Big State, Small Screen

For most of the TV shows set here, getting the local details right hasn’t mattered much (anyone remember that hurricane on Dallas?). Then along came Friday Night Lights. Is it the most realistic TV show about Texas ever, or just the first one that’s tried?

October 2010By Comments

Illustration by Gluekit

The snowball of critical gush that started rolling with the debut of Friday Night Lights, in October 2006, was actually a little embarrassing. That so many critics around the country would deem a show about Texas high school football to be the year’s best new drama was itself a surprise, but only mildly so, as some program had to be. But then the New York Times took the discussion somewhere else. In its review of the pilot, the Times predicted that the series would be “not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting.” The following week, Slate compared it to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and Melville’s Moby Dick. Two months later, the Los Angeles Times put it in the same league as Dickens and Springsteen. Eventually the New York Times would top even that, declaring Friday Night Lights “a melodrama in the most redemptive sense of the term, elevating our understanding of the form the way, as the literary critic Peter Brooks argued in the 1970’s, Balzac and James did.”

The praise hardly calmed over the next four seasons. For a while the Times was running so many stories celebrating the show that it seemed to have a regular Friday Night Lights section. Slate launched a weekly roundtable analyzing each episode, lauding everything from the football to the music the kids liked to the unique pressures facing Texas educators. The valentines didn’t translate into ratings success—the series never cracked the Nielsen top fifty—but they did mirror the fanatical devotion of the show’s small audience. When Friday Night Lights faced cancellation at the end of season two, fans around the country inundated NBC with thousands of plastic footballs.

I, for one, did not buy any of it. I knew Friday Night Lights as H. G. Bissinger’s nonfiction book chronicling the 1988 season of the very real Odessa Permian Panthers, a portrayal so honest that in some parts of town Bissinger is still not welcome. I knew also that when Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg made the book into a feature film, in 2004, he promised a kinder, gentler look at Odessa. When NBC announced Berg would create a fictional West Texas town for a series “inspired” by the book, I steered clear. I grew up in Texas watching bad TV purportedly set here. No show ever got Texas right back then. And no interloping heavy thinker from the media elite was going to convince me that this one did.

Then I noticed the romance reaching all the way to Texas. Friends swore by the show, insisting that watching it was like flipping through their own high school yearbook. People normally immune to being starstruck thrilled at chance encounters with cast members, a number of whom had moved to Austin, where the series is filmed. Most annoyingly, they said Friday Night Lights “transcended” football and Texas. This was a show about life, each episode filled with what they preciously called “coaching moments.” That actually made it much easier to ignore, which I would have continued doing, except that this past summer, when it was announced that the show’s fifth season, which begins this month, would be its last, I was assigned this story. I rented the first season, locked myself in my house, and prepared to be disappointed.

The setting, which is to say, the stakes, is established with the pilot’s earliest details. Eric Taylor is the new head coach at Dillon High School, and as he drives around town in the opening scenes, skeptical callers to a sports radio show—the program’s Greek chorus—are heard wondering if he’s up to the task. Football, we are made to understand, matters in Dillon. At a preseason barbecue, the mayor presses quarterback Jason Street to throw the ball and quit being so nice (“Listen to early Black Sabbath,” she says. “They’ll make you mean”). A booster’s wife comes on to brooding fullback (and requisite heartthrob) Tim Riggins (“Have you ever blitzed an older woman?”). And a group of local elders, one played by University of Texas coach Mack Brown—clearly ad-libbing from a familiar litany of unreasonable expectations—grills Coach Taylor on the level of his dedication. “We’ve driven by [the field house] a couple times,” Brown’s character says. “Didn’t see any cars in the lot. The lights were all out.”

The action shifts to Coach Taylor’s first game. Dillon flounders until Street, who is as much the focus of the pilot as the coach, leads the inevitable comeback, at which point Friday Night Lights could have become any sports movie ever made. But then the show did something that television normally doesn’t do. Street throws an interception and gets injured stopping the return. The stadium goes silent, except for his mother’s crying, and an ambulance takes him away. The next scenes cut back and forth from the field, where the game continues, to a hospital, where technicians remove his helmet and surgeons stabilize his spine. The sights and sounds of the operating room are terrifying. The pilot ends with Coach Taylor staring at Street, who’s propped up in bed by a halo brace. I was hooked.

