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It’s appropriate that this MLK Day should fall during the final run of The Wire, one of TV drama’s best treatments of race. That said, I don’t have a Wire Watch for you yet–I’ll try to get one up later today or maybe tomorrow (today being a low-traffic day, since it’s a holiday for many of you–and actually for me as well).

This time out, FNL did religious diversity better than racial diversity. / NBC Photo: Bill Records

But I did want to take a couple seconds to ask what the Friday Night Lights fans thought of Friday’s interracial-dating episode. I’m generally with Alan Sepinwall in believing that FNL has handled race better, more realistically and more subtly before, particularly in last season’s storyline with Smash, the assistant coach and the question of whether black players can be “leaders” in football. You always had a sense with Smash that race was an issue in Dillon, but one that he sometimes was less willing to notice it than his single mom, who presumably grew up among much more overt racism, and without the adulation that comes from being a star athlete. (One highlight of last year’s story was how Smash, who grew up in the post-civil-rights era, gradually came to see the bias he resisted admitting was there.) This realism–racism as an insidious modern presence, not always immediately detectable or obvious–was one of FNL’s strengths, and Friday’s episode betrayed it by suddenly turning Dillon into the Jim Crow south because it suited the story.

I’m not saying that Dillon’s color-blind; Smash has already found that it’s not earlier on the show. But to have it suddenly become overt and blatant after a year and a half seemed heavy-handed, rushed and too dramatically convenient. Also–and I’ll admit I haven’t gone back to my old DVDs to check–didn’t we see, or wasn’t it at least strongly implied, that Smash has dated white girls before? Certainly in the early episodes you got the sense that he was a player, in more than one sense of the word, and even if we didn’t see him hooking up with white girls outright, simple math seemed to suggest he probably had, given the relatively few African Americans at the high school.

If that’s the case, then you’d think he or his dates would have picked up a racist vibe earlier. If I’m wrong and he never dated interracially before, that itself would seem to suggest he was aware of some invisible boundaries in his hometown. Either way, to suddenly throw him in the middle of a nightmare of out-in-the-open racism made me feel like I was watching a different, and more average, TV show. Which is a shame, because the storyline had the potential to be much more complex and thought-provoking–particularly the angle of Smash’s mom backing up the white parents in wanting him to break up with Noelle.

On the other hand, the storyline about the Taylors handing Gracie over to daycare was beautifully handled. (As was Lyla and her Christian call-in show–religion being another way this show gets diversity right in a way that few network dramas do.) I will acknowledge, in the spirit of MLK Day, that I may have thought the Taylors’ story worked better because I’m a white dad, not a black high school runningback. Anyone (Chaddogg, for instance) beg to differ?