Friday Night Lights – “Hello, Goodbye”

“Hello, Goodbye”

October 22nd, 2008

Well, it’s good to be back. I figured that this week’s FNL episode title was as good an excuse as any to get back in the blogging frame of mind. While my week and a half off has taught me that perhaps I’ll have to cut back on some shows I review, it has also taught me that not talking about them is almost as challenging.

And, really, this week’s episode of Friday Night Lights, airing exclusively on DirecTV’s 101, is the perfect example of both why I blog about television shows in general, and why it would be darn near impossible to not blog about Friday Night Lights ahead of its more accessible airings on NBC starting early next year. When a show is this good, and is coming off of a season that wasn’t this good at all, you have an episode that demands to be written about.

“Hello, Goodbye” is an episode about the small things: the small ways people react, the small ways people make mistakes, and the small ways that decisions are thought out and rationalized without becoming overly complicated or convoluted. In short, it’s an episode about all of what Friday Night Lights such a fascinating investigation of marriage, family, and football in Dillon, Texas, and everything that they failed to do in the show’s second season.

Saying goodbye to Smash Williams isn’t actually that hard. Say what you will about Gaius Charles’ performance in the first four episodes of the season (fantastic), say what you will about the brilliance of Liz Mikel (Heart Mama Smash), and say what you will about the importance of discussing what happens after Dillon, after the Panthers, and after the aura of High School Football leaves you (something that the show, with perhaps a full season and a larger budget, could address on some level): at the end of the day, the show needs as few distractions as possible from its central goal of investigating the atmosphere of Dillon, Texas, and to spend too much time with someone completely removed from that would be too much.

Instead, what we got over this four-episode arc was a chance to say goodbye and to investigate how, exactly, one makes the transition form high school to College, albeit in a romanticized fashion. I don’t know how realistic Smash’s move from injured TMU-bound running back to Texas A&M-bound running back really is, but it was the kind of feel-good story that the show needed to start things off: a lot of bad things have happened to the players on this show, and to be able to send Smash off into the sunset with his smiling face and with his fellow teammates surrounding him on the Panthers field for one last time is very powerful. I’ll miss Charles and Mikel for their strong acting ability, but it wasn’t a storyline that could be dragged out without dragging down the show in the process.

Comparatively, though, the rest of the storylines are smartly being given more of a slow burn, letting them play out as storylines actually would take place. Landry and Tyra’s relationship, for example, is something that we’ve seen bits and pieces of: she clearly called off their “relationship,” he’s clearly still in love with her, but that point wasn’t turned into an immediate argument but rather one which boiled just below the surface. Those emotions, the ones people try not to show despite them overcoming every other emotion they have, are the ones that the show plays to so well. It made for a much more powerful moment when Tyra and Landry had the two conversations in the episode, whether it was their amazing yelling match in the hallway or their tense moment in Landry’s garage.

Also, let’s say what needs to be said: as Daiel Fienberg noted on his Twitter feed, “Best thing about last night’s “Friday Night Lights”: Landry got really upset about something and he didn’t kill ANYBODY. Progress.” That we didn’t see Landry’s love for Tyra lead him to homicide is an all-important step in understanding what went wrong with the show’s second season. I am not going to dig too far back into that mess, but this just goes to show you that Tyra and Landry (And Palicki and Plemons) are more than capable of handling emotional material that brings more nuance and subtlety than metal bars to the head. It’s a lesson I would have thought the show was capable of learning after its first season, but whatever happened in between I think it has captured it again.

The same goes for everything about Matt Saracen, who is perhaps even more than Tyra and Landry getting a seriously improved storyline. You can at least say that the murder had cajones, but there was nothing but laziness driving Carlotta last year, and it took away from the essence of Matt Saracen: a kid who got rushed into every part of life faster than he should of, and who has to struggle to keep it all in the air every day. The re-entry of his mother into his life is downright perfect, to be honest, because it’s all about seeing the complexity of Matt’s emotional state: he feels slighted by her, feels like he needs to stay independent, but he also desperately needs the help.

