Friday Night Lights
My wife and I just finished the first season of Friday Night Lights (the television show, not the movie). The show is a teen drama that follows the ups and downs of the fictional town of Dillon and its obsession with its football team, the Dillon Panthers. Dillon’s fictional locale is somewhere in west-central Texas, about four hours from Austin. I started off the series somewhat reluctantly, knowing I would end up mad and disappointed with politically correct plots, but I have been pleasantly surprised. It is available on DVD, BitTorrent, and also via Netflix’s instant streaming service.
A few observations:
1. Overall, it seems to be a fairly accurate portrayal of the heart of Red State Texas and its high school football obsession. As an anthropological study, it is hard to beat.
2. The producer is Peter Berg, a New Yorker who apparently has a first cousin who lives in a small Texas town and became fascinated with the football cult. Not sure of Berg’s ethnicity, but the show is remarkable in its realistic portrayal of the Christian culture that still permeates rural Texas. The show does not exhibit the typical Jewish producer’s allergy to all things Christian unless it involves taking the name of Christ in vain. FNL is so enjoyable because it portrays our people as they are, not as caricatures. In addition, the sets are dead-on perfect. The houses, the furniture, the settings are all genuine Texas small town.
3. The best positive of the show is the portrayal of the head coach’s relationship with his wife. Their relationship is warm, supportive, and highly sexual. It’s unusual these days to have a mainstream television show portray heterosexual marriage in a positive way. The coach character in particular is stand-out, the epitome of a principled white male who does the right thing and doesn’t back down from adversity.
4. The first season covered at least four politically incorrect plot elements:
(a) A new black quarterback, a Katrina refugee, comes to the town, recruited by local boosters. Once on the team, he acts like a total thug, but the coach displaces the white quarterback to give it to the black, who seems to have more natural talent. During the game, the black player’s ego gets in the way of winning, the coach realizes the error of his ways and pulls the black out of the game and puts in his humble, team-player white quarterback. The Panthers go on to win the game and the Katrina refugee eventually leaves town to play for another school (and re-appears in full thug form as the Panthers’ opposition quarterback in the season finale state championship game).
(b) This same thug quarterback, before leaving town, goes to the local teen hangout (a burger joint) and calls one of the Mexican players a wetback. The Mexican player gets really upset but does not attack the thug. Later, a brainy white kid makes a snide, but non-racist, remark to the Mexican about the general meaninglessness of football. The Mexican, still smarting from the thug’s insult, follows the white kid outside and beats him up so bad he ends up in the hospital; the next day the Mexican is arrested at practice. The rest of the episode features the Mexican claiming it was the white kid who called him a wetback, and that was why he beat him up. The coach initially trusts the Mexican kid, but once he finds out the truth, he kicks the Mexican off the team permanently. I have never heard of ANY mainstream television show portraying a fake hate crime by a minority, even though fakes are the substantial majority of real-life hate crime accusations.
(c) The showboat black running back on the team, who calls himself Smash, tells his mother he wants to take an SAT prep course that costs $1300. The mother can’t afford it but instead enlists their pastor’s help who then takes up an offering at the black church the following Sunday. The black player then takes the money and buys steroids. I can’t think of any show that portrays blacks this realistically, in their full depressing depravity.
(d) Late in the season, an assistant coach tells a reporter that he thinks black players like Smash have a “junkyard dog” mentality that makes them better runners, whereas white players are more “creative” and make better leaders and quarterbacks. In the resulting uproar, black players threaten to quit the team unless the coach gives in and fires his assistant. The coach ignores their threat, and even has white kids from the JV team fill in for the blacks. The coach also stands by his friend the assistant coach, refusing to fire him (even after the asst. coach offers his resignation for the good of the team, the head coach refuses it, saying not firing him over the remarks was “the right thing to do”), and the show portrays the assistant coach as a whole, complex person who truly cares about the kids, not a hateful racist. In addition, the head coach nor none of the main characters ever deny what he said was true, but they just say “what you said was stupid” or “you can’t talk about the black-white thing”. This is probably exactly how coaches in Texas would talk in private. No hand-wringing or shock at the statement, because it’s obviously true.
Before the next game, the black players relent and rejoin the team, because the white coach refuses to give in to their demands. The subsequent game ends in a riot due to the high tensions and the game is called for Dillon after the 3rd quarter, infuriating the home team and town. Dillon players leave town quickly hoping to avoid any more confrontation, but as they make their way out of town local cops stop and decide to harass the team, specifically demanding to arrest the black player on Dillon’s team they think started the riot. The “racist” assistant coach gets out of the bus and confronts the local cops, telling them if they do not have a warrant they will not arrest one of his players. The black players then realize the error of their ways in overreacting to the coach’s statement, and the head black player, Smash, and the assistant coach reconcile.
I have never seen in any mainstream production a more sympathetic, balanced treatment of an individual who utters a racist statement, and portrays positively those that resist the calls for his head. Nor have I ever seen a portrayal of whites being victorious in not giving in to the demands of offended blacks.
5. The casting is almost perfect. Apparently they hired a special Texas casting director for many of the characters, and it’s just dead-on. So many of the characters correspond to archetypes of the larger-than-life individuals who inhabit the South and Texas. As one historian put it, the bravado, faith, and patriotism that characterizes the region is “better than sanity” and this is fully portrayed (the local car dealer and his ubiquitous dead animals on walls, for example; many wealthy Texan males spend millions pursuing large game all over the world). This same character, upset at his ex-wife for dating another man, says “I don’t understand what you see in that tree-hugging idiot who makes seven dollars an hour at a health food store. I will not sit by and see my children turn into Communists.”
6. Two minor critiques: there was a minor early plot element where the small town mayor is portrayed as a lesbian. The head coach’s wife is recruited to help in her re-election campaign, but the coach disapproves, both because he hates politicians and he’s “uncomfortable” with his wife being around the mayor. This plot element seemed somewhat random and was not pursued further in the first season. Second, there is a near-miss interracial relationship that is quickly broken up by the black boy’s mother who runs them out of the house scolding her son “Don’t you bring no white girl in this house”. . . in any case, this plot element is isolated and confined to one episode.
7. The second season seems less promising, as the teen drama elements seem to be overpowering the football-driven plot. However, the first season was solid. Not appropriate for children, of course.