Saturday, October 20, 2007

"I've seen you play with a hangover many times, and you played like a champ.": Friday Night Lights

(Delayed thoughts on the absolutely remarkable Mad Men season finale and the last three episodes of The Office up over the weekend. People don't pay us to do this, so bear with us as we catch up. -- ed.)

Somewhere in the middle of last night's Friday Night Lights episode, the show suddenly seemed to shrug off its melodrama and remember what it did so well in its first season. The episode up until this point was full of strange drama and strained conflict. But when Tim Riggins showed up at church to impress Lyla Garrity, the show fell back into what it does best -- earnest docudrama about the perils of growing up in the middle-of-nowhere Texas. The show sat back and just observed the worshipers at Lyla's megachurch, not even trying to offer up a statement on them (most shows would have been judgmental, though a few would have been patronizing). Riggins similarly hung back until he was listening to the pastor's message and seemingly moved by it. FNL has always had an interesting relationship with religion. It knows that to accurately portray its characters, it has to involve religion, but it often feels distanced from the whole idea, as though it's just a little too prickly to engage with it. Points, then, to the show for honestly engaging with Lyla's conversion and NOT just making it a bit of business for her to overcome in order to get back together with Street or Riggins (though the latter certainly misinterpreted her interest in his genuine experience at the church, making a failed pass at her).

The church scene was everything that Friday Night Lights is at its best and everything that I wish the show was being on a weekly basis. Sadly, tonight's episode was probably the worst of the show's run yet, even if it adequately put all of the pieces in place to reset the status quo and get things back to where they need to be for the show to work again. The thing is, I really wish the show didn't HAVE to set the pieces back in place. I understand the desire to mess with things to create drama, but by breaking apart all of the things that made the show work in season one, the writers have created a show where the warmth, humor and reality of the first season has given way to melodramatic plot twist after melodramatic plot twist. Some of this is working beautifully (Julie and Matt's breakup made perfect sense and has also led to mostly believable wounds on both sides -- more on some of the unbelievable ones in a bit), but much of it just feels like drama for drama's sake (particularly the Coach Taylor absence).

The Taylor absence is so grating because it doesn't make a lot of sense. Why wouldn't Julie and Tami have been with him in Austin all summer anyway? And why has it taken him so long to see just how much things are falling apart without him? I get that the show wants to show what the town is like without its strong center, but I think that Dillon and the characters we've met who live there are a lot more resilient than the writers give them credit for. I continue to be unimpressed with the new coach, who is the first utterly loathsome character on the show, someone completely without nuance. His general inability to guide the Panthers in any reasonable way (and the way in which he exacerbates the weird Smash/Saracen rivalry) and his constant yelling leave no doubt in your mind that Taylor is the only man for this job. How did this new coach get hired anyway? Did he yell at the Dillon school board until they relented? Tami and Julie's fight was perfectly written, acted and staged right up until Julie heaped on us the general idea of the storyline ("DAD LEFT US AND GRACIE IS A BABY, SO SHE NEEDS MORE ATTENTION THAN ME!"), which just felt like something the character would never say in so bald-faced a way.

Part of the problem with this season so far is that everyone in the cast is acting the hell out of the material they've been given, and the directors continue to turn in stunning work. This has led to a line of thought that if the show MUST be doing melodramatic storylines like Tyra and Landry's murder plotline, they're being done about as well as they could be done. But, honestly, this cast and these directors could have made the season of Laverne and Shirley where Laverne was the only original cast member left seem like the second coming of The Sopranos, so I'm not sure I completely buy that theory, especially when so many of the plot developments seem so hollow at the core. Of course Taylor's not going to stay in Austin, and of course he's going to give family concerns as his reason for leaving the position there, but the numerous pieces the show has shoved around the board artlessly have made the whole thing feel like a time waster. Last season's FNL would have gone out of its way to show every side of the matter; this season's FNL just wants to introduce some drama for the sake of having drama.

