Friday Nights Lights: The Immortal Dillon Texas

TV Apr 03, 2024

If the decimation of the 2009 global financial collapse and the invasion of Iraq broke the American spirit contemporary to my generation, and Vietnam did so for the prior generation, Friday Nights Lights depicts a moment in time where the former is yet to happen, and the latter a diffused memory: a snapshot of West Texas untouched by time. We follow Eric Taylor through this last gasp of immemorial America. Coach Taylor is a a high school football coach where each Friday winning a game makes him a saint, and losing puts his job, family, mortgage and future on the line.

Unlike sports docuseries or traditional drama stories like Rocky, Friday Night Lights employs football as a stage to scrutinise, prod, and at times praise aspects of Middle America. Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami Taylor, begin the story as the town’s schrodinger’s celebrities: it all depends on that first Friday night, and whether the Dillon Panthers can take home the win.

From the jump the story is rife with inequality, racism, bigotry, and yes, football and God, all of which are indelibly Dillon Texas. Grown men in Dillon have built their entire personality around the Dillon Panther Football tradition, epitomised by Buddy Garity, high school phenom turned car salesman who is the perfect foil for Coach Taylor. Where Eric Taylor can range from being a yelling hard-arse on the field to supportive husband, Buddy has one gear and one gear only: football, football, football. Even as his life falls apart because of his affair, Buddy tries to pull the veneer of the Panthers over reality, only to fail, and try, over and over, to find greater things than the Panthers.

And the tension between football and life becomes the crux of the narrative. Texas atrophies beyond the radius of those stadium lights. Funding for the high school is in constant jeopardy. Teachers are buying their own classroom supplies. The air conditioning is on the perpetual fritz. Teachers are cut regularly. And yet year in year out, the football team has the newest computers. Eric keeps the AC low in the football club house, just the way he likes it. The stadium lights of the Dillon Panthers blaze so bright that they occlude the reality that lies waiting in the farms and parking lots and strip clubs: this town is dying, the symptoms of the rot in all of the quiet places everyone would rather not look to, and the Doctors all miss it, the flickering after image of the lights blind them for moments at a time.

Characters either recognise Dillon for what it is and escape by accepting the fundamental rot, or they are doomed to its cycle. The overbearing father of quarterback J.D. McCoy punches and shoves J.D. multiple times in public, is reported to child affairs, and suffers seemingly no real consequences. Goes on to become self-appointed head of the Dillon Panthers booster club. Even gets Eric fired from the team as head coach. The show walks a careful line between descriptive and critical, never falling too far in either direction. Nor does it shy away from praise when appropriate--we don’t only experience the insular reality that is Dillon Football, but also the drama of last minute victory. The vainglory of winning a championship ring. Even the outsiders, the artistic Matt Saracen and science whiz-kid Landry Clarke, become staples of the Coach Taylor’s mentorship. Though, perhaps critically, Matt and Landry are never football players, they just play football.

In this way, you’d be hard pressed to find certainty in any part of Friday Night Lights. The dramatic heights of victory, the crushing lows of loss and the minutiae of day-to-day grievances are afforded equal weight across the length of the story. Eric himself is a product of Texas. A kind and funny man, yes, but closed off too. Stubborn. Selfish. Very often it takes two or three times for Eric to see what the commonly decent thing to do is. His judgement so often compromised through the haze of his job as Head Coach.

Racial attacks, doping, theft, you name it and Eric blunders a moral dilemma throughout the show. Conservatism’s dogma looms large over football, and by proxy, over Eric’s very soul. But he always comes around. This is the foundation of why Friday Night Lights ends up being a character drama that happens to contain football, rather than a football story. As much as we follow Coach Taylor, we follow Tami Taylor too, a school councillor intent on doing right by the kids. Their daughter, Julie Taylor, smart, opinionated, literary. The kids Eric mentors are as much the protagonists as their girlfriends and friends. The students that move in and out of the orbit of Dillon never quite leave the story, not really.

