Thursday, February 15, 2007

"The other parents have picked up their perps. Why haven't we?": Two weeks of Friday Night Lights

One of the things I've liked about Friday Night Lights from the first is that it can use just about any competition as a way to play to the "big game" that seems as though it should be situated at episode's end. Now, just about every other episode has a REAL big game, but others have substituted wheelchair rugby games and dance competitions and the like. While the second of the two Friday Night Lights I watched tonight (the one that aired Wednesday) finished on a playoff game (and one that ended in a huge brawl of all things), the one that aired a week before that climaxed with the Powder Puff football game, starting with the playoff game instead. The real drama that week was with the girls, and the show knew how to tweak that subtly.

That said, these two episodes raised and then backed away from the racial issues that the movie neatly sidestepped. The book, of course, that both works are ostensibly based on (though the film took considerable liberties with reality and the series abandons it entirely) featured lengthy digressions about the racial makeup of the Permian team, but the movie was forced to relegate this material to a few deleted scenes on the DVD. The series stood a unique chance to talk about race in a very real way, in a way that, say, The Wire might, but it didn't engage the issue as fully as it might have. After an assistant coach said several things that could have been construed as racist (and, indeed, seemed to be), Smash and some of the other black players were not going to play. Of course, at the 11th hour, they did, and then the assistant coach saved Smash from an arrest after the brawl (making all well, I guess). Now, this was a lot more subtle than some series would have been about racism (on other series, the coach would have been spewing the N-word or its equivalent left and right), but it was still a little too on-the-nose. What's more, the scene where Tami gathered all of the students to talk about racism and their reactions to it had its heart in the right place, but came off almost too much like an Afterschool Special. "Isn't racism awful?" it seemed to ask. "It can spring up anywhere!"

But while that was a big part of both episodes, it didn't irreparably harm either. In the earlier episode, the Powder Puff game offered up some comedy and a realistic resolution to the silly Matt and Julie drama (solidified this week when he asked her to be his girlfriend and she was happy to say yes). Kyle Chandler's performance is one of the best on TV right now, but his work is almost better when he's just the strong center that everyone else revolves around. The episodes where he has very little coaching to do can be among the show's best. While that wasn't true of the Powder Puff hour, the stuff with him trying to help his daughter be a great quarterback was pretty great. He and his wife's concern over their daughter's friendship with Tyra also rang true, even if Julie's sudden friendship with Tyra was a bit odd. And, hey, more Landry is always a good thing, especially as he's been rather lacking in screentime recently.

The episode this week wasn't quite as successful at evading these problems -- what was that jail subplot about again? -- but it was still solid television. Not a complete misfire so much as a mixed bag. Then again, the good stuff was so good that I'm hard pressed to remember what, exactly, I didn't like about it. But it's that way with all good shows, isn't it?

Weird point -- if this is taking place in the fall of 2006 (as it seems to be), how would Landry even know to be concerned about blood diamonds? Much less call them that? The trailer for that movie wasn't ubiquitous or anything, was it?

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