I must admit I didn’t watch much of the Emmy-winning “Friday Night Lights” during its five year run on NBC (2006-2011). I had seen the movie on which the series was based, but because I’m not a huge fan of football stories, other than watching screeners of the series during Emmy season, I didn’t play much attention to the show.
So, I decided to add the series to my pandemic watch party. With only 76 episodes it didn’t take long, although the early episodes were a bit of a struggle. I didn’t go into the series thinking about how it handled race, but once I was a couple of season in, I couldn’t help but notice how the representation of the one Black series regular was different than his white counterparts.
I have to say “Friday Night Lights” is overall a well written, produced and acted show. But, the writing for its Black and PoC characters is emblematic of the reckoning Hollywood is now having about representation in film and television.
I was going to start off talking about Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) who is the lone Black series regular during the first 2 and a half seasons, but I want to skip ahead to the introduction of Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) at the start of season four.
When we first meet Vince he’s running from the police. This introduction satisfies two plot points. The first, that Vince is from the bad side of the small town of Dillon, Texas, where the series is set. I honestly thought all of Dillon was on the wrong side of the track, but I digress. The second, he’s a fast runner. He’s ultimately caught by the police but a social worker introduces him to Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) who is trying to revitalize the football program at East Dillon High.
I felt like I was watching an old episode of “The White Shadow”. Vince’s story was straight out of an 1980’s tv show. He’s a young Black guy, with a record, continuing to go down the wrong track. He also has the requisite drug addicted mother and a father in prison. Now to be fair, some of the white characters have absentee parents but nothing as egregious as this. Of course Vince also comes with a bad attitude, constantly mean mugging and talking back to Coach Taylor. But, fear not, because Coach Taylor is here to save the day. If you’ve seen “The Blind Side” you know where this is going. No, Vince doesn’t move in with the Taylors, but with a lot of tough love and inspirational speeches, Coach Taylor turns Vince into a star football player.
But, Vince is still pulled to the dark side. He’s initially involved in a car theft ring storyline and during a scene where another Black character is teaching Vince and his Black friends how to steal a car I thought I was watching a Charles Bronson movie where this scene would be the setup to the story. In another story point, after his mother overdoses, Vince tries to get her into a state rehab facility. When he can’t, he goes to his car theft acquaintance and borrows the money for a private facility, thus becoming indebted to the guy and tasked with participating in some criminal behavior. This story didn’t last long as Vince ultimately does have a good moral center.
“Friday Night Lights” is great at hitting emotional beats and by casting Michael B. Jordan as Vince, the show did succeed in making me care about him, most of the time. At one point his success goes to his head and his arrogance gets the better of him, but he eventually realizes Coach Taylor was right all along and gets back on the right path. The white players definitely had their issues, but the difference was the writing. They were mostly written as tortured souls, misunderstood and insecure, but still charming. Football didn’t save them, it was a part of their souls, and for most of them, they would be fine once football was in their past.
In season one we meet the lone Black series regular Brian “Smash” Williams. Smash, a star player, was portrayed as callous and arrogant. Smash was written as a familiar archetype, son of a struggling single mother, but in this instance his father had died. His mother was supportive of his high school football career but knowing the odds of him going pro, wanted him to go to college for a good education. Of course Smash was unconcerned about his education. For him, football was the ultimate goal no matter what he had to do to achieve it, including taking steroids to get bigger. He ultimately quit taking the steroids once confronted by him mother and Coach Taylor.
“Friday Night Lights” tackled racism during Smash’s time on the show. In two “very special” episodes, Smash and the other Black players boycotted the team when one of the coaches made a comment to the press that the Black players were good workers while the white players were better thinkers. While Coach Taylor thought the comment was stupid, he placed value of having a good coach over the value of the dignity of his players. This is the story that got me thinking about how “Friday Night Lights” handles race and what kept me watching as I wanted to see the follow through.
While Smash ultimately got his happy ending, going to a college with a top tier football program, it was all because Coach Taylor wouldn’t let Smash give up on himself. Yet another example where the Black character wasn’t given the same agency as his white counterparts.
Smash did not return during final season as other original characters were, indicating how the character, unlike his white counterparts, was disconnected from the series narrative.
I also found it troubling that the show only had one featured Black player at a time. While there were other Black players around, they were all basically extras. And there were no significant friendships between the Black players portrayed on the show. The show also had limited diversity with Latino characters with only one given a brief storyline before disappearing without explanation.
“Friday Night Lights” does get an A+ for one Black character though. Jurnee Smollett portrayed high school student and aspiring football coach Jess Merriweather. Jess was a fully actualized character who didn’t merely exist to support her boyfriend Vince.
Overall, I think “Friday Night Lights” was a good show. It created an intimate world with interesting characters. My issues with the Black representation doesn’t seem to have bothered the show’s loyal viewers but it bothered me. And, given today’s political and social environment, I think it’s a more obvious problem.
My issues with the show’s representation serve as an example as to why it’s important to not only have Black writers in the writers room, but representation among the producers and network executives as well.