Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday Night Lights: Rundown of Parental Characters

This post will appeal to more of a niche audience than most, I would guess. That niche is fans of the TV show Friday Night Lights. The show, of course, followed the movie, which followed the journalistic book. If you're going to get into this franchise, start with the book, which is the true source material. The show, though, may just be the best show anywhere but HBO right now. (Well, sort of right now; the last episode just aired on NBC. It's on Hulu and DVD, far superior ways to watch TV anyway.) It features the most realistic marriage I've ever seen on television between the football coach and his wife. Anyway, the idea for this post has been knocking around this ol' head of mine for a while, and I'm going to finally attempt this.

I have found myself watching the show as a parent and examining the catalog of parents in the show.Warnings: 1) there will be spoilers in this post, and 2) I am vulnerable to being spoiled. I am two episodes into the final season (five). Although I'll try to organize this in season order, let's face it: it's all swimming together by now, and I won't be able to discuss these parents without using what I know from all that I've watched up to now. I won't soon give you permission to leave my blog mid-post again, but read this post later if you don't want plot lines spoiled.



Okay, just long haul FNL fans now (and people who don't care about spoilers)? Good.

After all this buildup, you may say "duh" when you read my key analytical finding on FNL parents: except for Coach and Tammy and flashes here and there, these kids have uniformly terrible parents. Or more precisely, diversely terrible parents. They fall down on the job in a whole panoply of ways.

Shall I count the ways?

I'll do that in a second, but I'll tell you that I'm going to wrap this up with my own guess as to why we don't see good parenting in this show. Also, although these are characters, I'm just going to talk about them like they're real because, well, they're real to me when I'm watching.

Jason Street - May the good Lord prevent me from ever having to face what these parents go through when Jason gets hurt. Before he gets hurt, they're relatively non-existent. He does seem to be better-raised than some other characters, and they're both present in his life. But the accident just does them in. They can't really leave it behind them, and Jason ends up finding his own way in the world in a wheel chair. Jeez, mom and dad.

Lyla Garrity - Hoo boy. In that first season, especially the early episodes, Buddy Garrity is so odious in every way. Of course, he comes to be more sympathetic, and part of that is watching him lose what he's loved. The fact is, though, that he loses it because he's a philanderer and a lout. Once Pam decides she's not putting up with it anymore, there's no forgiveness, and there's no marriage. Lyla, caught in the middle for a while, eventually becomes Buddy's life support, while the younger kids go off in the step-family. When Lila goes deep into church, she goes alone. When she starts crashing at Tim's place, she, of course, does that alone, too.

Tim Riggins - Speaking of Tim, his mother never appears, and his father only wreaks havoc when he turns up briefly. Tim and his brother Billy have only had each other for a long time, and that theme appears over and over again. Dad's an alcoholic and a con man who can be neither depended upon nor trusted. Tim, being younger than Billy, knows this less when Dad shows up, and the drunk just gets to break his heart all over again. Despite my man-crush on Tim Riggins, I have no idea what happened to mama Riggins. That doesn't stop me from seeing the Oedipal themes of his relationship with the hot mom neighbor. Compensate much?

Matt Saracen - Becoming "the man" on the football team by stepping into the starting QB role just adds to the ways that thoughtful Matt has to be the man. His father nobly fights in Iraq, which leaves Matt taking care of his demented grandmother. She dotes like crazy and anchors Matt to the house even more. The only thing worse than Dad's absence in the war turns out to be his brief time at home. Although he makes a feint at taking the caregiver burden off his high school son's shoulders, he eventually flees back to the battlefield (!) rather than take responsibility. Who does help? Matt's mom, a hairdresser who left him lo those many years ago. Of course, once we learn what a hard-assed peach of a family deserter dear ol' Dad is, we figure out why mom left. She really gives it a good try, but having not been there to raise Matt for years, she really doesn't know what to do with him. He may be uber-responsible, but he's still a high school student spreading his wings, and she's not really made of the right stuff to parent him.

