'Friday Night Lights': Racial Ground Goes Unbroken

With two more West Dillon alums--Matt Saracen and Lyla Garrity--leaving Dillon in last week's episode, Friday Night Lights is revolving more completely around East Dillon. In this week's episode, Coach Taylor begins to understand a bit more about East Dillon.

It's obvious that Coach Taylor has mentored many a quarterback. It also can be reasonably assumed that the kids he mentored often sought his guidance. But from this season's first episodes, Vince Howard has given off the impression that he doesn't need Coach Taylor to be a father figure to him. And that is what makes his relationship with Vince different from most of his other relationships with quarterbacks.

Their relationship evolves in this week's episode. Coach Taylor shows Vince that he trusts him enough to lead his football team when he announces that Vince is now the team's first string quarterback. In a very touching scene, Vince's mother visits Coach Taylor at East Dillon to thank him and tells him how Vince beamed with joy when he told her the good news. She tells Coach Taylor that good things like this don't usually happen to people like the Howards.

When police storm the locker room to look in Vince's locker for a gun, Coach Taylor finds out why good things don't happen to people from Vince's neighborhood. After Vince denies owning a gun to Coach Taylor, the coach confronts Vince in his neighborhood and reminds him that he is one bad move from going back to juvie and losing it all. Vince essentially tells Coach that he needs the gun for self-protection. That three of his friends have been shot while going to school. That he fears for his safety going to and from school and practice. Coach Taylor promises Vince that he will have his back, that' he'll give Vince "everything he has" if Vince allows him to. But it's also clear that Vince's world is one that Coach Taylor is still trying to understand.

And at the end of the episode, Vince shows up at the Taylor residence in the dead of night and hands Coach Taylor a brown paper bag, which contains his gun. In so doing, Vince gives Coach Taylor the same amount of trust Coach Taylor gave him.

Seeing the relationship between Vince, an African-American kid from East Dillon and Coach Taylor, a white man from West Dillon, play out made me wonder why there are not more Hispanic characters in East Dillon.

Friday Night Lights depicts reality and the struggles of ordinary small town Americans perfectly. And when I saw the beaten up football field with the dying yellow grass that served as a metaphor for the economically underdeveloped East Dillon at the close of season three, I was hopeful that this season would feature some Hispanic characters. It would have definitely made the show much more real.

For one, there are many clues that the fictional town of Dillon, Texas is actually Odessa, Texas, the town depicted in Buzz Bissinger's book. As a Permian alum pointed out to me, the "P" on the helmets of the Dillon Panthers is most likely a reference or homage to Permian High School (though Dillon High, unlike Permian High, does not have a black and white stop sign). And East Dillon's red and white colors are those of Permian's chief rival, Odessa.

Yet Odessa's population is nearly 50% Hispanic, but one would not know it from watching Friday Night Lights. In fact, commentators and bloggers have pointed out that watching the show could even leave less-informed viewers with the impression that Texas may not even have a sizeable Hispanic population (which could not be further form the truth).

The most prominent Hispanic character to date has been Santiago, who essentially became Buddy Garrity's ward, in season two. But that story arc was almost as awkward as the show's relationship (or lack thereof) with Hispanic characters. And Santiago was not even a significant character or a significant part of the storyline.

Maybe conventional wisdom--or a focus group--told producers that viewers would be more comfortable with relations between blacks and whites, particularly in a show that revolves around football. But this show has shattered lots of conventional wisdom; and even if regular television viewers are more comfortable watching relations between blacks and whites play out, this show, with its gritty and artsy feel, would have been the perfect show to flip that conventional wisdom on its head, especially since DirecTV first airs the episodes in the fall before they are shown on NBC during the spring. 

A show like Friday Night Lights could break new ground in telling the story of a significant Mexican-American character. Perhaps there could be a storyline about a 4th generation family of Mexican descent that does not even speak Spanish. Or a story arc about a native-born Mexican-American football player whose parents are illegally in the country. Or an immigrant student who lacks fluency in English. Or a native born Mexican-American student who sees himself as an American (or Texan) first while his (or her) parents see themselves as Mexican first.

There's so much potential material here for a show like Friday Night Lights to tap into. Storylines revolving around Mexican-American characters would add more richness to the show and would definitely make it realer than it already is. In this sense, it's not only the show's loss, but also ours as well.
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Tony Lee contributes to The Atlantic Online. Follow him on Twitter: @TheTonyLee.

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