Friday Night Lights, the 2006-2011 television series about a Texas high school football team, owes a debt to readers of Victorian fictions of everyday life and provincial fiction. Habituated to the quotidian, readers of Victorian fictions of provincial life are arguably the best equipped for understanding the critically-acclaimed television series, for in it, like the fiction that precedes it, hardly anything of moment happens. Plot and telos are hardly the point; the series locates its energies in the stuff of everyday life rather than in the logic of suspense. Recent work on the provincial novel helps us understand the politics of FNL in a way that goes beyond its own explicit themes of race, class mobility, and education. That both the Democratic and Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency in 2012 used the fictional team’s mantra—“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”—suggests the extent to which the ideas of the show tapped into a politics about nation. Paradoxically, the show’s deliberately provincial scope allowed it symbolically to unify the nation.
“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts”: so tweeted President Obama from Soldier’s Field in Chicago, in the midst of the first NATO summit to be held in an American city other than Washington D.C. Just shy of six months before the November 2012 election, Obama’s tweet was attached to a picture of him throwing a football. The president has his jacket off, and as he steps into the quarterback’s role it is clear he is neither passing off the ball nor content with a short toss; he is going long, and—as his FNL tweet implies—he “Can’t Lose.”  For the reader who doesn’t get the reference to FNL Coach Taylor’s pregame team mantra, Obama’s tweet might seem to be the height of hubris, especially in a presidential election cycle that was nothing if not volatile. But for thoughtful viewers of the television series about a small-town Texas community consumed by high school football, the quotation resonates on a number of different levels; FNL viewers know that, of course, a football game can be lost, and a hero can certainly fall. The climactic and defining moment of the opening episode of Season One is the hit that Jason Street, the star quarterback, absorbs, which results in his paralysis.
The point of Coach Taylor’s mantra is not that losing is impossible, but that when you work with your eyes open—engaging the truth, and the reality of the world around you—and play with integrity and character, the outcome is hardly the point: you can’t lose because you’ve already won. And, no less profoundly if somewhat less earnestly, the fact remains that loss and failure are an inevitable part of everyday life—even for those like fallen quarterback Jason Street, or Barack Obama, who seems to live high above the firmament. In an invocation to his players (which would also serve well the participants of a NATO meeting), Coach Taylor speaks from his provincial perch but no less to the world:
Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all, at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts… that what we have is special. That it can be taken from us, and when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.
Seen in the full light of Coach Taylor’s philosophy of humility and truthfulness, Obama’s tweet from the NATO summit suggests not the hubris of a popular sitting president but the fullness of a statesman’s principles as he not only prepares for reelection but continues the work of the nation on an international stage. Coach Taylor’s stage is much smaller—that of a high school football coach in Dillon, Texas—but I will argue here that the provincial setting Obama summoned amidst the gathering of world leaders in Chicago suggests the extent to which the regional and the specific remain powerful representational tools for the nation. That Friday Night Lights resonates with the politics of the contemporary moment, and especially so with those who are most ambitious about defining (and indeed heading) the nation, is evident in the way that both campaigns for the presidency in 2012 have used FNL. Not only did Obama tweet the mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” but Republican nominee Mitt Romney repeatedly used the slogan on his website and in speeches. As we will see, the political tussle over who owns the meaning of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” is a debate in miniature over defining the state of the nation—whether it is prospering on its current track, or in decline and in need of change.
Using twenty-first century communication tools Twitter and Tumblr, the Obama campaign staff referenced the quintessential medium of the late twentieth century—television—that through FNL replays both the Victorian novel of everyday life and the regional/provincial novel that flourished in the nineteenth century. I understand the contemporary television show FNL not only as residual to the novelistic forms of the Victorian period, but also actively engaged in reprising the self-same politics associated with the provincial novel. To the extent that the quotidian is an animating energy of many nineteenth-century novels, and particularly those we might identify as provincial or regional, the everydayness that organizes FNL is of particular interest.
For those readers who are not familiar with Friday Night Lights, the television series ran from 2006 to 2011 and centered on fictional, small town Dillon, Texas; a trailer conceived for the Emmy Awards, through intense condensation across all five seasons, imposes a dramatic energy onto what otherwise was a generally character-driven fiction of the everyday (albeit the particular everyday of a Texan town obsessed by high school football). The television version of FNL was adapted from a non-fiction book and film of the same name. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream (1990) by H. G. (“Buzz”) Bissinger followed the 1988 Permian Panther football team of Odessa, Texas, during the 1988 season; the film, which starred Billy Bob Thornton, came out in 2004. The subsequent television series, produced by the NBC and DirecTV networks, ran from 2006 to 2011. It was a critical success but did not earn a particularly large audience. Virginia Heffernan, writing in The New York Times on the night of the pilot’s airing, claimed that the series was not only great television, but great art:
Lord, is “Friday Night Lights” good. In fact, if the season is anything like the pilot, this new drama about high school football could be great—and not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting, great in the way of art with a single obsessive creator who doesn’t have to consult with a committee and has months or years to go back and agonize over line breaks and the color red; it could belong in a league with art that doesn’t have to pause for commercials, or casually recap the post-commercial action, or sell viewers on the plot and characters in the first five minutes, or hew to a line-item budget, or answer to unions and studios, or avoid four-letter words and nudity.Heffernan
Peter Berg, the producer of FNL who also wrote the pilot to which Heffernan refers, is credited with transforming Bissinger’s extraordinary journalism into a new televisual fiction. The genre that he uses—serial television—does exist within a commercial context that Heffernan justly worries too often gets in the way of the production of great art. The “single obsessive creator” that Heffernan evokes here might remind us not only of the poet or painter, but also of the Victorian novelist, working within the constraints, or one could say freedoms, of a commercial art form that also delivered its product serially and amidst print-gestures to the mercantile world that supported it.
