Sunday, 6 July 2008

End of Season Review: Friday Night Lights

At the start of its second season, Friday Night Lights faced a quandary. You’re a TV showrunner. You’ve made a first season that was practically perfect – smartly written, brilliantly cast, beautifully shot, expertly edited and so magically delightful to watch that critics fell over themselves to find new ways to praise it and the fans were unquestioningly devoted. There was only one thing wrong with it: those devoted fans numbered approximately 17. You’ve got yourself a second season with the help of the positive critical notices, but you know you’re living on borrowed time. Do you try to produce more of the same high-quality television and hope that the audiences will somehow find your show? Or do you up the ante, changing things around and introducing new elements to try to attract attention?

This has affected other shows in the past, of course. To take a recent example, Veronica Mars stuck to its guns and went with more or less the same formula second time around: an overarching season-long mystery, crackling dialogue, cases of the week, a recurring guest star imported from the 1980s, etc. Although season two was nearly as good as season one, its viewing figures barely improved, and it limped through a wildly uneven third season before The CW had it put down more or less humanely. Friday Night Lights apparently took note of this and edged more towards the second option. This was widely seen as a mistake. I’m not so sure.

Friday Night Lights introduced two storylines in the second season that were incongruous for different reasons. The killing of a potential rapist in episode one felt all wrong: it put Landry Clarke, who had previously been fairly peripheral comic relief, front and centre of the show; it cast Tyra Colette, one of FNL’s most assertive characters, as a morally weak victim; its seriousness threatened to dwarf the other storylines, which like those in the first season were about the drama of the everyday and the commonplace; simply put, it seemed to belong on a different show, and undermined what the fans loved about season one.

The other misstep, which came midway through this strike-truncated season, was Matt Saracen’s relationship with his grandmother’s new live-in carer, Carlotta. This sat badly both because it was too obvious – there were a couple of episodes of meaningful looks and coy “accidental” touches before it happened, which disappointed those of us who hoped that Lights wasn’t that show, that it was more likely to confound expectations and not be just another teen drama – and because it was a crass and predictable way to introduce a Latina character.

But although putting these storylines in the works may have been jarring, once they were in place both storylines were executed perfectly within the confines of the show. We learned a great deal about Landry (and were also rewarded with much more of the excellent Jesse Plemons), who had his faith and conscience tested by his own actions. Was he really defending Tyra? Was he overcome by his own wrath? Did it matter than his victim was a known felon and all-round scumbag? After his confession, should he take the soft option or face his punishment? To see a 17-year-old wrestle with these potentially life-defining questions gave FNL gravitas, as well as a bonus in the shape of Glenn Morshower as Landry’s conflicted policeman father.

As for Matt and Carlotta, the relationship may have started unconvincingly but it made sense from Matt’s point of view, given his anger at Coach Taylor’s departure for a job in Austin at the end of the first season. His parents didn’t care about him enough to stay in Dillon and now he had to deal with the sudden absence of his surrogate father too, so naturally he was attracted to a nurturing person with a (hot) physical presence. Carlotta may not have been much more than a clichéd Magical Latina – she even taught Matt to dance, for Christ’s sake – but when she was eventually compelled to leave for home, Matt’s anguish was genuine, and his abandonment issues flared all over again.

Aside from that Zach Gilford didn’t have a huge amount to do this season, due to the lack of onscreen football action (presumably this was seen as a turnoff for the audience, regardless of the drama it provided) and the foregrounding of other characters: Landry, Coach and Tami Taylor, and above all Tim Riggins. I don’t know if it was the showrunners’ or the network’s idea to focus on Riggins so much, but I’m sure NBC wasn’t disappointed that his pretty face was so prominent. After being little more than a brooding lunkhead in the first season, Taylor Kitsch proved himself a real talent this year, and it was huge fun watching him drift around Dillon leaving a royal mess behind him everywhere he went, somehow emerging with his local hero status and his perpetual sardonic amusement intact. My only complaint is that we never found out why he is so obsessed with Lyla Garrity – is it because she’s unobtainable and becoming ever more so? Is it just because she was, as he tells her, the best he’s ever had? Or is he really in love with her, despite the fact they have zero in common? – but this storyline was getting somewhere just as the season was curtailed, so I’ll let it pass.

