I was recently happy to discover that Friday Night Lights is on Amazon Prime. I think it has been there for a little while, but I hadn’t watched it since it was taken off of Netflix a few years ago. As I have just restarted the first season, I feel like I am not necessarily the prime demographic for this show. It is obviously a high school drama which I would argue was probably targeted at a female audience, but I have to say that there are some themes embedded in this story that still speak to me as an adult male who really has never had much interest in teen dramas.
The first immediate, and obvious, application is the way that this show portrays Jason Street and his disability. Obviously it is dramatized, and I am sure it is a little bit over the top compared to almost any experience most people have. However, there are real issues of identity that he wrestles with. Wrestling with the world that used to bow to him and now doesn’t seem quite as subservient, I think what I appreciate most about him is he is not a perfect character. He is not simply the noble victim. We see him get mad. We see him get frustrated. He makes bad decisions. While it may seem odd for me to say that, it humanizes his character in a way that I think is important for portraying people with disabilities on the screen. I’m sure there have been articles written complaining about his character because I am sure it offended someone, but at least from my perspective, I appreciate that this show wrestles with issues of disability. It is not perfect, but they have given us a human character, and we see him wrestle with issues that many people with disabilities have dealt with.
Secondly, I identify with the portrayal of community in Dillon, Texas. I am obviously not from Texas. I have visited Texas one time in my life. I am from Vermont. We don’t care about football nearly that much as a general rule. That being said, Dillon is a small town with some very real socioeconomic challenges. I can identify with that in central Vermont. There are things that bring communities together without a doubt. For us, it is not football, but we have our own celebrations and events that draw in the crowds. Our racetrack, for example, is one of them, but my point is that there are institutions in place that bring about dimensions of community despite the socioeconomic challenges that exist for so many people in our area.
Thirdly, I am intrigued by the portrayal of religion. I have written about Christianity in Vermont recently, but the challenges that are portrayed in this show based in Texas are very different than what I experience. Everyone prays before the football game and in church before they go out to party, drink, and be with their girlfriends. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in Vermont churches by any means. I’m not meaning to stigmatize Texas either. My point is that in many places that are not like my home state, there is a type of cultural Christianity. People go to church because everyone else does. They know how to pray because they all learned how to pray. The church is a relevant institution, but it does not always seem to be the type of place that inspires a deep degree of religious devotion to the traditional tenets of Christian morality. This phenomenon can happen anywhere, but it is fascinating to see it portrayed on screen because it is so different than my experience. Here at home, it is not uncommon for people to have little or no religious literacy. Having a prayer before a football game would seem really out of place, but in places where Christianity is more built into the culture, people just do it because that is what is done. I’m not trying to insult any state here, but looking into a portrayal of Christianity as a cultural institution is an intriguing perspective. It enters into the story here and there, but it is not a focal point of any character’s worldview most of the time.
I think that another reason this show appears to be simply because we all love an underdog story. After the tragedy of Jason’s injury, we see the quarterback position turned over to the very young and uncertain Matt Saracen. Framed as the underdog from the start that no one believes in, you can’t help but cheer for him the entire time. Of course, his journey parallels multiple other storylines that I don’t necessarily want to ruin in case any of you have not watched it yet, but you can’t help but cheer for the guy that nobody seems to believe in.
Finally, one last theme that seems particularly relevant to our age is the importance of family. This somewhat connects to my previous comments on socioeconomic challenges, but there are very few characters in the story that come from typical families. Most of them are missing at least one parent, and even among the families that are stable, there is typically a great deal of tension. Part of that is obviously because this is a drama that needs conflict in order to drive the story forward. However, the reality in our world right now is that many people are struggling with broken families, and there are real consequences on families when bad situations develop. I see that in my area, and you probably see that in your area. The breakdown of the family is one of the most significant crises in our world right now even though a lot of people don’t want to talk about it or try to diminish its importance. Obviously this is a TV show with extra drama, but the real pain experienced by broken families I think is portrayed in a way that our culture needs to realize.
Overall, I do think this is one of those shows that brings out themes that can speak to all of us. At least for me, that’s the power of a good story, and I think it causes something about what CS Lewis was getting at in The Abolition of Man. He contends that there are some objective, universal truths that people are, for lack of a better word, wired to comprehend. Societies have consistently rejected murder. However, they are not building upon each other’s traditions. For whatever reason, they seem to develop this idea independently yet consistently. Could it perhaps mean that these ideas emerge from within the human heart? If that’s true, then who put this code there in the first place?
These types of universal themes I have described above remind me of this. I don’t think anything I have written above will seem crazy to you, but that’s kind of the point. And I think it leads us to ask bigger questions about who we are, what we believe, and why we believe it. See, there is some applicability in a teenage drama, even for people like me who might not fit the demographic.