The final season of “Friday Night Lights” premieres on DirecTV soon, and despite lackluster ratings, the high-school-set drama looks destined to march off the field in a creative blaze of glory.
After that, to quote a former U.S. president, TV producers might be well advised to stop messing with Texas.
The current Austin Film Festival and Conference lineup includes several primetime programs. It’s just that by the time the festival finally rolled around, most of them had already been canceled.
“Lights” has at least survived into a fifth season, which is more than can be said for the two new dramas on the Austin docket set in the Lone Star state: ABC’s “My Generation” and Fox’s “Lone Star,” both of which were gone almost before the ink on their promo billboards had dried. Two other Texas-based first-year series, NBC’s “Chase” and Fox’s “The Good Guys,” have also failed to ignite much excitement ratings-wise.
As trends go, the fates of these series might be dismissed as happenstance (hey, most shows fail), with their location having more to do with lower production costs than anything else. Still, with a great red political wave swelling in the heartland — and ample hostility toward Hollywood in those environs — one can’t completely write off the
possible disconnect between those conceiving entertainment on the coasts and viewers in the great expanse between them.
Granted, of the aforementioned shows, “Friday Night Lights” is the only one that actually depicts small-town life in a realistic, organic way, as opposed to employing a gimmick or simply using Texas as a backdrop. There’s more to capturing the state’s feel, after all, than just saying “Y’all” and dropping the “g” from darling.
Beyond country music and Dan Rather’s election-night homilies, for a stretch there, Texas and major media mostly maintained a respectful distance from each other, which probably wasn’t a bad idea.
In terms of cultural contributions, recent headlines regarding Texas haven’t exactly been flattering. PBS explored the state’s unsavory appetite for executions in this month’s “Frontline” documentary “Death by Fire,” which suggested officials executed an innocent man then squelched an investigation into the case. The Texas School Board also made news earlier this year by rewriting the social-studies curriculum to advance a conservative agenda — an act of intellectual bankruptcy some pundits dryly dubbed the “Texas schoolbook massacre.”
As for other, more successful programs in red-state bastions, it’s not an accident that the small-town Louisiana of “True Blood” airs on HBO — which is less motivated by ratings than are ad-supported channels — and peppers its assortment of colorful hicks with equally fanciful vampires and werewolves.
Similarly, FX’s “Justified,” set in Kentucky, is essentially just another twist on a copshow, while the Utah of “Big Love” is notable for polygamists hiding in plain sight, not Republicans dominating statehouses, although the latter have figured in storylines as well.
While it might be a coincidence, those three programs do have something else in common: They’re all actually shot in the Los Angeles area. Granted, it’s a painful schlep up the freeway north, but the producers and stars can visit fictional manifestations of these fly-over states and still enjoy a nice dinner in Beverly Hills.
We’ve already seen the political poles migrate toward their own like-minded news channels (Fox News, take the right door; MSNBC, the left), but it’s unlikely that will ever happen to entertainment. For starters, most TV shows are conservative in many ways (pro-law and order, for example), despite cries from cultural conservatives about primetime promiscuity or Hollywood’s efforts to foster gay-rights acceptance.
Still, it’s a long way back to the days when major networks delivered Texas-sized hits like “Dallas” — which symbolized TV at its broadest, and the U.S. at its broadest — or even “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Rather, the rejection of “Lone Star” and tepid response to “Chase” — almost direct descendants, respectively, of those shows — underscores the impact of audience fragmentation.
Even “Lonesome Dove” — the huge period miniseries about Texas Rangers that CBS aired more than two decades ago, and gave rise to sequels — might have a difficult time corralling viewers in the present environment.
For whatever reason, setting shows in Texas sounded like a grand idea to a lot of programmers before the season began. Apparently, though, it’s now just another way for a network to look lonesome.