Politics & Policy

Friday Night Gets Religion

Real life with the Dillon Panthers.

Forget your overly coiffed housewives of Wisteria Lane, your arrested-in-adolescence doctors at Seattle Grace Hospital, and your tank-top wearing detectives in Las Vegas. For those who want quality drama that shines a light on the human condition, Friday Night Lights delivers Joe Montana to Jerry Rice. Set in the small town of Dillon, Texas, the series uses the backdrop of high-school football to explore the lives of the coach, the football team, and the girls who swirl around the football team.

Central to the show, the marriage of Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) is hands down the best portrayal of marriage on TV currently available. The two are best friends and partners. They talk about everything: their jobs, their dreams, and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teagarden). They snap at each other and apologize. They make each other laugh. They challenge each other when they think there’s something wrong. Most of all, they support each other.

In the season opener, Tami is nearing the end of pregnancy and is on leave from her job as counselor at the high school. She has made the sacrifice of staying in Dillon while Coach moved, for a short time, so that he could pursue his dream of coaching a college team. Julie, a high-schooler, starts to flounder without her dad around. Tami is determined to make the difficult situation work, mothering a newborn and a teen alone, for the sake of her husband’s dream, but by the end of the first episode, she’s starting to wear thin. This TV marriage goes beyond the usual adolescent infatuation that all too often passes for romance, to show two loving, committed, and mature adults living life side by side.

Julie has two parents who are committed to her and to each other, but the other characters are not so blessed. Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), starts her school year trying to recover from her quarterback boyfriend’s a spinal injury and her parents’ separation. Her former boyfriend Jason Street (Scott Porter), is still adjusting to life in a wheelchair and finding purpose by helping coach the Dillon Panthers. Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), a talented and cocky black player from the hood, is entering his senior year, his flirtation with steroids hopefully behind him. New quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) lacks confidence and struggles at home to care for his Alzheimer’s grandmother, while his father is away in Iraq. Bad boy fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) lives with his older brother because his father deserted them, and searches to find meaning off-field that can match his passion for football. Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) enters her school year with inspiration from Tami Taylor to make it to college instead of following her mother’s example of skipping from man to man.

Coach and Tami Taylor have tried to fill in as parents as much as they could for these kids, setting boundaries on the football field, meting out consequences when possible, and believing in the kids when they need it. But the show makes it clear that it’s not enough. The children, and although they are high-schoolers they are still properly portrayed as children, suffer for their parents’ inattention and desertion. Some drink alcohol, some sleep around, and some hide themselves under a thick armor.

This season, one character experiences what the producers call “a religious conversion.” In short, Lyla, who has suffered and sinned as much as any character on the show, joins a church and becomes baptized. For the first few episodes she is insufferable, boldly proclaiming her faith and sneering at Riggins’ hedonistic lifestyle. This constitutes an ironic twist in the story because she was his secret lover when her boyfriend, Street, was in the hospital. Now Lyla has turned away from sex and partying for a new found faith, but hasn’t yet found a way to lovingly convey that to others. However, by the third episode this season, she softens and begins to better reflect the love of her new Savior. Part of the action takes place in a church, portrayed beautifully. It’s a place evangelicals would recognize, full of fervent worship and a passionate message about God’s love and grace. Lyla’s journey to faith is messy, but faith, church, and Christianity are treated with respect by the show.

And this respectful treatment of Christianity is intentionally done. Executive Producer and Director Jeffrey Reiner, a self proclaimed New Yorker, announced that the producers went to Texas and met many people as research for the show, saying:

One of the characters is going to find God. And I think a lot of shows would use that to kind of poke fun at it, but I find that I meet the preachers, and I meet people somebody might call kind of weird or zealous. But they’re not, you know, and we just end up meeting them as people.

Maybe it’s a revelation into the mind of many people in Hollywood that Mr. Reiner was surprised to find Texas Evangelicals normal, but hats off to him. He was willing to go, to explore, and to create an excellent show that addresses and respects Christianity. Moreover, he created a show that realistically depicts the struggle and the beauty of family life, as well as the toil of high school years lived without parental love and support. In doing so he glorifies what others shows scoff at, and in doing so he offers something remarkably fresh and original. Hollywood would be a better and more interesting place if others followed his example.

Rebecca Cusey writes about TV and popular culture from Washington D.C.

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