Ta-Nehisi hits on one of my big beefs with ‘Friday Night Lights’:
Racism runs through the heart of the book–racism towards blacks, racism towards Hispanics. But the writer still maintains an affection for the players, and to some extent, for the town. It’s amazing how the story went from a narrative of a West Texas town, viewed through the lens of football, to a kind of quasi-hagiography.
In the film, the main sin seems to be that the town is football obsessed. But in the book, the football obsession comes across as a symptom of an almost spiritual vacuum. In the TV show, you’re basically getting a soap, as I said. They deal with racism–in episodes, but it isn’t a part of the spirit of the town. It’s a vehicle to create conflict for Smash. I’ll have more to say when I’m done, but I wish the TV and film folks had grappled harder with race. I think it actually adds more to the story.
Race only comes up in the first season when a Mexican-American player lies and says he assaulted another kid because the kid hurled a racial slur at him. Smash starts dating a white girl and their parents disapprove. And a white coach says black players aren’t smart enough to be QBs. But those plot points that come out of nowhere, like the show suddenly detoured into a Very Special Episode.
This shortcoming doesn’t end at race. Religion pops up only when Lyla gets saved in the interim between the first two seasons after her parents’ divorce (that, too, gets dropped after awhile). The mayor is a lesbian who lives with her partner, but no one in this smallish, gossipy town in Central Texas — where everyone goes to the same church — is the wiser. It’s a little hard to swallow.
I suspect many of the show’s flaws are a product of it being on a network; the show’s ratings were famously tepid in the early going, so it’s likely there was a lot of tinkering with plotlines at the behest of higher-ups at NBC. There are the weird tics of network dramas (cliffhangers before commercial breaks, non-diegetic music, overly expository dialogue, etc.) that I’d sort of forgotten about, having not watched a dramatic series that wasn’t The Wire or Mad Men in some time. It’s possible the networks weighed in on the social stuff as well.
I could also do with some consistent logic. Riggins can only be an undisciplined drunk starter for a state championship caliber team if he were really naturally gifted. But several people on the show at some point says that he’s just a modestly talented football player, so it doesn’t follow that he could be so unfocused and be a centerpiece of a top team. Smash’s smart, sassy, bipolar girlfriend just evaporates after the first season, never to be seen again. (Same goes for Lyla’s churchy boyfriend.) And most egregiously, Landry MURDERS someone, turns himself in and confesses to it, and it just never gets brought up in conversation by any of the other characters in the smallish town, who presumably would have to know about it. Make up your damn minds, people.
(Sorry we’re so pop culture heavy today.)
*Let’s just do away with voiceovers, entirely.