Jean Baudrillard turns out to have had it wrong: I say television creates real communities. Friday Night Lights is no false simulacrum. It’s practically as real as real life—a show about high-school football that’s also about race and class and physical handicap and angst and sex (fraught sex between teenagers, mature sex between their parents) and why people fear things they don’t know. When I watch it, and know that millions of others are—and when I visit its Web site or read chat rooms devoted to the show—I become a part of something.
I think Tomasky’s broad point is correct, though I prefer my virtual television-inspired community at an ironic remove—I never visit a show’s website, but I will go to its Television Without Pity site.
But I want to address his narrower point, about the virtues of Friday Night Lights. He’s right about all the things the show is about, and that—with the exception of the crazy stupid homicide plot in season 2—it does a good job being about these things.
Tomasky might have gone a bit further, though. By being a good show about race, sex, disability, football, and fear of the unknown in a small Texas town, it’s also a powerful show about Texas Republicans as real people, and as good people.
I mean, nobody on the show ever says anything much political but to a virtual certainty at least every white person on the show is a Republican. West Texas football coach? Republican. Car dealer? Republican. Owner of beer distributorship living in a McMansion that would embarrass Dubai? Double Republican. The town of Dillon is based on Odessa, which is in Ector County, which went 73% for John McCain in the 2008 election. Trust me, they’re all Republicans. (Except probably the black characters, and maybe that guy at the Dillon DMV who made a point of saying how he doesn’t like football.)
Now, if you watch television you will be told incessantly that small-town Texas Republicans are real good people—there is no shortage of that message on the airwaves. But Friday Night Lights tries to show you, and to show you persuasively. This is a community of Christians—there’s the black church and the white church and the evangelical megachurch, but everyone’s at church on Sunday—and sinners, who take Christianity and sin seriously, and who get on with their lives as parents and children and neighbors in an entirely plausible way.
Tomasky says the show is about angst, but really, I think it’s more about care, which includes how the members of a community care for each other. Which is to say it’s about love. Coach Taylor loves his wife and he loves his daughters and he loves his players. Tami loves her husband and her daughters and her students. That doesn’t mean there’s no conflict—Coach has to love his daughter and the player who, it turns out, is sleeping with her. But ultimately it’s a conflict that’s resolved through this love the characters have for one another.
To some degree this gets out of hand: perhaps the show’s finest moment came when Smash Williams, the black running back, told Tim Riggins, the redneck fullback, that they get along fine on the field, but “on the real” they have nothing in common. But in the end Smash comes around, partially because everybody loves Tim Riggins, but partially because the conflicts on the show must be resolved by love and understanding; that’s its nature. And Coach’s powerful pep talks are so full of guts and glory and inspiration and, yes, love, that they can make anybody do anything. The man should be sent to the Middle East posthaste.
Even so: it’s a brilliant, understated, and intelligent show about how love serves as the sinews of a community.