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“Friday Night Writes”: Can Coach Taylor Make Boys into Men?

Yeah, we love Coach Taylor. But we’re skeptical that his big hearted speeches are doing much for his team off of the field.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NBC/PHOTOFEST

This series, which will continue weekly through the month of September, follows four of our writers as they watch the first season of the classic TV series, Friday Night Lights. Two of them have never seen it—the other two are fanatics. In this second installment, they discuss episodes five through eight, and boy, was there a lot to, erm, tackle. Smash’s steroid debacle, the special relationship between the Riggins brothers, the racial slurs that threaten to tear apart the team—there is a lot to unpack. Ultimately, though, we circled back around to the same central question: is football really good for the Panthers? Or Dillon itself? Check the schedule here to watch along with us.

Doyin Oyeniyi: So, Emily, thoughts on this stretch of episodes? Were you able to be more objective this week?

Emily McCullar: Yes, I was able to be more objective. Sort of. I still get starry-eyed whenever Tim Riggins brushes his hair out of his eyes, but I was also really annoyed by some of Tyra’s storylines.

And I realized that episode six, when Bobby Reyes assaults that nerd, is called “El Accidente.” That’s no good.

Christian Wallace: Yeah, seeing the title of the episode after I watched it made me wince.

Doyin: I have a lot of thoughts about that episode.

Emily: Like how the only evil racist was the black guy?

Doyin: Voodoo really only served as a vehicle to stir things up before he left.

Emily: Yeah. And he really solidifies himself as the show’s bad guy when he says he could do without people “always talking about the great state of Texas all the time.” Um, Texas forever.

Dan SolomonOne thing this show does (that all shows do, but which is very pronounced here) is pick some characters as “our guys” and “the other guys.” Because it’s a show about a football team, I was inclined to think that anyone in a Panthers uniform is on our side. But the way the show treats Voodoo and Reyes makes clear that that’s not the case. Watching the Voodoo episodes, I kept wondering what the show would look like from his perspective, because until he starts hurling racial slurs at Reyes in the diner, he’s not wrong about anything.

Christian: True. The “arranged marriage” scene between Coach and Voodoo was pretty spot on.

Dan: Imagine being him, you know? Kid just wants to play ball, he doesn’t want to have to listen to a corny coach who’s attached to a mediocre QB who farted into the job ten minutes ago, he doesn’t want to have to pretend that these people are his friends after he lost everything in a storm. He just wants to go play so he can continue on the path he was on before disaster struck.

Doyin: My main issue with that storyline was how it seemed like something that white writers would write. For Reyes to flip the story and use racism as a justification for beating up Matt’s friend sounds like the fantasy of everybody who talks about “reverse racism.” And though everybody was right that the nerd friend didn’t call Reyes racial slurs, their reasoning wasn’t sound. Even Tami Taylor was like, “He’s a straight-A student” and “his mom doesn’t think he would do it.” That has nothing to do with the ability to be a racist, y’all.

Dan: That’s such a good point. You can absolutely imagine a straight-A student whose mom thinks he’s a good kid marching with a tiki torch these days, to say nothing of tossing a slur toward a Latino kid in a parking lot. It just seems bizarre, given that a kid like Voodoo is way more likely to encounter racism in a small, mostly-white Texas town than he is to be the first person to say something racist.

Emily: And the fact that he’s an outsider, a non-Texan, as if racism is just a Louisiana problem. The first time I watched Friday Night Lights I was all on board to hate on Voodoo, but this time I see him as a wasted opportunity for an interesting character.

Dan: Exactly. They went out of their way to make him a villain. Which is a shame, because the core of the conflict, even from Coach Taylor’s perspective, is interesting. Coach’s pride won’t let him start Voodoo over Matt Saracen, because he doesn’t like how Voodoo ended up on the team, and he doesn’t like that Voodoo doesn’t shout “can’t lose!” with his hand over his chest.

