Accepting Defeat: Friday Night Lights, Season 4

At its best, “Friday Night Lights” is about failure. The original basis for the television show was Buzz Bissiner’s non-fiction book along with Peter Berg’s movie version that trace the defeat of the powerhouse high school football team, the Permian Panthers, in 1988. When Berg brought his movie to television, he had to dilute the emphasis on crushing defeat. Even if viewers might tolerate a bleak drama, losing would require the show to end.

But, like its predecessors, “Friday Night Lights” escapes from the conventions of its genre by focusing on defeat. Yes, the quality of the acting is high. (The more awkward actors make up for their wooden lines by distracting us with their exquisite beauty.) Yes, the handheld camera and Texan locations adds a dose of cinéma vérité. But it is the private failures haunting Dillon, Texas, that make this show a success.

With the fourth season, the sense of failure is stronger than ever. In the previous seasons, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) gave grandiloquent speeches that inspired his championship team. Now he screams at the bumbling players of East Dillon High and they still don’t win games. Tami (Connie Britton) fulfilled her bureaucratic duty as school principal. Like a Greek tragic hero, her brief well-intentioned act brings the town’s wrath. Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) skulks in his trailer, like a lion in his lair, as if leaving might reveal him to be a washed-up has-been.

The show’s new preoccupation with race has much to do with this new gloom. This season moves the show abruptly to the predominantly African-American East Dillon, a heretofore non-existent part of town. The handling of race is somewhat awkward: could a gregarious car dealer immediately charm a roomful of black leaders? “Friday Night Lights” almost admits that, like its characters, it cannot take on the challenge of depicting race relations in America without fumbling. While it’s not “The Wire”, “Friday Night Lights” at least shows African-Americans who are neither the criminals nor the handy cops in police procedurals.

While America adores its fictions and histories triumph (Horatio Alger! Storming the beaches of Normandy! Westward expansion! Bill Gates!), failure is an equally strong aspect of its cultural identity. From Willy Loman’s deluisions of grandeur in Death of a Salesman to Jake LaMotta’s self-pummeling in Raging BuIl, American film and literature often finds its identity in its failure. With the interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the environmental cataclysm of Deepwater Horizon broadcasting the limitations of America’s power to the world, can we really disagree?

While we like winning, we keep returning to failure. In the end, it looks more like us.

Stay tuned.

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