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Series Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

“Always”

February 9th, 2011

“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”

Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.

In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.

He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.

They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.

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Friday Night Lights – “Don’t Go”

“Don’t Go”

January 19th, 2011

If Friday Night Lights had ended after three seasons, I would have been incredibly disappointed. The fourth and fifth seasons of the show have featured some tremendous moments, introducing new characters and offering more opportunities for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton to demonstrate their command of the Taylor family dynamic. The idea of losing the tragedy of “The Son,” and never meeting Vince Howard and Luke Cafferty, is the sort of televisual counterfactual that I don’t even want to consider.

And yet, “Don’t Go” made me consider it. While the episode demonstrates the degree to which these two short seasons have made a considerable impact, it also demonstrates how far one character in particular has fallen. While the series may be reaching its conclusion, there has been no attempt to sugar coat the fact that not everything is going to turn out in the end. In fact, “Don’t Go” is very much about the interrogation of what exactly would constitute a happy ending for this series, questioning if there is any combination of conclusions which won’t simultaneously touch our hearts and break them in half.

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Friday Night Lights – “Gut Check”

“Gut Check”

January 12th, 2011

Thanks to a particularly busy schedule and some difficulties getting access to the episodes in question, Friday Night Lights’ fifth season has been mostly absent from Cultural Learnings. And yet, this is about to change, both because of greater access and because there is a growing sense of urgency.

Not really within the show itself: while there is certainly plenty of tension on the series right now, it continues to follow the slow burn mentality it always has. And yet my relationship with the series has taken on a certain tension, as it is becoming more and more clear that this is a show which is about to come to its end. I could have waited until the NBC airings to cover the show, but this is going to be the real ending: this is when critics will write their posts on the series’ legacy, this will be when the fans will respond to the fond (or, who knows, potentially tragic) farewells, and this is when I want to say goodbye.

And so I’ll likely be checking in with the series weekly from now until the finale – for now, a few brief thoughts on the season as a whole and a more detailed review of “Gut Check” after the jump.

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Season Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Thanksgiving”

“Thanksgiving”

August 6th, 2010

The best compliment I can pay Friday Night Lights right now is that I left its fourth season finale wanting so much more than I received.

I know this is normally considered a negative statement, in that the show was somehow lacking in something that I desired, but that’s sort of the point of the ensemble drama: by showing us the lives of so many characters, there will inevitably be plots we don’t get to follow, relationships we don’t get to spend time with, and stories that could have had broader implications. The mark of a good ensemble drama is that we actually wanted to fill in those gaps, and the mark of a great one is that even with those gaps we are enormously content with the story that has been put on screen and want to see more.

Friday Night Lights hasn’t had a perfect fourth season, trapped between interesting new characters and paying service to those who came before, but the world of Dillon, Texas remains as vibrant and empowering as ever before. “Thanksgiving” is neither a definitive goodbye to original cast members nor a defining moment for the new characters who arrived earlier this season, but rather a series of moments that define this ensemble and the world in which they play football and, more importantly, live their lives. And while some part of me wanted a three-hour finale, giving us the scenes that it felt like we needed before the various stories came to an end, the selective gaze which Jason Katims adopts in the episode feels satisfying as a whole, bringing to an end an uneven but affecting season of network television’s finest ensemble drama series which bodes well for the final chapter this fall on DirecTV.

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Friday Night Lights – “Injury List”

“Injury List”

January 27th, 2010

Friday Night Lights is a show about convergence.

Really, all ensemble dramas end up driving towards climaxes which tend to bring various story elements together, so this may not seem overly remarkable. However, as the show heads towards the conclusion of its fourth season, the show is doing a lot to bring together stories, simplifying in some instances and complicating in others.

And while some of the tension created by this convergence is engaging, what I tend to enjoy more is the sort of indirect effects: this is the first time in a while where the show actively demonstrated the show’s central dilemma of ignoring the football in order to service the characters on a personal, non-football level, and that tension (when used, as opposed to simply created and elided) is part of the show’s tragedy.

“Injury List” is about capturing the tragedy of stories converging at the worst possible time, although the show manages to keep (most of) that convergence from seeming too convenient in the show’s late season push.

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Friday Night Lights – “The Lights of Carroll Park”

“The Lights of Carroll Park”

January 13th, 2010

The problem with episodes of Friday Night Lights which feel overrun by homicide or criminal elements is not that those stories are inherently terrible, but rather that they feel incongruous with the show’s world. This is purposeful, meant to manufacture tension, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. It’s entirely possible to confront these types of issues within the show’s particular worldview, demonstrating the consequences of crime in ways which feel less contrived and disruptive of the show’s natural order. The show can be about the conflict between the criminal and law-abiding without the show becoming defined by that conflict (or by characters flirting dangerously between the two worlds), and “The Lights of Carroll Park” is a good example of how that can be accomplished.

It’s a slightly more problematic example, however, of how the show can confront the question of abortion. While I am not judging that storyline too quickly, as I’m sure it will be given more time to develop over the weeks to come (and perhaps into next season), the show sort of stretched the believability of its characters’ maturity in dealing with the situation. While I’m all for level-headed approaches to these kinds of storylines, as it’s one of the show’s strongest qualities, I also feel as if there are certain character who should be responding in ways that aren’t mature, and in ways that reflect how challenging these kinds of moments can be.

I guess me distinction is that I want the show to be challenging as opposed to challenged, and while the revonation of Carroll Park naturally fit into the first category I think the teen pregnancy sort of forced its way into the same position.

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Friday Night Lights – “Toilet Bowl”

“Toilet Bowl”

January 6th, 2010

Friday Night Lights is a show that, despite various dips in quality, has not fundamentally changed since its first season. It has always been a show about the people in a football-crazy town, revealing both the problems which complicate their lives and the people (and the sport) that helps them keep grounded.

The show’s problem has been those moments (primarily isolated in the second season, but cropping up in the first season as well) where it feels as if the problems are the only thing that’s working about the show. The second season didn’t just struggle because a character murdered someone, but rather because the show simultaneously retreated from the football culture that was its heart: I don’t believe the murder would have ever been a good idea regardless, but it could have been handled much more efficiently if it had been folded into the community rather than remaining a distraction.

While the fourth season started as an homage to Season Three, with Matt Saracen’s farewell arc echoing Smash and Street’s exits, it has quickly evolved into an extended test of whether the show better understands the mistakes it has made in the past. The show has never been beyond having people make mistakes, and delaying the consequences of those mistakes, but the show is stepping into familiar stories, and not in a good way. “Toilet Bowl” is filled with red flags, characters taking actions that come from a somewhat logical place but which for the sake of narrative expediency are coming faster than they probably should.

It’s adding up to a show that I’m not quite as excited as watching, even if (relative to the second season) there are more reminders of the show and the community that elevate that drama to another level.

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