That’s a legit struggle for the guy, and it tells us interesting things about him. When he decides to actually start Voodoo over Matt Saracen, it’s interesting because he has to get over his dumb pride. But then it turns out, whoops, he was right about everything—Voodoo is bad.

Christian: It was interesting to watch how the two stories played out in front of the local TV cameras. Reyes lied to the news crew about the circumstances surrounding the assault, while Buddy and Coach went before the district board to lie about Voodoo’s timeline coming to Dillon. It was kind of subtle, I think, but did point a finger at the double-standard aspect. Ultimately, Reyes paid a price for his lies and, yeah, Voodoo went on the record with that reporter and ended up forcing the Panthers to take the loss, but neither Coach or Buddy faced so much as a wrist-slap.

Emily: Not getting a slap on the wrist seems accurate, right? But the show doesn’t really do anything with that. Reyes and Voodoo suffer. Coach and Garrity don’t. And the show doesn’t actually say anything about that inequality.

Dan: Let’s ask a big picture question real quick: Does the show have a responsibility to say anything about that? Or is raising the question—because we all seem to have noticed it—enough?

Emily: Well, it was enough for 2006.

Dan: If we all see it as, “Huh, Coach Taylor got away with his lie, and then got righteous in punishing Reyes for his,” is the show doing its job?

Emily: I would argue that it is not.

Doyin: I’ve been thinking about Dan’s point about football’s ability (or lack of) to make good men. Is Coach really able to help these young men become good adult men? The only good thing that came out of that Reyes situation to me was that Saracen got his head out of his ass and stepped up to the plate. But that was because his friend reminded him of who he was. When Saracen tells Coach, “I think I might have been confused between what was right for the team and what was right,” I wanted to give him a standing ovation, but I also thought, “shouldn’t this be a lesson he learns from Coach?”

Dan: In watching that scene again, I was thinking that maybe he was the one teaching it to Coach, which I found interesting. But, again, as Emily says, the show doesn’t do anything with it.

Emily: But then again, would any network show do anything with it in 2006? Not that I want to always go back to “it was a different time then” argument. But shit. It was.

Dan: I’m curious if Doyin and Christian are reading the same meaning into this that we are, Emily, because I know that Coach Taylor has become sort of a mythic, outsized figure in his goodness to me. Like, there are so many memes! So it’s interesting to see that, actually, he’s selling his soul a little at a time (as he himself puts it), and the show is mostly letting him off the hook for it. Or, at least, not building to anything bigger with it yet, unless I’m forgetting a lot about what’s about to happen.

Emily: Yes, Dan. In re-watching this show I am having an existential crisis.

Doyin: I’m willing to give the show time to develop all the characters, and that includes Coach Taylor. I definitely don’t have the impression of him as this mythic leader who always does right. He falls short to me. With Voodoo, with Reyes, with the overall football culture. Tami’s trying to talk to him about the harmful sexual expectations football players put on girls—mostly cause she’s freaking out about Julie getting close to Matt—and he does . . . nothing. And I’m sure he knew about it before Tami said anything.

Emily: The show puts him on a pedestal, and I always have too. One of my favorite things to say is that I wish Coach Taylor could be my coach, my husband, and my dad. Sorry.

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Christian: That’s one of the things I keep oscillating back and forth between. I get frustrated at times with certain aspects of the narrative—the entrenched gender roles and some of the ways the show handles race—but then I start to think, is it simply portraying small town Texas realistically? Am I expecting too much for the show to subvert those icky aspects of our culture? Or is simply portraying those characteristics, flaws and all, enough?

Emily: But is it portraying a small Texas town accurately when the only vocal racist is from out of state? Speaking of accuracy, when can we talk about oil?

Dan: Do you mean Tyra’s 37-year-old boyfriend?

Emily: Siiiiigh. Yes.

