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The writers strike myth and the women of Friday Night Lights S2
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Last year I rewatched Friday Night Lights for the first time since experiencing it as the good lord intended, on network television every Friday night, of course.
At the time of its first season, I had two kids under 2-1/2. The pop culture I was able to consume in those days was rare, leaving lasting impressions. Slab-like issues of W magazine arrived in my mail in rural Vermont, like transmissions from another planet entirely. I read each issue cover-to-cover, topless and sweating as I breastfed for hours, days, weeks during two humid New England summers. The Red Sox finally breaking the Curse of the Bambino, winning the World Series for the first time since 1918. We had recorded the end of that game (on videotape!) because in my postpartum haze there was no way I could stay awake for it. I ended up watching it on tape delay at 2 a.m., nursing my infant son on the couch, the house quiet and dark save for the glow of the TV. The show Rock Star Supernova that unfortunately caused me to feel attracted to Tommy Lee and obsessed with Gilby Clarke.
And then, of course, there was Friday Night Lights. I challenge you to watch this trailer and not get chills and/or cry.
For a show that sure did look like it was about football, it instead held up a mirror to my past, present, and future — high school, marriage, motherhood. For a show that sure did look like it was about boys and men, it instead revealed the myriad ways girls and women get by and often how they don’t.
As the mother to a baby and toddler at the time, FNL also made me think forward to what it would be like when my kids were teenagers, how I (we?) would parent them and what they might come up against. I couldn’t have imagined back then how almost reasonable some of the storylines would feel in the future — abortion, school boards, and Texas in general.
That 2-1/2-year-old boy I had when FNL first aired turned 18 just last summer. We had been on a bit of a tear watching shows together, a ritual kicked off by the pandemic. The West Wing. Arrested Development. Freaks and Geeks. Modern Family. I thought it’d be easy to lure him into FNL, being a huge football fan and all, but it took effort. Mostly what it took was me deciding to watch it anyway, in the most public room in the house, knowing that if he happened to swing by and watch even five minutes he’d be hooked (it worked). And I told him what so many FNL fans have told others: “The second season is terrible, you just have to get through it.”
Season 1 of Friday Night Lights created a world that felt deeply relatable, even as it was populated with impossibly gorgeous people. The storytelling felt both grand and intimate, gorgeous to watch, a permanent golden hour. Football was never the point, even as it was both protagonist and villain, the organizing force and reason for being. You wanted the marriage of Coach and Tami Taylor, the tentative and gentle teen romance of Matt and Julie, you wanted to look at Tim Riggins every chance you got. Somehow you wanted Coach Taylor to be both your husband and your dad. You wanted to be as hot, sharp, and fundamentally good as Tami. You wanted Texas Forever.
Season 2 of Friday Night Lights is Opposite Land. Coach leaves Tami with a newborn and moves to go do his fancy college coaching job that he doesn’t even like! Lyla goes from slut-shamed to born again Christian, conducting a prayer circle during lunch in the cafeteria! Perfect and adorable Julie dumps perfect and adorable Matt and becomes a risk-taking brat who’s a total bitch to her mom! Innocent dorky lamb Landry literally kills a guy! Tami wants to do her own murders for being left alone with a friggin’ newborn!
It’s dark. It’s a mess. And it’s long been assumed that the last writers strike was the reason, because it was the only thing that made season 2 make sense. But that wasn’t the case. “The idea that the strike led to poor narrative choices—Friday Night Lights [is] often cited as [a] show from that era hurt by the stoppage—is often a result of revisionism.” Proof of that are headlines like this one: “Last Time Hollywood Writers Went on Strike, Landry Killed a Guy on ‘Friday Night Lights’” by Dan Solomon in Texas Monthly. (The headline is a great hook but the article tells the real story, that the script and storyline already existed, but that FNL could’ve course-corrected in real time had the writers strike not happened).
In binge-watching the show with my son last summer, and more or less assuming I’d hold my nose through the second season, what I discovered instead was a season shot through with the trials and tribulations of being a girl and a woman in this country, and this includes a surprising episode (ep 2) titled “Bad Ideas.”
“Bad Ideas” gifts us with one of the most accurate representations of postpartum free fall I’ve ever seen. Tami’s snappishness, isolation, anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness, and bone-deep overwhelm are threaded throughout the episode. Connie Britton’s work here practically made me barf with recognition. This is just your garden variety postpartum unraveling that most men (and coworkers) don’t see, don’t want to see, or only see up close and personal, wondering why their partner isn’t ThE hApPiEsT ShE’s EvEr BeEn. The postpartum period is regularly dismissed as a bump in the road, a li’l bit of a hard time, or “the baby blues” when it’s more like a psychic, hormonal, emotional, and physical shit storm of the absolute highest order. Seeing its realistic portrayal is weirdly thrilling.