Over the next week, I watched every episode of the first four seasons, and the show got even better. Characters who initially looked like familiar stereotypes grew in unexpected directions. Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami, who works as the high school counselor and later principal, emerge as the heart of the ensemble. Played by Emmy nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, they carefully balance their duties to family and community and end up advising every character on the show, from the backup QB thrust into the starting spot to the pregnant sophomore considering an abortion to the wealthy booster thrown out of the house for cheating on his wife. They are de facto parents for the entire town, which makes perfect sense. He’s the high school football coach.

What worked about the show was exactly what had kept me from watching it in the first place. Seeing your home represented onscreen is usually painful; the small false steps and goofy stereotypes ruin the suspension of disbelief required to watch any television show. This is especially true of Texas, which lends itself to caricature better than almost any other place. For Hollywood producers, Texas is a fantasy, a foreign country, a cartoon, or all three, and since those same ideas are shared by most viewers around the country, getting Texas right has never been a priority.

But it was impossible not to notice, watching those first four seasons of Friday Night Lights, that this particular show was trying very hard to be real. Satisfied with his high school glory, Riggins blows off college. For most everybody else, the dream ticket out of Dillon goes to Austin and UT, a faraway Oz of music festivals and national championships, but all Riggins really wants is some property in the country, his own piece of Texas. That’s real. In one episode, a controversy erupts over the proposed installation of an expensive JumboTron at the football stadium. That happened at my high school. Another episode is built around the “no pass, no play” rule, a state mandate that was as polarizing when it was introduced in the eighties as “don’t ask, don’t tell” became later.

But it was the tiniest details that finally sucked me in, things that the big-city critics could never have noticed. Like the mocked-up issue of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football with Jason Street on the cover that hangs in Coach Taylor’s office. And the sound of Austin sports talk guru Ed Clements discussing Dillon’s prospects over the radio. And the sight of Riggins shooting pool at the Broken Spoke, Austin’s legendary honky-tonk, right next to a handwritten poster advertising one of Bruce Robison’s monthly Saturday night shows.

All of that means something in Austin, which made it all the more shocking to see it on the screen. For the most part, TV Texas has been the province of cowboys and outlaws, oilmen and blondes, all of them dreamed up by people who’d never even been here. Though I wasn’t ready to start comparing Friday Night Lights with Balzac or James (I wasn’t even sure which Balzac they meant), I had to acknowledge how much this show looked like the place I’m from. Which raised the question: How did they get it so right, when just about everyone else has gotten it so wrong?

Weirdly enough, there wasn’t much Texas on television prior to Dallas. TV is an art form that has historically emphasized the form over the art. Success begets copycats, new shows built on minor tweaks to an earlier formula. So a groundbreaking ensemble drama like Hill Street Blues could be transferred from a gritty cop shop to a gritty hospital (St. Elsewhere) to a glamorous law firm (LA Law). It could also have ridiculous musical numbers inserted (Cop Rock, ugh). But for all the cookie-cutting that has gone on, Texas settings were seldom attempted. And while it might not have worked with certain genres—Marcus Welby and the other superdoctors of the seventies would have instilled little confidence if they’d said things like, “We’re fixing to wheel you down to X-ray”—other kinds of shows were prime for a Texas locale, particularly the genre that dominated TV’s first twenty years, the western.

Or so you’d think. But Texas was a minor presence even on those shows. The shoot-’em-up was Hollywood’s favorite vehicle when it pulled the new industry from its live-drama roots on the East Coast in the late forties. Yet the hook for the studios was economics. The earliest cowboy series were literally recycled B movies that had been chopped into shorter segments; the original programming that came later was produced fast and cheap on the same backlots and soundstages. Creating a specific sense of place was an afterthought. “The Cisco Kid and Have Gun, Will Travel were probably in Texas some,” says University of Texas film history professor Charles Ramirez-Berg. “But it was blurred because Texas was just the West. One week they were in Tucson, the next they were in Waco, probably just because of the way the name sounded. But it all looked the same. They used the same sets each week.”

“Those shows didn’t attempt to capture Texas at all,” says Douglas Brode, a cinema studies professor at Syracuse University and the author of Shooting Stars of the Small Screen, a reference book of TV western actors. “If they needed a big scene in a Texas town, they used stock footage from some old movie actually set in New Mexico. The association was with the mythology of the West.”

Against that generic backdrop, individual Texans came in two types. The hero was almost always a stalwart Texas Ranger, a God-fearing defender of the American way. The most famous, of course, was the Lone Ranger, but the only real distinction between him and, say, Texas John Slaughter, a retired Ranger who kept order in Arizona in the late-fifties Disney serial of the same name, was that Slaughter had a wife and the Lone Ranger had a mask.

