I’ve fallen off the Friday Night Light’s wagon.
Not the bandwagon, mind you. Its much less dramatic than that. I had committed to blogging through this season, which…well, let’s just leave that aside.
I’ll stand by my recommendation, though, that this is the best show on television. Season four has been the most gritty, heart-wrenching season yet.
In the most recent episode, Tim Riggins’ enjoyed his dream property one moment, and found himself in jail for running a chop-shop the next. Vince continued his tightrope walk toward a better life, and managed to slide away from committing payback for the death of his friend. Saracen has disappeared to Chicago, leaving the heartbroken Julie to find a new passion in building homes man.
But the real story, the story that put my favorite show in the news, was the decision by Becky (age 15) to have an abortion after getting pregnant by football star Luke Cafferty. In subsequent issues, Tami Taylor has been excorciated for her role in the decision, which was to provide information about abortion in response to Becky’s request for it.
It’s a provocative plot twist, but one that solidifies FNL’s status as the most authentic tv show on network television. Like it or not, people in high school get pregnant.
Here’s the thing: Becky’s performance was stunning. The entire episode was moving, demonstrating the tragedy of the situation and the gravitas of the choice. Her conclusion that she can’t raise a child was heartbreaking for its sincerity–and for its falsity. And for the false dichotomy that is represented in the final choice. Even if she can’t take care of a child, someone else can–and may in fact want to. Adoption is a real option, folks.
The ending shot of Becky, crying alone in her room after telling the father that she “took care of it,” is the most tragic scene in the show’s history. The writers are careful not to glamorize the abortion, but the real crisis for them doesn’t seem to be the abortion itself–rather, it’s Becky’s sense of self-rejection that she has picked up from her mother, and from the realization that she has repeated in her own life the circumstances of her own birth. Is it better for Becky to be alive or dead? Implicitly, she’s answered that in the negative.
But since then, they have all but moved on from the event from Becky’s perspective. There were brief emotional check-ins, just to show us that yup, she’s doing just fine. The problem is now Tami’s, who has been made (predictably?) the object of the social conservatives’s wrath for ostensibly counseling Becky to pursue an abortion. There’s more than a strong hint of politicizing the issue here, an unfortunate turn toward the political that reinforces a caricature. Or maybe that’s just Cafferty’s mom, the instigator of the movement to fire Tami Taylor. In terms of acting, she happens to be the weakest link.
That’s not my problem, though. Instead, the issue and subsequent controversy has advanced the plot to the breaking point. Tami is in her second job crisis of the young school year. Early on in the year, there would be hints she would be forced out for her decision to follow the law and send a star football player–Luke Cafferty, the father of Becky’s child–to a different school. The parallel crisis of Eric’s football field in the most recent episode has strained their marriage in a way that we’ve never seen, but also given the season the feeling of moving from crisis to crisis: will we ever smile in Dillon again?
It’s a fair question. The happy moments have been few and far between this season, and lately those that have been happiest (like the birth of Billy Riggins’ son) have been overshadowed by the collapse of the means that made that birth possible (namely, Billy’s illicit income). And if it doesn’t turn around, I might be compelled to shift my description from the “most authentic” show on network tv to the “most depressing.”
But back to the abortion issue for a moment. As the Times puts it, “Again and again, “Friday Night Lights” seems to remind us, as if in klieg lights, of the consequences of parenthood pursued by accident or default.” Indeed it does.
But the irony is that while the show wants us to affirm the validity of Becky’s choice, it has simultaneously heroized Vince and his struggle to escape a life of crime and put his mother through drug rehab. Yet he was born into similar circumstances that Becky lives in. There’s a nobility to Vince’s struggle and life, a nobility that is available to anyone regardless of their circumstances. Yes, he’s graced with physical talents–but when it comes to his attempt to find his footing, those recede into the background and his work ethic and sacrifice for his mom take the forefront.
The writers seem to want it both ways. On the one hand, the social conditions of single parenthood are enough to justify abortion, even if it’s a difficult decision. On the other hand, the dramatic tension–throughout not just this season, but every season we’ve seen–has consisted of people’s attempts to rise above their circumstances and carve their own way in the world. Riggins says he has it all figures out, but it’s built on the sand of running a chop-shop. Saracen flees the town to make his way as an artist, Luke Cafferty is trying to escape the farm, and Julie floats from issue to issue rather aimlessly. And that’s only this season. Past seasons would provide numerous more examples.
You can make your way out of the dilemma by responding that the show doesn’t, in fact, want us to think well of Becky at all. But that simply doesn’t fly, given that Becky seems to have recovered her mojo in recent episodes and that the moral prophet, Tami Taylor, was noncommittal when asked what she would counsel her daughter. That wasn’t a “principal” dodge. She has held everyone morally accountable this season, including her school, her husband, and her daughter.
This is the dilemma of Friday Night Lights: the show wants to give sanction to an ideology that justifies the elimination of nearly all its main characters. Of course, it can’t really keep that up. The circumstances, while difficult, are the grounds where their character is formed, where their heroism and sense of self-dignity is shaped. It is the field where they rise and fall, where they struggle–along with the rest of us–to find their footing in a difficult world.
While some face greater challenges than others, the real message of the show is that everyone deserves a shot, and that they must take responsibility for their actions.
If only they would have said the same for Becky’s daughter.