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 episodes thirteen through seventeen we question the morality of Coach Taylor, agreed that Jason Street is the worst, and unanimously (well, almost) that we’re over Julie Taylor. Let’s jump in.
“Friday Night Writes” Schedule*
September 1: Episodes 1-4
September 8: Episodes 5-8
September 22: Episodes 9-12
September 29: Episodes 13-17
October 6: Episodes 18-22
Doyin Oyeniyi: OK, I think we should start by talking about how the show has handled racism in this last section of episodes. I watched them on the Sunday that the whole #takeaknee movement was taking shape and I found it eerie and telling that the issues raised in Friday Night Lights about a decade ago are still very relevant.
Dan Solomon: Yeah, I agree. What did everybody think of A) The fact that the show went there (in its first proper two-parter, no less) and B) How it handled the issue?
Emily McCullar: I am very glad the show went there, and glad they gave it a full two hours so they could explore everyone’s relationship to the issue. I feel weird about the resolution, though it was wonderfully dramatic and allowed me to feel mostly good about the character of all the characters, it did place the burden on the black kids to rise above the issue and gave a lot more sympathy to the white coach.
Dan: I agree with the burden it placed on Smash and the other black players to rise above it—although that is a cultural expectation that we have. My biggest problem with the resolution was how easy an out it gave to the folks in Dillon who had all that stuff “seeped” into them, as they put it.
Like, Mac hadn’t shown any interest in or ability to change the way he behaves or thinks for the bulk of the episodes. Then they go to another town where people are even more racist, and suddenly Riggins, Mac, and the other Dillon-ites who had been behaving pretty deplorably get to be good guys for standing up for the people they’d been treating so terribly right up until they got to town.
Christian: I watched episodes fifteen and sixteen (“Blinders” and “Black Eyes and Broken Hearts”) on Monday a few hours before the Cowboys took a knee with Jerry Jones. Both episodes felt incredibly pertinent. I was so glad to see Smash take a leadership role off the field. Since he kicked the ‘roids he’s acted with incredible grace and maturity for a high-schooler. Here he led based on his convictions (with some helpful guidance from Waverly) and kept his cool during the regional game. Coach Taylor should have never put him in the position he did, though.
Doyin: I’m glad the show went there. It gave us a look into a serious side so Smash, casting him as a sort of civil rights leader, which I appreciated after his downfall from being busted for drugs. We got to see him grappling with how to handle that kind of racism. He went from dismissing it as a joke to trying to understand what it really means for him as an athlete and have a “dialogue” to taking a very direct stance against it. The scene where the black players take off their helmets and walk off practice was very powerful, which made it even more disappointing when they came back without any of the coaches including Taylor really understanding their stance.
Dan: Mac gets to be a good guy at the end because, what, he knows that you need a warrant to arrest somebody, and Coach Taylor apparently hadn’t heard that before? Am I overthinking this? It just seemed like such a writerly thing, to create worse bad guys so you can redeem your protagonists without them having to actually do much to earn it.
Doyin: You’re not overthinking it, Dan.
Emily: They always make the real racists be from out of town.
Doyin: I think the show writers struggle with how they understand and therefore portray racism. The subtle stuff can be forgiven, and Mac’s comments can be excused as “stupid,” yet somehow not racist as if those two things are mutually exclusive. It’s a simplification of racism that reduces it to being overt shit like somebody hurling racist insults at Smash or trying to arrest him after a game—which was a terrifying scene, by the way.
Emily: Mrs. Coach for the win, though, when Coach comes to her for advice. She really is his moral compass.
Dan: She’s the best character on the show by a mile. It’s not even close. She’s everyone’s moral compass.
Christian: I was particularly moved by Tami’s reaction to the collapse of the dialogue she held at the school. (Holy crap, Connie Britton is a good actress.)
Doyin: I appreciated her attempt at trying to create a conversation around the issues. But even she was operating from a place of “both sides” thinking when talking about racism.
Dan: That’s a good point, Doyin.
Christian: And I agree with y’all about Mac. Coach kept saying “Mac is not a racist,” and yet Mac’s own words—spoken to a reporter on the record, no less—proved otherwise. That was the most grating aspect of the situation for me, but it was also fairly realistic of something you might experience growing up in small-town Texas (and, I’d argue, in big-city Texas, too). A lot of folks, like Coach, don’t seem to understand that you don’t have to be a Klan member or hurl racial slurs to still be racist. In that sense, I think the show did do a good job of showing some of this complexity. It drew attention to the moral failings of Mac’s comments, but it also gave those remarks a bit of biographical context, not in way that defends Mac but allows us to see that this kind of rhetoric doesn’t appear out of nowhere. Still, as Dan pointed out, I think he gets off too easily. As Tami told Coach, Mac’s a government employee who disparaged the students he’s accountable to. He should have been fired, and the burden should have never been placed solely on the black athletes to stand up to an educator like that. Yet Coach refused to do what everyone was urging him to do. And in the end Mac didn’t face any real consequences. Instead he got to be the hero. At least it seems like he learned something from the experience and might finally confront some of those things that “seeped in” from his father.