Jason Street and Smash Williams also saw their screen time reduced this season, and although I can live without Street, I seriously missed the Smash. Both reappeared towards the end and although Street had to make do with a silly pregnancy storyline (do they have to have one at the end of every season?), I enjoyed watching Smash go through the humbling experience of being condemned and ostracised for trying to do the right thing by his girl and his sister. It had also seemed very convenient that he was going to nearby TMU and might be able to remain in the show after graduation, so it was interesting that his tribulations saw him end up committing to attend (presumably far-off) Whitmore University.

The biggest success of the second season was its focus on the Taylor family. Julie’s tedious acting out made her frequently annoying, but she was undoubtedly a far more realistic and rounded character compared to her teenage angel of season one. But Coach and Tami are the heart of the show and the devotion of so much time to their relationship paid off handsomely. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were both utterly wonderful every second they were onscreen, and the writing afforded them many chances to be so. Coach had previously been presented as morally impeccable, so his expression when confronted by the sacked coach (an ace guest spot from Twin Peaks’ Chris Mulkey) whose job he had effectively stolen was shocking and sobering. And Tami, who had been more or less flawlessly infallible in season one, messed up a few times and dealt badly with several people (Julie, her sister, a journalism teacher from Cincinnati) while she coped with her infant daughter. Perhaps the best moment of the season came when Coach’s duties took him back to Austin at a sensitive moment and Tami’s struggle not to cry that she needed him nearly overwhelmed her. I was going to ask a rhetorical question at this point, but screw it, I’ll make it a statement: there is no better actor than Britton on TV at the moment.

It seems redundant to say that season two couldn’t match the almost unwavering high quality of season one: virtually nothing could have, especially when the enforced shortening of the season left much unresolved – although we can safely assume that the Magical Red-Haired Waitress Of Miraculous Fertility will agree to have Street’s child, otherwise that subplot was a complete waste of time (and Street frankly may as well be written out). Friday Night Lights is returning in 2008-9, in what must be its last chance considering its consistently poor audience figures. While it got away with a couple of near-slipups in season two, let’s hope the show can avoid further attempts at ratings-grabbing in its third year, and return to its winning first-season form.


Admiral Neck said...

Couldn't agree more. For the second season to drop in quality and still be better than anything else on TV at the end of last year speaks volumes for it. As for the third season, hopefully the deal NBC did to co-screen the show with the annoyingly named DirecTV means this season is guaranteed, allowing them to go back to basics a little (though the fear of losing out on a fourth season does stand in the way a bit).

And why does everyone dislike Street? Canyon has the same apathy you do. Most peculiar.

Masticator said...

Particularly in the first season, the writers found it hard to find much for Street to do apart from Be Disabled You Know. Apart from that, every time the action cut from football or Riggins or Coach/Tami or the Saracen family to Street's hospital room, my heart sank. It was telling that they had to introduce a self-consciously wacky character to leaven his scenes (although I liked Kevin Rankin as Herc).

I still think Scott Porter does good work – I'm constantly marvelling at how hard it must be to act with your fingers curled like that all the time – and the character actually benefited from his reduced screen time in season two after his return from Mexico. Less mopey soul-searching, more getting on with life.

Admiral Neck said...

I can't argue with that, especially his second season focus. He has been a bit of a drag from time to time, but his need to overcome his situation by fair means or foul did bring about some excellent drama and two of my favourite scenes of the second season; his leap into the water, and his farewell to Coach, both of which made my tears flow. Admittedly, it doesn't take much to make me cry, but still, those scenes were great.

Porter is one of the most underrated actors on TV right now. Shame he didn't get cast as Superman in the doomed Justice League movie. I can't think of anyone else who could have shown that kind of inspiring and uplifting kind of idealism. Instead he was in Speed Racer, a film hated by a world that is obviously scared to love beauty. Bah.

Good to see some Herc love. Canyon hates him, but he is the perfect foil for Street, who is such a goodie-two shoes (not a criticism) that he needs much saltiness to offset that sweet. Sweet Street! Claimed for me, bitches.