BOOKS AND ARTS OCTOBER 10, 2012
Last weekend, an email from Ann Romney appeared in inboxes across America. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts …” read the subject line. In case you weren’t a fan of NBC’s dearly-departed Friday Night Lights, the go-get-‘em phrase ends with “Can’t Lose,” which makes it a smart play for the sentimentalist and dreamers and ex-high school athletes among us (that is to say, all of us). And that the email came from the presidential candidate’s better, blonder half was surely no accident. Was there any character more beloved on that show than “Coach’s wife,” Tami Taylor? Tim Riggins’ abs, Matt Saracen’s silences, and Coach Eric Taylor’s squinty-eyed sermons all have their partisans, but it was the inclusive, intimate “y’all” as uttered by actress Connie Britton that made the whole thing hang together. (In case you need a reminder, one of the many YouTube fan videos devoted to Britton is a supercut of her best y’alls).
Now Britton has her own network show premiering tonight, ABC’s Nashville, on which she plays another Southerner, this time country-music queen Rayna Jaymes. Despite the subliminal promise of all those extra “y”s in her character’s name, “there may not be as many y’alls,” she has warned fans in an attempt at expectation management. Britton’s no singer, but it barely matters. She has a more important quality to bring to the part. Yes, the accent’s slightly different, the character is less homey, and the shoes are more stiletto than Stetson, but for all intents and purposes, Britton is settling back into her most iconic role: the Blue Stater’s wet dream of what a Red State woman could be. No wonder Romney, as he tacks towards the center with election day approaching, wants his own Mrs. Coach.
It doesn’t matter that Britton, who is 45, is, in many ways, about as Blue State as they come (she majored in Asian studies at Darmouth, is raising an adopted son on her own, and despite FNL’s subject matter, says she doesn’t remotely understand football, nor care to). What Britton’s perfected is that holy grail of playing strong without coming across as strident or cold. Her already wide eyes widen in surprise as a crisis, big or small, emerges; her forehead scrunches as she figures out how to address it. We are to know she is not without emotions, but she’s also never at their mercy. As she says something blunt, she shakes her head slowly—not quite in apology, but in wonderment that it must be said.
Britton told David Letterman not long ago that she had to take breaks from Texas for the fresh air of New York or L.A., but some of her work is drawn from early experience. She has described the basis for her characters as the women she knew growing up in small-town Virginia: “They were tough broads, “ she told a rapt NPR interviewer. “My mother would march herself up to our school and have it out if she thought we were screwing up in some class or something. I mean, she was like a mother bear. And these were not women who were just going to sit back and say 'Yes sir. No sir.' But they were sweet because they knew that's what they had to do to get their point across in that sort of environment.”
If Britton’s characters epitomize a melding of two supposedly distinct value systems, she has managed something similar with her appearance. She has refused the vanity of many a middle-aged woman—the dermatologist’s needle—leaving her with an expressive set of laugh lines, and kept the one her agemates often deny themselves: long, bright flowing, locks. The effect, which lands somewhere between Earth Mother and sex kitten, is more arresting than it should be, and so makes you realize just how seldom women get to play both nurturer and siren in the same role—despite that combination representing a fairly common intersection of both male and female fantasies about womanhood. More than that, the hair represents a very particular sort of freedom, one that overscheduled, neurotic coastal types often imagine they might get if they moved somewhere in the middle. Britton’s characters do very serious things—they challenge record executives and school principals and hidebound value systems—but they do it without looking like it’s taking all the fun out of life. They also do rather liberal things—straightforwardly counsel a student considering abortion, for instance—without shying away from promoting “conservative” values, like honor and loyalty and family.
We’ve got evidence, too, of what till-death-do-us-part with the Red State dream girl would be like. Nowhere is Britton’s combination of warmth and straight-talk more potent than in her portayal of marriage to Coach Taylor, which has become almost talismanic for those unmarried among us given to speculating about what sort of union we’d like to have. (Seeing Britton in a difficult marriage was one of the most frightening parts of last year’s American Horror Story.) The Taylors, despite the traditional externalities of their relationship, have what journalist Hanna Rosin, writing in her book The End Of Men, has labeled the modern, liberal “see-saw” marriage: one partner’s career first takes precedence (Mrs. Coach gritting her teeth and whipping up a barbecue for all the boosters and players, on short notice), then the other gets a turn (in the last season, the couple moves to follow her job offer, not his). This is done without any obvious upending of gender dynamics or festering resentments, though plenty of believable fighting.
Friday Night Lights began airing during the second George W. Bush administration, long after his early promise as a compassionate conservative (with a focus on the plight of the poor) had curdled. It’s possible, that in Connie Britton’s “y’alls,” liberals found the brand of compassionate conservativism they’d been looking for. This time around, in Nashville, there are, so far, fewer underprivileged children to counsel (unless you count the Taylor Swift-esque character, played by Hayden Panettiere, whose own mother appears to be a raging methhead). Britton, however, barely needs to update her portrayal of our red-state fantasies to suit the times. In a Super PAC, Bain private-equity era, Britton’s Rayna James is fighting against both the bottom-line chasing record company and her own manipulative, wealthy father. The first episode closes with her listening to a Gillian Welch-esque young singer doing her first set; it’s clear the pair will team up and bring back real country. Authenticity, y’all: it’s what both Red and Blue America yearn for, and what Britton has in spades.