On Friday Night Lights

Come Home: West Texas Identities

By Jacob Clifton

1. Texas Radio

“Wait, so in West Texas do they really have a radio show about high school football?”

“In West Texas they have entire stations about high school football.”

“Okay. But what do they talk about the rest of the year?”

“Um, what . . . What do you mean?”

It was the holiday season of 2006, and my friend Ali’s husband, Mike, had recorded the first four or five episodes of Friday Night Lights and–like the rest of America–was planning on watching them some day that never quite came. I was visiting them in Dallas, like I do most years, and we’d come across the episodes on the TiVo and, being cozy inside and unwilling to leave the couch–I think there might have been literal ice cream involved–we turned it on.

Alison’s an attorney, and I never stop working, so the idea of spending the day in bed with a TV show seemed novel, maybe even a little dangerous. I was uncomfortable with discussing my West Texas provenance, or playing resident expert, two things viewing a show with Friday Night Lights’ setting normally would have led to. But we’d gone to college together, and I knew she knew my painful secret. We thought it was an experiment in sloth.

But by the time Jason Street was down and Eric Taylor was leading his boys in prayer, it felt like we were doing anything but playing hooky from life. We were engaged, leaning forward, screaming at the screen, for the rest of the day. And when Mike came home from work, we started over again from the beginning.

As a TV critic, I’ve come to learn that the things I love most, the movies and stories that I can honestly say have changed my life, generally turn out to be the ones I can’t immediately assess. Most people like the things they like, and dislike the things they don’t. I understand that it generally works that way, but it’s rare that it does for me. The films of Ang Lee, the more recent show The Good Wife: I still can’t tell you why I love them, only that I do–and with my whole self.

That cold Dallas day was five years ago, but I think I’m only beginning to understand exactly why Friday Night Lights affects me the way that it does. And it’s at once as coldly quantifiable, and totally personal, as only the best art can be.

2. About vs. “About”

Try telling somebody who’s never seen the show how good it is, and you know what they’ll say: it’s a show about football. Try telling somebody from West Texas how good it is, and they’ll say, “I lived through that the first time.”

From 1993—1995, I attended Midland’s Robert E. Lee High School (Team: The Lee Rebels), whose Confederate flag only recently came down. Our rival school is Odessa Permian, whose 1988 Panthers lineup was the subject of Bissinger’s book. In some ways a sore subject, the book and later movie were discussed in quiet tones that had faded altogether by the time the show came around.

At worst, from simply flipping past or seeing a commercial, the show’s visual beauty and complex issues gave West Texans the impression of a gloss on our little sister-towns: a show “about” us that wasn’t really about us at all. At best, it was a reminder of something precious that we might have already lost.

Of course, that’s if you haven’t seen it. If you know the show, you know it’s about a much larger “us.”

3. Money & No Money

To understand West Texas, the politics and identities that distinguish it from the rest of the world, is first to understand Texas. Neither South nor North, neither Midwest nor Coastal, Texas is its own strange thing. Our collective national images of Texas–big skies, cowboys, guns, and millionaires–are not entirely off-base. Texas combines the frontier pride of the other horse states (Wyoming, Montana) with the peculiarities of its size. Texas is gigantic, and even with its three major urban complexes and their suburbs, there’s enough space left over–full of towns, lives, histories–that those cities don’t even describe its essence.

And then way up toward the Panhandle, at the top and western end of Texas, bordering New Mexico and Oklahoma, you get the Permian Basin, from which our country still gets one-fifth of its petroleum. The Texas oil business is administrated almost entirely out of Midland and Odessa. Until the Oil Bust in the mid-80s, that meant an economy based almost entirely on the oil industry: lawyers, luxuries, assayers, riggers, insurance companies, and the rest rose and fell based on oil futures and crude prices. Mostly rose. After the Bust, those boutique industries were forced to merge into larger companies or risk fading altogether, and the archetypal Oil Baron became a relic. Those who sold well stayed on top; those who braved it out or sold poorly never quite got back on the horse.