Doyin: Not even her boyfriend, Dan! I thought we would be talking about oil with Connor, but no, he’s just there to sleep with high schoolers. That was so upsetting. Just a creepy older dude hitting on teenagers in small towns before flying back to Los Angeles.

Emily: But even his talk of oil was cringeworthy. Do investment bankers from L.A. really come out to small Texas towns to decide that shit? Not really sure that’s how oil and gas industry functions.

Christian: This is all very true. And Connor showing up on a business trip with a blues CD to pawn off on a high-school Applebee’s waitress—who the hell is this guy? And he’s “going to talk to geologists”? That was all pretty laughable. You’re not even allowed on an oilfield location without proper PPE: hard hat, steel-toed boots, and an H2S monitor. You definitely don’t want some asshole in an ill-fitting suit from L.A. tromping around.

And, since it’s filmed outside of Austin instead of the Eagle Ford or the Permian, they probably went to shoot the scene somewhere outside of Luling, the nearest place producing crude. But out there they have the tiniest pumpjacks I’ve ever seen. They’re, like, adorably small. Anyway, I think only oilfield kids will probably find that funny, but I’ll take my cheap laughs where I can get ’em.

Doyin: Although Connor being from L.A. seems more like a ploy to get into Tyra’s desire to get outta Dodge.

Emily: Oh, for sure. It was all about Tyra, and I’m glad she got more depth to her character, because she’s one of the greats. But what a gross way to get that information in there.

Doyin: I’m sure she had plans to leave before he came along, but an older guy like him saying she’s got potential—again, gross—would push her in that direction.

Dan: Also, I understand why they have to cast adults in their twenties to play high school kids—labor laws don’t allow them to work with actual teenagers for the fourteen-hour days on a TV set—but the fact that Adrianne Palicki is a 23-year-old woman in scenes with a 25-year-old male actor makes the fact that he’s, uh, committing statutory rape way easier to gloss over.

Emily: Yeah. Sometimes I have to pretend they really are twenty-somethings so I don’t throw up.

Dan: It’s like the scene later on where she’s party-planning with Billy Riggins—she is very confident in how to run successful and profitable events for a sixteen-year-old.

Doyin: Can we talk about Bill Riggins?

Emily: Anytime, but it’s Billy.

Doyin: Whatever.

Emily: He’s a mess, but I love him in episode eight. I love his big brother love for Tim. But the show is so, so, so forgiving of those two white boys in a way they have not really shown to any other characters.

Doyin: I wasn’t expecting to understand him more, but I’m kind of glad I did. I was wondering why it was just him and Tim living together, and I hated the way he seems to put pressure on Tim to be the football player he couldn’t be, but I have to commend him for taking care of his little brother. But he’s also enabling Tim’s drinking.

Dan: Episode eight is when the Riggins brothers finally stop being terrible. Which is weird, because they are absolutely terrible to each other throughout that episode. But the way it explains the “why” of their terribleness goes a long way toward mitigating it.

Emily: The scene where Billy asks who punched Tim in the eye is one of my favorite. All Tim actually says in response is “J,” but it says so much about both characters, how they feel about each other, how they resolve conflicts. Billy talks too much and Tim says nothing, but they are so used to the way they communicate with each other.

Doyin: Friendly reminder that episode eight opens with the Riggins arguing in a grocery store because Tim wants to buy a copy of Texas Monthly.

Christian: Doyin, I also think it should be noted that Tim Riggins has excellent taste in journalism.

Emily: Plus, Tim Riggins is in the much coveted millennial demographic. Good work, 2006 TM!

Editor’s note: We’re happy to give Tim Riggins a copy of that September 2006 issue, which his brother so cruelly denied. And, since he seems interested in football packages, we’d also like to point him to our current issue. Millennials love it. 

Dan: I also felt bad for Billy throughout that episode, because he’s so proud of Tim, and he believes that Tim has a future—but if there’s anything we know about Tim Riggins eight episodes into this series, it’s that he’s gonna let you down. Here’s a bag of frozen peas, kid, you know what to do.