One of the things that I miss about first season Dillon was just how funny it was. Sure there are some all right jokes in these episodes, but they're also missing the sheer comedy of Matt showing up in a Member's Only jacket to pick up Julie for a date or Landry helping Riggins with his assignments. I don't think the show has to be a laugh riot, but one of the first things to go in its pursuit of twistier storylines has been that element of humor that always made the show feel very humane. It almost makes what's going on seem incredibly dry.

I've resolved not to say anything about Landry and Tyra until they again dominate an episode (which looks like next week), but the plotline continues to horrify me in just how much I enjoy watching it, if that makes sense. I continue to be rather insulted by the idea that Tyra would fall for Landry thanks to this, and the development of the OMG WATCH THAT MUST BE FOUND BECAUSE OMG GRANDPA IS COMING was just too much, but the actors are selling it enough that it ended up being one of the least of my concerns tonight. (I mean, you have to have larger concerns in any episode where three plotlines run directly through Riggins for some reason, including one that has Jason Street losing common sense and hoping against hope that he can go to Mexico to be cured. I get that he really wants his old life back, but there's just no resolution to this storyline that won't disappoint, either because it repeats what we already know or because it does something completely implausible.)

The final straw was Matt going crazy, apparently, and tackling Smash after Smash won the game for the Panthers (also, it was good to have Smash, who's barely been in the show this season, back). I get that the kid's at a low point, but this felt out of character. I'm also not thrilled to see him eventually hook up with the maid he hired to take care of his grandmother (I liked how she spent a whole monologue telling us about how she wasn't a cliche and then ended the episode by giving him a massage while singing in Spanish). But, hey, Saracen's a dumb kid, so I'll let him be for a while.

There's nothing here that's unfixable by any means, and so much of this is still remarkable television. But the show feels like it's sliding toward some weird hybrid of itself and a more accessible program, and I'm not sure that hybrid will ever be enough to sate either the show's fans or the unwashed masses.


Daniel said...

I honestly do not think that Matt and the nurse will hook up. If anything Matt may develop feelings for her, but based on what she said, she is clearly acting from a caregiver/motherly point of view. But like you said, dumb kid. But I don't think t would be anything more than that.

Marcia said...

I found this blog through and like a lot of the points you raised. However, Coach Taylor's leaving didn't bother me so much. I feel like that plot line was set up at the end of last year in response to the possibility that the show would be canceled -- if it did end up being only one season, it would be a perfectly self-contained year-in-the-life of all the characters.

In addition, if they can wrap up the storyline cleanly, it then removes the possibility of the Taylors leaving in the future. We've known from the beginning that he had ambitions of college-coaching, and that would have to be addressed at some point. Ideally, now that he's made the choice to return to Dillon, he won't wish he was still coaching college ball. I do wish that we had seen more of his unhappiness and frustration with the university system, so that his return would be more conclusive.

In the end, any complaints I have are minor. I would watch this cast perform mime in a shopping mall, so I'll certainly be taping them every Friday night.

Todd said...

Marcia, I don't mind that Coach Taylor pursued his college dreams -- unlike Alan Sepinwall, I think he should have started the season in Austin. What I'm not liking so much is the way they're going to get him back to Dillon. It's so predictable and uninventive. I'm rolling my eyes already.

Daniel, I'll bet you $5 he sleeps with the nurse.

David Sims said...

As with the previous two eps, I liked bits and pieces of this one, but it's so far a shadow of what I loved last year and I'm getting more and more sad about that. Still better than most network TV, but now I'm like "wooh, road trip with Riggins and Street!" or "wooh, Buddy and Eric are thinking up a ker-azy plan to get the team back!". That's how I watch Grey's Anatomy. It's not how I should be watching Friday Night Lights.

Also they are SERIOUSLY. Messing with Saracen, and I am so mad about that. Nurse Crumpet is one thing but tackling Street was such bullshit.

Also also, Landry and Tyra was the best storyline this week (apart from when he made that joke about killing her, WTF???). What gives?

Daniel said...

She made the joke about killing HIM.


David Sims said...

Yeah, realized that after posting it. Still creepy.