only that Coach is a gruff guy who would rather yell at a confused and troubled kid than talk him through his problems. In some ways that made Coach a great character, since it made his moments of apology and open humility all the more powerful. Also, Kyle Chandler was great at selling his happiness to be around his kids, his delight in their successes and in their simple presence. He could say, “Get out,” or, “Shut up! Don’t talk!” and you’d still believe it when the character he was talking to gave that little Coach noticed me! grin.

But yelling and punishing and scolding worked for both of these characters in every single situation in which they used it! They both scold reflexively, they rely on raw assertion of authority (Coach) or moralizing (Tami), and it always eventually works. The kids reflect, realize that the adults are right, feel the love Coach and Tami are trying to show them, and straighten up and fly right. This is very close to the opposite of how “tough love” usually works in real life. Like, if you want to support a teen who is facing an unwanted pregnancy, or failing a class, or overwhelmed by family responsibilities, think of what Tami Taylor would say and then for God’s sake don’t do that.

It was especially uncomfortable when Coach did the “respect my authority! Don’t talk back to me on my field!” shtik with black characters who were dealing with racially-inflected problems. Like, the reasons Vince Howard’s dad was wrong and Coach was right go way beyond the specific life histories of Mr. Howard and Coach… but Vince just shuts up, nods, realizes Coach was right and his dad has nothing to teach or offer him, and defends Coach Taylor from then on. I don’t think it would have been too hard to show a more complex portrayal of a situation where the outsider black guy doesn’t understand how to work the system, and the painful effects on his son when the son realizes his dad just doesn’t know what he’s doing.

In general it would’ve been a more honest show if a) Coach and Tami’s approach sometimes completely backfired, and sometimes just didn’t make any impact on a kid, and b) there were more exploration of what it’s like to be damaged by someone who both cares about you and actually helps you. Tyra or Jess might’ve been great characters to explore that with, but instead the show made their respective relationships with the Taylor adults purely wholesome.

Although in case you’re wondering if I’m a consistent person in any respect, I loved how often the kids would respond to really harsh scolding or dismissal with, “Thank you.”

Anyway, Mindy and Billy. They grew on me! Watching them grow as characters was so great. FNL had some terrific scenes that were like reverse Bechdel Tests, where two women have a conversation that is on the surface about men, but actually about their own lives and independence: Tyra and Julie, Mindy and Becky both do this. And while I think at first the show did have a kind of gross, class-based undertone in how it portrayed Mindy and Billy–they were cartoons, they were obstacles for Tyra and Tim rather than people–by the end that undertone had vanished.

Texas Forever. The portrayal of sticking to your hometown was more nuanced than I was expecting, although still a bit syrupy. I loved the attention to the good sides of small-town life, and really loved the honor the show gave to characters’ decisions to stay. But I’m also glad it wasn’t univocal. We got Tyra’s and Julie’s drive to escape Dillon, and Matt’s very realistic conflict and change of heart. I liked that Julie and Matt only got together once Matt had separated himself from their shared hometown. As drifting and purposeless as those two seemed once they left Dillon (which is true to that stage of life, I guess, but boring), it made sense that Julie needed Matt to be no longer a tie to her childhood before she could completely see him as more than a tie to her childhood.

ETA: Also, Matt and Julie getting engaged was the one exception to the “Coach and Tami’s parenting/leadership style always eventually works,” so I liked that aspect too. I really thought you could see everybody’s point of view in that conflict (and I was amazed at how sympathetic the show made me to the tradition of asking the father for a woman’s hand in marriage–this is what it looks like when that works, when it forces a consultation with adults’ wisdom, even though the adults in the end had to capitulate).

The most poignant thing the show did with rootedness was Tim Riggins’s return from prison. Tim “Texas Forever” Riggins became one of the characters with the most painful experience of what Texas can do, and he flat-out said so. And yet he couldn’t escape; and the good things about his home were good enough that he didn’t, in the end, really want to. Everything about Tim’s anger when he came home was so poignant for me. It was a portrayal of something hard, in a show which far too often made easy choices and smoothed over difficulties. The happy ending felt a lot more earned than most of FNL‘s insistent comfort.

Possibly final ETA?: FNL depicted a recurring theme here on the blog: the way staying can change you much more than leaving. Staying forces you to change yourself, instead of just changing your surroundings.

