Friday Night Lights – “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

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“It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

November 5th, 2008

In our new era of highly serialized television, we have vilified predictability. We want to be shocked, surprised, knocked off our feet by revelations and swept up in complex storylines that twist and turn every which way. However, evidence shows that execution becomes a much larger concern when one gets caught up in walking off the beaten path: look at what has happened to a show like Heroes, one that is so obsessed with being unpredictable that a lack of logic has become, well, predictable.

So when I say that Friday Night Lights’ third season has been preditable, I don’t want you to look at it as something with negative connotations, at least not entirely. See, I won’t argue that predictable can be bad: last week’s episode of Friday Night Lights, even, was predictable to a fault, retreading old storylines that were not all that interesting to begin with. I speak more of the fact that, now almost halfway through the shortened 13-episode season, I don’t feel as if anything has snuck up and surprised me yet.

But do we really need to be surprised when a show is operating at such a high level? While the various events of this week’s episode have been long foreshadowed by the show’s trajectory, the payoff was exactly what we were looking for; the fact that I “called” the character of J.D. McCoy during his silence of early episodes does not mean I didn’t enjoy seeing it, and the sheer inevitability of the episode’s romantic climax was handled with such grace that it’s yet another powerful emotional moment for a season that’s had more than a few.

The real surprise for Friday Night Lights these days is that it isn’t trying to surprise us, and yet here I am sucked in more than ever; I just hope that, considering the show’s past attempts to surprise us with homicide, they’re content with dramatically satisfying predictability and don’t feel the need to shake the boat too much.

I have been convinced from the very beginning that there was no way the show was going to portray J.D. McCoy as anything but an oppressed, soft-spoken, socially inept freshman clearly unprepared for the non-athletic qualities of playing as QB1 of the Dillon Panthers. The way they built up to this moment has been, for me, a clear sign of this: by not giving him any screentime at all, and letting his father do all of his talking, we as the audience are able to empathize with the situation he finds himself in. Here’s this kid whose father is bribing the coach to get him some playing time, and who bursts into the locker room (the LOCKER ROOM) in order to escort him out so that he can go to Applebee’s (APPLEBEE’S [Beads?]) with his parents. I know that he’s only fifteen, but at the same time I think that the show has demonstrated through a slow build that being J.D. McCoy, success be damned, is not in fact easy.

While it would have been possible for the show to then reveal that J.D. was a complete jerk who has no respect for his father, Jeremy Sumpter just doesn’t look like he could play that kind of character. With really his first acting showcase (hell, speaking showcase) of the season, Sumpter was strong at displaying in J.D. a crippling level of self-awareness. It’s not that J.D. is naive – he knows what the normal high school football culture is like, and I think he knew what happened at parties. Rather, J.D. is so consumed by what his father has told him, what his father would think of him, and what he knows people expect of him that he isn’t willing to accept any alternate paths at first glance. When Riggins dropped him off at home after their awesome tour, he knew that Coach Taylor had put Riggins up to it, but he (for perhaps the first time) chose to believe that Riggins was befriending him.

I’ve read from both Daniel Fienberg at Zap2it and Alan Sepinwall that this storyline echoes quite carefully a story of a father who conditioned his son (Todd Marinovich) to be an NFL Quarterback and that his son proceeded to rebel strongly against him (Wikipedia for more information). I don’t think that the show has time to get to that point this season, but I do think that we started to see some actual real-life choices made by J.D. in this episode. At what point that could start affecting his play on the field, though, is something we haven’t seen yet: one episode does not give us a clear indication of how much we’ll be focusing on J.D.’s personal life in the future, but I do have to think that we’ll be seeing more of him in the weeks ahead.

I thought, though, that his scenes with Riggins were really strong, and made me forget how ridiculous it seems that Tim has gone from being competitive for college scholarships to being able to handle football, buddying up to J.D. and his house remodeling project while still in school. Riggins has been asked to do a lot this season: he’s taken over the role as leader on the Panthers, he’s struck up a meaningful and mostly drama-free relationship with Lyla, he’s been helping his brother out of numerous financial jams, and he’s helping Street with this big project. There’s no other character so central to the narrative right now, and Taylor Kitsch continues to have a lot of fun with the role: the tour of Dillon, especially his insistence that he is to be known as Toby the injured Iraq war veteran at one of the bars, was a comic highlight for the episode.

In the end, though, the episode belongs to two stories designed to tug at the heartstrings, although in slightly different ways. Once it was clear that Smash was going to be going four and out early in the season, it was pretty easy to presume that Jason Street would be getting the same treatment. And we’re even following the same trajectory: images of the unfortunate post-football reality for these former stars who missed their big hance, followed by them facing a pivotal crossroads in their lives, and then Coach Taylor swoops in and begins to reconnect with them in the way that only a coach can. Sure, we only got a bit of paint in Eric’s hair, but it’s clear that he is going to help Street get out of this situation.

This is a pattern that can work very well for the series – Kyle Chandler and Scott Porter nailed almost every scene in this episode, and the coach’s off-field relationship with his players and their families is one of the show’s most charming aspects. And I mean charming literally: how else can we explain how Taylor manages to calm down Grandma Saracen at the grocery store? While I know that last season had a lot of problems, one of the biggest ones was attempting to turn Eric Taylor into a bad guy with the whole TMU debacle – it created a culture of abandonment that felt false, and I’m glad that we’re to the point where we just get to see the coach, well, be a coach. In fact, one of the real tragedies of J.D. McCoy is that, for all of his father’s reasoning that he moved to Dillon for Taylor’s expertise, Eric isn’t actually able to coach him because of the iron grip that his father has on his daily life. Coaching, for Eric Taylor’s key players, goes beyond the field, and even when they’re off of it for good.