At the other end of the spectrum fell the untamable lout. “On the two greatest shows, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke,” says Brode, “everything is nice and quiet in Kansas until the Texans arrive. Those shows were basically about gun control, taking guns away from Texas cowboys.”

What Texas there was vanished with the early-seventies demise of the western. But in 1978 Dallas brought it back with an urban update. The shift was signaled in the opening credits, a rolling sequence of ranchland, pump jacks, and shining office towers. This was the Texas of the brief second oil boom, when petro-millionaires were back in the news and the more-for-me ethos of the eighties was coming into view. The Ewing family’s minks and Mercedes provided television’s first aspirational look at the state.

Which is not to say it was authentic. Brothers J.R. and Bobby were only mildly sophisticated versions of earlier TV cowboys, the shoot-outs simply moved to the boardroom (sometimes they still involved gunplay). Dallas’s twist was that the villain was the character to root for. J. R. Ewing was a deceitful cur—and tremendous fun to watch. In one episode a female character accuses him of causing her husband to commit suicide. “I didn’t ask you here to nitpick,” J.R. responds. But any idea that the show was concerned with depicting actual Dallas was dispelled by the fourth episode, when Southfork was battered by a hurricane.

“I always thought it was a cartoon, to tell you the truth,” says Larry Hagman, whose gleeful portrayal of J.R. was the chief reason Dallas succeeded. “None of the writers had been to Texas before. They didn’t know the mind-set of Texas. I’m from Weatherford, and I did. So I just did the opposite of what they said. If they wrote ‘J.R. comes in with a frown and everybody is worried,’ I’d come in smiling. That’s when they really had to worry.”

The phenomenal international popularity of Dallas—it was the first- or second-ranked show from 1980 to 1985, and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode was viewed by 360 million people worldwide—made Texas safe for television. But the shows that followed used the state as nothing more than a gimmick. There was, for example, Flo, a completely unnecessary 1980 spin-off of Alice, in which the unlikely oversexed waitress from Mel’s Diner moved home to Fort Worth and opened a roadhouse. Or Matt Houston, an ABC drama that aired from 1982 to 1985 and was simply Magnum P.I. with a bigger belt buckle. J. J. Starbuck, a mercifully short-lived 1987 NBC series, featured a retired millionaire who traveled the country in a Lincoln convertible with a Longhorn rack on the hood, helping people in need and declaring success with statements like “You look happier than a termite in a sawmill.” Then in 1993 Chuck Norris resurrected the old heroes with his long-running Walker, Texas Ranger, a show whose primary accomplishment was in demonstrating how little bad television had progressed since the cardboard days of yesteryear.

Interesting then that after all those cartoonish depictions, the first program to work at getting Texas right happened to be animated. King of the Hill debuted in 1997. Set in the fictional town of Arlen, the show revolves around Hank Hill, an assistant manager at a suburban propane store (how’s that for a contrast to Big Oil?), and his weekly confrontations with do-gooder liberals, overachieving immigrants, parents who let their kids call them by their first names, and a son, Bobby, who can’t live up to his manly ideals. If he sounds a little like Archie Bunker, he’s not. The point of All in the Family was that Archie was wrong, and there was a clear sense that the writers who created him didn’t like him. Not so with Hank. He might be working within a narrow worldview, but he never does quit working, and always to the end of making his family stronger. When he learns that Bobby is allergic to the family’s beloved hound dog, Ladybird, and an allergist suggests he swap her for another breed, maybe a poodle, Hank’s first response is “Why don’t you just get me a cat and a sex-change operation?” But his second response is the telling one. He builds a doghouse and makes Ladybird an outside pet. Of course, this being a sitcom, the doghouse is air-conditioned. And the son moves in instead of the dog.

“Hank is always going up against something frustrating in the modern world,” says Ethan Thompson, a cultural studies professor at Texas A&M—Corpus Christi. “For Texas to be the modern world is interesting. It’s depicted as very much caught between the modern and the past. You couldn’t do that in California or New York.”

And there’s no mistaking Arlen for anywhere but here. Show creator Mike Judge learned strip-center Texas when he moved to Richardson after college in 1987. Because most of his writers and animators were from elsewhere, he took them on frequent field trips through the state. They encountered just as many good ol’ boys as one would expect, but found them in bingo parlors and all-you-can-eat Asian buffets, then wrote those places into the show. Their goal was to make Arlen specific and real; the effect was that the stories they told could be universally understood.

