One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling

October 20, 2014 | 7 13 min read


I recently re-watched the first season of Friday Night Lights—for fun, but also to see how it held up, eight years after it first aired, and probably at least a decade after it was first conceived of and written. I had actually never seen the pilot or the first six episodes because, initially, Friday Night Lights was my husband’s show, something he watched by himself. I now love the show so much that it’s hard to believe there was a time when I wasn’t interested in it, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem like the kind of show I would like. I don’t enjoy watching football and I don’t usually enjoy watching teenage actors—or, rather, I don’t enjoy watching actors in their early twenties impersonate teenagers. I was also resistant to Friday Night Lights because it is set in a conservative, rural area that reminded me of where I went to high school. Like a lot of people who move to New York City, I came here to get away from small town life.

The strange thing about watching Friday Night Lights again is that I think the fiction I’ve been writing for the past few years was inspired by it. I’ve joked with friends about this line of influence but I didn’t quite believe it until I re-watched the show and saw how much I’d borrowed. I know we’re living in the golden age of so-called novelistic TV, but I still think of books as being in conversation with other books, not with nighttime soap operas. However, when I look back over the past five years, I can see that my stories were very much in conversation with a TV show whose characters became so real to me it was as if they were living lives parallel to my own.

I watched Friday Night Lights in real time, as it aired. I wonder if it would have been as much of an influence if I had “binged-watched” all five seasons back-to-back in one or two months’ time. Instead, the show stretched out over the course of five years, 2006-2011, which for me were years when I had to throw out most of the fiction I wrote. They were years when I was trying to “find my voice”—that cringe-inducing expression that is nevertheless a fair description of what I was looking for as I tried to decide what I would write and how I would write about it. During these years, my primary search technique was to read as many different authors as possible and to write a certain number of words per day. At night I watched television to relax.

I might have given up on this whole process if I had not finally published a short story in 2008, the year I turned thirty. The story was set in my hometown, a location I had always resisted using, but which I felt compelled to revisit. That compulsion, I am quite sure, was due to Friday Night Lights. The show helped me to see my hometown in a new light—but not a nostalgic one. I did not watch Friday Night Lights to relive my glorious high school years, and certainly not to relive the glory of high school football. But one of the interesting things about Friday Night Lights, and something that struck me as I re-watched it, is that for a drama about high school students and football, there are very few scenes set in school or on the football field. Instead, the show is more interested in the personal lives of its players—the families they come from, the romances that enmesh them, the houses they live in and the things they do for fun. It’s a show that is very interested in family life in all its varieties. There are a lot of single parents in Friday Night Lights and a lot of unmarried couples, too. It’s a show where families are makeshift, where older brothers and grandmothers can stand in for absent fathers, where teenage girls have to mother themselves and sometimes their boyfriends, too. Watching Friday Night Lights, you realize how conservative other shows are in their portrayal of American families[1].

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why something inspires you, but I think Friday Night Lights got me thinking about the adults I’d grown up with, adults whose personal lives I’d never fully imagined because I was a kid, living my kid-life. I began to look back on my childhood in a different way, to think less about how I lived and more about how other people lived. Maybe this recalibration is just part of growing up and leaving one’s self-centered twenties, and maybe it would have happened anyway, without the nudge of Friday Night Lights, but the show did seem to stir up old memories. It was fascinating to think again of families I’d babysat for, to reexamine their houses, their professions, their cars, their clothes. I began to think about my teachers and mentors, my coaches, and my friends’ parents. Many of them were in their thirties (my age) when I knew them. I wondered: What were their lives really like? What were their secret dramas? What would I ask them if I could go back in time?

In 2009, I finished a novel but could not find an agent to represent it. In retrospect, I can see that it was an apprentice novel, and that even though it had narrative cohesion, it couldn’t really stand on its own. It didn’t have the spark of life. It was set in New York City, where I have lived for the past thirteen years, but when I started that novel, I had only five years under my belt, and was still utterly infatuated with Manhattan and its delusional vibrations, an energy Zadie Smith recently described as a “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” My novel reflected some of that energy. The characters lived in their own melodramatic reality, and even though that was kind of the point—these characters were in their twenties—the book had an airless feeling. The setting wasn’t real enough. A few years after I had finished it (and finally given up on it), I met a novelist who had moved to the South after years in the Midwest. I told him I had tried to write about New York but couldn’t, and he said he’d had the same problem in the South. He said he thought it took about ten years to be able to write about a particular place—much longer than any writer wants to admit. How long does it take to write about where you grew up? In my case, that took about ten years, too—ten years away.

In the wake of my failed first novel—I saw it as failed then, now I see it as a necessary step—I decided to focus on a series of short stories set in the various “small” places my family had lived. This was partly to do with the success of my first short story, which had been set in my hometown, but also because of Dillon, the fictional Texas town where Friday Night Lights is set. Dillon, a small, unglamorous, rural Texas town, is something like the small, unglamorous towns I grew up in. For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure.