My argument, however, will not linger on the potential connections between Victorian novelists and FNL, for I would argue that it is less important to trace how FNL might owe a debt to novelists such as Trollope or Gaskell than it is to see that it is readers of those novels who are best at understanding a televisual fiction such as FNL. Readers of Victorian fictions of everyday life and provincial fiction are habituated to the quotidian, and hardly expect much to happen at all. To the extent that there is telos in FNL—the football team’s weekly progress towards the State Championship provides structure for the first season, but that narrative cannot begin to contain the show’s themes—is hardly the fiction’s point, which readers of Victorian fictions of the everyday and the provincial know very well. It is in the football practice, the stuff of everyday life, where FNL best establishes itself. In fact, this essay argues that recent work on the nineteenth-century novel, and particularly the provincial novel, allows us to understand the politics of FNL in a way that goes beyond its own explicit themes of race, class mobility, and education. Paradoxically, its deliberately provincial scope allows it symbolically to unify the nation.
Using Ian Duncan’s distinction between the “provincial” and the “regional” novel, I will argue that FNL is both regional and provincial, like many nineteenth-century novels, and that this allows us to understand its subtle politics. Duncan lays out for us the qualities of this kind of fiction: the setting is “distinctive, differentiated from the metropolis or from other regions within the nation, and that it is at the same time familiar, a more or less spacious version of what Raymond Williams (1973) has called the ‘knowable community’” (Duncan 321). Duncan convincingly shows that, even though the provincial and regional designations for nineteenth-century fiction refer to different genres, they are categories that overlap more than commentators have allowed. Regional fictions refer to those that have a recognizably specific setting and culture “that differentiate it from any other region,” while provincial fictions are defined more by a setting that is established by its “difference from the metropolis” (322). FNL trades in both designations. Its setting is the fictional Dillon, Texas, a provincial town that is more archetype than actual place; in this way, Dillon is akin to the fictional towns found in Gaskell, Eliot, and Trollope (think of Cranford, Middlemarch, and Barchester, among other examples) in that it alludes to the specificity of place while clearly being a made-up designation for it. The large wooden sign welcoming one to Dillon, Texas, that is part of the series’ stock footage is an establishing shot for that fictional reality. Like Middlemarch, Dillon is of a place without being an actual place with a referential reality; we know from several references in the text that Dillon is a half-day’s drive from Austin and that New York seems impossibly far away, but otherwise its provincial status—that it is other than the metropolis—is emphasized. And yet there are elements of the series that trade in a real historical geography; FNL seems a specific West-Texas version of late-twentieth-century middle-America, one that seems sociologically and regionally identifiable. When a refugee from Hurricane Katrina washes up in Dillon looking for a football home, Ray “Voodoo” Tatum’s big-city ways of relating to the football team and coach mark him as alien as if he had come from another country. Although he is African-American, it is not his race that marks him as different, but rather his being from someplace else; he articulates his difference unapologetically to the coach as a kind of regional displacement: “I don’t like the food here, the music, the weather. I can definitely do without everybody going on and on about the great state of Texas. I’m here to get noticed, get recruited and get my ass to LSU” and “I’m not here to make friends. This ain’t my home. This ain’t my school. It never will be” (1.05).
The director’s camera, so often taken to be the equivalent of the omniscient narrator in the nineteenth-century novel, is supplemented in FNL by an actual narrator: the voiceover that comes from the local radio station. In FNL omniscience is achieved partially via broadcasts from the station, which, unless it is a game-night broadcast, are made up entirely of talk-radio discussion about the Panthers football team. The talk-jock and his various callers to the show form the soundtrack to many scenes, and especially those in which Coach Taylor figures as he drives around town, as if the criticism of the callers is giving voice to his own running interior monologue. Many of these voiceovers also work to establish the provincial quality of the fiction; the first episode of Season Five, for example, opens with Slammin’ Sammy Mead providing the aural background to a series of images of late August, just before school (and the football season) begins: “Don’t you just love summer in Texas? It’s 7 a.m. and I’m already sweating like a whore in church” (5.01). The storied tradition of Panthers football and the anxiety about the team’s current fortunes—both of which help constitute the intense particularity of the region—get established by the voiceover. Dillon is understood to be one town of many that make up the region of West Texas, which is differentiated from any other region by its intense commitment to high school football. The title Friday Night Lights alludes to the fact that high school football in Texas is played in primetime, on Friday night, and it is Friday night (and not the college game’s Saturday or the professional game’s Sunday) that matters in West Texas. As the radio announcer proclaims on game night, it is an exalted locality: “It’s Friday night, and if you’re at Herman Field in Dillon, Texas, then you’re exactly where God wants you to be. It’s the Tigers of Arnett Mead versus our very own Dillon Panthers” (3.03). The regionalism of FNL is most pronounced when the narrative refuses to explain these local grounds of identity; Arnett Mead is a nearby town, and a storied traditional rival of Dillon, which the voiceover establishes primarily by not explicating this.