Landry Clarke - I couldn't pick Landry's mom out of a lineup. Landry's dad, on the other hand, is pretty present and interested. And if you're going to sort of kill a guy sort of defending your sort of girlfriend, it would definitely behoove you to have a sheriff dad who will burn the evidence with you. Yeah, um, dad, about you catching Tyra sneaking out of my window in the morning, remember what we did with the old car down at the quarry?

Tyra Collette
- We only know what we know about Tyra's dad as reflected through her mother's complaints about men. Angela's chief ambition for her daughters is that they marry well. Mindy, leaves her promising career as a stripper to marry the disappointing Billy Riggins. Tyra confounds her mother by sort of dating Landry and then wanting to go to (gasp!) college. The real tension arises for Tyra when Tammy Taylor (the only good mom around) gives her good personal advice and is there for her when she really needs her.

Brian "Smash" Williams - Dad? In the projects? No. Mom, though, does pretty well with limited resources. This relationship feels authentic to me. So many pro athletes who have come from difficult circumstances speak movingly about the sacrifices their mothers made to enable them to achieve what they have achieved, and Mama Williams humanizes that narrative. She's not perfect, but she loves her son in an appropriately fierce way that only becomes more important when his star status and clear route out gets threatened by injury.

JD McCoy - Holy Mother of Texas Football. Joe and Katie McCoy show up with an intact marriage and deep involvement in their kid's life and football career. How novel. Then, we see that that involvement is way too deep. Joe turns out to be the psycho sport parent we know about in every youth league but haven't so far seen on FNL. Katie provides another version of the strong Texas woman, albeit not as likeable a version as Tammy Taylor. In the end, Joe's too much of a bumhole for their marriage to survive (I think. I may be forgetting a quiet reunion after they split up). At any rate, JD is out of control, and it's all his parents' fault.

Vince Howard - Let's see. Saracen made it out, and we already saw Mama Williams do her thing with a star player, so let's combine grandma Saracen's incapacity with a poor, African-American star. Mom's a junky, and the lights keep getting turned off. When Vince does what a young man does to try to get some money, he's doing it to pay for Mom's rehab. The playbook is the least of this kid's worries.

Jess Merriwether - Mom is definitely absent, and Dad is so incredibly emotionally distant that he might as well be absent. The sage and stable Jess survives these two different parental removals by leaning on her aunt and being a wonderful mother figure to her little brothers. Football, of course, is the one thread that joins daughter to father. It's also the one and only thing that looks like it might melt ol' daddy's heart toward the world in general.

Luke Cafferty - This seems like a normal family on the surface. What we discover, though, is that the surface is the most important thing. Keep your problems to yourself in the Cafferty house until you can't anymore. Then your mom will go nuts and try to take away the only good thing going in any of these kids' lives: Tammy Taylor. She was only doing her job, Mrs. Cafferty. Come on. And look inside your own house for the cause of that whole issue. Right? He's a good kid, but he's far from perfect. If you look deep inside, you'll admit that none of us is perfect.

Becky Sproles - Ah yes. The other side of that little Cafferty problem. Poor Becky. You can tell that she'd make a really cool, Landry-like nerd if she could just have some support and stability at home. But no, her mom's falling for the same guys she is, and her dad's a deserting over-the-road trucker with a shrewish, addictive personality new wife. Becky ends up so incredibly needy that it's all the finally-noble Tim Riggins can do to fend her off.

Why would there be such bad parenting in this show? Why are so many of them absent from their kids' lives? Because if there were good parenting going on, the kids themselves couldn't drive the action of the show like they do. They're only in high school, but you've got to power the drama in them, and all of that hovering, talking, checking in that good parents do wouldn't leave them time to get into and out of trouble as often as they do. The ultimate extent of this that I've seen is the subtly-named Epic at East Dillon. This poor rebel can't get her foster parents to a meeting with the guidance counselor. Her feeling of being alone in this world explains all of that smoking and cutting class and hopeless mooning around.

The secondary benefit of so many parents being terrible is that we get to focus on that sturdy, capable marriage and parenting and general messianic leadership of Eric & Tammy Taylor. Their students, their schools and the whole darn town might fall apart without Eric's warm "Hey" and Tammy's cozy "babe".

You know what they say about Texas. Apparently, even the parenting mistakes are bigger there.

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