One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period.

Many critics have focused on the intense emotionality of Friday Night Lights, the way it aims to make you cry in every episode. My husband and I always joke that we are in need of tissues as soon as the theme music cuts in—usually after a short, three-minute scene where someone acts their guts out and delivers a major plot twist. I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points (save for a few bizarre episodes in Season 2) are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia or hunting terrorists. No one is cooking meth in order to pay for cancer treatments. No one even gets cancer in Dillon! Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in a variety of stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands and trying out for quad rugby teams. They’re perusing real estate listings and filling out insurance forms[2]. They’re buying cars and driving cars and fixing cars. Someone is always waiting for a ride. Someone is always heartbroken. Someone is always broke. Friday Night Lights is one long country song. Anyone can relate.

The truth is that Friday Night Lights actually had a lot of trouble finding its audience, or at least one large enough for network television. But the people who love Friday Night Lights are passionate about it. They love the characters[3], and they love them in a particular way. People swoon over Coach Taylor and they really swoon over Tami Taylor, but what they really, really swoon over is the relationship between Coach and Tami, not only the particular chemistry between the actors who play these characters (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), but the way their marriage is portrayed, quotidian scene by quotidian scene. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn described it as one of “the finest representations of middle-class marriage in popular culture.” I’m not always sure what people mean when they refer to something as middle-class but one definition of middle-class life is one where both parents work, but not so much that they can’t have dinner together. In Friday Night Lights, you often see Coach and Tami having dinner together. You see them cooking it and cleaning it up, too. You see them going out and staying in, running late and running errands. You see them joking and flirting, arguing and making up. You see them discussing their jobs, their daughter, their worries. You see two people who are not just in love but who genuinely like spending a lot of time together.

The Taylor’s marriage holds the show together plot-wise, and also in terms of tone. Friday Night Lights is about the bonds between people, and in particular, the way that people in small towns have unusual access to one another’s personal lives. When you live in a small town, it’s possible to run into your daughter’s boyfriend buying condoms in the drug store, to clean up broken glass in the home of a student you advise, or to obtain a pregnancy test from the mother of your husband’s star running back. These things all happened to Tami Taylor, and they didn’t seem far-fetched, even the last one, a late-in-life pregnancy that seemed designed to lure in new viewers. (Coach and Tami’s second daughter was born in between seasons 1 and 2 and had almost no bearing on the rest of the show.) It helps that the actors on the show can pull off even the most saccharine dialogue, but the real trick is the way the show makes you want to watch the characters interact in different combinations. You know they all know each other, and furthermore, you know what they know (and don’t know) about each other, so you can’t wait to see how that plays out in their interactions. It’s dramatic irony on a very small scale. It’s the lifeblood of domestic fiction.

coverIn a 2011 Grantland interview, Don DeLillo was asked what sporting event he would choose to dramatize if he were going to undertake another novel on the scale of Underworld set in post-Cold War America. (As opposed to Underworld, which was set during the Cold War era.) With his usual prescience, DeLillo answered: “To portray America over the past twenty years or so, I would think immediately of football, probably the Super Bowl in its sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.”

coverIt has been disconcerting to re-watch the first season of Friday Night Lights in light of debates about football’s culture of violence. The recent domestic abuse scandals hadn’t yet made headlines when I watched the majority of the episodes, but I often thought of the long-simmering arguments about whether or not football is too dangerous to be played. It is, to say the least, a heated argument. On the one hand, there is Steve Almond’s new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, which details his own football fandom and disillusionment as he comes to terms with how badly the sport treats its players as well as the values it represents. (I have not yet read Almond’s book but apparently there is within it a critique of Friday Night Lights.) On the other side of the debate, there’s Jonathan Chait defending the sport in New York Magazine, arguing that his boyhood years playing football were unforgettably exciting, and that the sport allows young men to channel their anger in healthy and productive ways. In his view, the debate over football’s potential dangers is a classic red-state/blue-state conflict, “a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another.” Then we have President Obama, attempting to split the difference, as always, in a New Yorker profile, conceding that he would never allow his son to play the game but that he enjoys watching it.

I can’t help wondering how Friday Night Lights would have chosen to address these issues if it were airing today. (Actually, maybe a better question: Would Friday Night Lights even make it onto the air today?) You could argue that the show deals with the sport’s potential for life-altering injury in its very first episode, when Dillon’s star quarterback, Jason Street, tackles another player so aggressively that he damages his own spinal column. The injury paralyzes Jason Street for life, and for the rest of the first season, we follow him as he undergoes his rehabilitation. That’s the reality of football, the show seems to say—except that the characters never say that. They treat Jason Street’s injury as something freakish, even surprising. When Jason Street’s parents file a lawsuit against Coach Taylor and the school, they are portrayed as desperate and a touch villainous.