The director’s camera in FNL is hardly unsympathetic to the region it depicts; in fact, it is arguably too enthralled with the visual details of the place to be anything other than from elsewhere. The characters, portrayed for the most part with sympathy and dignity, see themselves as provincial, even if the omniscience implied by the director’s camera would never align itself with that point of view. Tyra Collette, for instance, the lower-class beauty who wants to make something of herself, despises Dillon’s small-town preoccupations (most especially football), and knows that in order to “be” someone she must leave Dillon (and the culture of the Landing Strip, the strip club at which her sister proudly works and where she seems fated to follow). Opportunity is elsewhere; Jason Street must give up the dream of “livin’ large in Texas” after his presumptive NFL career when he is paralyzed in the opening game of his senior-year season, a life-changing event that eventually leads him to life as a wheel-chair-bound sports agent in New York (the city that figures as the center to Dillon’s provincial). FNL, in other words, respectfully celebrates Dillon as a possible metonym of the nation as a whole, and it refuses to depict it as an unchanging idyll in which all of its quaint occupants aspire to remain. That is, FNL is a provincial narrative that represents its localisms as legible rather than alienating; it is provincial without being so distinctly regional as to seem separate from a larger national (and even global) identity. Only part of that representational project for FNL is its savvy acknowledgement that people who come from such places will sometimes see themselves as provincial (in the current negative sense of the word). By way of example: in an episode in the fourth season of the series, Julie (the coach’s daughter) stands with her summer-Habitat-for-Humanity boyfriend on top of an enormous gas-storage tank; the panoramic view that their man-made-mountain affords visually mediates between the local and the suggestion of the larger whole. As she looks out across the vastness of the panorama she says (with false bravado), “I really want to see the world.” Her more well-travelled and experienced friend takes a digital picture of her, and shows it to her: “that’s you, seeing the world” (4.10). When interviewing with an admissions officer at an eastern college, Julie speaks of having wanted for years to get out of Dillon—to her parents she had once complained, “Texas isn’t even a state. Technically it’s a Republic. It’d be nice to live somewhere that’s actually a part of this planet”—but also of how her thinking under the pressure of leaving had changed: “I’ve been shaped by my town; and as I get closer to leaving I’m surprised by how content I am to be from where I grew up” (1.05, 4.08). This is a rare example of the provincial fiction giving voice to its ideology.
A similar visual dynamic between the local and the global occurs in episode six of Season Four, which is when Matt Saracen finally leaves Dillon. Erstwhile quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, the artistic (and should-have-been second-string quarterback) Matt had been accepted the previous year to the Art Institute of Chicago but had vacillated about leaving. Though he originally intended to leave, the pull of caring for his increasingly demented grandmother and of maintaining his relationship with Julie proves strong, and he turns down the offer. The death of his father in Iraq in the previous episode (4.05) might have cemented his choice to stay local, as it officially makes him his grandmother’s caretaker; instead it propels him outward to the broader world, without actually abandoning his Texan grandmother, as the final scene of episode six of Season Four suggests. A shot of him driving moves from inside the car, with the map on the dashboard indicating his departure, to above the car; eventually the camera pans far back, revealing the smallness of the car as it exists in the vaster whole of the landscape. Like the picture of Julie seeing the world, the shot of Matt leaving reveals that the regional and the global exist comfortably together. This may be one of the moments in the series, I’d argue, where FNL is most obviously a provincial narrative, insofar as it comfortably asserts (through the camerawork) the idea that the local stands in, as if metonymically, for the larger whole.
FNL works hard to not be taken for a regional narrative. It is not an ethnography of a deeply local place towards which the viewer feels only a sense of otherness (if interested otherness). Instead, the narrative of provincial life captures places with stunning specificity—Fran’s Hamburgers, Smitty’s, Buddy’s, the Landing Strip, and the Alamo Freeze—but also depicts more recognizable and national institutions of the moment: Julie waits tables at Applebee’s in order to save up for her dream car, a Toyota Celica, and the show’s teenagers listen to a soundtrack of contemporary rap (and sometimes Christian metal) that is hardly particular to Texas. One can see how the regional energies of the series might produce a kind of nostalgic or idyllic kind of fiction, and indeed there are times in the viewing of FNL when the viewer worries it will turn into a kind of panegyric. For instance, in episode 4 of Season Three, we see Tyra Collette, who has begun to date a cowboy, sitting in the back of a pickup truck parked in front of an idyllic field studded by bales of hay; here the series plays with the viewer’s expectation that a figure who represents a tie to Texas’s agricultural past will be a vast improvement on Tyra’s previous boyfriend, the hard-drinking, handsome defenseman Tim Riggins. But the new boyfriend is the modern simulacrum of Texas’s past, a cowboy who earns his living not rustling cattle but as a rodeo star who leaves unsupported children in his wake; after a bruising taste of the dangers of sentimental excess, Tyra leaves him in much the same way that the series leaves behind that kind of idyllic impulse. The series is remarkably smart about its own role as a potential myth-making machine, and for the most part refuses to indulge in the kind of misty-eyed regionalism in which it might easily have traded.