Dan: Christian, what you’re saying brings me back to the most continually surprising thing about re-watching the show for me right now, which is that I actually don’t think that Coach Taylor is a particularly good person at all.
Christian: Dude, honestly, he’s not. He’s a wiffle ball of morality.
Emily: Whoa, whoa, whoa. I think he’s a selfish person, for sure. But I wouldn’t go that far. I think the show places him on a pedestal that he probably doesn’t deserve.
Dan: He seems to very sincerely grapple with things, and he likes to talk about high-minded ideals. But ultimately, every decision he makes is the one he wants to make.
Doyin: Yeah, Coach Taylor’s morality was particularly weak during this issue, but I was not surprised. Often Tami is his guiding light when he’s too bullheaded to see outside of his perspective.
Emily: Yeah, he’s stubborn and reactive and flawed.
Christian: I don’t think he’s a bad person, but I don’t think he’s a shining example of a person who acts on their scruples.
Dan: He’s able to frame it in a moral way, but he’s still only making decisions that help him keep his job, stave off criticism, and defend the people he’s decided he cares about. I like Smash, and I care about him, so I’m glad that he didn’t turn Smash in. But how is the way he handled the Smash situation moral, given the way he handled the Reyes situation?
Christian: Exactly. A one-game suspension for a sophomore caught using steroids? That’s flippant and reckless. Though I will soften my critique in the sense that it’s TV and stories have to move quickly.
Dan: The only difference I can really see is that Smash told him the truth, while Reyes lied to him. And if your morality is based on “did this person lie directly to me” as the only unforgivable offense, I’m not sure it’s actually rooted in anything besides your own selfishness.
Emily: I think this says more about the person we wish Coach was than the person he is. I like that the character is flawed. Of course he’d side with Mac. He sees himself in Mac, and he feels guilty about getting the job that Mac deserved. I think that’s good TV.
Dan: It is good TV.
Doyin: But it’s bad morals!
Dan: It’s just not what I remember the show being, or what the narrative around Coach Taylor in the decade since it premiered has led me to believe it would be.
Emily: Which says more about the audiences reaction to Coach. And our reactions.
Dan: Yeah, absolutely. But those things are inherently entwined, especially for a show that premiered a decade ago.
Emily: All human beings can’t make purely objective moral decisions.
Doyin: Absolutely not. Nobody is truly objective. The problem arises when they think they are.
Emily: So I guess the problem with Coach is that he acts like he’s coming from a place of ideals and morality when his behavior clearly doesn’t line up with that? It’s the soapboxing. And then the selfishness.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. I’m not sure the show challenges him enough on the persona he’s created versus the person he is, yet, too.
Doyin: I definitely think as a newbie, I’m able to be more critical of him than you two. How about you, Christian?
Christian: I think so, Doyin. I do like Coach, but I’m actually kind of shocked by how many decisions the guy has made in ONE season of football that are questionable or, at times, completely immoral.
Doyin: I wonder if that shock comes from the expectation that he would be a righteous moral standard. I don’t have those expectations of him, so it feels easier for me to accept this portrayal of Coach Taylor that I’m seeing.
Christian: I don’t mind him being flawed, really. It does make for good, even great, TV, but because he’s been built up as this unassailable hero, I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen so far. But he’s good enough for Tami, so that’s saying something.
Doyin: IS HE GOOD ENOUGH FOR TAMI?
Emily: Doyin. Doooyyyyyyin. Careful.
Doyin: Maybe I’ll table that for another roundtable, but all of a sudden I’m questioning that. Tami is constantly supporting and guiding him. And he . . . makes her laugh?
Dan: That’s in my notes too. I don’t fully understand what she sees in him.
Doyin: I regret nothing, Emily.
Dan: He won’t even bring in the trash!
Doyin: He didn’t want her to work and he constantly talks down on her job even though she’s peeeerrrrfect at it. OMG. Petition for Tami to leave Coach and partake in an open relationship with the mayor and her boo.
