The Economics of Friday Night Lights
Sep 2010 29

The Economics of Friday Night Lights

Posted In Blog,Books,Entertainment,Movies,TV

by Brett Warner

“The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggle.” – Karl Marx

“It’s always about the money, isn’t it?” – Coach Eric Taylor

There is a scene late in the fourth season of NBC’s Friday Night Lights in which a sixteen year-old high school student named Becky Sproles confronts the football team’s star running back, Luke Cafferty, with some bad news: “I’m pregnant, and it’s yours, and I need an abortion…It’s really expensive, it’s like $300. And I don’t have all of it right now, but I can come up with half if you can come up with the other half.”

Television critics were quick to praise the show for its brave pro-choice stance, but Friday Night Lights adheres consistently to its “quasi-Marixst understanding that economics dictate everything.” (Ginia Bellafante, NY Times) Despite their clear eyes and full hearts, the residents of fictional working class town Dillon, Texas wind up losing quite a bit over the course of four football seasons; their televised drama reflects the struggles, worries, and economic woes of a significant percentage of the United States for whom the recession is far from over.

For the unfortunate majority of non-viewers, Friday Night Lights is an adaptation of the 1990 book “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream” by H.G. Bissinger and the subsequent 2004 film directed by Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Hancock), who later wrote and directed the television pilot. Its stories center around the residents, students, teachers, coaches, and fans of Dillon High School and their state championship hungry team, the Dillon Panthers.

Hard-hitting, real life issues like education funding, alcoholism, unemployment, and the cost of college are frequent reference points for the characters, and no year has epitomized the show’s hard economic backbone so spectacularly as the fourth and latest season. After a state mandated redistricting of Dillon, the poorer, predominantly black students east of the cut-off line are forced to attend the rundown, under-funded East Dillon High School, where former Panthers coach and FNL protagonist Eric Taylor struggles to put together a football team with lackluster resources and inexperienced players. His wife, West Dillon High principal Tami Taylor, previously almost lost her job when she allocated some of the booster club’s funds towards textbooks and teacher salaries instead of the blessed football team, and continues to square off against the pro-football, upper middle class town residents.

Elsewhere, we have new quarterback Vince Howard, who sweeps the floors at Ray’s BBQ and participates in local gang activity just to raise the money to put his drug addict mother into rehab. Tim Riggins (the always drunk, former Panthers fullback) and his older brother Billy start stripping stolen cars in the middle of the night so that Billy can support his wife and new baby.

West Dillon High, former home to most of our main characters, is revealed to be a pampered, privileged white neighborhood very wary and uncaring of their poorer neighbors to the east. The climactic match between the Dillon Panthers and East Dillon Lions in the fourth season finale is not just a big football game- it’s class warfare.

In a sad display of life imitating art, the production of Friday Night Lights has seen its own share of hard times. The show shoots on location in Austin, Texas, utilizing actual locations and local actors to save on production costs. Always low in the ratings and ignored during award seasons, the show almost fumbled the ball completely during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, during which NBC Entertainment head Ben Silverman made comments suggesting the drama would not be returning after its abridged second season.

FNL’s small but vocal fan base signed online protests pleading with NBC to save the show, and in October of 2008 it returned for a third year thanks to a shared telecast rights deal with DirectTV. The satellite service now splits the cost of Friday Night Lights and airs all new episodes before NBC on their 101 Network channel. When asked to comment on the upcoming fifth and final season, the actors, producers, and directors have expressed nothing but gratitude that their “little show that could” has managed to stay on the air this long.

For a drama that features such incredible actors and true-to-life, identifiable situations, Friday Night Lights has always fought a tough battle trying to find its audience. Huffington Post contributor Ed Martin suggests the show’s timing is much to blame for its uphill climb:

“[Friday Night Lights] debuted back in 2006, when unprecedented greed was consuming much of the country, including the working class. McMansions were viewed as starter homes. Shopping became a hobby. Money was the new religion, and nobody wanted to be reminded of those unfortunate souls who weren’t rolling in it or (foolishly) living as if they were. That is, ordinary folks like the residents of Dillon who live in small homes, drive old cars, struggle to pay their bills and embrace simple pleasures, like parades, picnics and Friday night high school football…

Television reflected all of this economic madness, and with very few exceptions most characters in most series (including so-called working class people) were shown to be living in spectacular houses or apartments way beyond the average person’s real life means…

Friday Night Lights dared to remind us that not everyone was living so large. I think the show’s poor ratings reflected a lack of interest by credit-empowered viewers, while its lack of industry support come Emmy time probably had something to do with the fact that so many people who have succeeded in the entertainment industry would rather not be reminded that not everybody lives as well as they do.”

(JackMyers.com)

Whether viewers are avoiding hard economic truths or simply uninterested in a show that markets itself as a football drama is anyone’s guess, but Friday Night Lights marches on into its final broadcast year with the same courageous dignity and strong heart that has come to define its best characters. The recession is not over for Dillon, Texas or for the majority of this country, and history will look back at our reality shows and magazine covers and see a society drowning in its own excess.

Like the forced optimism of 1930s studio musicals, television is allowing itself to slide into simple escapism. TV shows need to do more than just entertain us for a few hours every night- art reflects the era that creates it. Books, television, film, and music are time capsules that must preserve feelings and attitudes, personal successes and failures. Future generations will listen to our songs and watch our films and try to imagine what life was like way back when jobs were hard to find and TV shows had to fight to stay on the air. Outstanding dramas like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Friday Night Lights dare to make real reality television: stories about real people, for real people… and as FNL viewers know, the underdog never stays that way for long.

The fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights premieres October 27th on DirectTV’s The 101 Network.