The Harry Potter movies aren’t the only pop culture institution coming to an end this week. Tomorrow, the series finale of Friday Night Lights will air on network TV – it went up on cable already – marking the end of a truly great television show.
Friday Night Lights started as a book. Buzz Bissinger, a sports journalist, moved to Odessa, a town in West Texas, where high school football was tantamount to a religion, and wrote about a year in the life of the town in the late 1980s. The story, as you might expect, was about far more than just football, but about class, race, economics, politics and family. Bissinger’s book was one of the first pieces of reading I had assigned to me when I came to the US for college, and one of the things that made me think, “Hey, this sociology business is pretty great.” For this reason, I’m particularly attached to it. The book was then made into a movie, and then into a television series, which producers wisely chose to set in the present rather than in the late ‘80s.
We’ve written quite a bit about Friday Night Lights, because the show, like the book, is about so much more than football (not that feminists can’t love football. But this feminist is a rugby girl). Like the book, it has taken on race, class and economics. It has also done a remarkable job of exploring gender, sexuality and relationships of all kind. It has depicted disability, drug addiction and series Daddy issues. It has covered abortion, and unlike most TV shows, it did so realistically and without the usual tip-toeing that usually accompanies TV depictions of this controversial issue. For this, Gloria Feldt, former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, applauded FNL (and so did we).
So, in honour of the end of this five-season marvel, several of Feministing’s big FNL fans – myself, Jos and Maya – decided to have a bit of a chat about what we think the show has done best, what it got wrong, and why we’re going to miss it so damn much.
COACH AND TAMI
Chloe: Tami has started to mention, lately, how many sacrifices she has made for Coach’s career. We’ve always seen her make them, of course: players (and Buddy Garrity, freaking Buddy Garrity) show up on the doorstep at all hours of the night, and Tami is often treated as an extension of Coach, with people coming to her to get to him, and her behavior reflecting, for better and worse on him. But now, with Tami’s big job offer in Philadelphia and Coach’s big chance to coach the “dream team” in Dillon, there’s a real tension.
Maya: Yeah, shit’s getting super real. The Taylors have provided a truly incredible model for healthy communication throughout the series. (Seriously, nothing gives me a boner for marriage more than watching those two working through their problems on screen.) And you can tell how serious this latest career conflict is by the way Coach has shut down and refused to engage at all. From that first conversation when he says, “I can’t talk about this right now,” he’s tried to avoid even discussing it. It’s frustrating to watch, but also realistic. I think he knows that if he opens up and really hears Tami, he’ll have to admit that she’s right–she’s been a coach’s wife for 18 years.
The greatest thing about this storyline is that it acknowledges that maintaining a marriage based on an equal partnership is fucking hard. Relationships require not only listening and communication and compromise but also sometimes real sacrifice. Like, actual sacrifice: If you get something you really want, I can’t get something I really want. And FNL doesn’t shy away from this tough reality–either by having Coach automatically recognize that it’s time for Tami’s career to come first or by having Tami give into the pressure to play the supportive wife because it’s the path of least resistance.
Jos: I saw the finale when it originally aired on cable but I’m getting emotional just thinking about the show wrapping up its run on network TV. Nothing will ever replace my favorite box of tissues programming.
I’ve loved watching the relationship between Tami and Eric Taylor. They’re often a model for healthy communication, but they also have realistic disagreements and fights between people who love each other. I’m impressed by the realism of their interactions; they’re loudest and most flip with their language when everything’s OK, and get quiet when there’s conflict.
The storyline about marriage and career has been a long time coming, and it’s great to see how Tami expresses her needs. Eric’s not very good at making everything not about him, and it’s sad to see Tami start to cave. I’ve seen the finale though, so I’ll just say keep watching.
COACH AND JESS
Chloe: I love this story line. I love it, and I love that it was obvious from the first time we met Jess, when she showed Landry how to kick a field goal, that this was her destiny. The sad reality is that Jess has almost no chance of becoming a high school football coach – as smart and tenacious as she is, the gender issue seems insurmountable to me. But I think that’s been a recurring theme of the series: people aspiring to things that they actually have very little chance of achieving (pro sports is a tough game, people). And Jess, I think, probably won’t be an exception to this trend. But it’s so inspiring to see her have this out-there idea, and stick to it, and convince Coach Taylor that it’s not utter lunacy, and then to see him agree to help her.
Maya: I loved watching Coach realize that Jess was for real and not taking no for an answer. You could see him taking her in, being thrown off for a moment, and then deciding that he’d just have to expand his understanding of his role as a mentor–from teaching boys to be men to include teaching girls to be football coaches.
Jos: Coach Taylor is a great stealth feminist. He shapes boys into men, but he does it by teaching them positive values of friendship, teamwork, hard work, and yes, respect for women. The show’s dealt with some of the more misogynist aspects of football, including treatment of cheerleaders. And sometimes Coach has had a “boys will be boys” attitude, but then Tami’s always there to nudge him. He took Tim Riggins from a moody, disaffected drunk to a moody family man who would do anything for the people he loves.
Maya: Yeah, Coach basically gives me hope for masculinity. He embodies–and teaches–all the best aspects of a masculinity that’s about continually striving to be a better person.
Jos: I love Jess so much, and not just cause I remember Jurnee Smollett when she was a kid. She’s a great depiction of a strong young woman responsible for raising her brothers, practically on her own.
The less said about Julie and the TA the better. Not since the season 2 storyline that shall not be named…
Maya: Word. Remember when a smart lady like Julie went to college and the only adventure she had was sleeping with a cliche?
Jos: *standing o*
TIM AND BILLY RIGGINS
Chloe: One of the things I appreciate most about this show is the things it does with masculinity and relationships between men. This relationship has been one of shared suffering, shared glory, sacrifice, violence, love… it’s just SO great. I genuinely feel that this show is going to leave a hole in TV programming, and particularly in how masculinity and complex relationships between men are depicted on television. Think about the range of relationships we’ve seen on this show: between teammates, between coaches, between coach and player, between absent fathers and sons, present fathers and sons, abusive fathers and sons, between friends, between brothers… the list is seemingly endless. And they’ve all been nuanced and elegant and damn, I am going to miss that.
Jos: Friday Night Lights is a unique show. It’s a sincere, loving show about family, community, and trying to be a good person. And it does all that with a sharp, realistic eye to race, class, gender, disability, religion, and geography. It’s not always perfect – some of the East Dillon storytelling has been a bit on the nose – but when it’s good it’s something special. *Sniff* there I go. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!