In the days after star high school quarterback Jason Street is paralyzed during a football game, his best friend and teammate Tim Riggins sulks in a dark room, projecting footage of Jason’s accident on repeat. But despite pleas from Jason’s family, Tim can’t bring himself to visit his friend in the hospital. Only when the entire team stops by days later does Tim show up. The last of the players to enter Jason’s room, Tim pauses in the doorframe, wincing when he sees his injured friend in bed. “I miss you, Street,” Tim says between gasps and tears. Like a scorned lover, Jason asks, “Where the hell you been?” Tim tosses a glance to the floor, a wisp of hair in his face, then looks up and smiles playfully: “You know. Around.”
Cut to Jason and Tim holding hands. Jason is on the verge of tears; Tim won’t look him in the eye. “Go,” Jason says, his voice soft and forgiving. After all, Tim has a game to play. He cries all the way out the door. Once Jason is alone, he cries too.
Judging from the premise of Friday Night Lights, it might seem as if the 2006 television drama—which is loosely based on the film and book of the same name—would be the straightest show ever made. Its gaze is male in pretty much every way, it ostensibly pivots around the most hyper-masculine American sport, and it doesn’t feature any notable queer characters. But rewatching the show recently, as I’ve come out as queer myself, I’ve had a major revelation: This beloved series is gay as hell.
I realize LGBTQ people have been “queering” just about everything lately, especially media. Horror movies? Queer. Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad? Queer. Midsommar has a secret trans narrative, Taylor Swift is Gaylor Swift, known heterosexual Laura Dern is “a gay,” and these two straight characters from Euphoria are totally into each other. Even The Sopranos, perhaps the only show straighter than FNL, has been declared queer.
There’s a reason for all of this. For most of recent history, stretching the limits of pop culture was the only way for queer people to feel as if they were reflected in it at all. The first gay characters appeared on prime-time TV in 1967, in the pilot episode of N.Y.P.D.* Queer characters remained sparse for decades after and were typically trope-y and one-dimensional. Often, their arcs were confined to storylines that defined their queerness but little else—it was rare to see a character break out of the realms of sex and love, coming out, internalized homophobia, trauma, or violence. Many queer characters have been killed off too—225 over the past 45 years of TV, by one tally, and that’s just lesbians and bisexuals. But queer people don’t simply want queer characters to exist. We need characters who have insights, feelings, problems, and triumphs that aren’t exclusively related to their sexuality or gender. Also, we’d prefer to not die (at least not all the time).
Looking back at a show like FNL—which has a few short-lived, one-dimensional queers—it’s just more fun, interesting, and closer to my lived experiences to take fully developed characters like Jason and Tim and explore queerness through their richer, more nuanced storylines. So that’s exactly what I did.
I’ve been a die-hard Texas Forever fan since I discovered FNL a decade ago. I didn’t care about football, but I was obsessed with how real the show felt in its imperfections. The hand-held camerawork, natural lighting, on-location shooting, and purposefully unrehearsed acting made it human. Its rejection of happy endings in favor of struggle and compromise gave it a relatable grit. (Not every show mercilessly paralyzes one of its stars in the first episode.) The vulnerability in its relationships pushed me to examine the connections I was making—there was just something about the closeness of the characters that felt familiar, even if their storylines were so different from my own.
The relationship between Jason and Tim is not hard to read as romantic. They fight like lovers, and when they’re not squabbling, they look at each other with unabashed adoration, joy, and trust. It’s established 25 minutes into the pilot that Tim’s life goal is to settle down with Jason. “When it’s all said and done, you and me are gonna own ourselves a big old hunting ranch,” he tells Jason and a group of friends about his future plans. “I’m a caretaker, Streeter, whether you like it or not.”
FNL explores plenty of themes that are deeply relatable to queer people. It prioritizes underdog narratives, emphasizes community and chosen family, and goes out of its way to communicate the emotional and vulnerable side of football. And then there’s football itself: For such an aggressive sport, on this show it’s surprisingly tender and intimate—there’s chest-bumping and butt-slapping, caring for team members at their best and worst moments, and a collective, almost preternatural knowledge of the condition of everyone’s bodies. The queerness isn’t tied to the identities or desires of its major characters, but the vibes? The vibes are queer.
True, it’s not as if gays have a monopoly on close friendships, the rugged intimacy of contact sports, or a lot of these other details. But once I recognized queerness within myself, the show’s queerness jumped off the screen.
