Farewell to FNL : Bridging America’s Divides

5 minute read
James Poniewozik

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1940, tells us that every American has a claim on all of America: cities and deserts, wheat fields and skyscrapers. What a quaint notion. Today we talk more in terms of your America and my America — from Sarah Palin, who praised the “pro-America areas” of the country, to Kevin Smith, who directed Red State , a horror movie about a fundamentalist nut job in flyover country.

Dividing us into town and city, red and blue, real and fake is usually an oversimplification to secure votes, ratings or box-office revenue. But if there’s one legitimate Hollywood-heartland divide in pop culture, it’s on our TV screens: the great shows of the past decade — The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Shield, 30 Rock — have largely been a travelogue of coastal blue states.

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Since 2006, Friday Night Lights , whose finale airs on DirecTV on Feb. 9, has been an exception. (NBC, which co-produces FNL , will run the final season later this year.) Set in small-town Dillon, Texas, this brilliantly written and acted drama about high school football — and much more — has been a moving, regionally specific but universally true portrait of America.

FNL is not a political show, except that it’s about those things politicians like to lay claim to: community, values, faith, the little guy, the kids. Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) begins the series as head coach of the Dillon Panthers, whose winning history is the best thing this working-class small town has going for it. His wife Tami (Connie Britton) is a counselor, and later principal, at the school.

Like that other classic of small-town America, It’s a Wonderful Life , FNL is about community, its benefits and its burdens. Coach Taylor, like George Bailey, is put upon, second-guessed and sometimes held back by his town. After the third season, he loses his job in an administrative power play and goes across town to rebuild the football program at East Dillon, the town’s poor-cousin high school.

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Yet when he’s tempted to quit or when college-coaching opportunities come along, he’s drawn back by the people who need him: the kids for whom football is their shot at college, the locals who hold to their team with a faith akin to theirs in God. (Few series are as matter of fact about the importance of religion, be it expressed in church or in a student’s Christian speed-metal band.)

It’s not only Coach Taylor who feels the tug of others. Story line after story line on FNL is about having responsibility for someone else. We meet players who care for a grandmother with dementia or a mother with a drug habit, who have to bail out a brother in trouble with the law or miss classes to help run a family farm.

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The underlying theme is, we need each other. Everyone, even a teenager, is part of a web of dependence. You could see the show, from the right, as an example of how the best social programs are a job, a family and self-discipline; you could see it, from the left, as an argument for the crucial importance of an underfunded government institution, the public school. You would be right both ways.

FNL has shown the same generosity and nuance in dealing with tricky social issues. A Season 4 episode in which a player’s estranged father dies in Iraq was a complex depiction of grief, mixed emotions and war’s impact on a small town. That season, a student had an abortion, a rarity on TV since Maude ‘s in 1972. FNL was unapologetic and unflinching in showing the decision and its repercussions — not just for the girl, but for Tami, who has to leave her job for having counseled her. FNL handled the story with such grace that even Andrew Breitbart’s conservative website Big Hollywood praised the episode’s “dignity and maturity.”

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FNL has pulled this off by sticking to one byword: respect. Dillon has unemployment, drugs and strip clubs, but it’s also a town where teenagers still say “ma’am” and “sir.” Coach Taylor is respect personified. Unlike Don Draper, he’s a hero, not an antihero; Chandler gives him a soft-spoken honor that today’s serious drama rarely depicts. And he gives respect back, teaching his players the strength that comes from unironic devotion, captured in the motto “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Though they can, of course. Sometimes teams lose, families lose, towns lose. What saves them is teamwork, which goes beyond the sidelines. FNL is a football show, but one in which what matters above all is not the Hail Mary pass but the faces in the stands watching its arc. “When you go back out on the field,” Taylor tells his team as they trail in a big game at halftime, “those are the people I want in your minds. Those are the people I want in your hearts.”

Just as HBO’s crime-drama masterpiece The Wire was a searing vision of what is wrong with America, Friday Night Lights has been a clear-eyed, full-hearted tribute to what is right with it. Whether you’re urban or rural, red or blue or purple, this show was made for you and me.

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