While the Taylors are the spine of the narrative, if you were to search for the heart of the show it is undoubtedly the terse, talented, hard-hitting hard-drinking Tim Riggins. Riggins is Friday Night Lights. The perpetual B plot to everyone else’s A plot, Tim can never quite take his life seriously enough just as the narrative can never quite centre his journey. He plays under Coach Taylor for his entire high school career, shaped into something more than he was. By the time he leaves on a scholarship for University, he’s a halfway decent man. But in short order Tim returns to Texas, only to find he’s the man who used to be Tim Riggins. A once great star that the town treated as messiah and destroyer, now a has-been. This allides the true melancholy of immortal Dillon Texas: football is only great when you’re in it, and that is more than heartbreaking. It is elemental. The atoms in Dillon split differently. They gravitate toward Friday night.

In the end the man who was Tim Riggins becomes the person every girl who ever loved him thought he might be, and somehow knew he would become. He falls back into crime with his brother Billy, and takes the fall for it, serving a stint in prison in place of his brother. In the end, Tim makes peace with Dillon. Buys a plot of land. Builds his own house. At one with the land but now outside the people, forever. He will never be Tim Riggins again, and he will always have been Tim Riggins. Texas Forever, as Tim would say.

On reflection the most miraculous synthesis the story achieves is producing Eric Taylor’s masculinity as capable of useful, healthy engagement with Texas. In particular, the conservative Texans resent how handily Eric labels them as such. How handily he dismisses hollering and hooting fans. How handily he can produce a version of masculine confidence that Texas accepts. The worst of the town come to despise Eric because he is a point of contrast: the healthy alternative of what a hot blooded American male could be. There’s an infantilisation that occurs by proxy where grown men are rendered small, red-faced children in Eric’s presence. Yet he never has power over these men. He is subservient to these men until their resent evolves into rejection, and he finds himself building a team in the projects of Dillon. Building up a team of troubled youths, many who move in and out of the system, juvy. Guns and drugs become his day to day, and he never shies from it. Even as the red-faced big men of Texas flinch away from attending a game in East Dillon.

They aren’t like us, they mutter, frozen with fear that the weakness that informs their bigotry might reveal the fragility of their machismo. Only Eric Taylor’s version of masculinity is productive and sustainable under such circumstances, trapped in the confines of Texas. A different story might see Taylor imposing his values onto these East Dillon Players: indoctrinate them into the great Texas football tradition. Instead, he learns their culture. Learns their traditions, and does his best to join and help when he can. Where a Buddy Garity might try to gentrify East Dillon, Eric Taylor sees the strength and character of what is, and uplifts it.

Yet for all of that, the Dillon Panthers reign supreme. They lobby the budgeting committee and close the East Dillon team, only after East Dillon have won a ring, to form a super team. These men of Dillion spend their entire lives clinging to the memory of what was. Prepared to throw a punch if someone utters a disrespectful syllable about the Panthers. They fund pep rallies and fundraisers. Attend booster meetings to lobby for unnecessary scoreboards. Wait with bated breath for the first night of football season. They stake their entire sense of self on the Dillon Panthers. This hyperfixation accelerates small annoyances into townwide grievances.

Winning isn’t even winning if they didn’t win how you thought they ought to have won. Coach Taylor might be all that, but he doesn’t understand the tradition. There’s an old saying in creativity that getting what you want isn’t getting it if you don’t achieve it the way you want. That selling out can fundamentally compromise the material nature of the achievement. The corollary in Dillon is that you can never get it. Not ever. One championship is never enough. One drama is never enough. They chase the white hot centre of the lights, refusing to look away, even as the town dries up around them and grass turns to dust and classrooms fall into disrepair. Thank God for football, they murmur, as the brightness scorches their retinas until the permanent after-image of what never-was and what never-can-be stains the clear blue Dillon skies. Texas Forever. Texas, forever.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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