Much like the working-class citizens of Dillon, the small Texas town in which it is set, Friday Night Lights hasn’t had it easy during its three years on television. It has never commanded high ratings, it has never enjoyed the support of Emmy voters and it would not have survived beyond its sophomore season without the combined support of two television companies, NBC Universal and DirecTV, which share telecast rights. (Lights made its Season 4 premiere last week on DirecTV and will run on NBC sometime next year.)
Critics love Lights, and it has a devoted (if small) fan base, but beyond that life has been unaccountably hard for this outstanding show. So what’s been the problem? I think it has something to do with timing. Lights debuted back in 2006, when unprecedented greed was consuming much of the country, including the working class. McMansions were viewed as starter homes. Shopping became a hobby. Money was the new religion, and nobody wanted to be reminded of those unfortunate souls who weren’t rolling in it or (foolishly) living as if they were. That is, ordinary folks like the residents of Dillon who live in small homes, drive old cars, struggle to pay their bills and embrace simple pleasures, like parades, picnics and Friday night high school football.
Television reflected all of this economic madness, and with very few exceptions most characters in most series (including so-called working class people) were shown to be living in spectacular houses or apartments way beyond the average person’s means, except during a catastrophic era of easy credit. Friday Night Lights dared to remind us that not everyone was living so large. I think the show’s poor ratings reflected a lack of interest by credit-empowered viewers, while its lack of industry support come Emmy time probably had something to do with the fact that so many people who have succeeded in the entertainment industry would rather not be reminded that not everybody lives as well as they do. (For more on this, see the end of this column.)
But the time has never been better for a drama about people who know how to manage economic adversity. The residents of Dillon may not always rise above hard times but they aren’t beaten down by them, either, perhaps because people don’t always miss what they never had. The town finances in Dillon have been an issue throughout the life of the show, especially as they concern school funding, but this season they inform every moment of the storytelling. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has fallen victim to the ruthless efforts of wealthy businessman Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett) to exert his influence over Dillon High School and make his son J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter) the star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers. Ousted in a cruel power-play, Taylor is now charged with putting together a football team over at East Dillon High, a school on the poorer side of town that, when first glimpsed at the end of last season, was so run down it appeared to have been abandoned years ago. Meantime, his loving wife Tami (the ever-exquisite Connie Britton) is still the principal at Dillon High, where she has to contend with the people who engineered her husband’s undeserved departure. She’s also dealing with the predictably ferocious fallout from a re-districting plan that has sent some Dillon High kids over to East Dillon.
As financially challenged as Dillon High has been during the last few years, the sorry conditions at East Dillon make it look like one of those country club high schools found in towns like Westport, CT. The dilapidated facilities at East Dillon hold little promise, and many of its directionless students do little to inspire hope. Taylor in the season premiere took his best shot at cobbling together and disciplining his new team, the East Dillon Lions, but the challenge proved insurmountable, prompting him to lose his cool in a way we had never before seen. Taylor’s always been such a quietly forceful guy that it was genuinely unsettling to watch him explode in the Lions’ locker room, sending many of his new players stomping back to their comfort zones, uncomfortable though they may be.
Many of the popular young characters on this show have moved away, including Tyra, Lyla, Jason and Smash. The Taylors’ daughter Julie (Aimee Teagarden) and the always dependable Landry (Jesse Plemons) are still around, as is Matt Saracen (the awesome Zach Gilford), though he’s scheduled to be written out at midseason. The only one who seems to be in town to stay is former Dillon Panther Tim Riggins (the underappreciated Taylor Kitsch), who dares to decide that college isn’t for him and happily drops out and returns home, eager to work at his brother’s garage. It would seem to be a dead-ended existence but, significantly, Tim is cool with it, and why shouldn’t he be? College isn’t for everyone, and not everyone is anxious to leave everyone they love and everything they know once they finish high school. Tim’s story provides a welcome change of pace.
I would have preferred another season with this group intact, because they are some of the most interesting young people ever to populate a television drama. But I won’t object too loudly, because that’s how things work in real life, and it will be interesting to watch the remaining characters (especially the Taylors) interact with new kids at each school.
For a renewed appreciation of the assurance with which Friday Night Lights remains grounded in everyday life, look no further than ABC’s increasingly otherworldly Brothers & Sisters, which is so out of touch with reality it seems to have been beamed to earth from another galaxy. Why would its producers choose to tell a story about a wealthy woman contending with life-threatening cancer at a time when the maddening economics of health care are top of mind for so many financially drained Americans? Granted, there is much drama to be had in Kitty Walker’s brave struggle with advanced lymphoma, but it’s hard to relate to a character who can access the best medical care on two coasts without a glance toward her savings account while people are dying from cancer and other diseases simply because they cannot afford medical insurance or have been unforgivably screwed over by the insurance plans they have already purchased. Plus, Kitty luxuriates in a Pasadena mansion and enjoys catered rooftop dinners and private fireworks displays over the city of Los Angeles between chemo treatments!
Even when it’s threatened, life is pretty damn grand up on Planet Walker. Still, I think I’d rather hang with the real people down in Dillon.