“When Hank met Dandy Don Meredith, yes, that’s about being a Texan and idolizing Meredith,” says executive producer Dave Krinsky. “But it’s also a show about meeting your hero. When Hank tried to get the Cowboys to move their training camp to Arlen, that’s about his son not appreciating his hometown. Texas was just the starting point.”

When King of the Hill finally left the air, in 2009, it was the second-longest-running sitcom ever, and TV Texas looked significantly more like the real thing. “There’s a continuum from Dallas to King of the Hill to Friday Night Lights that represents a kind of coming-of-age for us,” says Ramirez-Berg. “It shows that we’re more than big money and big egos. We’re a place where people live.”

Critics and fans acknowledge one hiccup in Friday Night Lights and admit it was an awfully long one. Known as the Murder, it was a primary plotline of the show’s second season. When a sexual predator targets town bad girl Tyra Collette, her nerdy math tutor, Landry Clarke, comes to her defense and accidentally kills him. But instead of going to the police, they throw his body in a river. Over the next nine episodes they struggle with their conscience as investigators close in.

The story was completely out of character for the show. The first season had depicted adolescence through minute details that, while not necessarily familiar to viewers outside football-crazed Texas, were eminently relatable. All that those viewers would know about covering up a murder were things they had learned by watching TV. Luckily a writers’ strike ended the year prematurely. The next season opened with a new player at summer two-a-days, a robo-QB modeled on former USC phenom Todd Marinovich. Watching Dillon quarterback Matt Saracen, one of the most likable characters in the history of television, lose his job to the move-in was heartbreaking. No higher stakes were needed.

The Murder was a strange misstep for a show that bases its entire production on the pursuit of authenticity. Friday Night Lights is filmed like a documentary, with three handheld cameras, and the look is unusual for a television drama. The shots are often out of focus, the lighting frequently less than ideal. But the actors aren’t made up for glamour anyway. They play mostly working-class folks, and their pimples and pit stains are left intact. The viewer has a sense of peeking in on something real. To get believable game footage, the show’s creators assembled a team made up of former high school and college players—some as familiar as former UT quarterback James Brown. They practice regularly as a unit, then split into two teams to play simulated games for the cameras. Half wear Dillon colors; the other half wear uniforms borrowed from area high schools. The action is filmed by NFL cameramen.

That’s all to the credit of creator Peter Berg, whose obsession with authenticity runs deep. To research Texas football in preparation for the film, he embedded with schoolboy superpower Austin Westlake. He followed the Chaps through the 2003 season, roaming the sidelines at practices and games, sitting in on chalk talks, and attending classes. He brought his actors to see former Westlake head coach Derek Long, who remains close with Berg. “I yelled at them and made them do greenbays [also known as up-and-downs] in the locker room,” says Long. The experience informed the film’s sights and sounds, but it also provided the major stories for the series’ first season. Jason Street’s injury was based on one suffered by San Antonio Madison defensive back David Edwards, who crushed a vertebra while making a tackle in the playoffs against Westlake. Berg was at that game. (Edwards, who was paralyzed from the shoulders down, became a motivational speaker. He died of complications from pneumonia in 2008.) And Coach Taylor’s trials in his first year as head coach paralleled those of Long, a longtime assistant who had just replaced a legendary coach at Westlake.

But Berg’s best move was to insist the series be filmed entirely on location in Texas. The characters’ homes are in real Austin neighborhoods. Their clothes come from South Congress vintage shops. Riggins’s jacked-up black pickup, the official vehicle of a twelfth-grade badass, was found on Craigslist. It frees the producers and crew from having to worry about the clichés that sneak so easily onto Hollywood soundstages. If a script calls for a bar scene, the set designers don’t have to guess how many Texas flags to hang on the walls. Instead the production rents the Horseshoe Lounge for an afternoon. And the bartenders who slide beers to Coach Taylor on the show will be the same ones who serve Kyle Chandler when he goes in on his own.

“The great benefit of being here is that you’re waking up in Dillon,” says Chandler, who moved his family full-time to Dripping Springs after season two. “You’re eating in restaurants in Dillon. You’re filling up your gas tank in Dillon. The accents are Dillon’s. Austin provides everything.”