FNL demonstrates a remarkable consciousness about genre. It repeatedly invokes other literary genres in order to refuse to be any genre but a provincial fiction of everyday life. In the first season, Julie, Coach Eric Taylor’s daughter, is reading Moby Dick; her analysis, appropriately sophomoric and obvious, is embedded in an otherwise extraordinarily realized scene of quotidian family life. Julie likens Coach Taylor to Ahab, and the football team to Melville’s ship, trying to engage her father, the Coach, who is watching game tape on the television while half-paying attention to both his daughter’s account of her school work and his wife’s monologue about their deserving a new and better house. His wife Tami reads aloud the real estate copy, repeating a refrain about “his and her closets babe,” and posts a picture of the dream house on the refrigerator with a magnet. Julie’s literary-critical skills seem to improve over time; by Season Five she is enrolling in a course at UT-Austin called “History versus Myth in the Old South” (5.01).
References to other literary genres pepper the series. For instance, in the fifth season of FNL, Tami Taylor, as the new guidance counselor at East Dillon, encounters a girl named “Epic,” and becomes fixated on helping her resist what seems to be her fate; the daughter of failed parents, she has been in and out of foster homes and juvenile detention, and seems destined to a violent end. Epic as a literary genre fails, however; FNL refuses to become any genre but the regional/provincial everyday. Taylor’s efforts at mentoring Epic begin to have an effect, but then her well-intended actions end up producing the scenario that sends Epic back to juvenile detention. Epic as a genre is invoked again by one of the series’ main characters; on the eve of leaving for college, Landry says, with frustration, “I expected my last night in Dillon to be epic…” (5.01). The plotline of Tyra and Landry had taken the series to the brink of fairytale; Landry is the kind, intellectually gifted, but physically unblessed character of the series, the frog to Tyra’s princess. Tyra, who is so beautiful as to be high school royalty despite her lower-class background, enjoins the frog’s protection in the wake of a violent attempted rape, even as she shudders at the thought of his touch. The series flounders around the plotline, and soon abandons it, as if it is uncomfortable with stock narratives or easy literary parallels. FNL is smart, in other words, about genre, especially in its refusal to become any genre but the provincial/everyday.
FNL’s refusal to embody other genres is perhaps most evident in its depiction of one of its central characters, Tim Riggins. His body, which is displayed in many forms across the series’ five seasons, eventually becomes a metonym for Dillon itself. We repeatedly see Riggins, who plays the dissolute but emotionally wounded football player to his best friend’s Jason Street’s pious perfection, as a body—whether splayed across his living-room couch drinking a beer or nursing a hangover, sitting in the back of his truck, having sex with many different women, or in a jumble of male bodies on the football field. What is important to note is that Riggins is the character most sentimentally attached to Dillon, and it is Riggins who articulates the idyllic philosophy that can only be expressed prior to Jason Street’s accident; raising a beer around a campfire, he offers the following toast to his friend: "Here's to God, and football, and 10 years from now, Street, good friends living large in Texas. Texas forever” (1.01). Only in retrospect does the full force of the sentiment reveal itself as pap, or what a literary critic might be tempted to call pastoral. The sentiment is undermined deliberately by Riggins’ actions; his grief and inarticulacy about his friend’s injury drive him not to his friend’s hospital bed to be a consoling presence but rather into the arms of Lyla Garrity, Street’s long-time girlfriend. Jason Street will soon abandon the idyllic philosophy of “Texas Forever,” but Riggins does not—across the course of the series, Riggins turns what had been a sentimental utterance into a way of being that is ultimately affirmed by the provincial fiction, even as it insists upon a realist register rather than a pastoral one.
Tim Riggins, in other words, is the figure who embodies the series’ resistance to the pastoral. In certain ways, he is pure archetype, an emotionally damaged James Dean-like sex symbol, but his character is not as static as this implies. The arc of his maturation returns him, almost like a bird, to his native habitat; he is the football player who barely graduates from high school and leaves reluctantly, so much so that he only lasts for a few weeks in his college football scholarship. The scene in which we see him unceremoniously tossing his college textbooks from the window of his pickup truck in order to return to Dillon feels inevitable, but not because he is a figure out of pastoral. Rather, Riggins is the figure in the series through which pastoral is rendered inadequate. Let me be clear: Riggins himself believes in an almost idyllic conception of his home town, and the importance of place to identity. He is possibly the only character (besides Buddy Garrity, the Panthers’ booster club president) who sees a life in Dillon not as a failure but as an ideal. But it is crucial to understand that his perspective is not synonymous with the televisual fiction’s, which is ambivalent at best about the practicality of what we might call Riggins’ pastoral vision.