Take Jason’s final episode, for example. Watching him and Tim smile and strategize as they traverse the streets of Manhattan like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a rom-com is absolutely everything. The New York scenes are a love letter to their relationship: They dodge crowds and hail cabs, huddle together in the back of the subway, laugh as Tim sprints to push Jason’s wheelchair up a ramp, and gaze blissfully at each other while tasting their first street hot dogs. After anything momentous happens for Jason, the camera lingers on Tim’s reaction—a little worried, a little wistful, a lot proud. In their last scene together, Tim chokes up as he tells Jason, “I hope you get everything you want. But no matter what happens in there, you’re always gonna be my best friend. And you deserve to be happy.” He leans against the side of a cab and watches Jason and his girlfriend embrace, fighting back tears. More exciting than another canned coming-out storyline, am I right?
Although we continue to see queer TV characters without much substance beyond their sexual orientations or gender identities (Che Diaz, anyone?), there’s been a greater number of queer characters with more nuanced storylines over the past few years. On Grey’s Anatomy, New Amsterdam, and The Good Doctor (A+ for the medical dramas), queer characters have as much depth as anyone else. On Euphoria, Yellowjackets, Hacks, Paper Girls, Stranger Things, Dead to Me, and The Sex Lives of College Girls, queerness is essential to the narrative, but characters aren’t defined by it.
With this increase in multidimensional queer characters, we might expect the practice of queering to subside. But it hasn’t, because it’s not solely about representation. There’s also playfulness and community in claiming straight things as our own. As someone who didn’t recognize her queerness until her late 20s, I’ll often, as a bonding experience, text friends that two women on TV who leaned in a little too closely are clearly lesbians, even if creators didn’t intend for them to be. Coming across a tweet claiming that walking fast is gay makes me feel connected, if superficially, to other queer people. We’re seeing ourselves in the world, even when we’re so often invisible.
Not everyone has this experience. “There’s a hollowness in trying to uncover the queerness in a piece of art that never even considered that queer people exist,” Jill Gutowitz, the lesbian author of Girls Can Kiss Now, told me recently. “I’d rather invest in openly, proudly queer art.” I get it: I mean, iced coffee is gay now? Hiking? Christmas music? (It’s the yearning.)
For me, the fun ends when we inevitably have to confront what the material is presenting to us. We can reimagine The Sopranos as a show “for the gays” all we want, but the truth is that the only queer character, Vito Spatafore , is outed in a gay bar and forced into hiding. He punches a man he’d been pining for when the man tries to kiss him, and is gruesomely murdered because of his sexuality. Queerness is excluded entirely from Breaking Bad, which, throughout its five seasons, never once addresses audience suspicions that Jesse or Gustavo Fring are gay. (In Season 6 of its spinoff, Better Call Saul, we get what seems like a confirmation that Gus is gay.) We can analyze every pronoun and turn of phrase in Taylor Swift’s lyrics for queer subtext—and I do—but she’s plainly said she’s “not a part of” the LGBTQ community.
In the five seasons of my beloved FNL, the minor queer characters get only one storyline, in an episode when the head coach’s straight daughter, Julie Taylor, accompanies lesbian high schooler Devin Boland to a gay bar, where they spot assistant coach Stan Traub. As a closeted gay man in Texas, Coach Traub later pretends he wasn’t there when Julie tries to address it. This addition is a thin and clichéd Drama of the Week—disposable in a way so much of this show is not.
When we watch movies and TV developed for queer audiences and by queer creators, so much more becomes possible. We see a wider range of genders and sexualities, as well as realistic portraits of what daily life looks and feels like for other queer people (generally like straight life, but better!). Mae Martin’s TV show Feel Good presents queer sex in a way I’m unaccustomed to seeing on-screen—with laughter, silliness, and a lack of performativity. It confronts gender with such sincerity when Mae tries on a nightgown in the mirror, then tosses it off and steps into a strap-on, and when they ask their partner George if she thinks of them as a boy or a girl. Meanwhile, Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham’s A League of Their Own shows queerness within 1940s professional baseball—a place and time it wasn’t allowed to exist. Prioritizing queer characters and storylines in spaces they previously didn’t have access to affirms that we’ve always been here. That’s certainly more gratifying than inserting queerness into straight stories.
And yet, here I am, giddy as I notice how little attention Jason pays to his girlfriend as she stands between him and Tim during their hospital reunion. The boys don’t even acknowledge her—it’s like she’s a ghost! Hot! While it’s not the same as watching media made for queer viewers, I love that my long relationship with the show is now filled with a different kind of discovery.
At the rate we’re queering things, it feels as if we’re just getting started. If we can queer FNL, what’s to stop us from queering other extremely hetero things too? Academy Award–nominated actor Sam Elliott? Bass Pro Shops? Or, as Gutowitz suggests, boats? The answer is: nothing. It’s all ours if we want it. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
Correction, Feb. 13, 2023: This piece originally misstated that a 1971 episode of All in the Family featured the first gay character to appear on prime-time TV. The first gay characters on prime-time TV appeared in the 1967 pilot episode of N.Y.P.D.