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Friday Night Lights, College, and the American Dream

Published:  December 17, 2012
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I was one of the many people who failed to watch Friday Night Lights when it was first broadcast on NBC in 2006, despite increasingly desperate pleas from critics who believed it to be a kind of masterpiece. Mea culpa. Thanks to the miracle of DVD binge-watching, I’ve now watched all five seasons and can attest to its greatness. Moreover, FNL offers an important lens on the way Americans understand higher education.

America is, of course, a nation of immigrants. Much our collective narrative follows the arc of departure and assimilation. FNL dramatizes a specific, modern version of that story: the vast, ongoing, internal migration from small towns and cities to the urban centers of cultural and economic vitality. Football is just the vehicle; the subject of FNL is how people are driven from places like Dillon, Texas even as such places become, unalterably, a part of their soul.

But because the FNL story engine was built around high school football players and their peers, higher education plays a critical role in that drama. College is the first port city on the other side of the cultural and economic ocean between Dillon and the new world. The vision of higher education portrayed in FNL is, I think, a very accurate representation of how most people understand college today. Parts of that vision are very accurate. Others are, in fact, quite wrong. So it’s worth considering what Friday Night Lights tells us about higher education in America, and what that means.

College is far away. Texas is a very large state and the towns and city in the western regions are surrounded by a lot of empty space. The FNL writers use this to their advantage, placing all of the colleges their characters aspire to far from home. This helps dramatize the difficulty of their struggle to get there--and while FNL is aesthetically super-authentic, shot on hand-held cameras in real homes and buildings in and around Austin, TX, the stories themselves are highly dramatized. It’s how they get the texture of literature and plot mechanics of a soap opera in the same show, which is a neat trick.

The show’s creators also decided early on that their teenage protagonists would not hang around town into their mid-20’s, 90210-style, all conveniently attending “UT-Dillon.” This meant saying goodbye to some terrific actors and characters after only a few seasons. But that also cleared room for new ones, and you can’t create a great American drama about leaving the town you both hate and love if nobody ever actually leaves.

That’s why it would have been inconvenient for FNL to admit that there really is a UT-Dillon. Assuming that Dillon is a stand-in for Odessa, the setting of Buzz Bissinger’s original non-fiction book. The University of Texas of the Permian Basin is located right there on the east side of town. FNL seems to exist in a universe where there are no regional branch campuses of public universities, when in fact there are dozens in Texas alone.

College is very expensive, so if you blow your daughter’s college fund on a ridiculous real estate deal cooked up by some guy you met in a strip club, she will be forced to drop out of Vanderbilt and will hate you forever. After distance, the next big device used to dramatize the struggle to leave Dillon for college is cost. Over and over, the characters worry about the price of higher education. Partly because college is, in fact, getting more expensive, and partly because the characters are members of the actual middle class, i.e. with incomes circling the median income in that part of Texas, which is less than $50,000 a year. They may also be suffering from well-documented confusion about what college actually costs. And of course, if Dillon High graduates could attend good, affordable colleges in Dillon, much of the show’s dramatic tension goes away.

But all of this should be much less of a concern for Buddy Garrity, who alone among the ongoing characters has achieved real prosperity. And yet when he blows Lyla’s college fund on a half-baked strip mall investment, we are led to believe that she has no choice but enroll in fictional San Antonio State. How is it that Buddy Garrity has never heard of Parent PLUS Loans?! Or, for that matter, the general concept of debt? Presumably, that’s how most people finance the cars they buy at Garrity Motors. It seems to me that if your wife has left you and taken two of your kids off to California, and your remaining daughter will never speak to you again if you don’t find a way to send her to the private college of her dreams, you go to the bank and borrow the money, using, I don’t know, your nice house and car dealership as collateral? (Not that you need collateral for a PLUS loan.) Buddy is so stupid about this that even the real-life Vanderbilt University offered to lend Lyla the money. Fortunately, the problem was solved at the last minute via deus ex rich-uncle-who-was-never-mentioned-before-or-ever-again.

...unless it’s the Art Institute of Chicago, in which case, no worries. Somehow the pervasive fear of college costs gets thrown out the window once Matt Saracen decides to go to the Art Institute of Chicago. News flash: art school is really expensive. Tuition, room and board for off-campus students at the Art Institute runs (assuming Matt gets the standard deep TV character discount on rent for his improbably nice studio apartment) $52,000 a year. And financial aid isn’t going to get him much closer; according to the handy new net price statistics published by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average net price for students from households with annual incomes between $0 and $30,000 (grandma Saracen doesn’t appear to have a lot of extra money in her housedress pockets) is $35,109 a year.