Christian: I would just like to say, my partner is also a (reluctant) newcomer to this show, and I’ve caught her crying twice now. Both times during an emotional scene with Tami Taylor. It’s hard not to get choked up when Tami gets worked up about her daughter or feeling helpless to solve all of Dillon’s racial problems.
Dan: Doyin, how many times have you cried watching this show?
Doyin: Zero. The moments that really made me emotional were the moments with Smash and his mom after she found out about his drug use. But I didn’t cry.
Dan: Can we talk about that for two seconds? Because the way she rises to take care of him felt so real and authentic. Like, she’s angry and justifiably so, and she has to parent him through it. But also, she sees how badly he’s hurting, and she’s there for him in the best way. She doesn’t need him to buy her a big house. He can do other things. That was such a great moment.
Doyin: She is wonderful embodiment of tough love and tenderness and Smash needs it so much.
Emily: Her parenting scene’s have been the best—tied with Tami’s.
Doyin: I love both of them as mothers on this show. They’re both great—and different—examples of what good parenting can look like.
Emily: Tami’s “You are not allowed to have sex” gives me goosebumps every time. Tami gets to be the mom, but Smash’s mom has to be both parents in a way. Also, I love the scene where Smash comes in and his sister is just resting her head on her mother’s shoulder. That says so much about that family. That’s the shit that makes me cry. There is so much love in that house.
Doyin: I noticed that little moment too. That’s what I mean about tenderness and tough love. She’ll kick Smash out of the house for what he did, but he’s still given the space to be angry and vulnerable with her.
Christian: Yeah, Corrina and Tami are fantastic parents, and, I guess Coach is alright. But, dude, how awful is Riggins’s pa?
Emily: Even worse than Tyra’s mom!
Christian: Totally. And Buddy remains a real piece of work. It’ll be interesting to see how Tyra’s mom confronting him in front of the church-crowd is going to shake up the idyllic Garrity household. I think that conflict will help add depth to Lyla’s character.
Doyin: “Coach is alright” is up for debate, but I’ll leave that alone.
Emily: The way Coach says “are you okay?” to Julie when she first walks in the house after coming home late and lying, is pretty cute.
Doyin: I feel like we haven’t seen the last of Riggin’s dad. I’m curious about why Tim’s dad couldn’t come back to Dillon, even though he did anyway. They didn’t get into that. And they make a big deal about him and Billy not getting along, but then Billy lets him crash on the couch for a bit. So I believe we’ll see him again to learn just a big more about the crap he put Tim and Billy through when they were younger.
Christian: Just want to point out that Billy was sleeping elsewhere while Mr. Riggins was couch-surfing. Or so it seemed because Tyra had to go knock on someone else’s door when she went looking for Billy.
Doyin: Oh, I missed that.
Emily: Yeah, Billy had a lady friend with a house. Classic Riggins move.
Dan: I feel like the show is doing a good job, finally, of writing Riggins both consistently and sympathetically. It took a while to get there—first he’s just a misanthrope, then he’s sympathetic in ways that feel unearned—but now we get it. I feel for this fuck-up of a kid who really never had much of a shot because of the way he grew up, and when he makes the really bad choices (like going to the bar so he can get his ass kicked), I understand why he’s doing it, and it feels like the only choice you can make when you hate yourself that much.
Which, heavy, but also, good television.
Emily: And hot.
Doyin: (You’re not sorry.)
Emily: (I am not.)
Dan: Let’s check with the scorekeeper, how old is Tim Riggins supposed to be in these scenes? Just got a message from the judges, they say sixteen.
Doyin: Yep: Which is why Julie’s mom is freaking out about her possibly having sex. Because she’s fifteen and young. Like they all are.
Emily: Yes, but the actor, Taylor Kitsch, was in his twenties.
Christian: The scene where Tim brings back the camera to Coach, all busted up from his brawl at the Broken Spoke, and Coach asks him to come in for a minute and Riggins says “see you at practice,” dang, that kid’s carrying some hurt.
Emily: Yeah, plus the “I was ten. I wasn’t blind.”
Doyin: I gotta admit, I felt for him in those scenes. Maybe Tim Riggins is no Longer the Worst™. Jason Street is.
Emily: These episodes contained the scene I have been wanting to talk about all month. The scene that shows exactly why I hate Jason Street. He makes fun of Chinese symbols tattoos, but then gets the Sanskrit word for peace.
Christian: Look at Doyin jumping ship for Team JSITW!
Emily: Jason Street is the worst.
Dan: Oh, I’d like to weigh in here, because he definitely is the worst. And I want it to be unanimous.
Emily: Should we all say “Bless his heart” at once? Because we’re Texans and that’s how Texans do.
