Lights from Above

Lately, I’ve been wrapping up my days by watching the five-season run of a series that first appeared on TV from 2006-2010: “Friday Night Lights.” The story line follows the coaches, players, and other high school students in the football-mad West Texas town of Dillon. Relatively little of the action is directly on the field. Rather, it’s the interrelationships of the characters and the various issues that they face that are the focus.

It’s not great literature and was not terribly successful TV, although it was critically acclaimed in its day. What I was totally unprepared for was how captivated I have been: those characters and their issues have come to matter for me—not at all a typical reaction on my part. I think about them, even when I’m not watching. I actually care for them.

It’s got me wondering why. I don’t think it’s a hankering for the good old days at Southern High. They ended more than fifty years ago now, and like many adults (especially those fortunate enough to have attended college), those are anything but golden years in my memory. I have fond recollections of certain teachers and classmates, but chiefly I recall the never-quite-belonging-awkwardness of moving to southern Maryland at the beginning of seventh grade, never quite to enjoy “in” status for the six years thereafter.

As for football, I stuck it out for all four years. At the time, I told myself that it was good for me to force myself to do something at which I was not naturally gifted, as I was in academics. But what sticks out most are memories of constant pain (I played my senior year with two open blisters on each heel) and the humiliation of a kid whose career topped out as captain of the junior varsity in the tenth grade. In fact the main benefit in retrospect was likely that I mixed deeply with students who weren’t in my classes. Today we’d call it the value of diversity. Back then, it led me to cross cultural lines that seemed set in stone.

So what about “Friday Night Lights” has gotten under my skin? Having now finished two of the five seasons, I’ve got my suspicions. By this point in the series, every single major character with the possible exception of the mother of one of the football players has displayed major flaws that prevent me from assigning them identities as “good guys” or “bad guys.” Rather, they’re like the people at my high school and the people with whom I’ve lived and dealt for the past fifty-plus years. They screw up. They self-sabotage. They hurt each other. They use each other. And some part ways in a manner that I suspect will not be healed over the course of the last three seasons.

That makes them real. What injects them under my skin, I think, is not simply the pain of identification with their failures, but also the regular appearance of grace, when one character who has wronged or hurt another says, “I’m sorry.” Apologies don’t heal all ills any more in the show than in real life. Some cuts are too deep for that, at least in the near term. But they do inject a note of hope—even a ray of light—in the Pandora’s Box that is Dillon, Texas, and my own life wherever I go.