Romance on Television: Friday Night Lights

There’s a long-running truism about romance on TV: writers shouldn’t have the will-they-or-won’t-they couple get together because doing so ruins shows. It’s known as the Moonlighting Rule, and many smart critics have dismantled it (see here). But in my opinion, the best evidence that contravenes the Moonlighting Rule is the show with the most effective and most intimate portrait of an American marriage: Friday Night Lights.

Of the series I’ve talked about so far, Mozart in the Jungle and Grey’s Anatomy, this is no doubt the hardest sell because it’s all about football and small-town Texas.

Okay, yes, I could hear the record scratch noise there. For years, I refused to watch Friday Night Lights too, but when I finally gave in, immediately before the fifth and final season aired, what I found was a sprawling and novelistic portrait of a community and the violent sport that serves as its organizing principle.

It’s fundamentally an optimistic show, though it also believes that to understand someone, you have to know where they come from. For romance fans, it not only has many compelling stories of young love, but the main draw is the mature and complex marriage between the coach and his wife.

Our set up! Friday Night Lights begins before the first American football game of the season in Dillon, a small town somewhere in central Texas. The new head coach, Eric Taylor, seeks to prove himself to skeptical alumni/local politicians and to an assistant coach who feels the job should have been his. Helping with this is the quarterback Jason, an enormously talented golden boy. Jason is dating the head cheerleader Lyla, he seems assured of a successful college and perhaps even pro football career, and he’s loved by everyone in town. We also meet Jason’s best friend, the working-class fullback Tim Riggins; the back-up quarterback the shy and slightly fumbling Matt Saracen; the magnetic and charismatic running back Smash; and the coach’s wife and daughter, Tami and Julie, who support, chide, listen to, and tease Coach Taylor.

Most of the episode follows the football-obsessed town in the week leading up to the game, cataloguing both how football is a force that gives the town meaning, but also how it can exact a high and painful cost. To wit, during the game Jason suffers a catastrophic injury that paralyzes him. Matt steps in, throws an improbable touchdown, and secures the win.

The rest of the season follows the team as it struggles to find a way forward (including on the issues of the uneasy race relations in town and steroid use by some of the players), Jason’s efforts to recover and adjust to his new life, and the politics within the community and school.

The first three seasons follow roughly the same pattern, but the show relocates to another high school and shakes things up for seasons four and five. Not every storyline is equally compelling and some are downright dumb (as I’ll discuss below), the show struggles to replace some of the characters once they gradate or move from Dillon, and the show’s use of shaky camerawork can be jarring. If the camerawork is your sticking point, I can assure you it’s used less as season one progresses and very little after that.

But despite a few imperfections, Friday Night Lights isn’t like anything else on television and its optimism about people and relationships is a non-saccharine balm for my soul, specifically in the form of Eric and Tami’s marriage.

(EVEN BIGGER SPOILERS ARE COMING. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.)

Let me say, first, that Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who play Eric and Tami, are very easy on the eyes. This is also true of most of the actors who play the high school characters. But what sold me on them and the show wasn’t that they were good looking, but that they were warm.

Eric radiates gruffness and concern; he is the king of pep talks and tough love. Tami adores her husband, but she also doesn’t buy into his hype. She’s expected to play his helpmate and hostess–roles that she doesn’t love–and her attempts to find the right role for herself are relatable and wonderful. From the first moment Eric and Tami appear on screen together when she shows up in his office to ask if he forgot to tell her about an event she has to attend, I absolutely believed that these two people loved each other and had decades of history.

An early episode that exemplifies how the show handles their marriage is “Who’s Your Daddy?” The Taylors are hosting a barbeque about Eric gives Tami very few details. She’s shocked when a hundred people show up at their house. She handles it with trademark Texas charm, but at one point, she crawls under a table and Eric goes after her. She snaps at him, he admits she was right, and then she says,

I know, I know. Your job is really stressful. You know what, honey? I’m doing it, all right? I threw the party for over a hundred people in two days time. I did it with no help. And I’m cleaning up after your football stars, who by the way, happen to be pigs. I’m doing it. But I’m not going to pretend to like it. Not right now. Not down here. When I go back up there, I’ll give you a big smile, all right, just like I know you need. But down here, I am pissed. And I am going to stay down here until I can get back up there and give you your smile, all right?

It’s probably the most honest thing about marriage I have ever seen on TV. They respect each other, they love each other, but they screw up too. These moments are often small but they’re significant in context. Neither here nor at any other point am I afraid that the Taylors are going to cheat on each other, split up, or get a divorce. Instead, episode after episode, the show finds human, relatable drama between Eric and Tami that’s carefully written and perfectly performed.

The best example is an epic fight that takes up most of the final season. Tami becomes a guidance counselor early in the show and eventually the principal of the school. She is forced to resign after it becomes public that she counseled a student who later had an abortion. During all of this, the roles reverse because Eric must now support her as her career develops.

Then early in the final season, she’s offered her dream job: to become the admissions director of Pennsylvania college. She wants to accept, and she doesn’t understand why, after years of her supporting Eric as he’s moved the family around to chase his professional dreams, he can’t do this for her.

From Eric’s perspective, he’s enormously successful–having won or taken his team to state championship game several times–in the most football-crazy state in the nation. Why would he move?