Scott Porter is a great actor, and one gets the sense that the added focus of Street’s storyline is giving him some added incentive. He knows he only has a few episodes to dig into, here, so he’s making the most of it – while I was skeptical about the baby storyline when it (oddly) was our endnote in the show’s second season, it’s giving us a very definitive quarter-life crisis for a kid who has already gone through too much crisis in his young life. Between his speech to Buddy last week, and his struggles with his hired help in this episode, Porter is bringing that rushed sense of maturity and independence that was necessary in the wake of his accident in a way that is effective but damaging – you can tell that his attempts at optimism wear him down, but that he is able to find solace in the love of his son. That final “Hole in My Bucket” moment was not saccharine but tragic: he is driven by his emotional attachment to his son and his quasi-girlfriend, but that isn’t enough for him to be able to be with them and find a life together. I don’t know if flipping this house will get Street a happy ending, but my fingers are crossed.

In terms of happiness, though, we got what we were all waiting for: Matt Saracen and Julie Taylor finally had sex. Well, okay, it sounds a bit creepy for me to be happy that two fictional characters had sex, but it means they’re back in a relationship, and I think that’s a more acceptable level of emotional attachment here. Either way, it’s another sign that if this ends up being the show’s last season (fingers crossed, but forgive the realistic view here) that it will have felt historically meaningful to the show’s legacy. “I Think We Should Have Sex” was one of the best episodes of an amazing first season, and it makes complete sense that two years later these two characters would be in a much better place to investigate this side of their relationship. The season hasn’t exactly been coy about this possibility: as soon as she came out of that Applebee’s door and found him there kicking boxes, it was painfully obvious that this pairing was in the cards.

But that doesn’t take away how right it feels. Both of these characters are individually sound, but they spent the second season wrapped up in storylines ranging from frustrating (While Teegarden rocked it acting wise, her annoying brat phase went a bit far) to downright illogical (If Grandma Saracen gets another nurse I am going to throw things). Just everything about this point makes sense: Saracen suddenly has free time in which he isn’t consumed by football, Julie is more mature and ready for this, and the show feels like it was in need of a moment of happiness for these characters in particular. The way the moment was framed was even more perfect: their coy flirtations at the grocery store, the playful teasing in the lake, their discussion about the merits of hot dogs, and eventually their almost carnal realization that they are still madly in love with one another and greatly desire to have sex on the sand.

I’d like to blame Daniel Fienberg over at Zap2it for bringing up even the idea that this could lead to a pregnancy scare for Julie – while even he admits that it would seem out of place for this show, especially this season, it does seem like it could happen. But, personally, I think the moment was too perfect, and attempts to defile that image of Julie, in the early morning glow and wearing Matt’s sweatshirt, with her head on his shoulder as they drive up to the Taylor homestead seem ill-advised. Even the episode itself let the image stand: we didn’t get her parents flipping out over her sneaking into the house in the early morning, or even Julie attempting to be stealth in her entrance. Similarly, while Tami definitely noticed her daughter was glowing, and that Saracen’s grin seemed odd considering his recent demotion, there was no conversation that took place: the episode let us stick to that look on Julie’s face as she stares in the mirror and can’t stop grinning about it.

Any attempts to ruin this would feel wrong to me – I’m not saying that the show needs to start making everyone completely happy, but this Matt and Julie relationship is one thing that I think went through too much in the second season for it to be placed into grave peril in the span of the next seven episodes. Much as they have been treading carefully with many other characters (Coach Taylor and Landry in particular) in the post-Murder period, I think that Matt and Julie’s relationship has finally reached a point of logical reconcilation. So while I know better than to presume it’s going to be all sunshine and lollipops, I nonetheless expect that the worst is behind these two.

Overall, the episode didn’t do anything surprising: we knew Matt and Julie would get together, we could presume that Coach Taylor was going to enter into Jason’s storyline, we expected that J.D. was perhaps ore of a victim than a perpetrator, and I think we all saw the “Deadbeat Cash” (Which I’ll discuss below) coming from a mile away. But that didn’t keep the episode from leaving a smile on my face, and from just being darn emotionally impactful. This was the show’s pedigree in the first season, and even if I could choreograph it a mile away I’m never unhappy to find myself rooting for or against these characters.

Cultural Observations

  • If I can draw an allusion to Mad Men for a second (I’m going through Mad Men withdrawl), Tyra is the Joan of this universe – I won’t go into spoiler territory as it relates to Mad Men, but there are a lot of parallels that continue into this episode. With her mother pushing him as a “good man” for supporting her college application drive, Tyra feels pressured to accept his reasoning even though we all know it is more than likely a lie. It’s a bad situation that we know is going to backfire on her, and we’ve seen Tyra go through a lot, so I do hope that she might finally find some solace at some point this season.
  • That being said, though, I don’t think that solace should be with Landry – random new bass player love interest is right in that he needs to get over Tyra (a relationship that I never bought, and that was predicated on the event that shall not be discussed), and I don’t think that pairing has any life in it. But I loved the little moment where Tyra noticed that what Julie said sounded like something Landry would say – the two kids just need to be friends, darnit.
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