On my second viewing of Friday Night Lights, I had trouble with the football scenes and especially the lawsuit. The question of whether or not Coach had taught Jason Street appropriate tackling techniques is brushed over as a kind of pesky lawyer’s question, but I wanted it to be taken more seriously. At the very least, I wanted Coach to be guiltier about what had happened. He doesn’t seem to suffer much remorse or rethink his training methods. Every time I watched Coach give a pep talk or advise a player, I could only really think of poor Jason Street, sitting in his hospital bed, having to relearn how to grip a fork. Later in the season, Jason Street returns to the field as part of the coaching staff, so he’s literally on the sidelines in his wheelchair, a reminder to everyone of how dangerous the sport is. It’s bizarre, and darkly ironic—but it’s not intended that way. Instead, we’re meant to see Street’s coaching position as a point of resolution; we’re supposed to be glad he’s found a way to integrate football back into his life, despite the fact that he has been maimed by it.

But how self-aware does a television show (or a novel?) have to be to say something meaningful about the era it portrays? One thing that makes television an interesting medium is that the writers have to work quickly to absorb changing cultural attitudes into their narratives. In an apt literary metaphor, Emily Nussbaum recently described network TV shows as “the rough draft that doubles as the polished product.” A network series can’t afford to be dated and yet there is no way to digest what is happening quickly enough. The writers of Friday Night Lights were surely seeing newspaper headlines linking head injuries in football to depression, suicide, and Alzheimer’s disease. But they were stuck in Dillon, writing about a community that is defined by its love of football.

And yet, I wonder if Friday Night Lights would have worked so well as a drama if it didn’t have that unacknowledged darkness at its center. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the show’s secret relationship to self-destruction (alcoholism is a persistent plot point) says a lot about the era in which it was aired. As DeLillo put it so well, the aughts were a decade when there was within America “a sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” I wrote that phrase down when I first read it (it has the same moodiness of Zadie Smith’s “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness”) and afterwards noticed many sumptuous suggestions of death wishes, from the expensive wars we’ve wages overseas, to our Gilded Age-gap between rich and poor, to our elaborate resistance to universal healthcare.

Before I get too political, let me return to fiction, which, unless you are a satirist, is hard to shape around political ideals. Friday Night Lights is above all things, not a satire. It takes its characters and their problems very seriously and treats them with a sincerity that is rare on network television. It doesn’t make fun of its characters for coming from a small place[4] or, more crucially, for not wanting to leave a small place. Many of the writers I admire most—Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephanie Vaughn, to name a few that come to mind immediately—share this deep sincerity, this interest in characters who may not be worldly, but who live in the world and who love it.

As much as I love satire, (and I do, despite evidence to the contrary in this essay), I am never going to write it. A good friend recently confessed that she gave up trying to make jokes years ago because, “Even though I laugh a lot, I am not a funny person.” And we both laughed, because there’s something funny about being ashamed about not being able to joke about everything. But, in an age when comedians earn multi-million dollar book deals, an earnest temperament can make you feel irrelevant. Sometimes I think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels registered as something new simply because he takes his life seriously and doesn’t caveat his long-winded existential musings with “So, this is a first-world problem, but…”

It’s funny to me that it took a network television show to remind me that I could write in a straightforward way, that I don’t need to shock or be elusive, and that I don’t need to impress anyone with my cleverness or my prose-style. All I have to do is to write about the people and places that mean the most to me. Almost all the short stories I wrote during my years of watching Friday Night Lights were published, even the ones I thought of as too ordinary. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a novel. I showed a draft to my husband this summer and one of the first things he said when he was finished reading was, “this would make a great television show.” If he’d said that about my first novel I might have been annoyed. But now I consider it a high compliment.

[1] In terms of depictions of family life, an interesting point of comparison is the nighttime drama Parenthood, which premiered in 2010, and whose showrunner is Jason Katims, who was also a producer of Friday Night Lights. Parenthood has the same tear-jerking-deep-down-everyone’s-doing-the-best-they-can-vibe as Friday Night Lights and uses some of the same actors, but its vision of American family life borders on fantastical. As much as I want to believe in the sunny world of Parenthood, I don’t know anyone who hangs out with their extended family as much as the Bravermans do.

[2] I was taken aback when I realized that the cliffhanger of the first season of Friday Night Lights is how Coach will handle a long-distance relationship after Coach takes a new job. I can’t think of another drama in which such a low-stakes plot point would be considered exciting enough to hook in viewers for the next season.

[3] While I was writing this essay, I met an adorable dog named Tim Riggins, and I saw a pet adoption flyer for a beautiful cat named Lyla Garrity.

[4] Despite the warmth and sweetness of shows like The Office and Parks & Rec, their small-town settings are an ongoing joke.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.