This vision, embodied by Riggins’ mantra about “living large in Texas,” seems ungrounded in reality, fixed in an abstract time that no longer exists. We see this theme developed in his fixation on a piece of property that he happens upon with his dog; we see him repeatedly pulled over in front of a parcel of land, gazing longingly at it and at a sign that reads “For Sale, by Owner, 25 acres.” It’s an idyllic scene, a Texas property with gently rolling hills dotted with cottonwood trees; while surveying it, he says “that’s pretty great” (5.11). Riggins eventually buys the land and builds on it, though it is unclear if there is any use to the property other than its symbolic value. Still, Riggins, more than any other character in FNL, seems genuinely moved by the beauty of the West Texas landscape; it is Riggins, whose body lends weight to the physicality of the plot both on the football field and off, who stands in metonymically for Texas. That the series ultimately writes for him a narrative of redemption (Riggins serves time for his brother’s crime so that his nephew will not be as fatherless as he was) suggests that it is more sympathetic than we might have guessed to Riggins’ pastoralism. This, I would argue, owes something to the way in which the series insists upon our seeing Riggins’ pastoral/idyllic sentiment engaging with the everyday. Many of Riggins’ actions point to a late-twentieth-century attempt to reanimate the landscape or setting (of his pastoral ideal) as a source of profit. In other words, part of Riggins’ pastoral vision is mitigated by the practical, such as when he moves into a woman’s trailer (parked, more than a little evocatively, by the side of a lovely Texan field) after a one-night stand, or when he helps his brother found and run Riggins’ Rigs: a tow- and auto-body repair- shop turned chop-shop located on the outskirts of town, replete with a living long-horned steer for a mascot. Riggins is one of the few characters who we see with a gun; he owns a shotgun, and shoots things from the bed of his pick-up truck, though he is afraid to hunt with the drug dealer with whom he unwittingly falls in. In this way, we might understand Riggins in part as representing the series’ georgic vision—or its hopes for the georgic. At the end of the series, we see Tim Riggins tending bar and building his house, with his suggestion that he might move to Alaska to work the pipeline understood as an empty threat; as Tyra says, “Alaska, Tim, seriously?” (5.13). Riggins will not leave Texas because, for the purposes of FNL, his body is the metonym of Texas.
So if FNL works hard to undermine other potential genres, it also affirmatively establishes itself as a provincial novel and narrative of everyday life. Readers of Victorian novels recognize FNL as sharing a literary sensibility with novelists such as Trollope, for instance, for what can constitute a happening in the context of a fiction of everyday life is quite far from that of epic. In FNL, the primary happening in the town is the game on Friday night, and the potential to go to State (a state championship game that takes place, not unimpressively, at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium). The temporal structure of the series is based on the week and the season—the weekly feast day of football, the seasonal return to the game that gives the community its identity amidst an otherwise unglamorous quotidian world of work. (It is not surprising that the most intense fan of Dillon football is Buddy Garrity, who otherwise tends to his Japanese car dealership when not being defined by his identity as a former Panther and the head of the booster club.) The seasonal cycle of agricultural labor that animates the georgic impulses of the Victorian novel is in FNL replaced by football, which exists as a kind of stand-in for the agricultural world that seems essentially gone by the time of the series’ late-twentieth-century setting. The chronology of FNL is likewise complicated: it is both indebted to the season (albeit a football one rather than an explicitly pastoral one) and to the everyday. FNL, in other words, is neither a nostalgic representation nor a pastoral idyll, but rather a contemporary provincial fiction where the forces of transformation (and resistances to those changes) on the local community and history are marked.
What becomes clear is that FNL is primarily committed to the representation of local community and people across time; rather than glorifying the exceptional moment or person, it grounds itself in what happens after a hero falls or a championship is won. The establishing event of FNL’s pilot centers on Jason Street, the star quarterback whose injury renders him a paraplegic at the end of that episode. Dethroned from his status as a warrior-hero, the humanized Jason emerges as a character whose depths are recognized by a fiction that is committed to realism over allegory (albeit a realism, like that of Elizabeth Gaskell, which has a fair tolerance for melodrama). In time, Jason Street emerges as the spokesman for the value of everyday work, for the quotidian moment rather than the exceptional one; speaking to his teammates from his wheelchair after the victory parade through Dillon (the team has won State, defeating the team led by Ray “Voodoo” Taylor), Jason Street deflects the exceptional moment in favor of the quotidian. He expresses it in terms of the seasonal:
Enjoy it while it lasts, 'cause tomorrow we're targets. Next season, every other team in Texas is gonna be gunning for us 'cause we're Number One. And I don't know about y'all, but anything less than State Championship is completely unacceptable. Here's what we're gonna do. We're gonna think about the off-season. The off-season is about development. Development of strength; development of speed; development of character. Football is a 12-month, 52-week, 365-day commitment, gentlemen. Have a great day today. Enjoy it while it lasts, tomorrow, we're going to work.1.20
The fiction of everyday life that is FNL here finds its best expression in the character whose injury could have informed a melodrama, or whose uninterrupted success could have driven an epic. Jason Street proves to be neither a figure of pathos nor of heroism; eventually he puts himself into another narrative arc by transforming himself into a junior sports agent in New York. Like most of the denizens of Dillon, Street must leave—the dream, expressed by Riggins, of “Texas Forever,” is shown to be an idyllic fantasy. So, wheel-chair bound, Street moves to New Jersey. Street’s story marks the transformation possible in the provincial fiction, and the series’ refusal to render Texas as idyll. As Matt Saracen’s grandma is wont to say, “let’s not make a big ol’ soap opera about it.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, the series intensifies its references to its provincial setting as it unfolds. When we get to the opening episode of the third season, the writers might have presumed that the viewers of FNL knew where the narrative was set—and yet instead of backing away from the gestures of place, the establishing shots at the start of episodes (especially the first episode of Season Three (3.01) and the season finale (3.13)) focus our attention on the local. We hear from the narrator/radio talk-jock that it is “five days from the start of Panther football season,” which overlays a series of stills that are provincial in nature—to reprise Duncan’s terms, distinctive and yet also familiar. The stills are of nature in an ecology that is clearly marked by man’s presence in nature, but not by man dominating nature; the nature being represented in this opening montage sequence is neither sublime nor beautiful, but rather quotidian and explicitly provincial. The camera fixes on a particular scene; the shots produced are not true stills because some movement is noted, but they’re meant to be understood as evoking a setting rather than a plot. The first shows a sunrise; the second a cow eating next to a slowly-pumping oil rig in a field; next the camera turns to a trailer, with a black dog running across the lawn, followed by an image of birds flocking above a field; then the montage focuses on power lines shot from a moving camera below before the camera turns to bales of hay on the side of a road; in the sixth near-still of the sequence, the camera finds something akin to suburban houses, but the absence of sidewalks indicates we’re not yet inside Dillon; and when we arrive there, the camera finds the Coach’s house, and then the Coach himself, and the narrative of the provincial-everyday begins in earnest. From these stills we learn that things have changed—a baby has been born to Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami Taylor—and yet they remain the same; football is returning, and even though the Taylors have moved (literally from Dillon to East Dillon, and from an almost entirely white world to a predominantly African-American one) the ecology is essentially the same.
