by Meredith O’Brien
When I’d tell my journalism students at the University of Massachusetts that I’d assigned them to read the book Friday Night Lights  by Buzz Bissinger -- a non-fiction account of the 1988 football season at a Texas high school -- some of my students would cringe, particularly those who weren’t particularly fond of sports.
This book isn’t just about football, I’d preach to them with the enthusiasm of an unbridled fan. It’s about socio-economic disparities in our culture, about racial divisions, about gender stereotypes, about school districts favoring sports over academics, about athletes who get passed along in school and don’t receive a real education. By the time the class gathered to discuss the book, it never failed, female students who said they preferred to talk about pop culture, celebrities and fashion said that they were pleasantly surprised that the book wasn’t at all what they expected.
I’ve been similarly preaching the gospel of Friday Night Lights , the TV show, whose fourth season just started and whose storylines seem to more closely mirror the material in the original Bissinger book than the previous three seasons have. I’ve been telling people that it’s the football drama that’s about so much more than sports. After seeing review DVD copies of upcoming episodes for this season, I can tell you this much without spoiling the season for you: Aside from the season premiere, you’ll find that the football comprises only one part of the show.
This season, the show’s writers decided to shake things up and threw Friday Night Lights’ central couple – Principal Tami Taylor and Coach Eric Taylor – for a huge loop. The town of Dillon decided to redistrict its students into two high schools: West Dillon, the affluent one with a football stadium that rivals that of a big name college, where Tami’s the principal and where her husband took the football team to win the state championship, and East Dillon, the poor one which has no money, no resources, students from broken homes and a dust bowl of a dilapidated football stadium to which Eric has been exiled by the school board and charged with building a football team where there was none.
This new twist puts enormous pressure on both of the Taylors, one of the most realistic middle class families on TV who live in a small ranch-style home with a tiny kitchen and who wear off-the-rack clothes like average American families and drive modest vehicles.
Coach Taylor will spend this season struggling to create a team when the East Dillon principal, who barely had enough money for books, declined to provide him sufficient resources. Eric puts not only his reputation and credibility on the line, he lays out some of his family’s limited resources to make sure his team would get new uniforms (and lied to his wife about it). He spearheaded fundraising drives, including one where he slyly distributed his own cash to people and asked them to hand the cash to his players so the players would think that the community cared about them as much as he did.
Whereas Coach Taylor was mocked and derided when his massively underdog team wasn’t an instant success, Principal Taylor got, in my opinion, the worst of it. In the second episode of the season, something happens that puts Tami smack dab in the crossfire between the powerful and well heeled football boosters from West Dillon High School – the very same ingrates who booted her husband from his job – and her husband. Tami tussles with the “good old boys” in town and opts to do what the law required her to do, only to have to withstand withering personal (and sexist) attacks, see her car covered with graffiti and be jokingly taunted with being lynched. In a scene during season four, Tami wound up screaming at her car radio – which was tuned to a talk show which reveled in savaging her -- and shouting, “Come on y’all, I just did what was right. I did what I had to do!”
Amidst Tami and Eric’s work challenges, they’re raising a teenage daughter Julie who’s feeling a tad rebellious and is deeply in love with her longtime boyfriend – who passed up a prestigious scholarship to a Chicago art school to stay home with Julie and care for his grandmother with dementia. With 17-year-old Julie thinking about her college applications, Tami and Eric will have difficulties trying to let her make her own choices . . . that’s when they’re not having to remember that they’ve got this toddler daughter for whom they’ve got to take care of.
Despite the departure of several actors and actresses from the show this season, the rest of the cast, including several new members, prove compelling. One teen, Becky, who has a single mom who tends bar and brings home a stream of different men, is trying to raise herself while attempting to prove her worth by winning beauty pageants. Another student, Vince -- who has a background of petty crime -- is trying to overcome a horrendous life of poverty and living with a drug addicted single mother who rarely provides enough food and who humiliated Vince by begging for money from Coach Taylor when he visited their home and she was high. One strong role model in the new crop of characters is ace student Jess who helps her dad, the owner of a popular barbecue restaurant raise her three younger brother as she tries to fill the void left by her mother who passed away. Another young, newly-wedded blue collar couple, Billy and Mindy, have a baby on the way, but little money and no health insurance.
Friday Night Lights, in its fourth season, shines a light on American families that don’t live lives like the Housewives on Wisteria Lane, don’t have opulent homes the likes of which are inhabited by the families on Modern Family and don’t have the light-hearted wackiness of the Heck family on The Middle. But one thing they have in abundance? Heart.