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The One Show that Can Save America: Friday Night Lights (part 2)

April 15, 2011

Part Two in my out-of-order breakdown of Friday Night Lights.

MORALITY

Friday Night Lights is a morality play for modern America.

To the medieval gawker, the morality play demonstrated the struggle between good and evil by personifying the vices, who tempted the protagonist with pleasures of the flesh. The protagonist who faltered ended up in a literalized hell.

To the modern American television viewer, morality has been replaced by rationality. Good and Evil have lost their meaning- they’re too hokey and too subjective. Characters act badly for good reason: they want the inheritance, they want to corner the market, they want a new wife. Emotions are mere tag-alongs to more primeval neccessities: money, sex, power. If the character’s actions are unexplainable, that character is insane. Shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire make no distinction between good and evil–everything is systemic. The world is deterministic. Characters are homo economicus.

Friday Night Lights turns this assumption on its head. In Dillon, Texas, there is in fact such a thing as “the right thing to do”. And characters do it simply because they should. The rewards are not monetary or divine. They are principally rooted in respect, and mostly self-respect.

FNL accomplishes what religion ostensibly should: teach you why and how to be a better person. Characters are tortured not so much by external influences but by their own guilty conscience and lack of emotional courage. Example: Julie lets Riggins take the fall for helping her get into bed after a night of drinking. When Julie finally comes clean, her dad is “not angry [but] hurt”. Because the worst thing one can do in FNL is dishonor a person who deserves honor– or do something completely selfish.

With but a few references to “Holy Father” in the odd pre-game football prayer, FNL conveys a Christian legacy without the heavier-than-molasses moralizing. And that’s why left-coast elites such as myself find it palatable– we’re not going to watch 7th Heaven except as a drinking game. And while The Wire compels us intellectually, it reinforces what we already fear: life is meaningless, God is dead, the world is a vampire. FNL grants us a glimpse of the good life and a way to get there, one episode at a time.

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