This is all to say that FNL is a provincial fiction, albeit a televisual one rather than a Victorian novel. It is provincial in the way in which it represents its setting as distinctive from every other region/place, and yet it is familiar enough to seem not only part of, but also perhaps even metonymic of, the larger whole. The tension between the local and the national comfortably collapses in FNL, as it does in all fictions of provincial life; think, for instance, of the way in which the local denizens of Middlemarch are both specific to their town and county, and yet representative of the larger English whole—a collapse figured literally by the election to Parliament of Will Ladislaw, and implied throughout by Dorothea’s largeness. National forms of cultural identity depend in part, as Duncan has claimed, on narratives of provincial life: the nation as a figure is stabilized by the provincial narrative, which in good historical times stands in for the nation. This is evident in the aforementioned Middlemarch, where the Midlands location is a metonym for England, and the fiction itself a testimony to England’s imperial and economic success. Middlemarch, published as it was towards the end of one of England’s most economically successful and imperially expansive two decades, was possible in part because of that national confidence—the novel’s very provincialism a reflection of a nation not in ideological crisis. To reprise Duncan: unlike provincial fiction, regionalism “represents the ideological crisis of a national history, whether the nation is a project still to be assembled or one that is falling apart” (326). In other words, we might see periods in which regionalism gains ascendance as times in which the nation as a symbol is challenged. The fear of historical change or uncertainty is reflected in preference for regional fictions, which by definition have a more sentimental and nostalgic definition of identity based on local place rather than the more abstract concept of nation. Is it any wonder that The Waltons—an iconic American television show with a regional orientation if ever there was one—had its first season in the fall of 1972?
Whether we are looking at Victorian novels or a television series such as FNL, it is important to think through the extent to which the fiction (narrative or televisual) traffics in the regional. As glib as it might seem to compare FNL to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, both are provincial fictions that reflect an extraordinary confidence in nation. As we will see, the particular economic and historical situation that gave rise to FNL as a provincial representation suggests a nation not in crisis but in fact the opposite—the series’ resistance to being a regional text suggests a nation that need not fall back on categories of the local, original, and hence authentic. FNL, for better or for worse, represents America as “nation” un-problematically conceived.
How is it possible that both the Democratic and the Republican nominees for president in 2012 could find meaning for their politics in not only the same television series, but also in the same football slogan from that series? The answer may rest, in part, with reading the show as either a provincial fiction or a regional one—that is, whether the viewer understands Dillon, Texas, as metonymic of the nation as a whole, or as a local representation of an authentic and specific part of America. The readings by the two campaigns, however, have produced different reactions; Peter Berg, the writer and producer of the television series and the original film, let pass Obama’s tweet from Soldier’s Field, but objected publically and vociferously to the use of FNL by the Romney camp. Berg called their use of “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” an act of “plagiarism,” and wrote to them asking them to “come up with your own campaign slogan” (Belloni). Berg’s resentment of the use of the mantra from FNL is based not on copyright infringement but what he perceives to be the misapplication of FNL to conservative purposes: “your politics and campaign,” Berg writes, “are clearly not aligned with the themes we portrayed in our series.” Berg goes on to compare Romney’s principles to those of Buddy Garrity, the character in FNL who, as Berg writes, “turned his back on American car manufacturers selling imported cars from Japan.” Berg’s aversion to the redeployment of his writing for the purposes of a conservative campaign for the presidency may simply reflect his own more liberal politics, but it is also a symptom of discomfort: that the artist cannot control how his work is received or read. Romney, who claims to be an avid fan of the show, clearly understands FNL as a regional fiction—a show that depicts a more authentic and local America. In Romney’s sentimental reading, the representation of Friday night football in a small Texas town suggests a version of small-town America that represents a by-gone ideal. “Nation” is challenged by regional fiction.
