Friday Night Lights, Season 5

I Figured Out FNL's Politics
Talking television.
Jan. 13 2011 7:40 AM

Friday Night Lights, Season 5

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Brad Leland as Buddy Garrity, Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor. Click image to expand.
Buddy Garrity and Coach Eric Taylor 

What is the political ideology of Friday Night Lights? I've occasionally puzzled over this question. FNL is beloved by conservatives for its depiction of an awesome marriage, its valorization of football, its code of personal responsibility, and its insistence that bad behavior will be punished (except for, um, murdering someone and disposing of the body). But liberals can make their case, too: FNL allows Becky to get an abortion without consequences, disapproves of Luke's fundamentalist parents, celebrates public education, and loves on its occasional gay characters.

Although this episode was, as Hanna says, a dreary placeholder, it did help me finally locate FNL on the political spectrum. It is not liberal or conservative. It is communitarian. FNL believes in groups—families, teams, communities. It believes that the groups we belong to supply and enforce useful rules, and provide an excellent moral order that pure individual self-interest cannot offer. In the opening scene, the radio announcer—FNL's one-man Greek chorus—declares after the Lions' loss: "That wasn't a team out there folks. It was a bunch of individuals." The rest of the episode is a variation on this theme: In almost all of the plots, we have a character in the grip of individualist thinking who encounters, and is rescued by, another character who instead thinks about the group. Most acutely, Vince, egged on by his dad, is pursuing his own selfish future—blaming others for the loss, deriding Jess, and blowing off his tutoring session with Luke (even after Coach tells him, "I'm asking you to help out a teammate"). His mom's gentle counsel brings him back, and it's just a matter of a week or so before Vince selflessly leads his Lions to victory.

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The me-versus-team theme is everywhere. The tragedy of Epyck is that just as she reaches out to Tami—just as she decides to live communally rather than as an isolate—she loses it all. Her accidental assault not only splits her from Tami, but also from the school, and from her tough-love foster mom. Mindy panics about her pregnancy until Billy arrives home, and immediately rejoices in "Rigglet No. 2 coming to a theater soon." Reassured at the prospect of a unified family, Mindy sets aside her worries about her job and their finances. Luke seems ready to leave Becky high and dry, keeping her away from his parents, but at the last minute he insists on bringing Becky to dinner, tucked neatly under his game-winning biceps—a pair, a team.

What about Julie, you say? Isn't the message of the episode that she needs to break away from her parents and from Matt, and strike out on her own? Not exactly! When Julie first went to college, she abandoned the familial and communal institutions that gave her moral guidance. The result was chaos: She lived selfishly, and messed up three lives. The interlude at home and with Matt have restored her foundation: She can return to Burleson because she now knows where she belongs in the world.

Was that a Livestrong bracelet on Matt's wrist? About four years ago, a friend of mine said he was aiming to be the last person in America wearing a Livestrong band. His point, of course, was that they had gone from incredibly cool in 2005 to amazingly uncool by 2007. But here we are in 2011, and Mattie Saracen is still wearing the bracelet to art openings and no doubt showing it off to gallery lasses, perhaps when he is offering to sketch their hands.

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David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.