Doyin: What I got from that scene at the end is, yeah the Riggins siblings will tussle, but Billy would never punch Tim like that. But Jason on the other hand . . .

Dan: It’s hard not to feel sympathetic toward Tim, who’s getting “You know why I got stuck with you? Because no one else wanted you!” yelled at him. But Tim is a classic example of someone who squanders most of the chances he gets, and I like that the show is really interested in exploring that, and keeping the specter of what happens to a kid like that after he stops being a hunky athlete and starts being someone people used to look up to.

Christian: To paraphrase Tyra, we “learned more about the Riggins family in two minutes” than we had in seven episodes.

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Dan: While we’re on Riggins: How do y’all feel about the secret being revealed in the Riggins-Lyla-Jason Street love triangle?

Emily: It’s about time! That shit needs to be out in the open. Tim deserved to be punched. They did a bad thing. But also, Tim’s really hot. Way hotter than Jason, even at the beginning of episode one.

Talking about Tim Riggins is where I’ll get straight up unprofessional, y’all, Just to warn you.

Dan: Remember, he’s supposed to be a high school sophomore.

Emily: Nooooooooo.

Doyin: I was glad to see it happen. That weird little threesome date made me so uncomfortable. I was nervous that Tim and Lyla were going to get lusty and blow their cover while they were with Jason, but the fact that it didn’t even happen that way made it a bit more interesting. Yeah, their goodbye hug was really long, but that Jason knows both of them enough to know that something was majorly off and they had to be sleeping together because of it was telling.

And yeah, Tim deserved that punch. But I don’t think it’s the end of his friendship with Jason. I think they’ll survive this. I think Jason and Lyla are over, however, and that Tim and Lyla aren’t over yet. Christian, as a fellow Friday Night Lights newbie, what do you think?

Christian: A lot of feels on that one. They’re kids, for one, so hopped-up hormones and everything that happens is the most important thing that has ever happened (unless you’re super cool like Julie). [Editor’s note: Crosstalk about Julie among the rest of the Friday Night Lights crew confirmed that Julie Taylor is not actually that cool.] But also, they’re going through an actually traumatic time and it makes sense that Tim and Lyla would lean on each other. They just leaned a little too far. I will say the threesome date scene took being a “third wheel” to a whole new level.

A couple of things before I forget:

I’m super interested in Street’s rehab and his gruff Jedi mentor, Herc.

And when the church passed around the offering plate to get Smash Williams the money he needed for his “SAT prep” (read: steroids), it broke my dang heart.

Dan: The church scene was maybe the most effective thing this show has done yet, for my money.

Emily: That’s some Gift of the Magi shit, man.

Christian: Also, Smash is finally being called by his real name, Brian (at least by some characters), which I know we talked last week about using only his and Voodoo’s nicknames being problematic.

Doyin: Him getting a real name went right along with him getting a more in depth storyline. I just hate that it’s this storyline.

Dan: One thing this show does really, really well is find new and interesting ways to make each of its characters suffer. Him betraying his entire community to do something that he had already decided he didn’t want to keep doing is really painful, and very human. Because what else was he gonna do with that $1,200 once he had it?

Doyin: His desperation to succeed for his family and his nerves getting to him in front of the scout broke my heart. The church scene, where his mother is beaming, was hard to watch.

Christian: Yeah, in tandem to the church scene, when Smash says “I know I’m this family’s meal ticket”—whoa—that’s A LOT of pressure for a high-school junior. I think it sets up why he’s making the choices he is nicely. I just hope to hell he stops soon before he gets hurt or in trouble.

