TV Club

Week 9: FNL Cops Out on Race. Plus: Kisses by Proxy.

I’m glad you raised the “magical Negro” problem, Hanna. For a show that’s so subtle about human relationships, FNL is surprisingly leaden about race. In black Dillon, FNL abandons its skepticism, its humor, and its depth. I don’t know whether we should blame this on the fact that FNL’s creator is a white guy, the fact that its lefty politics make the show squeamish about race, the fact that The Wireset such a high bar for dramas about race that every other show seems like Diff’rent Strokesby comparison, or some other reason still, but FNL consistently fumbles the subject.

Vernon as magical Negro is one egregious example of this. More irritating is that the show’s two young black males—Smash and Vince—embody the same stereotype: macho, proud, jawing, uppity young men who need to be tamed and rescued by the white coach, who finds and cultivates their softer side. (This, incidentally, is a failure of writing, not of acting. The actors who play Vince and Smash are both great.)

I also cringed at the scene in which Coach and Buddy pow-wow with gangster-turned-social-justice-firebrand Elden. (Speaking of Wire cross-pollination: True junkies also realize that the actor who played Avon Barksdale, Wood Harris, and the actor who plays Vernon Merriweather, Steve Harris, are real-life brothers.) I suspect we’re supposed to come away from that scene believing that Elden is right, and that it was condescending and even racist for Coach and Buddy to merely want to fix the lights. But I found Elden’s scolding—give us money for programs “a little sumthin’ sumthin’ “—a little sinister. It was a classic example of what Tom Wolfe famously dubbed “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers“: exploiting white guilt, with an implicit threat of violence, in order to extract money for programs. We have no idea if they need “programs” in Carroll Park or what those programs would even be. Buddy and Coach don’t know either. Yet we and they are supposed to accept Elden’s chastisement and bow to his superior moral authority. That felt like a copout to me.

And while I’m griping: The Lions vs. Carroll Park-kids football game was also a copout. It was cowardly for FNL to cut away from the game and not show us the outcome. What was fascinating about that game—unlike every other game the Lions and Panthers have played over the years—is that it had the potential to spiral out of control. In a real high school football game, there are rules, referees, and consequences. This game lacked those constraints. Moreover, the players were seething. The park kids seriously resented the Lions, especially Vince. And Vince resented his old running buddies. If the Lions actually beat the Park kids—as the episode hinted they would—it’s easy to imagine the game degenerating into mayhem. Yet rather than show how the Carroll Parkers handled that humiliation, it simply skipped ahead and implied moral enlightenment for all.

You make so many excellent points about this week’s romantic entanglements, Hanna. I agree with you that the Becky pregnancy plot has fabulous potential. The Glenn-Coach-Mrs. Coach love triangle gave us the funniest moment of the season, when Eric, in mock anger, says, “You realize that by proxy I have now kissed Glenn?” And as for Ryan, whose sun-kissed hair is surprisingly bouncy even after a full day of building houses for the poor, all I can say is: statutory. Julie is 17. He’s got to be at least 23.

I do think the charismatic outsider is a type that FNL has aced over the years. Remember Connor, that dashing Los Angeles oilman who seduced then threw over Tyra back in Season 1? (Also statutory.) That was a wonderful subplot, a sweet, scary reminder that the world beyond Dillon is full of opportunity—and terror. I suspect that Ryan, like Connor, will eventually prove to be a mirage.