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FNL Watch: Less Money, Mo' Problems

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Good news: my DSL pipeline has been restored, so I’m back in blogging business. Bad news: between at set visit today (to the downtown site of AMC’s Rubicon) and general falling behind from my computer problems, I don’t have time for a full blog review of Friday Night Lights, “Injury List.”

Update: Whoops! And fortunately, I don’t need to, as NBC pre-empted the episode this week; sorry, I was operating off an old schedule at NBC’s press site. I’ve amended the post below to remove what little spoilery stuff there is; the rest of the general discussion of the season to date is still relevant.

Instead, here’s one general thought: has there ever been another TV drama—at least on traditional big-network TV—that has been as devoted to Friday Night Lights to the idea that people’s economic status determines their fate?

I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate: obviously money troubles (the lack, or sometimes excess of it) have probably figured somehow into every TV drama ever made. But usually, particularly on ad-supported networks that have to keep things relatively happy for advertisers and the consumers they court, characters’ finances are not the main determiner of what happens to them. There’s luck, and love, and character—a good person, trying hard, can overcome poor circumstances and rise above. They can get that job, or go to that school, or find that scholarship.

But Friday Night Lights—from the beginning, but this season especially—is constantly and realistically conscious of the fact that money does matter. It’s not all that matters (luck, love, and character figure in here too, as do culture and faith), but the show tells no fairy tales. However good or bad you are, if you’re poor, your options are narrower, and bad or potentially regrettable choices more tempting. In so many of the major stories this season, especially involving the kids, the characters have been up against the wall because of money: Riggins helping his brother with the chop shop, Vince joining up with criminals to get his mom into rehab, Luke being pressured to miss school to work for his dad and, of course, Becky deciding that she’s not ready, emotionally and economically, to be a mother.

The irony is that there may well be a macroeconomic reason that FNL can do this so well. The show has become better, and its portrayal of small-town life all the more realistic, in the last two seasons, after DirecTV started sharing the costs for the show with NBC. With some of the ratings pressure off, it’s been free to be true to itself, and become the best drama on broadcast TV. It’s honesty about money—and so many other things—is possible in part because somebody’s footing the bill.

Let me know what you think about this, and I’ll see you back on the blog next week.