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HARBIN — Across my first days in this gritty city in northeast China, I have been thinking a fair amount about the myth and the reality of America. In this industrial place of just under 10 million people booming with public works like a subway opening within months and private development in the form of high-rise apartments and office buildings sprouting everywhere, the myth of America shows itself consistently.
Two great texts of the American self-made man, "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," are the most commonly seen English-language books for sale in the city's largest bookstore. Elsewhere in the store, rows of insta-biographies in Chinese are dedicated to the lives of America's famed business leaders like Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Donald Trump while another work targeted to women shows America's secretary of state on the cover and is titled "To Be a Career Superwoman Like Hillary."
It was all summed up yesterday in my conversation with an eager English studies student at the university where I am guest lecturing. When asked if he had ever been to the United States, he replied earnestly, "No, but it is my dreamland."
America has been and continues to be a "dreamland," but we all know that the reality of America has always been more complicated than the myth. Works of fiction bring the texture of America to life and, in the past decade, television has been perhaps the most effective instrument in telling America's story. Other dramatic series of recent years — Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire (on which I'm catching up during my stay in China) — are arguably better crafted from start-to-finish than Friday Night Lights, now in the concluding episodes of its final season.
However, it is the series centered around the life of a successful west Texas high school football coach, his family, and the town obsessed with all things Dillon Panther football that has subtly but consistently portrayed the issues of race, class, gender, religion, and the conflicts between individualism and community that make America complicated — and fascinating.
On occasion, the show's storyline is driven by conflicts involving these forces in American life. For instance, racial division shows itself in the series' first season through the team's star's conflict with an older white assistant coach and gender politics are front and center as the schools' "rally girls" provide services of all sorts to the players in exchange for a bit of prestige.
But, more often than driving the action, these complexities of American life create a backdrop for the story and subtly shape the most legitimate long-term relationship ever on prime time (that between Coach Eric Taylor and school counselor/principal Tami Taylor) and the lives of some of the best characters ever on TV (the show is particularly praiseworthy for avoiding the tendency to caricature young persons). When Coach Taylor is forced from his job at Dillon High (think Benton) to take over a moribund program at a heavily African-American East Dillon High (think McClellan) midway through the series, his eyes are opened to the distinctive challenges facing isolated black communities as well as the difficulty in crossing racial barriers.
Even rarer for American television, FNL sympathetically shows a mostly working class community faced with the norm of financial tension (stresses enhanced when one—or, as in several cases, both—parents absent themselves physically or emotionally) and the tendency to take risks for the hope of a better economic life that don't always pay off. Indeed, the only consistent villain in the show is "new money" Joe McCoy who throws around his power as his quarterback son throws around his Escalade.
As shown most clearly when they come together to support their teams, the communities of Dillon and East Dillon provide social glue and are sources of tremendous strength for individuals facing challenges. Those same communities, however, have the power to punish individuals who challenge their norms (as Tami does on several occasions) or subtly apply peer pressure to their youth. For good or ill, as daughter Julie describes beautifully in her college interview, Americans are not "self-made"; they are indelibly shaped by their communities as she was by Dillon.
Those around the world who mythologize America are more likely to see Las Vegas than Dillon when they envision their "dreamland," but it is in that fictional place where we see the reality of American dreams coming true as kids work hard to get into college and start a life that promises to be better than their parents, where white and black kids are assisted in their transformation by a "molder of men" (Tami's description of Coach Taylor that would sound sappy if it weren't true), and adults like the consummate booster Buddy Garrity who have made major mistakes getting do-overs. It is that America, complicated as it is, that is my dreamland.
Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.