I've recently become obsessed with NBC's small town football drama Friday Night Lights.
This is an unlikely object of my affection, as I don't remotely care about football, and am pretty suspicious of all things Middle America. But as everyone will tell you about this show, it is not about football, it is about the people who play the game and the dynamics of a small town. Kind of like how Glee used to be about misfit kids trying to get along in high school, before they all got so pretty and the show became an American Idol variety-show-type rip-off.
What Friday Night Lights is about, though, is Middle America. Set in a small fictional town in West Texas, FNL (digression again: I always think SNL when I see it shortened that way, and my brain does a "wha??" for a moment) explores the American country values of decent church-going folk, all of whom are struggling to make a living in the recession-era economy, with dreams of getting ahead, looking to find a comfortable, authentic life in the heart of family and friends. There are no flashy cars, nobody's too pretty or plastic, kids have curfews and get in trouble when they break them, and good parents are actually engaged in their children's lives.
Dillon, Texas actually looks like a pretty nice place to grow up, despite the obvious economic hardship many of the characters face. So, maybe Middle America ain't so bad after all.
But I think the thing that really drives my passion for this show is that for better or worse, it so very closely echoes my own growing-up experience in small town Alberta. The dynamics are the same, the differences superficial and semantic: my town was into hockey, not football, and nobody said "y'all" in any kind of serious conversation. But the differences pretty much end there.
What FNL does so well is that it finds the universal in the mundane reality of growing up rural. And interestingly, this is what makes this show stand out from the rest of American high-school dramas. There's reality here and heart - kids aren't living in mansions and running around in Manolo Blahniks. These kids, and the adults who love them, work hard, love with truth, make mistakes and deal with real consequences (except for that ridiculous plot point in Season Two - you all know what I'm talking about). And rather than painting a rural setting as backward with lampoon-like hicks chewing straw, the characters are smart, honest, loyal and decent, like the people I grew up with.
Now, I'll be honest. I left my home town for the "big" city as soon as I could. Did I hate it growing up? No. Did I want to live in the bible/rodeo/hockey/farming belt of central Alberta? No. At the time, I didn't think my little town reflected my personal values, nor did it hold for me the opportunities I wanted in my life.
But what FNL shows me is that I actually had it pretty darn good growing up in my little town. And it's helped me to find pride in where I came from, and to honour that time of my life and the people who shaped my childhood.
I think what FNL answers for me is the desire to see my life, my world reflected in the media, as Shakespeare tells us, a mirror up to nature is the "purpose of playing." It's ironic that a story set thousands of miles away from where I grew up would more accurately reflect what I perceive to be my culture than shows set in my own backyard. Shows like CTV's Corner Gas - which although charming, does nothing to explore the complexity or the authenticity of small town life. Nor does CBC's family-friendly Heartland really feel all that familiar, it's just too squeaky clean and neat and tidy.
But perhaps it's the very fact that FNL is set in Texas rather than Alberta that actually makes more of an impact. It's the chance to find the familiar, the universal, and the authentic in a far-away setting - a setting that reflects where I came from, rather than is where I came from. Perhaps there's more power and more unity in realizing these similarities can cross borders - political, geographical and ideologically speaking. Perhaps there's great comfort to take in the fact (no matter what our pundits and politicians will tell us) we're not that different from our cousins to the south, that they (and we) are not to be feared, dismissed or insulted (as we self-righteous-at-times Canadians are wont to do). Perhaps they are us and we are them, a thought I find oddly comforting in a "global village, 'we are the world'" type way. Folks is folks, and with that knowledge, perhaps we can better work together to find greater collaboration and consensus in our world economy, politics and North American culture.
After all, clear eyes, full hearts can't lose.