Dan: Bless. His. Heart.
Doyin: Bless it. I don’t even want to fully commit to the Texan version of shade.
Emily: WHERE IS HIS NEVERMIND CD?
Christian: He’s not only into nineties grunge. He has range!
Doyin: How do we feel about his engagement with Lyla?
Emily: I agree with everything Lyla said. They are way too young. It’s absurd. And he clearly doesn’t give a shit about her or anything she wants for her life.
Doyin: Absolutely. I’m not sure how getting married was the conclusion he came to after all he the talking and thinking he did about whether they should break up.
Dan: Not only that, he basically weaponizes his girlfriend’s guilt over the fact that she cheated on him to force her into an engagement she doesn’t actually want in order to get back at her dad, who may be a bigot and an asshole, but that doesn’t make Lyla a prop to use against him
Doyin: Oh, that’s an interesting perspective. It’s not overt, but he definitely is taking advantage of the guilt Lyla feels. He does too many times out of spite or to prove a point. Proposing to Lyla after Buddy told him he didn’t want them together is one of those things.
Emily: Bless his heart, but he’s spent his adolescence (and possibly his entire childhood) being the center of attention, and he’s not willing to let that go. I can’t imagine the emotional toll an injury like his would take on a person, let alone a child, but still, he is the worst.
Christian: Yeah, the engagement to Lyla is absolutely wrongheaded, especially after Steet had been so clear-eyed (and, yes, Abby, full-hearted, too) [Editor’s note: Thank you!] about the situation previously. And that tattoo. Can we start calling him Sanstreet?
Doyin: Ugh. Also, why peace? There is nothing peaceful about him.
Emily: Yeah, totally NOT douchy Austin tattoo artist. Also, one of my notes was “Casino el Camino has the best jukebox in town?” cause that’s where they were filming. And can we talk about how terribly Herc was in the Austin episodes? Rivaling Street as the worst with all the sexual harassment.
Christian: I did want to talk about that. I think Herc continues to be an incredible mentor to Street. I especially enjoyed seeing Herc teach Street to drive. But his disability does not give him permission to speak to women the way he does. His misogyny really tarnishes an otherwise solid character.
Emily: Oh man, I have good notes from this episode. Another one was “did Julie just buy a used thong at Goodwill?”
Doyin: Herc may be a good personal guru for Street, but he’s still consistently pretty misogynistic. Wonderful.
Emily: Yeah, I consider that to be laziness on the part of the writers. Herc did not have to have those attributes. He could’ve talked about the hot girls in Austin without verbally assaulting every woman he meets.
Christian: Also, Julie made a great QB1.
Emily: And Coach was so excited! C’mon, you cold-hearted Coach haters, was that not the cutest?
Doyin: I have words for her. But OK, that was actually very adorable.
Dan: That really was the cutest moment, and the most I liked Coach in any of these episodes.
Doyin: BUT IT WAS STILL BECAUSE IT WAS SOMETHING THAT INTERESTED HIM.
Christian: But it also kind of sucked, because, like, he really can’t get that excited about anything other than football.
Thank you, Doyin.
Emily: Yeah, he’s hella limited. But aren’t most people’s parents?
Dan: I’m team Emily/Coach on this one. We can nitpick all day that he should be just as excited about her dance recitals, but he does make an effort there. This time, he also was genuinely excited, which felt real.
Doyin: That is true and fair. And as far as parents go on this show, I think Julie’s got the best pair. Which is why her push to have sex drove me crazy.
Emily: How Julie turned out the way she did with the parents she’s got is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
Christian: What is y’all’s dang problem with Julie? I think she’s pretty alright. And Tami think so too!
Doyin: Some of us (ahem, Christian) have talked about Julie as this independent “cool” girl and this round of episodes, including her newfound friendship with Tyra, solidified my stance against that.
Emily: Tyra is way, way cooler and more interesting and likable than Julie Taylor. I am ready for the show to stop throwing Tyra under the bus.
Doyin: Me too. Which is why I don’t know why Tyra’s friends with Julie.
Dan: Maybe she likes having someone she can show off for, or who sees her shoplift the makeup and hang out at the strip club and thinks how cool she is, or who asks her advice on when and how to have sex with her boyfriend?
Doyin: While Tyra is down to earth and funny, I see Julie as the type of girl who thinks she’s “not like other girls.”
Emily: Yeah. I think Tyra feels pretty bad about herself a lot of the time, and Julie makes her feel special. Plus, that it’s coach’s “cool” daughter probably helps a lot, considering Tyra’s insecurities for how she measures up to Lyla.