Doyin: Well this is where I hope somebody is paying enough attention to Smash to figure out what’s going on. But does he have people around, as in close friends? Matt’s friend kept him in line with Reyes. Tim has his brother, Lyla, Tyra, and Jason in a way. Who are Smash’s people—other than his family? Maybe his family is enough. But they are also the people he feels pressured by. I think they’re supporting him more than anything and Smash has put that pressure on himself. But it raises the question of if he lets them in enough to see when he’s struggling, or if they’ll be able to see it and stop it.

Christian: It feels like Saracen and Smash might be at the beginning of a solid friendship. I think they can learn from each other. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.

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Dan: Let’s also not forget Coach Taylor, who has a really good scene with Smash just before the scout shows up. When he spots Smash in the locker room poring over the playbook, and he’s like, “Grady Hunt isn’t gonna make or break #20, you are.” It was the exact sort of speech that helped build the mythology of Coach Taylor I keep in my head.

Christian: That’s true, Dan. Coach does sling some solid words of wisdom.

Doyin: Eh. I wish I had more faith in Coach Taylor to help Smash out if he gets in too deep with steroids. But I don’t. Not yet. I also have to remind myself that Coach Taylor has to monitor a lot of kids. And if Smash hadn’t been alone in the locker room before the game, would Coach have noticed what was going on with him?

Christian: Can I just say one technical thing that’s been kinda bugging me: who decided to film every intimate conversation like the person holding the camera was trying to shake ants out of their pants? It’s a quiet conversation—I don’t need to zoom in on Coach’s eyes and then bounce around behind someone’s shoulders!

Emily: Blame [director Peter] Berg for that. That’s a holdover from the movie’s documentary style. The doc thing is so weird with the show past the first fifteen minutes of the pilot. Although I’ve grown to love it.

Doyin: Yes. I noted early on that the camera jumps around way too much in important scenes. It was making me dizzy at one point. Curse you, Berg!

Dan: It really is. I keep waiting to see how long it takes for them to dump it, because I don’t remember five seasons of that.

Christian: Yeah, it’s got that same documentary style that The Office was using at the time, but it’s way more effective when you have Jim look straight at the camera and shake his head at Dwight’s antics. Here, it’s silly and distracting.

Dan: Let’s talk about Herc, Jason Street, and quad rugby. I remember when the show introduced this plot, it was right after the documentary Murderball came out, and the main dude in that movie even looks like Herc. It’s been a long time since I watched the doc, but aside from some weird details (how are there enough young, athletic quadriplegics in Dillon to field multiple teams?), I’ve found this subplot a lot more engaging than I expected to. I remember thinking Jason Street was boring, but this is one of my favorite things on the show right now.

Christian: Haha. I hadn’t considered the disproportionate number of quad rugby players for a town the size of Dillon.

Emily: And there’s like a world-renowned rehab facility? Hence the preponderance of athletic quads.

Doyin: I thought Herc was being an asshole to Jason, which he was, but I think he was also pushing him to stop being so passive about everything. That it’s OK to be angry and to channel that into physical therapy and also in raising your expectations for how people treat you now that you’re paralyzed. It’s Herc that pushes Jason’s buttons enough to get him to knock the cup off the table. It’s Herc who takes him to the quad rugby game. It’s also Herc that tells Jason “just because we’re paralyzed doesn’t mean we have to accept crumbs.” And I don’t think he meant for Jason to punch Tim, but I think Herc would understand it.

Emily: See, this is why it’s good for Lyla, Street, and the whole show for their storylines to diverge. Street and Herc’s relationship is the most interesting thing about Street (dare I say the only interesting thing about Street).

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ChristianAt the very beginning of his storyline, I kind of thought Herc was a creep—cartoonishly checking out the gals who came to visit Street—but I quickly came around to him, and now I find his tough-love approach compelling. Coach Taylor prepared Street for the football field, but now he needs a different sherpa. Herc is there to prepare Street for his new reality—and also introduce him to the badassness of quad rugby.

