Friday Night Lights (TV version) missed chances to deeply explore issues of race and social class

The TV series Friday Night Lights recently came to a close after five seasons. I have read the original book, seen the movie, and watched all the episodes of the TV show. While the book was one that gained some popularity as an Intro to Sociology text, I think the TV series missed opportunities to tackle two subjects rarely tackled in mainstream movies and TV: race and social class.

Even as critics lauded the show for more honest portrayals of family life and teenage relationships (and football faded into the background), the show only hinted at these two issues. There are clearly some people who were more wealthy than others: some of the main characters, like Matt Saracen, Tim Riggins, and Becky Sproles come from humble and/or troubled backgrounds while others, like Jason Street, Lyla Garrity, and JD McCoy have more privileged backgrounds. But these issues, which surely would have affected interpersonal relationships, were usually downplayed in favor of football issues. Take JD McCoy for example: he lives in a big house and his dad has lots of money. But it’s not their relative wealth that matters much but rather their arrogance and interest in taking over the Dillon football program that makes them the villain. We do see characters struggling to work and get ahead: Billy Riggin’s wife works in a strip club, Smash Williams sees a football scholarship as the way out of his family’s circumstances, and Jess Merriweather has to work hard at her father’s restaurant and as the football manager. Race wasn’t addressed directly though it simmered under the surface, particularly after the split into the East and West Dillion football programs. The East Dillon Lions were clearly on the wrong side of the tracks because of race and relative wealth. Particularly as Coach Taylor moved away from the relatively opulence of the Panthers program to East Dillon, the us vs. them mentality was developed but it was a package deal revolving around beating the other side of town in football.

One key feature missing out of the book is the Latino population. Odessa, the town in which the original book was based, was 48% Latino in the 2000 Census. The TV show made Dillon out to be split between blacks and whites with little to no Latino characters. Perhaps this was because it is easier to work on the contrasts between two groups but the book’s depth was enhanced by these relationships. I would have enjoyed seeing the show tackle this as many areas of the country, such as Texas, are now adjusting to a growing Latino population.

A second issue involves the future lives of these high school students. A number of the main characters are portrayed as being fairly successful, particularly Jason Street who quickly transforms into an agent or Tyra Collette who goes to UT-Austin, while the less successful characters simply fade away. Perhaps this is a good illustration of what happens after life in high school football: the students who were once stars often fade into the sunset. But, on the other hand, the show could have found a way to follow these characters through the ups and downs after football. Tim Riggins is the main character we get to follow as he drops out of college and his football scholarship, ends up in jail, and then hopes to start a new life. We could have seen more of this and how one’s background in high school and before affected one’s life chances in the adult world in and out of Dillon. This is yet another show that suggests high school life is a peak and life afterwards is of lesser interest.

A third issue: how much interaction was there between the players and their families outside of school? We see gatherings for football but little else. Were there other institutions in the community, such as churches, that either bridged some of these divides or reinforced gaps between groups? In the end, should we think that high school football was the one and only institution in the community that was able to bring people together?

Perhaps the show should be applauded for even hinting at these issues but at the same time, it could have really explored these important concerns and how they affect high school, football, and community life. Instead, the show settled into more comfortable high school drama territory with a revolving set of relationships with a background of winning football teams. Like most shows, the series was about the lives of the individual characters, not about the town of Dillon or the impact of high school football in the community. I still the enjoyed the show but it could have taken some clues from the book and been that rare TV show that is able to entertain and address difficult social issues.