The conflict comes out the characterization and thus it seems intractable. The stakes aren’t high in a global/end of the wold sense, but we’ve spent five years watching Eric and Tami. We’ve been shown repeatedly what their respective jobs mean to them. I have never cried such sincere tears of joy at my television than when Eric says to Tami, “It’s your turn. Will you take me with you to Philadelphia, please?” It is my nominee for the most romantic line in TV history.

And Eric and Tami aren’t the only romance game in town. Their daughter, Julie, gets a romance of her own with Matt Saracen. Matt is the most cinnamon role hero ever. His father is serving in Iraq–the show is very much a product of mid-2000s culture–his mother is out of the picture and his grandmother, with whom he lives, has early stage dementia and other health problems. He is trying his best and barely keeping his head above water. (I’m getting all teary remembering the moment in “Eyes Wide Open” when Eric shows up at Matt’s house and realizes how Matt and his grandmother live.) Matt is trying so hard to juggle school, and his work at the Alamo Freeze, and football–and he doesn’t have time for his irrevocable crush on Julie Taylor.

Now here’s the place where I tell you that I adore Julie even though she’s a flawed character. (When I convinced my parents to watch the show, my mom took to calling Julie “the pouty one.”) Julie is pretty and a bit of a snob, and at first she looks down her nose at everyone and everything in Dillon. To my mind, it’s a strength of the show that she can be a brat because, over the course of five seasons, we see Julie make some serious mistakes and learn from them. Yes, everything related to her affair with the TA in season five is hard to take, but more than any other character on the show (except possibly Tyra and Billy), Julie changes. I absolutely believe in Matt and Julie’s epic love, all the more so for the road bumps they hit along the way.

The other romance I adore is Billy Riggins and Mindy Collette. Billy’s brother is the beautifully wounded Tim, and in the early seasons of the show, Billy is trying hard to parent his brother but screwing up. Billy begins dating the sister of Tyra, Tim’s on again/off again girlfriend, whose name is Mindy.

In the fourth season, when Billy and Mindy become pregnant, Billy and Tim hatch a terrible plan to strip stolen cars in order to make money. It backfires horribly, and when the police show up, Tim takes the blame and goes to jail. And Billy–like Jean Valjean–turns his life around. He begins working for Eric, he and Mindy get married, and he becomes the man he’s wanted to be since we met him. It’s wonderful character writing and also frequently hilarious.

I don’t think every romance the show attempted was well handled. Among the first group of high school characters, Lyla and Tim’s affair and subsequent relationship was one-note and seemed ill fated from the start. Jason’s romantic drama was never as interesting as his other storylines. While I loved Tyra and Landry separately, I never bought them together. Smash never gets a good romance.

In the second set of high school characters, both the Luke and Becky and Vince and Jess pairings had potential, but neither couple was given the space or the consistent writing to shine.

Luke and Becky have a one-night stand in the fourth season, and she subsequently has an abortion. That’s a hefty backstory, and they do eventually heal their relationship. At the end of the show, she’s saying goodbye to him as he leaves for basic training. But they never achieve the same iconic status for me as Eric/Tami or Matt/Julie.

Vince and Jess have a great friends-to-lovers set up, but Jess is inconsistently written. She’s established as hugely knowledgable about football and she objects to the marginalization of women as cheerleaders. She’s a sort of anti-Julie, and when the show ends, she’s taken an assistant coach’s job. But in the middle of her arc, the show changes its mind and she’s on the dance squad. All of that undercuts the romance, but it isn’t the fault of Michael B. Jordan or Jurnee Smollett-Bell who are both great.

There are some aspects of the show that I can’t evaluate. I found the portrait of Jason’s injury, recovery, and his adjustment to his new life to be thoughtful, but I’d love to read an ownvoices discussion of the disability representation if anyone has seen one.

I feel confident saying there are some significant plot missteps, like say Landry killing a guy early in the second season–a plot twist that the less we talk about the better. (Though when Jesse Plemons showed up on Breaking Bad I laughed and laughed and laughed.)

I haven’t talked enough here about how much I love Tyra and her growth, and so Tyra fighting off her would-be attacker late in the first season was such a powerful moment. To have Landry then kill him in season two not only stretched credulity, it also undercut Tyra.

Other plot lines are underwritten or badly played, such Lyla becoming an Evangelical. The show’s handling of religion was often a detail that contributed to the setting, but while quiet, it was generally thoughtfully presented, and I liked the concept of a character having a more overt spiritual plotline. But this, which includes Lyla volunteering in prison, didn’t work due to the writing and the acting. I’ll admit I was relieved when Lyla didn’t return at the end of the show because of Minka Kelly’s limits as an actress.

Additionally while the cast is diverse and the show does attempt to address class and race, there’s a lack of Latinx characters–Santiago, a player who lives briefly with Lyla’s dad, disappears abruptly and Matt has a short affair with a nurse who helps his grandmother in season 2–and queer characters–Julie discovers an assistant coach is gay, but it never goes anywhere.

But in spite of those shortcomings and the niche subject matter, Friday Night Lights was and remains excellent television, and for the portrait of the Taylor’s marriage alone, it’s worth your time.

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