Saturday, October 06, 2007

"Enjoy your depraved hedonism.": Friday Night Lights

For all of the ways that Friday Night Lights continues to astonish me, what most astonished me about the season premiere was how the show betrayed itself. I don't want to get too hyperbolic because there was a lot of terrific stuff in this episode, but for a few brief moments toward the end, Friday Night Lights turned from an acutely observed portrayal of a warm-hearted small town into Rescue Me. In some circles, this would be a huge compliment, since Rescue Me (which is a show I enjoyed up until this wheel-spinner of a season) is one of the standard bearers for the "I did NOT see that plot development coming!" school of "edgy" TV. The writers in Rescue Me routinely put their characters through some of the most miserable of situations (or put said characters in certain corners so the only way they can get out is to react in certain ways) just to make sure the plot's always zigging and zagging. In order to give two underused characters, full of potential and rooted in solid acting, something to do, Friday Night Lights painted those two characters into a corner and then made them fight their way out. The deck is stacked, and it's not fair to the characters or us.

Naturally, spoilers follow, and they might even be more explicit than our usual spoilers. So back out if you haven't watched.

I have to start out talking about the melodramatic Tyra/Landry storyline that ends the episode, simply because it's what's left stuck between your teeth when you end the episode, even after that remarkable musical montage, showing the town coming together to celebrate the Panthers' championship from last season (FNL, if nothing else, understands the power of silence, of just staring at a face and trying to read it). In some ways, the direction almost saved the storyline (I loved those shots of the river rushing by, oblivious to what it carried), and Jesse Plemons and Adrienne Palicki made much of this work, but to get a sense of why it just didn't work for me, I'll probably have to engage in a little plot summary.

In season one, Tyra was attacked by a would-be rapist (in the superlative episode Mud Bowl). While it seemed as though Landry might come to her rescue, it was a big fake-out. Tyra fought off her attacker by herself, and this was mixed in with the climactic moments of the big game the Panthers were playing in a cow pasture. Landry found her right after she fought the guy off, and she collapsed into his arms. Naturally, he misread all of this (as Landry is wont to do), but the story ended up reinforcing Tyra's desire to get out of Dillon and her desire to reinvent herself as something other than town slut. It also showed that Landry might be the kind of guy she could be with in some sort of more idealistic universe, but in this one, he would probably have to be content to be her friend.

But y'know what? Palicki and Plemons had some fun chemistry. It's the kind of chemistry that I'm sure it seemed fun to explore. And, to be honest, Tyra's story arc was sort of over, but Palicki was still on the show. Meanwhile, I'm sure that Plemons, a very good actor, seemed like he could be doing more than providing comic relief and awkwardness. Since the two had good chemistry, at some point, it must have seemed natural to give them a heavier storyline.

This was not that storyline.

Tyra's attacker returns (why now? because the show is back, says Libby), and he follows her all over town. Her friendship with Landry having grown deeper but more platonic (at least on her end), she calls on him to help her out, since she has few others in her life to turn to (perhaps Riggins, but he's busy having threesomes). Landry shows up at her house and tries to make his move. When he almost does, she suggests they go get some snacks. At the convenience store, while Landry is inside, the attacker jumps Tyra. Landry emerges from the store and rushes at him, only to get thrown off and punched in the face. The attacker says he'll be back and walks off. Landry rushes at him with a pipe, brains him, then realizes what he's done and tries to get him to the hospital (Tyra driving through tears). When they realize the guy is dead, rather than call Landry's dad (a cop), they dump the body in a river (or so it's strongly implied). And there we go (though next week's promo shows that Landry will make a rather large declaration -- if Tyra falls for it. . .groan).

It's not that there's no universe where this could happen. It's not that this is necessarily unrealistic. It's that it doesn't grow organically out of this show. It's melodrama for melodrama's sake. It's forcing the characters into an impossible situation in the hopes of producing drama. Do I believe that two scared kids might react this way to this situation? Yes. Do I believe they would get into this situation? No.

In an interview with Alan Sepinwall, executive producer Jason Katims defended the storyline, saying that the show has done shocking things before, like having Street become paralyzed in an on-field accident or having Lyla cheat on Street with Riggins. Neither of these storylines comes out of nowhere, though. On-field injuries are common in football (though not ones that bad, granted), and it's not like teen girls are always faithful to their boyfriends, particularly their boyfriends in stressful situations. The Landry/Tyra storyline pushes Landry out of character and makes him someone who's committed a murder. I respect the attempt to deepen a character mostly used for comic relief. I respect the attempt to build a love story between two very different people who had some very raw things in common. But forcing it in this manner is both a betrayal of the show's gentle realism and borderline sexist (assuming Tyra falls for Landry, she only will because Landry protected her from a rapist -- no one will get this reference, but Landry's Granthony!).

I don't mean to suggest that this has utterly ruined the show. What the show does well, it does VERY well (that scene where Tami burst into tears was a stunner), and so much here is still working (witness Aimee Teegarden's performance, one of the finest portrayals of a teenager I've ever seen) that I still think everyone should watch. But assuming the writers will fix this problem and not calling them out on it is disingenuous and based simply on our previous fandom for the show. This episode was probably 90% very good and 10% very bad. But, surprise, surprise, it's that very bad that rankles.

(Random note: I've seen a lot of people calling Lyla's religious conversion unbelievable, but I think that was exactly the sort of thing that would happen to someone in that situation. Religious conversions, especially at that age, tend to happen very quickly and have a lot of passion behind them.)


Todd said...

I realize that I didn't talk much about the good of this episode in the post above, so feel free to comment on it here.

I'll lead off with the scene between Julie and Eric in the car after he picked her up at the bar. What a revealing and remarkable piece of writing!

Jake said...

Your comparison to Rescue Me is dead on--I had the same stomach churning reaction seeing them pull onto the bridge as I do every time I flick past FX and see Tommy or one of the other hopeless firefighters get boxed into an awful situation as a prelude to making an awful mistake.

The Tyra with enough presence of mind to use the cigarette lighter against her attacker, would have read his license plate when she saw him driving behind her.

The Landry that knew he had to tell Tami about the initial attack would have called the cops and an ambulance from the parking lot.

Instead of these strong characters, we have the weak and stupid pod-person versions, here just long enough to make the weak and dumb choices from the script.

At the same time, Julie makes dumb and foolish decisions that make complete sense for her character, especially with her heartfelt explanations to her father. The A stories are getting A+ writing. Too bad the B story got D- service.

Myles said...

What I find funny is that in this episode, outside of the Taylors, the most logical character development was Lyla of all people.

Lyla turning to faith to get through her father's behaviour and her mother's betrayal actually makes a lot of sense. And, since it is clear based on her grace that she knows this is an outlet and not a "cure" for her problems, I actually like her self-awareness better than some of the other "developments."

Smash and Riggins each reverted back to their pilot personas with really no justification and in direct betrayal of their late season developments. Ignoring the Tyra/Landry situation, even this is enough for me to scratch my head.

And as I have yet to spend time with Rescue Me, Veronica Mars was my personal allusion: the murder has "bus crash" written all over it, and that show only survived its second season due to a core father/daughter dynamic not dissimilar from the Taylors'. Hopefully, Katims doesn't take them down the same road...or off the same cliff.

Myles said...

Oh, and while I hate to double post, I totally got the FBofW reference. I've been avoiding following it during this whole "Semi-Retirement" debacle, but you raise a good point: a murder on Friday Night Lights might be bad, but a murder in the world of For Better or For Worse might just be...better? Worse?, I walked right into that one without even realizing it. Ow.

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