Landry Killing a Dude Was Not that Bad. It helped a ton that my expectations came pre-lowered for this season. And season two dropped so many threads: That was the Waverly season, right? And the Carlita season, and the season that ends with Jason Street’s baby? The worst thing about Landry killing Tyra’s rapist was that the show basically forgot about it. Back to his on-again-off-again with Tyra!

But while the show was actually exploring this storyline I thought it was handled relatively well. I buy that Landry would feel tormented by conscience and Tyra would not know how to handle that. FNL never did figure out quite how to portray its kids’ religious faith, I think: Lyla’s religious rebirth made so much sense for her, and you guys know me so you know I would’ve loved more exploration of Tim’s whole “do I love Jesus, or Lyla? Or am I just drunk?” thing, but neither of them really went anywhere. (The downside of focusing so tightly on Dillon is that anyone who leaves loses the chance for long-term character development.) And similarly, Landry sings in a Christian metal band, but his faith doesn’t really play a role in this extraordinary crisis of conscience.

The actual worst storyline of Friday Night Lights is unquestionably Jason Street’s Baby. I do pro-life pregnancy counseling, so you might expect me to enjoy a storyline where a guy steps up, takes responsibility for his child, and persuades the mother to choose life. But the way it was written was shockingly bad. Dishonest, sexist… and such a colossal missed opportunity.

So let’s start with the fact that the mom is not a character. She has no personality whatsoever. She is a vessel for Jason’s miracle seed.

Then, all of Jason’s persuasion attempts–which for some reason work, like every horrible attempt on this show to shape another person’s life by main force–focus on himself and the baby. He does not seem to grasp that he’s asking a woman to undergo lifelong changes to her body and her life. Everything he says about himself sounds like what guys always say, the sincerity of which wears off about three months after the birth, so that doesn’t help, but the real problem is that he has no idea what he’s asking of her–and she never gets a chance to show him.

And here’s the thing, the crazy thing. If there’s one male character on Friday Night Lights who might have credibility in talking to a woman about what it’s like to go into an experience expecting it to be a one-night thing, a good time, and come out the other side with your body and self-image and future changed forever… that guy is Jason Street. The only character who could talk from the inside about getting blindsided by life in a visceral, physical, inescapable way, which imposes unbearable pain and responsibility on you but which can also teach you so much and change you in ways you needed to be changed–that’s Street. But in order to realize that, you need to be thinking about unwanted pregnancy from the woman’s perspective, not the man’s.

The thin silver lining on this gross cloud is that Jason/Scott Porter was super adorable with the baby.

Touchdown! I had pretty much zero knowledge of football coming into the show. It’s great about telling you what you need to know, completely organically, so you know the stakes of each play and each game. The games were super suspenseful and thrilling to watch. Their repetition-with-change gave this soapy show a structure more like genre tv, more like a procedural, as the Game of the Week reflected where our characters were in their lives.

Football is the show’s arena for so many themes: the moral value of sucking it up, playing through the pain, obeying and saying thank you; success and failure (the pregame prayers are so striking in this respect); leadership and the much more rarely-portrayed quality of being a good follower, which is where the show shines; real loyalty (Buddy Garrity is the great character here) and one-sided loyalty (the trashed signs and vandalism whenever the team loses).

Random notes: There are so many excellent women on this show. Tyra, Lyla, Becky and Jess were my favorites, but there were lots of times when Tami Taylor wasn’t saving the world when I thought she was the greatest thing, and Mindy is awesome. I loved Julie through the first three-ish seasons but the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her, and once all her storylines were about her ridiculous love life I stopped caring. (What a weird pattern FNL had with age-inappropriate relationships, huh? I liked Tim’s cougar neighboress, but really now. And we will not even get into Matt and Carlita, who was not a person.)

Did any of the black characters get the kind of long-term character development that Mindy, Billy, or Buddy Garrity got? I mean I loved watching all three of those characters grow and change, but there are other stories out there that would be at least equally interesting. What if we’d gotten to know Vince and his parents earlier on? Or Jess’s father? What if there had been enough black characters that Smash could go off and have his college football dream and we could still watch the show deepen the character of someone who stayed in Dillon? HEY WHAT IF THEY’D BROUGHT VOODOO BACK. Man, I wanted that.

On a similar note, lol that sudden moment in season five when they read the players’ names and it’s all Garcia, Hernandez, Martinez and you’re like, Right, wait, they’re in Texas so where are the Latinos?

The instrumental music was consistently terrible. Even in the awesome pilot episode the music is saccharine. The pop/country song choices were terrific, though.

Yes, it looks gorgeous. Like every hour in Dillon is magic hour.

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