Dealing with racial and ethnic tensions and stereotypes is tricky business for any medium, and nearly verboten for network television, so to a certain extent, tonight’s episode of Friday Night Lights deserves some credit for the attempt. This season, the show has finally acknowledged that a small town in Texas like Dillon would have a significant Hispanic population, and the writers have tried, however haphazardly, to introduce a pair of semi-major characters in Santiago and Carlotta. And there’s some bravery, too, in taking on the thorny issue of interracial relationships, which leads to some tension between the older and younger generation of both races, with the elders uncertain that the culture has gotten beyond the stigma.
But there’s ambition and there’s execution, and “Who Do You Think You Are?” fell considerably short of the mark. There’s a fine line between exploding stereotypes and indulging in them for a (well-meaning) point, and the show tread on the wrong side of that line all night. Let’s do Santiago first: Happy as I was to see Francis Capra (can I call you ‘Frank’?)—better known as Weevil on Veronica Mars—get some work again, his role as a thug anxious to drag Santiago back to the dark side was 100% cliché. There’s no attempt to make Capra’s character particularly charismatic or chummy; he’s just a jerk hellbent on dragging his old friend down with him. That house party (or apartment party, anyway) was something we’ve seen a thousand times in teen dramas; of course things get out of hand and of course there’s a lesson to be learned about resisting peer pressure and taking responsibility for your (adoptive) home.
But really, Santiago’s homies were just a device to settle the trust issues percolating between he and Buddy. Is Buddy keeping the kid around just for his potential as a football player? And does Buddy really trust Santiago enough to leave his beloved mementos around while his thuggish friends are around? Bottom line: Are they really father/son material or have either of them (or both) entered into this arrangement in bad faith? Now that’s a perfectly good question, but there are surely many better ways to dramatize it than this. (That said, I was touched by the conclusion to this little subplot anyway, which makes me a sucker, I guess.)
The Smash/Noelle quagmire isn’t handled much more gracefully. For one, we’ve had no indication before tonight that their relationship was anything more than a star running back getting played by a flirty opportunist. But even if we accept that things have progressed far enough for a big family dinner, the whole conflict felt way too pat to me. Having both Noelle’s parents and Mama Smash object to their pairing on the same grounds is an interesting start, but the whole sequence at the movies was overwrought. A few stares are understandable, but having Smash’s sister harassed by a bunch of racists—and the O.C.-like fisticuffs that follow—isn’t very subtle. There’s no doubt that interracial relationships, especially in the small-town South, have their share of obstacles, but would they really be this overt? In the end, we learn nothing about Smash and Noelle, and just have musty assumptions about Southern bigotry reinforced.
True to the schizophrenic nature of the show this season, the minor but beautifully observed Coach/Mrs. Coach subplot held the contrivances of the Smash/Santiago storylines in sharp relief. Where the Smash/Santiago stuff dove headlong into broad racial and ethnic stereotypes, something as minor as a daycare crisis was loaded with wonderful particularities that speak to more to the everyday. Having Tami suffer anxiety about dropping baby Grace at daycare is something most working parents have to deal with, but I can't recall ever seeing it dramatized before. So many priceless moments abound: Tami shuffling Gracie through the school halls in her stroller; the fight at the dinner table; Eric again taking advice from his assistant coach (echoes of the sex-after-pregnancy talk) and coming away annoyed (when his assistant suggests that a woman’s job is to stay at home with the kids, Eric responds, “You know, that really sounds stupid and ignorant when you say it out loud”); and a very touching resolution where Eric insists that she keep her counseling job. Having the episode end with the parents dropping the kid off at daycare and leaving her there was a nice touch; it’s not a “big” moment like the racial kerfuffle at the movie theater, but it’s far more true to life and resonant.
Thank God for the usual Coach/Mrs. Coach oasis, because they were mostly surrounded by desert. I know the new-fangled Friday Night Lights is light on the pigskin, but I think I’m starting to side with my colleague and pal Noel Murray in wishing that football and its inherent tensions would play a somewhat larger role than it has recently. That doesn’t mean I want last-minute comebacks week after week, but without football at its center, the show naturally loses its ballast. I’ll save some of the specifics for the bullet points below, but I really had little use for Matt and Carlotta, or the Riggins/Lyla/dude from Gilmore Girls love triangle, either. C’mon guys, let’s keep our heads in the game.
• When Carlotta announced that she was heading home to Guatemala, the line (“I have to go, my family needs me”) made the Simpsons fan in me laugh me loud. She’s FNL’s answer to Poochie, who you’ll remember made his abrupt and hoped-for exit with the line, “I have to go now, my planet needs me”) Man, what a sloppy bit of planning: Did the writers really invent Carlotta to have her go out like that, with no real impact on the show other than serving as a grand, useless distraction? What was the point?
• Matt and Landry are on speaking terms again! Hooray!
• I was initially excited about Lyla’s foray into Christian radio, because I like the way the show has dealt with religion as an important part of the fabric of life in Dillon. But having Matt Czuchry, who some of you might recognize as smug, rich bad-boy Logan on Gilmore Girls, come between Riggins and Lyla didn’t do much for me. Maybe it’s because I could never buy Czuchry—still a slickster despite the tamped-down hair—as a hardcore Christian.
• Note to TV parents: Never forbid your kids to be together. It’s like an invitation.
• Carlotta takes Matt to a Quinceañera. Why? Because that’s what Magical Latina Nurses do! They also know how to dance.