Obama’s campaign reads FNL as a provincial fiction. That is, it believes the fiction set in Dillon, Texas, to gesture outward to the nation: it functions as a metonym for the nation, rather than a limiting case. The material conditions in which FNL was written and produced suggests that we should read it as a provincial and not a regional fiction, as a fiction aligned more with blue-state than red-state principles. FNL was first produced and aired some five years after 9/11, and before the economic collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the subsequent economic meltdown that has become known as the Great Recession. The provincial fiction of FNL is possible, one could say, during that brief hiatus in which American imperial confidence had returned and before the economic bubble collapsed. FNL does not nostalgically create a specific region; it deflates the myth-making work of “Texas Forever” and repeatedly refuses to engage in the work of idyll. I read FNL not as a nostalgic fiction of a specific region, created as if in retreat from our national history, but rather as a provincial fiction that suggests the nation’s confidence in 2006 and beyond. This may help us better understand why Obama’s team would have chosen to invoke Coach Eric Taylor’s mantra in his tweet from NATO/Soldier’s Field. “Can’t lose,” the implied third line of the tweet, would suggest initially the coming election, but the context of NATO suggests that Obama’s text was much more concerned with the nation’s identity on the global stage than he was with winning Texas (or any other battleground state, for that matter).
In tweeting “Clear Eyes, Full Heart” (Can’t Lose) from an iconic Chicago location, Obama’s campaign staff turns to the provincial narrative to bolster Obama’s own vision of the national narrative. Ben Rhodes, the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, situates Chicago in a global context in a blog piece about the NATO summit, calling Chicago a “truly global city” that “feels like home” and represents “the best of our country.” Here is the blog post in its entirety:
NATO has been America’s most important security alliance for over a half century, and this is only the third time since NATO’s founding that the United States will host a NATO Summit. Following up on the successful 2010 Summit in Lisbon, Chicago is a perfect location for many reasons. As a truly global city, it is a natural host for over fifty nations. As a center of diversity and thriving immigrant communities, it will feel like home for many of the leaders attending. As one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is a marvelous showcase for the best of our country. And, of course, as his hometown, it is a source of great pride for President Obama.
America’s relationship with NATO is a cornerstone of our engagement with the world. From our shared effort to face down communism in the Cold War, to our recent successful intervention in Libya, NATO has been essential to the security of the American people, the strength of our allies, and the success of democracy abroad. At the Summit, we will continue reforming NATO to make sure that it has the capabilities it needs for the 21st century. And we will join with many non-NATO countries to build new partnerships – so that NATO is truly the hub of a global security network.
No mission is more important to NATO than our ongoing efforts to defeat al Qaeda, and succeed in Afghanistan. On September 12, 2001, for the first time in its history NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all, and for over a decade our NATO allies have served by our side in Afghanistan. Today, having struck huge blows against al Qaeda and broken the momentum of the Taliban, we have begun a transition in Afghanistan. Last June, when he announced the drawdown of 33,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Obama said “We’ll have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we’ve made, while we draw down our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government. And [in] May, in Chicago, we will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition.”Rhodes
NATO had since 2001 been engaged with defeating al Qaeda; Rhodes reminds us that it was the very day after 9/11 that NATO met to invoke for the “first time in its history….Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all.” At the NATO summit in Chicago, we see Obama’s attempt to shift away from that bellicose national narrative: “in May, in Chicago, we will host a summit…to shape the next phase.” In light of the goals of the NATO summit meeting in Chicago, it’s clear that Obama’s FNL tweet and photograph of himself throwing a football at Soldier’s Field wasn’t simply a playful gesture. His tweet, of course, associates him positively with FNL’s admirable coach, but more than this, the tweet invokes a provincial fiction that had successfully allowed Dillon, Texas, to stand in not only for a region but also for the nation—a nation that Rhodes’ blog post suggests will be far less engaged in militaristic endeavors than during the previous four years. If one way of understanding the NATO summit is that the nation is not only represented but is being shaped by the work of the President, then it is his body—engaging with other world leaders, or throwing a football—that stands in for it. In invoking the fictional place of Dillon, Texas, Obama laid claim to the idea that provincial fiction had long prosecuted: that national life and provincial life might be stably equated. The nation is grounded in a real—that is, fictional—place, a place that is not a sentimental regional retreat from the real doings of the contemporary moment. Coach Eric Taylor sums it up on his locker room’s dry-erase board: STATE.
Amy M. King is Associate Professor of English at St. John’s University, Queens, NY. The author of Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel (Oxford UP, 2004), King is currently working on a book entitled “Seeing the Divine in the Commonplace: Natural History, the Theology of Nature, and the Novel in Britain, 1789-1865.” A life-long baseball fan, she is nonpartisan about high school football.
The tweet was made on 5/21/12 from Soldier’s Field, Chicago, Illinois, on the night of the first day of a two-day NATO summit. Soldier’s Field is the home of the Chicago Bears, a storied American football team and, as it is generally known, the team for which President Obama roots.
Quotation is from the Pilot, episode 1 of season 1. References to other episodes will hereafter appear in parenthetical citation within the text, as in (1.01).
Romney told an Iowa audience that “That's Americans. We have clear eyes -- we know what we believe. Full hearts -- we love this country and we can't lose. This is a time for Americans to make a choice. We're going to take back this country” (qtd. in Willmore).