Dan: The fact that Aimee Teegarten is like 15 years younger than Adrianne Palicki helps solidify their mentor/mentee friendship. It’s kind of the reverse of the budding (if perhaps abandoned?) Landry/Riggins friendship, in some ways, but it still makes sense.
Doyin: I really appreciated that Tyra told Julie she didn’t actually have to sex yet. Which is such sound advice that I appreciate from Tyra. It’s great advice that EVERYBODY told Julie. In fact, the only person who was pressuring Julie to have sex (when she clearly was not ready) was herself. And with the kind of parents, boyfriend, and friends she has, I couldn’t understand that.
Emily: Yeah, but that data isn’t going to gather itself, though.
Doyin: Ah, and that too.
Christian: She’s an only child with a dad who loves football (almost) more than her. She’s probably moved around a lot (as coaches’ kids often do), and so doesn’t have a whole lot of friends. She’s somewhat introverted but also has to play a public role as the coach’s daughter. She hasn’t done anything really offensive to anyone yet. She’s not so materialistic that she can’t look past the fact that her boyfriend doesn’t have his own car or can afford more than a $50 necklace. She’s attracted to him because she’s sees a kid who is taking on the responsibilities of an adult: taking care of his grandmother and working a job while doing well in school. She totally blows off an Old 97’s concert to help out with Grandma! And, y’all want to hate on her because she’s not “cool” like Tyra? Tyra’s had a rougher go of things for sure, but I see why Tyra and Julie would be friends. Julie can’t help it if she’s innocent—she’s one of the only characters on the show who actually acts like a fifteen-year-old—and I think Tyra is attracted to that sense of purity she has, which is different from Lyla’s because Lyla’s is self-righteous. Julie has a lot to learn from Tyra, but I hope that she doesn’t go too far and wind up as jaded as her new “cool” friend.
Doyin: WOOOOOOOW CHRISTIAN WAS READY WITH HIS JULIE DEFENSE!!!
Emily: Oh Lord. Coach does not love football more than he loves Julie.
Dan: He wanted to kill his starting quarterback when he made eyes at his daughter.
Doyin: I don’t hate Julie because she’s not as “cool” as Tyra. I don’t even hate her. I find her annoying when she tries to force herself into a kind an idea of maturity of “cool” that isn’t realistic or even expected of her. She’s got the least amount of pressure on this show, I don’t know why she doesn’t let herself enjoy it.
Christian: I said almost. My point is that he eats, sleeps, and breathes football, and, sure, he begrudgingly attends dance recitals, but Julie and us know he doesn’t care at all.
Emily: Should we care about Julie’s dance recital? Did we watch the same recital?
Christian: If you’re her dad, yeah.
Emily: Eh, agree to disagree.
Dan: All right, let’s wrap it up.
Doyin: Any last thoughts?
Emily: In the grand scheme of things Coach Taylor is a really good dad. And hubba hubba Tim Riggins! (I’LL NEVER STOP.)
Doyin: Ultimately, I love the family dynamics on this show. I’m forever rooting for Smash’s mom and Julie’s mom. And it’s how good Julie has it (with her mom) that makes me so critical of her. The town—and the show writers—still need to do a better job at handling racism, but I appreciate Friday Night Lights for tackling topics that are still pretty relevant in sports culture today. (I, too, will never stop)
Christian: Besides some clunky resolutions here and there, I’ve continued to be impressed with how the show has tackled difficult topics in complex ways and has brought a lot of depth to a fairly diverse cast of very Texan characters. And, dammit, I’m rooting for these Panthers—all the way to state.
Dan: I think the season is doing a good job of building to its conclusion. Right now, the entire town is most concerned about whether or not they’re going to State, while we as the audience couldn’t care less about that, which is exactly where the show should be right now. Instead, we’re all focused on things that hang together nicely: the theme of “is Coach Taylor a good man,” while more complicated than I remembered, runs through the story about Smash and drugs, about Mac and race, about Julie and Matt having sex, and about Riggins and his dad. The themes around race, while it let the Dillon crowd off way too easy in the two-parter, are still unresolved in ways that make it feel more like life than you’d expect from Football DeGrassi. The relationships—both romantic and parental—are mostly compelling, and touch every character on the show except maybe Landry right now. The show does a remarkable job of constantly putting all of its characters in the place they’d least like to be, and it doesn’t give them any of them except for Coach Taylor easy ways out of it. That feels right, for a show about kids figuring out life through a game that breaks their hearts and bodies—and even the fact that Coach Taylor isn’t the moral paragon I remembered him being just makes the heartbreak of the Panthers and the people who love them feel more real.