Even a die-hard Friday Night Lights fan like me has to admit it was not exactly a literary show. There are probably more bookish references in a couple of episodes of Mad Men than in five seasons of FNL. Heck, when the coach’s wife attends her first book club meeting, she’s told “We don’t really read the book” and spends the evening dodging questions about her husband’s game strategies. Still, I ask you, would Lisa Simpson be seen viewing a stack of FNL DVDs in a Simpsons episode that guest starred Neil Gaiman (“The Book Job”), and would a literary show like Orange is the New Black reference Coach Taylor (“40 OZ of Furlough”), if there weren’t something bookish to be found therein? For your consideration:
10. “Ulysses was a pimp”
In this lit class scene from Season 1’s “It’s Different for Girls,” the teacher asks why Helen’s adultery in The Iliad has more serious consequences than Ulysses’s dalliance with Crice in The Odyssey. Cocky star running back Smash Williams jokes that “Ulysses was a pimp,” explaining that monogamy is for women only. But Waverly, a smart, independent female student, reframes Smash’s joke in evolutionary terms before adding “we’re never so human as when we act contrary to our instinct, and … monogamy with the right person, is a state of higher evolution.” Naturally, they fall in love.
9. “It was medieval. You know, it was like The Scarlet Letter or something watching that girl walk across the cafeteria and everybody just glared at her.”
In the same episode, when everyone finds out that prettily perfect cheerleader Lyla Garrity has been cheating on her boyfriend, it’s Lyla who gets the lion’s share of the public shaming. Tami tells her, “Don’t worry about those jackasses, sweetie.” and they share a heart-to-heart chat. Tami may not know what time period “medieval” actually refers to, but in stark contrast to Hester Prynne’s 17th century community, she consistently supports young women in expressing their sexual agency.
8. “Without Lennie, George lost all his humanity.”
In Season 1’s “Nevermind,” Tim Riggins gets brainy Landry Clark to read Of Mice and Men to him. Tim’s best friend has just experienced a career-ending injury that has left him paralyzed. Landry coaxes, “This is a book about two best friends who have a dream that gets crushed. … You can’t tell me that there’s not something in this head of yours that you can relate this to.” Tim doesn’t bite, but he does manage a B- on the essay.
7. “It’s just like Camelot, guys!”
A budget crisis forces the the East Dillon football program to close. In “Texas, Whatever,” the players get drunk one night on their abandoned field. When one player yells “It’s just like Camelot, guys!” another, Buddy Jr., asks “How is it like Camelot?” and the response is “You don’t read much, do you?” It’s not even a reference to any specific literary interpretation of the Arthurian legend, but it’s kind of perfect, since the football field, like the legendary Camelot, is a place of purpose, idealism, and even magic. Inspiring, temporary, and a little unreal, the field is everything and nothing, a point the show makes again and again.
6. “Dude, you do not have to hide porn from a baby.”
Former QB Jason has had a one night stand that, miraculously from his point of view as a person who has sustained a disabling spinal cord injury, resulted in a baby. In S3’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Jason is tidying up the apartment before little Noah shows up, but his pal Herc tells him, “Dude, you do not have to hide porn from a baby. Babies are not freaked out by boobies . . . babies love vaginas, man. They just took a great trip through one. It’s like looking at a postcard.” I like the way this scene shows that people do sometimes feel that their reading material can reflect the kind of person they are, and affect how others see them.
5. “I thought that every book I read was like a rung on a ladder that I built to escape this town that was all about high school football and nothing else.”
The focal point for the show’s explicit literary awareness is Julie Taylor, the coach’s precocious teenage daughter. In this scene from Season Four (“The Toilet Bowl”), Julie is being interviewed by a college admissions officer. She tells him that she was assigned Capote’s A Christmas Memory for school, but went on to read all of his short stories, and was amazed to discover he and Harper Lee lived in the same small town. Julie once hated Dillon but now realizes that “I was shaped by my town … I have different viewpoint than every other person.” I think this is a great example of the ways novels can help us gain a fresh perspective on our own lives.
4. “If you like this, you’ll love A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
It breaks my heart a little to put this scene from Season 2’s “Seeing Other People” on the list, because it’s a moment of uncharacteristic poor judgment from Tami Taylor. Julie has a crush on Mr. Barnett and he’s given her a copy of The World According to Garp. Mom Tami is having none of it:
-Mr. Barnett. Can I ask you a question? Why’d you give my daughter that book?
-This? Because it’s really funny. It’s, uh a pivotal book.
-It’s a pretty adult book, don’t you think? It’s pretty sexual.
-I’m an English teacher here, and I can recommend reading to my students. …
-I don’t like you giving salacious reading material to my daughter. I don’t like you having lunch with her behind closed doors. I don’t like you touching each other when you talk to each other.
-Look. This is-
-No, listen to me. I want you to be clear about something. I can have you fired. I can have my husband come over and beat the crap out of you. And I can have you thrown into prison.
As a reader, I like the way this subplot shows that books can be significant symbolic objects in relationships, even questionable ones.
3. “Name the first novel and the last novel by the mid-century American novelist Thomas Wolfe, both of which deal with the American theme of the wanderer.”
In Season 4, Julie’s boyfriend leaves Dillon without saying goodbye. In the Academic Smackdown, she gets a question about Thomas Wolfe that is all too apt. Through tears, she answers: “The first and last novel by mid-century American novelist Thomas Wolfe, both of which deal with the American theme of the wanderer. The first is Look Homeward, Angel, and the second is You Can’t Go Home Again.” For Julie, every great book is about her personal life.
2. “Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree?”
In this scene from Season 3’s “The Giving Tree,” longsuffering friend and admirer Landry Clarke finally calls out Tyra Collette for her selfishness:
-Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree?
-Yeah, when I was like five.
-It’s about this tree who loves this boy more than anything, right? And the boy just takes and takes and takes until there’s absolutely nothing left but a stump. And I’m like the tree and you’re the boy – just take and take and take, and there’s absolutely nothing left, Tyra. That’s exactly what I feel like. Just a stump. Because this is not a friendship. You’re selfish. It’s not a friendship.
Critics argue about whether the relationship between the boy and the tree in Silverstein’s children’s book is exploitative or a model of caring altruism, but I’m with Landry on this one. Luckily, Tyra wises up before Landry reaches stumpification.
1. “Moby-Dick is actually the perfect metaphor for this town.”
In the pilot episode, Julie Taylor is reading Moby-Dick while her dad watches football tapes, and she has an epiphany:
–Moby-Dick is actually the perfect metaphor for this town… The cold black sea representing the season in all its uncertainties. The magical white whale is the Holy Grail. … State championship. The boat, I mean, the whalers are the team, right? …
-Who’s that make me? Coach Ahab?
-Julie: Absolutely. Coach, captain, hunter, hunted. Driven to catch what may be uncatchable.
On the face of it, this analogy doesn’t work at all. Captain Ahab sacrificed his men for his own twisted revenge, while Coach Taylor sacrifices himself to help his players. But to give Julie (and the writers) some credit, the whale and the town of Dillon do share a kind of ambiguity. Like Moby Dick, small town America as symbolized by Dillon has a legend that precedes it, a larger than life aura that has to be reconciled with its mundane reality. And just as the whale appeared differently to various characters in the novel, Dillon appears both unified and divided, safe and dangerous, progressive and regressive. The meaning of the whale, of football, or of Dillon, Texas, like the meaning of life, is finally just what we make of it.