When Tami allows a younger, less experienced (also: single, no kids) male colleague to swing by so she can help him figure out how to cover her job, he takes one look around her tornado of a house — a scene deeply familiar to any new mother — laundry everywhere, snacks and burp cloths, a baby swing, milk or juice still out on the kitchen counter. And he attempts a joke with her (A joke! With a postpartum woman! Who wants to die today? Glen does!)
Glen: “I hope you didn’t go to all this trouble just for me.”
Tami: “I just had a baby, Glen.”
Yeah Glen, shut the fuck up. Maybe if you knew how to cover a job like a big boy you wouldn’t be bothering this woman during her darkest hour, Glennnnnnnn.
I won’t recap the entire episode, or season, but at a time when FNL lost its way, what is on continuous display are the visceral and relatable ways that girls and women exist, explore, struggle, get passed over, get tossed aside, don’t get listened to, don’t get respected, and still come out swinging.
Being in love, falling out of love, chasing the wrong boy, putting yourself at risk by following your desires. Absorbing (or not) the trauma of sexual assault and violence. Navigating poverty, navigating low expectations, falling back on your looks. Being deep into a long marriage with children, with a newborn, with a teenager, with a partner who always gets to do what he wants, whose career is the default and always comes first. Incompetent male coworkers who need your help to do their job, who have no idea what you’re up against, who are utterly clueless as to what you’re going through when you’ve just created an actual human being inside your body for God’s sake.
If you’ve never watched Friday Night Lights I have two things to say to you: 1) Why? And 2) if you’ve avoided watching (or rewatching) season 2 because of what you’ve heard about it or the myth that it was written by random writers off the street, here’s what I’d say: give it a watch with fresh eyes. Yes, the boys and grown men are peacocking and embarrassing themselves and getting in shitfaced fights at parties (and fancy restaurants!), acting weird with their exes and shirking their duties and just being numbskulls in general. Yes, the storylines are absurd, honestly, and take the show further and further away from football which is objectively odd! And yes, you’re gonna meet a whole bunch of characters you’ll never see again (don’t get too attached!) But don’t skip it.
Watch episode 2 for the girls and women instead. It moves toward its conclusion with Lyla commenting, “Why is everything always falling apart?” Sort of seems like an Instagram caption on any given (Sun)day, doesn’t it?
And watch it to see if you recognize yourself in there somewhere, in the midst of a dark, weird, anomaly of a season, in a show about football, set in Texas.
• “Why Are TV Writers So Miserable?” by Michael Schulman in The New Yorker: “For people outside the industry, the woes of TV writers can elicit a boo-hoo response: it is, after all, a more lucrative form of writing than most, right? But the economics of streaming have chipped away at what was previously a route to a middle-class life. Last month, ‘The Bear’ won the W.G.A. Award for Comedy Series. O’Keefe went to the ceremony with a negative bank account and a bow tie that he’d bought on credit. He’s now applying for jobs at movie theatres to prepare for the potential strike.”
• “The crucial importance and splendid madness of Friday Night Lights season 2” by Darren Franich in Entertainment Weekly. “If this season fails as a narrative, it works as an extended laboratory experiment, a show testing itself. If you've watched all of Friday Night Lights, you can spot some of the show's finest moments in embryonic form here in its least successful season.”
• “What Do We Want? Love! When Do We Want It? Now! In Los Angeles, movie and TV writers on strike are eyeing one another with more than solidarity on their minds.” from The New York Times [gifted link]. “‘I’m not out here necessarily for love — I’m here for a strike daddy,’ Brett Maier said, a length of blue yarn tied around his wrist.”
• “Want to Know What TV Loses Without Writers? Just Look at 2007.” by Alan Siegel in The Ringer. “With the strike looming, 15 of the season’s 22 episodes were produced. It was, Hudgins remembers, a rush job. A week before the stoppage, showrunner Jason Katims asked him if he could take on one more episode. “I said, ‘Well, sure, of course. What’s it gonna be about?’” Hudgins says. “He said, ‘Well [executive producer] Pete Berg wants to be in it. He wants to act in it.’ Oh, what does he want to do? He said, ‘He has two requests: One, he wants to fly a helicopter, and two, he wants to beat up Kyle Chandler.’” 😂
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