What I like is that Matt is staying consistent: just as he has begun to be friends with Julie again (Which feels so natural that I can’t fathom why they felt breaking them up was a good idea, but now we’re back on season two bashing again), he sees in his mother something that’s not as simple as it seems. He’s a mature kid, and while he was hurt by his mother leaving or by Julie quasi-cheating on him, he does know that there are reasons, and that they aren’t inherently evil for it. The use of Grandma Saracen here is perfect, too – rather than just a problem for Matt, she’s a source of wisdom even in dementia. Her statement that, perhaps, she could have supported Shelby more after her son was awful to her is the go-ahead Matt needs to let go of anger and start to realize that she clearly left for a reason.

Saracen isn’t a selfish kid, a fact that Eric needs to realize when he’s making his coaching decisions. Yes, he would be crushed to lose his spot as QB1, and I don’t think it would be entirely justified. However, he knows when something gets bigger than him, and is capable of rationalizing these types of things. I believe that he knows, as we do, that JD is the better quarterback physically, but he also can see that innocence and immaturity that will ultimately give him problems. I think we’re reaching the turn for JD in terms of learning that there’s a real human being, and a young and naive one, beyond all of that hype, and his conversation with Eric on the field was telling of that. The boy has no hobbies unrelated to Football, seemingly with no friends or anything even close to it.

Eric has a lot of tough decisions, but the fact that we get to see his process does, indeed, make him ‘sexy’ as Tami calls him…or, more accurately, just extremely compelling. What Kyle Chandler has done with this role is systematically tear down every relationship Eric has into a core value of trust. He trusts his wife, he trusts his daughter, he trusts his players, he trusts his instincts (take his potentially career-damaging walk onto the field during the A&M Practice), and more importantly he trusts his quarterback. He doesn’t trust the situation surrounding JD McCoy because it’s surrounded by a father he doesn’t trust, the Boosters who he knows he can’t trust, and a physical specimen who he can’t trust because there’s no human being to back it up.

Whether it’s through his discussions with his wife (In the bar and in bed, both fantastic), or in his pep talks to players, these values remain consistent even if his decisions waver. Again, compared to season two for just a moment, he trusts his decisions: say what you will about the trip to TMU and his eventual return, but at least it appears to have taught him the value of following his instincts. What we get is a man who is simultaneously more confident in his ability to make the right choice and more careful in determining what the right choice is, and it’s making for much more enjoyable (and much less frustrating) dramatic storylines. When Tami calls him a teacher and a molder of men, we really believe that…whereas last year, we didn’t see nearly enough of that until the very end, and being able to see it in ways other than him throwing a drunk Matt Saracen under a cold shower is very good for the series’ future.

Tami was the other character who got a bit to do this week, and we got to see her buy into logic quite quickly. Having exited her post-pregnancy stage, Tami is also a bit more confident and less emotionally unstable, but there’s still that part of her that’s extremely stubborn, who wants to fight on her terms. To give up on the Jumbotron is not something that comes easily to her, but she realizes that there’s ways you fight with someone like Buddy Garrity. The “Silent Auction,” as we’ll call her technique of publicly forcing Buddy to offer up support for fundraising efforts for non-football school activities, is the best of both worlds, and again it’s good that we saw her struggle to that decision, needing the advice of both Mrs. McCoy (In a potentially divisive if maybe harmless new friendship) and her husband to really rationalize what was best for herself, the school and the town.

While the episode didn’t have much time for Tim, Lyla and Julie in particular, it felt like just the right amount of storyline: a tightly constructed series of events that says goodbye to one character while setting up enough potential dramatic situations for the future that it feels like the show has momentum (Something, again, sorely lacking last season). Either way, a great episode to return to after Cultural Learnings’ hiatus.

Cultural Observations

  • I love the touch that Cash, the attractive Cowboy who sweeps Tyra off her feet, actually resembles a more traditionally handsome Landry in some ways. He’s obviously a different character, and let’s hope that they’re not going in quite so obvious a direction as it seems with him popping pain pills already, but for now it felt like an organic relationship for Tyra even if it still makes very little sense she’s still in High School.
  • Considering that we’ve now said Goodbye to Smash, it should be interesting to see how soon we begin Jason Street’s comparative farewell – I’m presuming budget was one reason why Charles/Porter couldn’t appear at the same time, but it also might be smart to only have one of them going at once. Either way, looking forward to seeing how they handle Street’s departure.

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