So I recently finished watching Friday Night Lights, an hour-long drama that ran for five seasons. In case you're even more out of the loop than I am - the last episode aired in 2011 - FNL was a TV show based on a movie that was itself adapted from a non-fiction book. Although that sort of lineage is normally a recipe for disaster, in this case it managed to be compelling in each of those three very different mediums. The success of the TV show had a lot to do with the series creator Peter Berg (who also directed the film and is a cousin of Buzz Bissinger, the author of the original book) and the showrunner/producer Jason Katims. The series was scored with perfectly chosen music by musical director Liza Richardson and featured an ensemble cast that was an incredible collection of talent. It also happened to include a high school classmate of mine, Stacey Oristano.
At any rate, now that I've watched all 76 episodes I have to admit I'm a little sad. I enjoyed hanging out with this set of characters and I'll miss their company. I'll also miss exploring the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.
The show didn't provide much specific information about Dillon - we know it's small, for example, but we're never really told how small. But one detail the show did communicate was that the built landscape of small town Texas looks a whole lot like the built landscape of suburban Texas.
In almost every episode of Friday Night Lights this counterintuitive but verifiable truth about Texas urbanism was effectively reinforced. If you travel enough throughout this state you quickly realize that the outskirts of Waxahachie, Huntsville and Georgetown look a whole lot like the outskirts of Dallas, Houston and Austin. It wouldn't be hard to confuse a generic commercial strips of San Angelo with the generic commercial strips of San Antonio. The development may be greater in quantity and in density, but they all have the same Chevy dealerships, Applebee's Restaurants and Diary Queens/Alamo Freezes regardless of the population of their host city.
Even though Dillon is supposed to be in west Texas, the landscape of Dillon certainly appears more centrally located in the hill country which makes sense as the series was filmed in and around Austin. Both the 1990 FNL book and the 2004 FNL film were set in the real life west Texas town of Odessa whose population hovered around 90,000 for decades until the most recent oil boom pushed that number closer to 115,000.
Odessa is a bit of an outlier when it comes to cities in the state. The economy of Odessa is closely linked to its sister city, Midland, located twenty miles to the west. Although both towns share a close association with the oil and gas industry, the corporate offices for those companies tend to be located in Midland whereas the supporting industrial infrastructure tends to be to be located in Odessa. The result is that Midland has a more developed commercial center with mid-rise office towers whereas Odessa does not.
Up until recently the Ector County Independent School District operated two high schools - Odessa High School and Permian High School whose Permian Panthers were the featured football team in the book and the film versions of Friday Night Lights. At the beginning of the TV series there is only one high school in Dillon and so there is only one high school football team in town, the Dillon Panthers. A critical plot development occurs at the end of the third season (2008-2009) when a second high school, Dillon East, is reopened, splitting the town in two. A somewhat similar situation occurred in Victoria, Texas at about the same time where a town's single high school was split into a Victoria West and Victoria East. Back then Victoria had a population of around 62,000 and so it seems reasonable to assume that Dillon was about the same size.
There are, however, some important differences between Victoria and Dillon. Victoria does not have an airport with commercial flights whereas Dillon does. Victoria has a mall which is a feature Dillon seemed to lack up until the series finale when the town suddenly had a large, two-story shopping center with escalators that allowed Coach Taylor to make a particularly dramatic entry.
Dillon also seems to mysteriously have a lot fewer hispanic residents than you would expect to find in Victoria or anywhere else in Texas. Odessa, for example, is over 50% hispanic.
Even if we don't know exactly where Dillon is supposed to be, there doesn't appear to be any other sizable towns located near it. For this reason one would assume Dillon is the seat of its respective county. That said we never see a county courthouse or even a central business district that we would expect to be built around one. If we look at Victoria as a precedent, it has a well-defined downtown with am impressively romanesque courthouse that faces a public square. It even has a few mid-rise office buildings clustered around this downtown.
Along with an almost complete lack of hispanics, this is perhaps the most notable thing missing from how Dillon is depicted in Friday Night Lights. Dillon may have its own megachurch, strip club and housing project, but it doesn't seem to have a center. We never see the type of concentrated historic development that we would expect to serve as the iconic center of such a town.
If a courthouse had been shown, our perception of Dillon might be very different. It wouldn't just be a devil town of run-down commercial development. Instead it would have been an identifiable place in the world. Interestingly, Peter Bogdanovich made a similar choice when he was making a movie about life in small town Texas. The fictional Anarene of The Last Picture Show was based on - and was filmed in - the real life town of Archer City. Archer City has a courthouse but it never appears on screen. To do so would have made the setting a more iconic and identifiable and would have run counter to the narrative.
Of course from a narrative standpoint the football field serves as the center of Dillon. And so for the world of Friday Night Lights, the omission of a downtown Dillon makes sense. Then again the show isn't really about football and it's certainly not about small town urbanism. It's about community and the many ways it can come to exist. To be sure there is the community that is built around football - both between individual players and between the players and their fans - but there is also the community that is built around family and friends and neighbors. And of course there is the community that is formed between individual players and their coach.
My personal football career was limited to a somewhat lackluster single season on the Young Junior High C-Team. This may come as a surprise, but I wasn't very good. My coaches were all supportive individuals but for me it was a series of teachers, professors and employers that over the years collectively acted as my Coach Taylor. Mrs. Reubush instilled a love of learning and hard work early in Elementary School. Mrs. L'Huillier, my 7th grade English teacher, provided the tough love that I needed to learn how to communicate effectively through writing. Ms. Danze and Mr. Blood taught me that it was possible to be both a good architect and a good person. Max Levy still provides me with the pep talks I need to rally in the the second half.
As interesting as a place like Dillon may appear to be on TV, it's worth noting that by the end of the series finale of Friday Night Lights, pretty much all of the characters we have come to love in the previous seventy-five episodes have left Dillon. This speaks to another reality of small towns in Texas - that the opportunities they afford their residents are increasingly less than what are offered by the larger urban centers of the state. It's one of the many contradictions that Friday Night Lights so perfectly renders. Texas is a state that is both rural and urban; red and blue, provincial and sophisticated. For as charming as they may be when we drive through them they can be challenging places to live.
And yet people still do live in places like Dillon and they are proud to do so. I've had the opportunity to work with some of them as they work to make their small towns more compelling places.
I believe they will succeed in doing this with clear eyes and full hearts.