The time here allows the actors to internalize the rhythm and find the right resources to inform their characters. When a script called for Tami Taylor to advise a young student on dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, producer-director Michael Waxman, who lives in Bastrop, connected Connie Britton with lawyers from the local school district. “I got a twenty-page Xerox of the rules and circled the ones that had to do with what we were portraying,” says Waxman. “And Connie had discussions with a gal who’d been counseling for twenty years.”

Chandler, who became something of a hero to area coaches, had plenty of people to consult with. “I had dinner with a Del Valle coach and his family once,” says Chandler. “We were outside on his deck, him holding his baby, sipping a beer, flipping a burger, and me asking questions. Out of nowhere he says, ‘There’s one key to being a great coach: You’ve got to love the kids.’ Boom. That tells me exactly how far I can push these kids and why. That was my way in.”

He might as well have been describing a scene from the show, so blurred are the lines now between the coach and the actor in Austin. Recently two friends of mine arrived at a movie theater too late to find seats together. Noticing open spots on either side of a line of four people, they asked each person to scoot down. Everyone agreed but the last guy, who refused to budge. Then the man in front of him stood up. It was Chandler. He said, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to buy you a beer, and when it gets here, you’re going to move over one seat, and we’re all going to enjoy this movie.”

Okay, Coach.

In Dallas’s defense, and maybe even Flo’s, the Friday Night Lights model was not yet workable in the late seventies. Everything necessary to bring the Ewings to life, except Southfork, was located in L.A.—and almost nowhere else. But sometime in the mid-eighties, the rest of the country started evolving into a friendlier place to make television. Overnight shipping allowed directors to send dailies in from nearly anywhere. New formats for recording images and sound made shows easier to shoot, and editing eventually became something that could be done on a desktop, all of which freed filmmakers to leave L.A.

Then in the nineties the cable boom redefined successful TV. Some of that was math. Dozens more channels meant hundreds more shows, and as audiences splintered, the 30 percent share that Dallas enjoyed each week became a number only the Super Bowl could reach. A show with a reliably dedicated following could now stay on the air with a fraction of the old numbers, as evidenced by the letter-writing campaign that saved Friday Night Lights. That kind of loyalty used to be irrelevant; it certainly didn’t save the 1987 Dabney Coleman vehicle The Slap Maxwell Story.

Audience fragmentation also affected the substance of television. “When the landscape shifted away from three networks’ trying to be all things to all people, programs could succeed without having to appeal to everyone under the sun,” says Jordan Levin, the former head of the WB network and current CEO of Generate. “Shows started to focus on a more narrow slice of the American experience, and part of the transformation was presenting defined spaces in defined places. A show like The Sopranos that really immersed you in a different world succeeded in large part because you felt like a fly on the wall somewhere you normally didn’t have access to.”

When viewers started expecting that access and specificity, verisimilitude became TV’s new baseline. “People want to feel that something is credible,” says Levin. “When characters occupy what feels like a generic world, it undermines the show’s ability to seem real and grounded.” The best shows now conjured settings as readily as stories. Seinfeld was New York; The Sopranos was New Jersey. Filming on location makes that significantly easier.

But with the exception of Walker, Texas Ranger, which filmed in Dallas from 1993 until 2001, network television largely stayed away from Texas. Instead the productions moved to other states and, most notably, Canada, which started creating incentive programs for filmmakers in the mid-nineties. Texas, which some in Hollywood described as too cocky about its allure, opted not to take that step.

But in 2009 the state legislature finally introduced a meaningful incentive plan, a cash rebate program that pulls from a $30 million fund to reimburse productions up to 17.5 percent of the money they spend in Texas. Though it may seem strange to offer free money to an industry that’s neither as vital nor as threatened as, say, the auto industry, the returns are significant. Since 2009 the Texas Film Commission has earmarked nearly $19 million in grants to television productions. Those companies in turn are projected to spend nearly $88 million in the state. (Since many of the shows are still in production, final numbers aren’t available.)

The anecdotal evidence tells a better story. At the start of the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor was reassigned to newly reopened East Dillon High School. Suddenly the production needed a team’s worth of new letter jackets, and an Austin embroidery shop hired twenty workers to fill the order. “When they shot that ‘Mud Bowl’ episode,” says Texas Film Commission director Bob Hudgins, referring to an episode about a rain-drenched playoff game that Entertainment Weekly named one of the best single shows of the decade, “you couldn’t buy a rain slicker or poncho anywhere in Austin two days before filming. They bought out Cabela’s, Callahan’s, everybody. They have accounts with four hundred local vendors. They paid the Del Valle school district to use its old stadium and individual homeowners to use their houses. In a given season, a couple thousand people get checks from Friday Night Lights.”