One possible explanation, unmentioned on the show, is that Matt is eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs educational benefits as the son of a veteran killed in action--and can we pause for a moment to acknowledge how Zach Gilford absolutely killed it on “The Son”? I’m getting choked up just thinking about it, particularly the part on the football field and the eulogy afterward. But even those benefits provide only a third of the net price, meaning Matt has to be borrowing the rest. The continuity of this actually works out pretty well for a scene in the possible FNL sequel movie showing Matt, turned full leftist by four years of living with Julie in Chicago, camped out at an Occupy protest with his six-figure loan balance written on a cardboard sign around his neck.

Community college is for losers. This might be the single most inaccurate yet sadly pervasive idea about higher education depicted on Friday Night Lights, and like the others, it flows from the dramatic necessities of the show. Remember Mr. Mean Guidance Counselor, Tyra Hater, who was all, “You need start thinking about Dillon Tech because someone like you can’t go to a real college” and Tyra runs off crying to Tammy’s office because she is not going to give up on her dreams? Mr. Hater was actually giving her perfectly good advice. If, like Tyra, you have no money and a high school transcript littered with the kinds of D’s, F’s, and did-not-completes commonly associated with a debilitating weakness for former Abercrombie & Fitch models turned soulful fullbacks and/or gambling-addicted rodeo cowboys, then the local community college may be a terrific choice. Like regional public universities, the transfer-oriented associate’s degree appears not to exist in FNL-world. (See also how attending Dillon Tech is an element of Matt’s post-high school malaise). Fortunately, Tyra is bailed out by the fact that...

If you drive to UT-Austin and show up unannounced at the admissions office to plead your case, you might get in. Pure fiction. The large majority of in-state UT Austin admits come through the state of Texas’ top ten percent rule, which grants automatic admission to the Lyla Garrity’s of the world who went to class, studied hard, got good grades, and generally confined their soulful fullback dalliances to brief moments of personal tragedy-inspired weakness. Unless UT has a diversity admissions goal for really tall white women, real-life Tyra isn’t going to be a Longhorn anytime soon. 

Personal essays are ridiculous and almost always terrible. So, so true. The scene in the car where Landry tries to help Tyra understand that basing her admissions essay on a series of strained metaphorical call-outs to her tenure as a waitress at Applebee’s won’t get her into UT-Austin was right on the money. Personal essays are a scourge and new College Board president David Coleman is exactly right in suggesting that they be replaced by analytic essays the include evidence, logic, and so forth.

As accurate as that scene, was, though, I feel like the writers really missed an opportunity. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Landry to say, “Hey, Tyra, you know what would be a much better controlling metaphor for your personal essay than the time you showed great perseverance by getting three orders of Spicy Chili Cheese Nachos out to that six-top full of rival football players who were hitting on you? The time I bludgeoned a man to death in a convenience store parking lot and you and I covered it up by dumping his body into a river in the dead of night! You could write something like ‘Watching the fractured, blood-spattered skull of my would-be rapist sink beneath the inky waters was like seeing my childhood recede in the rear-view mirror of life, a treasured memory that I will keep with me always as I my future begins as a freshman at UT-Austin.’ Something like that. You know, Tyra, it’s funny how we never talk about that night--indeed, how the whole arc our relationship only makes sense if that night never happened, as if all of our words and deeds are determined by an all-powerful Creator who belatedly realized that the whole parking-lot killing thing was a shameful ploy to goose ratings in the face of impending cancellation by NBC, and then took advantage of the story discontinuity caused by the second-season writers strike to reset our relationship, consummate it at the end of Season Three, and then more or less forget about it afterwards. Why don’t you love me, Tyra, other than the fact that you’re astronomically hotter than I am? Why?”

College admissions officers are all-powerful. Along with distance and cost, admissions selectivity is the third exaggerated structural element of the FNL world of higher education designed to keep the characters dramatically distant from college, i.e. getting-the-hell-out-of-Dillon-Texas-even-though-this-town-will-always-be-in-my-heart. We are led to believe that the vast majority of colleges are walled kingdoms guarded by steely-eyed admissions officers at the gate. This idea reaches depths of absurdity in Season Five when Tammy scolds Slutty Redhead Drunk Girl that people are going to notice her behavior, including college admissions officers, and is that really who you are, and who you want to be? In fact, all Drunk Girl needs is a decent ACT score and enough money to pay tuition and she’ll have plenty of colleges to choose from, regardless of how many PG-13 Panther Party Youtube videos there are.

