Friday Night Whites — Nighttime Drama Don’t Respect My Conway Twitty

Curator's Note

As a Midwestern native born and bred in the middle of steel mill country, I have been struck by the recent high profile televised appearances of the white working class, “red necks,” and “white trash.” My Name is Earl flaunts omnipresent trailer parks, flannel shirt clad protagonists, and barroom brawls, while Friday Night Lights eschews the conspicuous consumption of Everwood and Dawson’s Creek for jobs in strip clubs and burger joints. The sitcom Earl appears—at least to me—to embrace those I often see as “my people.” Lights’ dramatic presentation of these same folks often leads me to squint, cringe, and wallow in my own class-based guilt. Light’s seemed to lack Earl’s respect for rednecks when football heartthrob Tim Riggins’ father’s spurned lover recently shouted (from her permanent hotel room), “Hey, if you see him, I want you to do somethin’ for me! You tell him I want my Conway Twitty back! They don’t have it at Target no more!” Perhaps my feeling of uneasiness has to do with narrative positioning of characters who feel content with their social position. After all, Earl’s folks want nothing more than to hang at the Crab Shack, visit Patty the daytime hooker, and play beer can tag. Our lady who misses her Twitty and Tyra’s whole family (a waitress, a stripper, and a semi-employed codependent mom), however, appear far from desirable types even within the working class town of Dillon. Sure, sitcoms like Earl, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, and All in the Family have worked through their contested relationships with working class America. How do today’s generic dictates of the family drama or nighttime soap seem to be working with or against nuanced depiction of the white working class? Does an American pressure to erase class and strive for middle classness produce recurring images of a marginalized white working class? In short, can television muster respect for working class white middle America or self-proclaimed rednecks? Where? As a scholar by choice—redneck by birth, I was simply wondering.


As I watched these clips and as someone who enjoys "Earl", lives in Ohio, a state that is now number 2 in the US in home foreclosures, I often wonder about whether or not these portrayals are disrespectful or are they attempts to grasp something else: an abandonment of hope for working class futures. In an odd way I would find it a lie to portray Earl and his mates wanting more than a local community since there is no "moving on up" options for so many working class families. I can't really comment on FNL -- I don't watch it. But I get something from this clip something of a similar, not same, feel that I get when I watch The Wire: pop music is a crucial semiotic marker of class. As hip hop is a primary element to The Wire, the effective understanding of those other "low" popular musics (metal and country) are almost always deployed as essential to depicting the lives of working class people. Twitty, unlike other dead country stars of his era such as say Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, had no rebellious cachet. He was the consumate hitmaker, embraced Nashville and lived a somewhat lavish life. In essence, he moved on up. So when our character notes that she wants her "Conway Twitty back" and that they don't carry him at Target (not Wal Mart), the store that popularizes "yuppie design" and middle-class tastes, I hear not only a longing for Hee Haw (the show he oft frequented), but that those who "played by the rules" would be recognized for their hard work and lives as well as a chance to move on up once again. Heck, it may be a stretch, but there you go.

I don't find the working class to be marginal at all on FNL. What makes the show so refreshing is how well realized the working class characters are and how little judgment the narration seems to pass on them. If anything, the show humanizes the working class and makes it seem more multidimensional. I'm thinking not only of Riggins and Tyra and their families but also of Matt Saracen and Smash Williams (black, but still) and their families. That the show even has scenes in Tyra's house is remarkable--on most shows she would be a more peripheral character, and FNL is ostensibly about boys playing football! Compared with other "quality" TV dramas about high school (My So-Called Life, like FNL written by Jason Katims, and Freaks and Geeks) FNL's non-middle class characters are much more fleshed out. FNL is more polyphonic, showing scenes in a larger number of locations and involving more peripheral characters in significant storylines. It also shows the flaws of middle class life, esp in the representation of the Garrity family.

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