Monday, June 18, 2012


            FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS isn't about Texas high school football.
            It's about Texas high school football.
            I admit to writing this stupid/cutesy opening and I don't even have a good reason for it.  I suppose it expresses my surprise.  I expected a sports drama.  I anticipated a series about a scrappy low-ranked team overcoming its difficulties and moving on to the semi-finals and then the finals and know the story.
It's been done to death.  Underdog Triumphs Despite Impossible Odds.
            Peter Berg's masterwork about Americans at their best and their worst is way beyond football scoreboards.  The game dramas we're given, the playoffs and championships, are almost footnotes.  Do they win or lose the nationals? Yay!  Boohoo!  Oh well...the story moves on.
            In case you haven't heard, Texans have a local football culture like no other.  Its passions fill in the great empty spaces of the land.  It entertains, it distracts, it involves, it sucks people into its politics, it's a tornado and it leaves nothing untouched.
            It's serious.  The aristocracy of star players have perks beyond belief.  They are scouted by major college teams and the NFL looms in the background for a few  talented athletes.  The perks have to be within the bounds, so to speak.  There's no buying and selling of games and players (or, at least, there'd better not be). This adherence to the strictures of amateurism doesn't preclude assigning a virtual harem to the stars, the quarterback, the tight end, the wide receiver and so forth.  These guys stride the halls of school like gods.
            FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS  isn't about Texas high school football because it's really about character, relationships and community.
            The true star of this drama is a relationship.  The marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the spine of this narrative's skeleton.  It's the beating heart at the center of the town of Dillon, Texas.  Without the marriage of Eric and Tami, there is no story.
Actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton play their parts with such natural grace that their marriage should receive an Emmy.  It is one of the great marriages in television history.
            Eric is the new Head Coach of the Dillon Panthers.  Tammy is the high school counselor.  Their marriage is subject to pressures that would crush most commitments.  If Eric and Tammy can survive this alchemist's crucible, they will be peerless.  They will  be jewels.
            If they can't, they'll be another sad divorce that leaves behind a shattered family.  Their daughter Julie is at that age just before she starts to rebel and roll her eyes.  We need to wait until Season Three for the foot-stomping,  eye rolling and the whole alphabet of gestures of teenage contempt for adult restrictions.  Meanwhile, she's a nice cute kid with a training bra.
            Eric and Tammy have tough jobs.  If you think coaching high school football
Aimee Teagarden as Julie Taylor
is small time stuff, think again.  This is Texas.  Eric needs all the qualities of a drill sergeant, a general, a shrink, a priest and a politician.  He has to raise his voice and deliver a fifteen minute harangue to a team of wall-sized athletes until they are reduced to terrified little lumps of jelly, quivering on the locker room floor.  Or he can put his arm around a confused, demoralized quarterback, pull the boy's head onto his shoulder and choose the right words to unleash a deluge of tears.  He must puncture the macho armor of these arrogant teen prima donnas and make them, FORCE them, to live in the real world where they are not God's gift to women and football.  Creating better athletes is secondary to creating better people.
            All across the country, the name of Eric Taylor is being discussed.  He's a young, new coach, he's just emerging and he's the man to watch.  He may be next year's High School Coach Of The Year.  He's at the beginning of a career that may some day take him to the Super Bowl.
            Eric is, by nature, a man of few words.  At home, he's a firm
but gentle presence who doesn't make a lot of noise.  He's busy.  He's working, watching playback of games, evaluating his own calls and his players' moves.  He works ALL the time.  He lives football.  His wife understands this, she has grasped it from the very beginning of their marriage and rather than pout and grow disillusioned, she creates her own life.  She uses her own strengths and interests to engage the world.  She's a high school guidance counselor.  This makes her the equivalent of a prison warden and The Great White Hunter on an African Safari.  She is stimulated by challenge.  She is one of those goddess mothers full of lush strength, red-maned, sexy and very tough.
Connie Britton asTami Taylor
            What makes a marriage between two such powerful people function so well?
            Honesty keeps the marriage strong.  Tami and Eric are always honest with one another.  Even when they lie, they're honest about lying.  Neither is afraid to admit being wrong about an issue.  They support one another with unbreakable consistency.  If they have a fight, they cut through the bullshit, find the central issue, and look for compromise.  They don't resort to yelling and name calling.
            There are times when an irresistible opportunity appears before Eric or Tami.  The problem is, accepting the opportunity would require changes in the marriage or the family lifestyle.   One of them, Eric or Tami, is going to have to make a sacrifice.  Who is willing to see a lifetime dream fade away?  Who is wise enough to see that opportunity does NOT come only once in a lifetime? 
            The town of Dillon, Texas is neither large nor small.  It's like a town with a hundred thousand people that has been absorbed into the suburban sprawl of Houston or Dallas.  It has an identity.  Much of that identity is drawn from the supremacy of the Dillon Panthers.
            The power brokers, the mayor, the oil moguls and the owner of the Cadillac dealership are Panther alumni and sit on the board of the Booster's Association.
They know which strings to pull, how to schedule games to the advantage of the team, how to acquire players from other teams who might be Panther-killers if they're not brought into the fold.  They're the guys who play dirty, behind the curtain.  A little pressure, maybe some mild blackmail; it gets the job done and the team is none the wiser.
            It's amazing how much of the human condition can be collected into a single file cabinet with the same labeled situations.  There are aimless kids on drugs, there are abandoned old people, cheating husbands, bankrupt businessmen, pregnant cheerleaders, corrupt officials, natural disasters, infatuated teenagers going suicidal over a romantic setback....all these potholes in the road of life are much the same, no matter where you go.
            The things that can't be pigeonholed, that can't be stuck in a file, are the lineaments of character.  Which one of these people can overcome the temptation to shirk?  Which one can step up and make an effort to change?
            I ask, because I think Friday Night Lights is a narrative about that power in human beings, that ability to see their own trouble and solve the problem, and then move forward.  There will be another problem, and another.  No matter.  By the time Season Three begins, even the people we learned to hate have become different, better.  They are tougher, yet softer.  They have something that we all wish we had:
a supportive community.
            I was amazed, over and over again, at the way the people of Dillon turn to one another.  Coach Taylor's door is always open.  If the phone rings at three in the morning, he will answer it.  "I'll be right there," he says, sliding out of bed and looking for his pants.  If some sopping wet weeping teenager having  a crisis knocks on a door, there will be a soft place to fall.  A motherly hand is extended: "Why, come on in, sugar, you look awful, and you're just SOPPING wet!  What can I do for you?  Let's get you dried off."
            In my dreams I live in a place like that.  Dillon is special because Southern Hospitality is not only real but it includes everyone and it understands that shame is the enemy of communication.  As a community, Dillon expands its definition of humanity and grows like an amoeba to absorb shame so that being ashamed is not shameful.  Lying about the cause of the shame, THAT'S shameful, so it's better to unburden the heart, to come clean and let someone help you, someone with a wiser mind like Eric or Tami Taylor, or a hundred other people.  What's sad is that this
town is a television fiction but it gives me hope.  If someone can imagine such a place, someone can create it in the real world.

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