The cast of characters populating the most successful and ground-breaking television shows of the past ten years or so is rather motley at best: Jersey mobsters, Western brothel owners, a self-centered California embezzler’s misfit family, and Baltimore drug dealers and the corrupt city around them all spring to mind.
Apart from the midst of the grime and grit, far away from the depressing ghettos and mysterious islands, lies little Dillon, Texas, smack in the middle of fly-over country but still struggling with problems of a very concrete, cosmopolitan nature. As depicted on NBC/DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights, Dillon contains some of the most compelling characters on television; chief among them, at the very thematic and moral core of the show, are Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami.
Together, Eric and Tami are Dillon, a canvas upon which the creators of the show paint the town’s values and struggles. Football is central to the show and the town, which lives and dies with the gridiron fate of the Dillon High Panthers. Sports-centered shows are notoriously difficult to get right, and one of the reasons that Friday Night Lights succeeds is because football is used as a jumping-off point for larger discussions, and often as the deus ex machina that sets everything to rights. Thus, an episode about abortion defies the usual “on a very special episode of…” dynamic which puts all the focus on the issue at hand, instead using the football plot to parallel and intersect the abortion plot in very relatable ways.
In the midst of these maelstroms lie the Taylors. While Eric coaches the football team through its ups and downs, Tami works as a school counselor and principal, and their respective professional responsibilities often collide as a result. It is here that the show begins to truly shine, because the Taylors share the single most realistic marriage on modern television. Instead of being a bumbling oaf of a husband whose pratfalls are a source of consternation for his long-suffering spouse, Eric is a man of high personal integrity and consistency, sometimes to a fault and his own professional detriment. And Tami is no shrewish killjoy to a happy-go-lucky dude unfortunately shackled by the bonds of matrimony; she is thoughtful and considerate, sensitive to (though sometimes bemused by) Eric’s unique place in Dillon’s ecosystem.
Before we proceed any further, an ample tip of the cap must be made to the actors who infuse these roles with detail and vibrant life. Kyle Chandler’s Eric is a man of few drawled words, capable of locker room eloquence when necessary, but often preferring to communicate sparsely and directly. The beauty of the character is his eyes; Chandler’s dark brows and thousand yard stare show his inner dialogue better than any voice-over could hope to express. When Tami makes a surprising revelation at the end of season one, those furrowed brows leap up in amazement while the eyes suddenly flash; it is only a moment later that the last domino falls and his smile breaks out, but his face is already grinning.
Likewise, Connie Britton as Tami is as outspoken as Eric is stoic, talking with her hands, raising her voice to her children before calming to apologize. One of the amazing aspects of these two characters’ interactions is that their marriage is one of real affection – marked by neither constant sheet-shaking passion nor perfunctory pecks on the cheek, but the sort of care that, you know, real people have. After the birth of their second daughter, Eric is beside himself in waiting for the resumption of marital intimacy, but Tami is still not ready; these scenes are hilariously played, and given true resonance by Britton’s previously-established affection for Coach. It’s not that she doesn’t love him anymore – it just ain’t time yet.
In that same episode, Eric attempts to woo his wife back into bed by suggesting a night out with her girlfriends and a bottle of her favorite wine. He’s obviously transparent when he thinks he’s being subtle, but the crucial thing about this plot is that he’s trying. Anyone who has been in a serious relationship, married or otherwise, knows that its success or failure depends on shared effort. Instead of showing the Taylors as having a healthy marriage by default simply because they’re the protagonists of the show, great pains are taken to show them being proactive, taking nights out together when life gets harried, creating a united front for their daughters, and backing each other’s town-affecting decisions.
Later in the series, the spectre of a wedge is slowly raised in the Taylors’ relationship. As the town’s dynamics shift dramatically, robbing Eric of his built-in advantage as the only game in town and placing Tami on thin ice with the school board, you begin to feel the stress and dread that these events might finally shatter their connection. Eric lingers for drinks with a booster in a situation which usually saw him retreating to Tami for refuge, and Tami draws close to a colleague at work. Ultimately, a margarita-fueled mistake becomes a joke instead of a melodrama, and the Taylors emerged, not unscathed but together nonetheless.
Had this been The Wire, Tami would’ve betrayed her marriage, and Eric probably would’ve killed one of his players while driving drunk. But Friday Night Lights’ decision not to go in this direction isn’t a cop-out or concession to the need for a happy ending. One of the fundamental truths of the show is that intact families are a blessing in their very existence, and a blessing to those around them. If Eric and Tami were destroyed, so would Dillon be. The tenacity of their relationship thus reflects the tenacity of the town, the degree to which they care about a high school game, and the struggles they go through just to be in the stands cheering each week.
A temptation arises when we are presented with characters and a show of this caliber. When recognizing something beautiful and true with which we identify, we want to champion its cause under the umbrella of our own worldview, somehow sanctifying its excellence with our endorsement. This temptation is particularly acute in the case of a show that is critically beloved, but almost unseen from a ratings standpoint. If this show is such a showcase for family values and marriage as it is, whither the watchdogs of evangelical America? Should they not be rallying to its cause? Naturally, the fact that coach says “ass” in his pre-game speeches and a true-to-life amount of underage canoodling and consumption stands in the way of their wholehearted advocacy.
But does this lack of recognition even matter? Should we appreciate an entertainment whose character would be excellent and laudable if it had played out in real life as just an entertaining hour, or hold it up as the balm in Gilead, that if only more would watch it, marriages would be healed? Certainly a middle ground exists between these poles.
In my life, I’ve found both entertainment and encouragement from Friday Night Lights; in fact, the two are co-dependent, as the encouraging aspects of the show make it more entertaining. The truth of the matter is that no matter what your worldview or where you reside, Dillon, Texas is a place you recognize and that draws you into its big-hearted world. It’s a winner, because as Coach Taylor often tells his team, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”