The college football recruiting process is just as cynical, dangerous, and money-driven as you feared. I assume this is all true. The show does a great job of exposing how colleges use information asymmetry to manipulate people like Smash and later Vince’s father.  In what possible way is it defensible for institutions of higher learning to put high school students in the position of making life-altering decisions under a barrage of high-pressure sales tactics, all for the privilege of not being paid to perform in a professional sports entertainment enterprise increasingly associated with morally indefensible brain damage? Time to re-read Taylor Branch.

If you pin your college hopes on football and it doesn’t work out because, despite external testimony of your athletic skill, you appear to be, objectively speaking, a 5’7” 160 lb man who doesn’t lift weights, there’s some chance you’re going to end up at the bus stop three months after graduation, shipping out to Afghanistan. Godspeed, Luke Cafferty. This was a poignant moment in one of the better series finales ever made.

When it comes to college, kids are on their own. In some ways, this is pretty accurate. Lots of high school students don’t live in nuclear families or have parents who went to college themselves. Some, like Tyra, have parents who are ambivalent or worse about their children leaving for school, never to return. And according to the American School Counselor Association, the student-to-guidance counselor ratio in Texas is 470-to-1. So it makes sense that a lot of the “what to do about college” conversations happen among the students. There’s also the fact that the FNL budget shrank as it migrated to DirectTV, meaning that every new season begins after a few months have passed, during which time half the adult actors have left to “open up a new franchise in Dallas” or something along those lines.

If you vaguely denounce standardized testing at some random conference, Swarthmore will fire their Dean of Admissions and hand you the job. Um, no. Nope. Absolutely ridiculous. Hands-down the least plausible major plot development in a series that had many of them. But I am nonetheless compelled to forgive this--first because, unlike the ongoing denigration of community colleges, it’s not really important to real people, and second because it sets up the beautiful resolution to the story of Eric and Tami’s marriage, which is perhaps the other great subject of Friday Night Lights.

I suspect I was not alone in coming to feel, as the episodes went on, that Eric and Tami Taylor had the most admirable and realistic fictional marriage I’d ever seen. I wanted them to be my parents (no offense, Mom and Dad) and I wanted to live up to their examples as parents, spouses, and human beings. Yet even though they held firm in their love and respect for one another, the basic inequality of their relationship was always front and center. Their lives were organized around high school football: where they lived, how they lived. Eric always had an aw-shucks-honey you know how it is and thanks, I love you attitude about it, and she forgave him, we forgave him, because hey, Kyle Chandler, and, as Buddy Garrity liked to say, Eric Taylor? Good man, good man.  

Until the last few episodes of the final season when we saw all the hurts and disappointments that Tami had contained in service to her family and husband well up and come, finally, to the surface. The pain on Connie Britton’s face when she realized the love of her life was going to force her to say no to her dream? Worth five whole seasons, right there.

There is very little authentic emotional resonance in popular culture. We turn out in droves for romantic comedies and revenge dramas with not just the full knowledge but an explicit expectation of being whisked through an utterly familiar set of emotional cadences toward a desired resolution. They may hit our catharsis buttons and provide a brief charge, but they don’t stay with us much beyond the movie theater parking lot or next program on TV.

FNL, by contrast, took sixty-some episodes and two amazing performances just to bring us to a single point of authentic drama and meaning. If that meant ignoring certain realities about the college admissions officer job market, it was worth it. 

College isn’t the ticket out if you’re right where you belong. Fairly early in the series, Tim Riggins is described by his brother as having a “Ph.D. in stupid.” He lets his rally girls do his homework for him, drinks and parties constantly, and makes a series of life choices that are comically--and sometimes tragically--bad. He ends up alone in a trailer, then prison, his girlfriends having left him behind for a better life, i.e., college.

So there’s something sly about how, by the end of the series, Tim Riggins emerges as perhaps the wisest character of all. He alone understands the truth about high school football: Play as hard you can on every down for no reason other than love of the game, and when it’s over, leave your cleats in the end zone and never look back. Don’t make it the center of your world like Buddy Garrity did, because eventually that’s all you’ll have left. Don’t play for money--particularly not college money--because then you’re just a mercenary likely to suffer a mercenary end.

Tim Riggins also reminds us that while college may be for most people, it’s not for everybody. So, of course, he’s the only person for whom college comes easily--the recruiters just show up and usher him into San Antonio State--and he’s the only one who walks away for good. When Riggins raised his bottle and said “Texas forever” in the very first episode, he meant it, and not just any part of Texas, but the idea of Dillon and all the places like it. Some people are bound for the new world and some people are built for the old. 

 

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