In most small-town stories, you have a pretty wide class array, plenty of economic strata to play with. Most southern writers, McCullers and Percy to Flagg and Faulkner, assemble southern types in just this way; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is in some ways a strict meditation on the ways negotiating these concerns led to the creation of whole identities.

What sets an Odessa or Midland story apart–and thus sets apart the characters in play–is the near absence of a middle class. On a national scale, the per-capita earnings of a single upper-class household may not seem like much to those outside the region, but in the tiny oil-bubble economy of West Texas, money has its own meaning and its own scale. (One of the few southern aspects of Texas, in fact, is the agreed-upon disconnect between money and class.)

On the first three seasons of the show, for example, the only time money came up–beyond Buddy’s constant search for booster contributions, of course–was when J.D. McCoy’s family arrived. In the later seasons, of course, you had East Dillon and all the race-class-money complications that arise there, but the original cast had very little to say about money. That wasn’t a mistake or oversight, and wasn’t a result of other story priorities: it’s that this kind of conflict is a rare thing in West Texas. Between the two monolithic economic levels–money and no money–there aren’t a lot of shades of gray. If there were interactions between the two, there would be explosive conflict, and on occasion, of course, there is. But interaction is rare. It’s a matter less of antipathy than of geography: in Texas, you have space enough to keep your own self-segregated company.

And even in the post-Bust days (when most of our characters were born), those economic levels didn’t really change: the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor, because the Bust had already sorted us all out. We’ve now entered another Boom: there are estimates currently that around 2,000 jobs are available in the oil fields, with nobody to fill them. But we’ve all already found our own ways to survive, whether in poverty or otherwise, and the days of hardworking oil-field roughnecks are tip-of-the-tongue history, not a growth industry. It’s a bit late in the day for a real oil resurgence, environmentally speaking, and the high-risk nature of the industry isn’t as exciting as it was before the Bust.

Taking money out of the equation, dealing with the specifically political and polarizing subject matter of a show like this–race, sexuality, gender roles, the place of religion in public life–may seem like a strange move to make, since we’re so used to imputing money when we discuss these things on a national scale. But it’s essential to understanding the politics of the show itself.

4. Puppets & Umbrellas

“Conservative” and “liberal” mean different things for a Texan–especially a West Texan–than to the rest of the world. And rather than giving a dry summation of why that is, I can point you to the show itself. Because while the rest of us were labeling states red and blue and blaming each other for everything that ever went wrong, Friday Night Lights was softly explaining the culture war in terms that showed the positive on both sides of that conflict, without ever sacrificing the importance of either.

And it’s my belief that this show could only ever have taken place in West Texas because of its strange mix of conservatism and liberalism. Neither red nor blue, nor really purple, West Texas takes the strangest aspects of both and slaps them together. As a financial center, you have a Republican majority complaining about taxes, of course, but also investing with pride in our children’s education, which is not at all a statewide priority. As the standard bearer for the Wild West, you have lots of guns–but few Second Amendment debates, because we mainly use rifles, and for their intended purpose. You have socially conservative values-voters who are honestly horrified by the bullying and violence that are a direct result of their family- and value-centered causes. And so on.

Because our media has focused so much on itself, on the way it tells its stories and pressures us politically, it can often seem like the other side is only sheep: here Glenn Beck weeping over his gold, there Jon Stewart, smirking his way through another yokel interview, everybody doing what they’re told. Because we’re only talking to ourselves, those stark political lines can start to seem like the reality. And even if you get close enough to “them” to investigate further, you might still come away convinced you were right all along.

Republicans do vote with their hearts, not their heads. Glenn Beck is a puppetmaster. Or, alternately, Democrats do live entirely within their own superiority. Jon Stewart is a pundit hiding under his I’m-no-pundit umbrella.

5. Fight Songs

But look a little closer yet, through the lens of Peter Berg, and things start to look a little different. Maybe it’s because of the lush documentary filming style, with its balletic choreography of handheld cameras. Maybe it’s the improvised-feeling, naturalistic acting of the show’s talented cast. Heck, maybe it’s the Greek chorus of the football radio.