Doyin: I held my breath when Jason got knocked out of his seat in that quad rugby game. It’s jarring to see somebody who is already injured get hurt like that. But that’s the point of quad rugby. The players aren’t delicate flowers who need to sheltered. They can still take hits and get up again.

Emily: Christian, I have a question for you. Do you still think of this show as “pigskin Degrassi“?

Christian: No. And Yes. It is a pigskin Degrassi, but, dammit, it’s a TEXAS pigskin Degrassi.

Emily: Would Degrassi include this line said to Jason: “It’s not medically safe to ejaculate”? Because Friday Night Lights sure does. I think FNL‘s commitment to being blunt about Jason’s condition is one of the ways it sets itself off from other high-drama teen-centered fare.

Dan: Herc as a different mentor, preparing Street for a different reality than the one that Coach Taylor was prepping him for, is a really compelling way to put it, Christian. Especially because these episodes make clear, with the homecoming QB who doesn’t actually have an insurance company, that Coach does a bad job of prepping these guys for a lot of what they’ll encounter. They both practice tough love, in their own way, but Herc is almost a more effective instructor in a lot of ways.

Emily: And how much does Coach actually know about life after football? He hasn’t really left it. It’s similar to Tyra’s criticism of Tami.

Doyin: Herc is preparing Jason for the rest of his life. While Coach could only really ever prepare the guys for the next game. As evidenced by Lucas “Maneater” Mize, the former golden boy QB. What a terrible nickname, by the way.

ChristianEating men left and right!

Doyin: Coach sounded so whiny when he realized he couldn’t help Mize. “I was just his Coach for a little bit. I’m not his Dad.”

Dan: Maneater Mize seems like the most important thing on the show so far. Because what happens to these boys after they become men, and the world stops fawning over them, is really one of the most interesting things about the series, and every time it hints at it—whether it’s Billy Riggins taunting his little brother about putting on 40 pounds and pumping gas, or the guy with the high school champion ring in the Alamo Freeze taunting Coach Taylor after he loses—it pushes things in the most interesting direction the show can go, which is “is football good or bad for these guys?” It seems like the answer is “it’s good,” because they win and we cheer and we’re all inspired and stuff. But the more I think about stuff like that, the more I think that maybe the show isn’t actually even making that point.

Christian: Yeah, and Julie totally points that out.

Dan: Christian + Julie forever.

Emily: Go ahead and love on Julie, Christian. You’re in for a rollercoaster ride.

Doyin: My answer would not be that football is good for these guys. Because of football, Smash is turning to steroids. Matt is losing his sense of right and wrong. Reyes is beating people up and being a reverse racist fantasy. Jason is paralyzed. Tim is . . . I don’t know what Tim is.

ChristianI think the show is toying with that idea of the benefits and drawbacks of football. This is a town where the citizens have more state rings than cell phones (I mean, what is up with all these late-night front-door visits? Pick up a dang phone)—a town that, as Buddy puts it, “will die without a win.” But this pressure on winning is what has largely contributed to the poor decisions we’ve seen made by the characters so far. And with the “Homecoming” episode, the show pulled back the curtain to offer a glimpse of the future awaiting a lot of these kids—win or lose—and it’s pretty bleak.

Doyin: I came into this without a very good impression of what good football or the culture around it does for the people involved in it. And the show so far has only supported my feelings. There’s everything it does to the individual players, but also what it does to the town and especially the school culture the show depicts. The girl crying in Tami’s office over pressure to do a threesome was frustrating. It speaks to a culture of sexual entitlement that football players have that coaches (high school, college, professional) don’t do enough to discourage. But based on Dan’s reactions, I’m curious about how the show remedies this. I’m hoping to see some significant changes to get to the same place where Dan felt about the goodness of Coach Taylor. ‘Cause I’m not there yet.

Emily: My closing thoughts are just this: I’m really enjoying myself and I am surprised to learn I hate Jason Street less than I remember. Also, hubba hubba Tim Riggins.

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