Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Night Lights: The New "The Wire?"

WORK WITH ME ON this analogy for a moment: the United States as a microcosm of the entire globe. In this scenario, New York, with its major city, its British connections, and its chilly Atlantic climate would be England. California, with its long coastline, its wacky culture, and its obsession with technology, is Japan. So, which state is America? The ostentatiousness of Texas, its brashness, its bigness, its sense of self-regard, is the United States.

Even without this silly comparison, Texas is, perhaps the most American of states, and the last eight years of the Bush presidency have essentially made Texas America's state. The problems of Texas are the problems of our country; the obsessions of Texas are the obsessions of our country. To understand Texas, then, is in large part to understand America.

You can't understand Texas without understanding two interdependent pillars of Texas culture--the small town and football, and no contemporary text explores these two concepts better than Friday Night Lights.

Now that The Wire is no more, Friday Night Lights has emerged as the best hour-long drama on television.

Like The Wire, FNL concerns itself with a setting at the forefront of America's consciousness. For whatever reason--maybe Sarah Palin--this country's attention has migrated, gradually, from "the inner city" to "rural America." The "ghetto" used to be white culture's dramatic scapegoat, the scene against which America's problems got played out. Now, though, the small town has supplanted the ghetto as the most interesting pop culture setting.

For liberals, small towns are places where lynchings still exist, where polygamy happens, where males who go on shooting sprees are bred, and where evolution is kept out of schools. For conservatives, small towns are where America's family values are not just enacted but protected. Friday Night Lights takes an agnostic view of the small town; the fictional Dillon is neither romanticized nor lampooned.

It is, however, presented as a round place, full of complex social norms, stratifications, racial boundaries, and religious expectations. Unlike many independent films, who look at small towns the way an anthropologist might, FNL opens up the small town experience, making easy interpretations and facile paraphrasings pointless.

Less about football than about the role rituals like football, church, and family gatherings play in small town cultural life, FNL does an amazing job of making the everyday, the quotidian, the mundane, riveting.

If you haven't seen the show--and even if you don't like football--try an episode, then try a second. You'll be hooked.

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