Or maybe it’s because all of these things, through their artifice, manage to show you things more clearly than you might have been able to perceive on your own. Which is the role of all great art, isn’t it?

Because what the show can show you is that liberals don’t just live in their own superiority: they believe in the potential for everybody’s superiority, because that’s really just another definition for equality. Tami Taylor couldn’t get up in the morning without that thought in her head, and she always couches her feminism (a label she would never claim!) as self-respect: simple and obvious and necessary, not political–certainly not liberal–but essential.

Eric believes with so much of himself in the potential of his boys that when they go wrong he carries that failure on his back and cries himself to sleep, without once thinking of the color of their skin or in which part of town they live. Again: a response neither political nor liberal, but merely a rational and compassionate extension of the relationships he’s built with these kids.

And that’s the genius of the show: conservatives don’t just vote with their hearts, they do everything with their hearts. Including all those heartless acts that horrify liberals, like trying to ensure their families succeed, and their money doesn’t vanish, and that their kids will be competitive enough to survive in the ugly, real world (you know, the one liberals sometimes have trouble admitting exists?). Those slogans–“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” and pledges of loyalty–“Texas Forever”–actually mean something.

They mean touching something larger than yourself and knowing that you are a part of it. That you are loved, in a transpersonal and symbolic way that is simultaneously totally anonymous and completely, forever, yours aloneto cherish.

And that is something, a fleeting feeling, that we all know and can remember. If you’re anything like me, you’re much more likely to well up in the presence of something beautiful than something sad. You get the lump in the throat when you are feeling good, not so much when you’re feeling bad. Imagine having that feeling all the time, in response to certain triggers–hearth and home, national defense, the flag and concept of our country themselves, American authenticity in any of its kitschier forms–and you’ll understand more about the voting process in this country than a million talking heads could chart for you.

There is no conservative lock on patriotism, any more than liberals have a monopoly on charity. But liberal patriotism looks suspiciously like nitpicking, the attempt to create a better country through constant complaint, and conservative charity looks suspiciously like church.

The only reason flag-burning is a wedge every ten years, the only reason Glenn Beck gets away with the silly, pandering performances he pulls out regularly, is because we differ about which symbols and ideas are important. This is patently ridiculous, because the ideals actually are the same–or at least the ones that matter, from the pride and complexity of a national identity to the love and hope we have for our children–which is why Friday Night Lights rules: it takes away everything dressing up the ideal and then clothes that ideal anew, in compelling characters and dramatic arcs with no political agenda at all.

Or at least not one you would recognize, these days.

6. One Thing & the Other

Name a purely conservative character on Friday Night Lights. No? How about a purely liberal character, there’s got to be at least one silly or glib . . . no? Not even that awful little lesbian? Well, how about the minorities, they can’t be voting Republican. Oh, they’re generally portrayed as more religiously (and sometimes socially) conservative than anybody else? What about that one annoying girlfriend of Smash’s? She was a vegetarian or something . . . Nope: pastor father and the stigma of mental illness.

And this complexity isn’t a case of Hollywood character-creation, either. They’re all real West Texas archetypes and real people, which unlike your political foes are never solely one thing or the other. (I knew at least one Jason Street, and about twenty Tim Rigginses, and those boys loved each other even more, if it’s possible, than do their TV counterparts.)

The whole time it aired, the favorite show among U.S. senators, without regard to political affiliation, was overwhelmingly The West Wing. Perhaps this was narcissism–definitely, a little bit, it was–but it was also because the show was unfailingly compassionate toward every viewpoint, respectful to the humanity of every complaint, damning of lazy partisanship from every direction, and all in a way that was as moving as it was rare.

Friday Night Lights, in its embattled way, took up that mantle. The show is pretty direct, though I wouldn’t say “unflinching,” about the sometimes ugly, behind-the-scenes parts of conservatism: gender biases, issues of race and religion, the profit motive, the usual demons of the Right.

But what the show is also doing, and so well and so palatably you might miss it completely, is showing the positive aspects of that same order of philosophy–team play, leadership, military service, patriotism, even religious work–in a way that doesn’t ping liberal sensibilities.