Setting can do a number of different things for a TV series. It can be totally incidental, nothing more than a name that characters use to identify where they are or where they’re going. It can also be a selling point, as it was for Dallas; merely invoking Big D in the title alerted viewers that outsized shenanigans were afoot. Or it can drive so much of the action that it becomes another character, one so real it feels like the reason the program exists. Arlen did that for King of the Hill, and Dillon does it for Friday Night Lights. Now that the state has provided a financial reason for productions to come here, that third function is more attainable. The Texas-in-name-only landscapes of the past should become as difficult to recall as Tales of the Texas Rangers and Cutter to Houston.

The test comes with the new television season opening this month. Aside from Friday Night Lights, an unprecedented four major network series filmed here this year, three in Dallas and another in Austin. Critics have already had a look at them, and the best reviews so far have gone to Fox’s Lone Star, a soap opera with a bigamist twist set in the oil bidness. It uses Texas much like Dallas did, as an invitation. And like Dallas its success will depend on a single character, con man Bob Allen (James Wolk). His game is selling interests in a nonexistent oil field, and in working the con he leads two lives. He has one wife in Midland, a sweet girl who provides an in with local investors, and a second in Houston, the socialite daughter of a wealthy oil company founder he hopes will buy him out. He flies back and forth between these two sides of Texas, one of backyard barbecues, the other of fund-raising galas, a juxtaposition ripe with salacious potential. But the trick will be making him likable. In one scene in the pilot, he blithely convinces an aging rancher to put his life’s savings in the fictional wells. In a post-Madoff, mid-recession world, even J.R. might have had a hard time making that something viewers want to watch each week.

Jerry Bruckheimer’s Chase, a crime procedural about U.S. marshals on NBC, works the hardest to make Texas a character, as in J. J. Starbuck hard. In the pilot, Marshal Annie “Boots” Frost (Kelli Giddish) tracks a fugitive who killed the father of a well-to-do Houston family and sent the mother and daughter to Ben Taub ICU. It all sounds plausible, at least geographically. But when Boots learns that the assailant was singing about “dingos” as he terrorized his victims, she’s reminded of a Waylon Jennings song, which in turn explains the W tattoed on the bad guy’s neck. With a couple more tortured twists of sleuthing, she captures the killer. Never mind that the song in question, “Armed and Dangerous,” appeared on one of Jennings’s little-heard late-career albums; you don’t have to watch long to gauge what the show knows about Texas. Barely ten minutes in, a by-the-book rookie is added to Boots’s team, at which point one of her deputies predicts, “He’ll last as long as a fly in a frog swamp.” Chase should not last much longer.

The frequent Texas references in Fox’s good cop/slob cop comedy The Good Guys are strictly matter-of-factual. The pilot opens with a datelined scene, “5327 Elm St., Dallas, TX, 11:27 p.m.,” and subsequent action takes the heroes to Fair Park, Deep Ellum, and Reunion Tower. But the locations have no effect on the hijinks that ensue. Rather, the tropes the show sends up are from old detective series. One of the cops appears to have watched too much Dragnet as a kid; the other must have made the same mistake with Mannix and Mike Hammer. But at least the show’s funny. ABC’s docudrama My Generation doesn’t even have that to recommend it. The premise is that a film crew is revisiting nine kids who were the subjects of a documentary on Austin high school seniors in 2000. The characters are thinly drawn types—the class overachiever is now surfing and tending bar in Hawaii; the jock is fighting in Afghanistan—and none are discernibly Texan or, more significantly, remotely fleshed out. Local landmarks give no sense of place. The pink granite of the Capitol makes a cameo appearance, but it’s supposed to be a dorm at George Washington University. The lawn in front of the nearby Reagan state office building subs for a grassy mall at Yale.

Watching the new shows only reminded me of why I initially avoided Friday Night Lights. Of course, even that show hits an occasional wrong note, like when Riggins gets invited to a late-night beer at the Dry Creek Cafe—everybody knows Dry Creek closes at sunset. But just the reference demonstrates how hard the show tries. If these new series are to last—and The Good Guys, which aired through the summer, is already facing cancellation—they should follow the Friday Night Lights example. Let Texas do more of the work. In the meantime, fans of Tami and Coach Taylor are making plans to spend one last season in Dillon. I’ll be with them.

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