The book upon which the television series is loosely based was a best-seller that also earned critical admiration; Sports Illustrated ranks it fourth in its “The Top 100 Sports Books of All Time,” which puts it among the New Yorker essays of A.J. Liebling (collected as The Sweet Science, 1956) and the classic baseball text by Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (1971). The television series earned various awards—including Emmy Awards for writing and acting, the Peabody Award, the Television Critics Association Award, and the Humanitas Prize—which suggest the extent to which the series was admired .
FNL appeared for two seasons on NBC, but was up for cancellation because of a too-small audience based on Nielsen ratings. NBC and DirecTV made a deal to co-produce the last three seasons of the show, sharing the cost and the ownership of the show. The fan-base was particularly vocal, as was critics’ praise for the show, which may explain the network’s creative attempt to keep the show going despite financial disappointment in the series.
The character Ray “Voodoo” Tatum appears in West Texas looking for a team to play for when his own New Orleans school shuts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Various high schools compete to get him to relocate to their town, and it becomes clear that the talented Voodoo is looking not for a team but for the best venue from which to be recruited by college teams. Resistant to Coach Taylor’s team philosophy—“this is about all of us, every single one of us, we’re gonna need all of us, together” (1.02) —Voodoo represents an outsider and a hyper-individualistic philosophy. In this way he is the foil to Brian “Smash” Williams, the Panthers’ exceptionally talented running back whose arrogance is more theatrical performance than real; an African-American Christian evangelical, Smash’s mother is a nurse and moral task-master who keeps Smash grounded and dedicated to the team’s interests as well as his own personal goal of going to college on a football scholarship. Race is a subject that the television series devotes significant attention to, and certainly the racism (overt and subtle) of West Texas is not glossed over, but it is striking that Voodoo’s otherness is explicitly established by regional rather than racial difference. In the sixth episode of the first season, entitled “El Accidente,” the Panthers’ star defensive player, a young Hispanic man, is arrested for assaulting another student; his anger, which he turns on a white, younger kid, was prompted by Voodoo, who publically refers to him by a derogatory racial term used about Hispanics in Texas. Voodoo’s contempt is for the entire team and the region; he leaves Dillon soon after to go back to his newly-reopened high school in New Orleans (6.01).
One might see a corollary for this acknowledgement of the lure of this kind of idyllic regionalism, and its self-conscious rejection, in several nineteenth-century novels, but most notably in George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In both cases the desire to invoke the pastoral ideal of the dairy farm is both realized and rejected.
Ian Duncan’s distinction between those fictions that are pastoral (those that record a place where change and history is suspended) versus those that are georgic (where historical time is marked and where transformation is possible) is useful here, and I am indebted to it (Duncan 323-324).
Duncan argues that, especially between 1850 and the early 1870s, the “economic prosperity and imperial confidence” of England gets played out at the level of the novel: the “fiction of provincial life” emerges as a testimony to England’s imperial and economic success. Duncan charts a clear historical progression, mapping the relationship between economic conditions and imperial status with the emergence of regionalism, its subsequent eclipse by provincial fictions, and the return of regionalism. The latter, for instance, he traces from the mid-1870s until the end of the nineteenth century, a period he points out as “under the loom of a worldwide economic depression” (325-326).
The Waltons was a network television series about a large family living in rural Virginia during the Depression and WWII; it first aired in September of 1972 on CBS and continued for nine seasons, effectively appearing two months before the Watergate break-in and two months before Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide. The popularity of The Waltons was established, in other words, in the years of the Watergate scandal and the impeachment of Nixon in 1974.
The story has been widely reported, including stories that appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and Indiewire. The story originates with The Hollywood Reporter; their article provides a link to a PDF of the original letter that Berg wrote to the Romney campaign.
It is beyond the scope of this argument to claim that post-2012 America is equivalent to the economic prosperity and imperial ambition of 1850-1870 Britain, which Duncan identifies as the period of economic prosperity and imperial confidence that made possible that period’s provincial novel. Rather, I’m implying that Obama’s tweet is part of the rhetoric of nation that the provincial narrative can accomplish.
Coach Taylor writes this on the dry-erase board in capital letters, underscoring it with the marker but leaving that one word to speak the entire point: “STATE” here refers to the Texas high-school football championship game.
- Belloni, Matthew. “‘Friday Night Lights’ Creator Accuses Mitt Romney of Plagiarism in Threatening Letter.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
- Bissinger, H.G. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And a Dream. Addison-Wesley, 1990. Print.
- DillonTexas. “Friday Night Lights Emmy Awards Trailer.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 July 2012.
- Duncan, Ian. “The Provincial or Regional Novel.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. 318-335. Print.
- Friday Night Lights: The Complete Series. Dir. Peter Berg. Perf. Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton. Universal Studios, 2011. DVD.
- Heffernan, Virginia. “On the Field and Off, Losing Isn’t an Option.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 3 Oct. 2006. Web. 20 July 2012.
- Obama, Barack (BarackObama). “Clear eyes, full hearts.” 21 May 2012, 12:30 p.m. Tweet.
- Rhodes, Ben. “A Special Message from Ben Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.” Chicago 2012 NATO Summit. World Business Chicago, Spring 2012. Web. 20 July 2012.
- Willmore, Alison. “Peter Berg Wants Mitt Romney to Stop Using his ‘Friday Night Lights’ Catchphrase.” Indiewire. Indiewire, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.