You might not even know you were learning about conservative values at all: to see the show tell it, you might just think you were looking at the finest things of which human beings are capable.

7. War Movies

The concept of the football team–as something you would die for, get in a bar fight about, cry in front of your children over even stone-cold sober–is something that makes visceral sense to the conservative mind, and very little sense to anybody else.

Even high school teams: they are still teams. The finest move the show makes is helping you to understand why. To feel that grip around your heart and lungs you remember getting from the West Wing theme song: we are all here, together, doing something remarkable. Simply by living in this country, at this time, you are a member of a team so large and varied it’s barely comprehensible.

The show makes you understand that while these boys are compelling individuals on their own, with problems and victories only we get to see, they are also a family of unbelievable rigor, and loyalty, and above all transience. High school football is a war movie that lasts three years at best, but also never really ends.

And you see these themes, of synthesis and compassion beyond the extraneous markers we generally use to describe ourselves, play out everywhere, not muddled together or meeting in the middle but brightly represented, both sides at once.

In the Taylors’ robust marriage, with its absolutely equal give-and-take and endless supply of humor, you see what a conservative head of household can be, and often is. In Julie Taylor’s religious questioning and Tami’s compassion, Landry Clarke’s complete lack of judgment or hypocrisy or scorn, you see what a Christian is supposed to be, and often is. In Matt Saracen, you see that even a broken father can pass on the strength of a soldier to his son.

8. All of the Us

By never begging the question or presenting straw-man arguments, as a lot of our entertainment does, Friday Night Lights is never drawn down the road of seeing these people as anything but people. And speaking as a gay, liberal atheist from Austin, I’m not making the case for conservatism, or in fact doing anything other than your best and hardest work fighting for your ideals, whatever they are. I’m only making the case–as the show does–for humans, for your fellow Americans. For your people. All of the us.

And I don’t think without this show I would be able to say that with any kind of conviction at all, because the noise has gotten so loud and everybody’s using the same tricks, regardless of where they sit along the political aisle. I don’t think that I would have been able to go home, or even to think of it as home, without that show giving me clearer eyes and a fuller heart than I ever would have believed possible.

Because now, when I think of West Texas, it’s with Eric Taylor in mind, under a blazing sky. It’s all those boys dropping to their knees, in silence, the day Six fell. It’s knowing that Tami would never, ever choose a life other than the one she’s got. It’s in knowing that I don’t have to be wheelchair-bound to someday become half as good a man as Jason Street.

It’s in knowing that what I thought was impenetrable, impossible, too complex to ever really explain–how something as unique as I always found myself came from something so small and tawdry and cheap and close-minded–is not really a problem in any way.

Because I’m not all that special, certainly not all that different from anybody else from Midland or anywhere else. And because that place is not all that small, or tawdry, or cheap, or hateful. And because I know that no matter where you are from, you don’t have any reason to be ashamed. And thanks to Friday Night Lights, I don’t have to explain any of that when I tell you where I’m from: you already know. And you know, too, that it feels like home.

And you know, every single West Texas expatriate of my acquaintance has eventually said to me, once we were old enough to understand it, or even think it: Even though I ran screaming from that place the second I could–convinced, as all adolescents are, of my oppression and subjugation and persecution, despite all evidence to the contrary–it’s okay to love it, too.

Maybe even essential.

Enjoy This Essay?

More from Jacob Clifton

Stay Updated

on our daily essay, giveaways, and other special deals

Our Books

On Our Blog

We Can’t Get Enough of Fifty Shades of Grey

FiftyWritersonFiftyShadesofGrey_Revised_FrontCoverThe movie may have been released in February, but we still can’t get...

Posted April 28th

The Big Bang Theory: A Writer’s Panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2014

Coming just in time for the holidays, Smart Pop is working with George Beahm on an updated edition of Unraveling...

Posted August 14th

San Diego Comic-Con 2014 Recap + Giveaway

A couple weeks ago we headed to San Diego for our fourth year of exhibiting at Comic-Con. It was equal...

Posted August 5th | 13 Comments »

Subscribe via RSS