“Keeping Up Appearances”
November 12th, 2008
One of the concerns I’ve had with the most recent set of episodes in Friday Night Lights’ third season is that the behind-the-scenes planning is becoming fairly transparent: it feels like things are happening that are in fact predictable, and in some cases feel less like organic character development and more like pieces being moved on a chess board. Last week, though, everything moved in the right direction: even if it was predictable, it felt totally in character, and like the proper culmination to the storylines set up over this season and last season, for that matter.
What doesn’t work in “Keeping Up Appearances,” however, is that none of it felt natural: every storyline had an element to it that felt artificial. Whether it was in order to rush Jason Street to a happy ending, or introduce a potential character for a reboot-driven fourth season, or push Tim Riggins into college, everything felt dialed in on that purpose. And in an episode all about selling (house, people, football, etc.), I feel like the show was all too willing to show us, their audience, that they had a (somewhat) shameless agenda on the table.
The one storyline that is working right now is working because we have a vested interest in it – Jason Street’s future matters to us, and this episode is a reflection of that. When he is fighting with Herc in the backyard during their open house, you feel his pain and empathize with his position. When Billy asks him what he could do to help Riggins get into college, you can tell that even with his healthy dose of realism Street still cares about football – by the time he gets back on the field taping him, we’re remembering everything that he used to be, and feeling like the game of football is where he truly belongs.
The issue is that all of this feels natural, and when Jason happens to have a conversation with a sports agent who transitioned into the job because his arm wasn’t good enough, it feels like the show is rushing what should happen over a longer period of time. The show’s insistence on Smash and Street both going four and out (or perhaps five, in Street’s case) is creating a situation where they’re going through the motions: while Smash’s final moments and his various scenes with Coach Taylor were inspirational and powerful thanks to our connection with the character, it was a bit convenient. Now, with a storyline even more improbable, the writers are repeating the same pattern.
It’s not a terrible pattern, by any means: it was perfect for Lyla to be the one in whom Street confides his desire to be a sports agent and move to New York, for example, because she was a huge part of his past and these two characters needed a final moment. And it feels natural that we’re getting a Jason Street who is finding a way to rekindle his love of football while still being able to support his family. He’s shown in the past few episodes his ability to get himself a loan, to get Buddy to sign off on selling the house, etc. – these skills are actually fairly transferrable into the world of sports agency, so I think that’s a solid connection.
In the end, though, it’s just a bit far-fetched – while Smash was still competitive as a player and had only an injury and motivational deficiencies to overcome, thus meaning that only Coach’s risky play to get him on the field for a tryout was really our only stretching of the truth, here it required a domino effect. For Jason to become a sports agent in only one or two episodes is actually impossible, but the show has already knocked off a few barriers too easily: while some of Jason’s battles felt earned, the offer on the house feels a bit like a fairy tale. It creates a fear, for me, that they’ll push this further and have Jason get a job when he really has no non-inherent qualifications/education, and I don’t think that does the show or Jason any favours.
Deciding what note to leave Jason on is going to be a tough question, and one that I hope they show more restraint with. I think that they’ve established well enough in this episode Jason’s knowledge of football and, over the last few episodes, his ability to sell himself and his situation, that they could leave him in New York, struggling to even work as an assistant in a sports agency office, and I’d feel like he got the ending he deserves. Forcing it any further, though, doesn’t make sense, and I hope they don’t go that route.
We’re starting to see something similar happening with Tim Riggins, as the video they’re setting up to send out to schools is starting to shape up. Ever since the letter was dropped in the premiere, it was clear that Riggins’ happy ending was likely forthcoming: the guy has been through a lot, and I think it would make sense if the unsung heroes of the Dillon team (Riggins and, absent in this episode, Saracen) got their own success at the end of the day. This was another part of the episode that worked well, primarily Billy’s concern for his little brother – while sometimes their relationship can feel repetitive (their trip to steal copper wire especially fell into their pattern), I like this side of Billy that’s honestly emotional about having raised his little brother, and I like the Riggins’ overall path.
The rest of the episode, though, lacked that ethos – the show hasn’t spent enough time for us to accept the repetitive and one-dimensional villification of Joe McCoy, which represented a step back from the previous episode. One week after we got our first look at the new quarterback, this week was the exact opposite: we got a rather sudden escalation of public yelling that, because we don’t really get another view into their family dynamic without the Taylors being present, we don’t see as a result of J.D.’s alcohol intake but rather the writers feeling they needed to up the ante. The show has developed a shorthand for some of its characters, and it works because we know them so well: here, we don’t know these characters well enough for them to do it, and the result is a storyline that never hits like it could had they shown us more. While Jeremy Sumpter finally got to act last week, this week he’s back to being a non-entity in the shadow of his father.
There’s been some rumblings throughout the season that J.D. is being built slowly in an effort to make him a potential star for the show’s fourth season, as unlikely as that might seem (or as likely as it seems considering NBC’s now dwindling lineup with the cancellation of My Worst Enemy and Lipstick Jungle), and I buy that – most of the players are graduating, so it will be necessary for them to leave some wiggle room for themselves should they get picked up (which won’t be known until the season completes its run on NBC). I can’t think of any other reasons than this, then, that we got the story of before now unknown Jamarkus, who sets girls’ hair on fire and lied to his parents about playing football.
Two things here: first off, how aloof are his parents exactly that they never know where their son is? What about road games? What about practices, Friday night games, parties, etc.? Has he never once been out to the mall with his Mother and had someone mention football to him? It’s a really cheap storytelling tool, and it is wrapped up much too quickly within the context of the episode. Yes, by episode’s end we feel for Jamarkus and are pleased that he performs well in the game, but it was a rushed and forced introduction to a character designed to make it so that they could flesh him out in the future, if necessary.
All of these situations are about tough sells: Street selling himself to the world, Billy selling Tim to Colleges, J.D. selling himself to his father, and then the Taylors (in a very cute scene where Tami feels mighty proud of her talking up of her husband) selling football to Jamarkus’ parents. While I didn’t quite feel any of them were without their contrivances, the other two storylines felt even more pointless. Landry’s girl problems, although hilariously explained and dissected in his discussion with Tami, aren’t all that interesting: that he’s self-destructive with the opposite sex isn’t news, and for him to fall for his new lesbian bassist didn’t seem necessary to building that side of his character. She’s not a great actress, clearly hired for her musical abilities, and that side of the storyline works: her charming performance of The Flaming Lips’ “She Don’t Use Jelly” was one of the episode’s highlights. But when it asks her to be something more, it felt cheap: and Friday Night Lights should avoid that particular adjective.
We’re now at the halfway point of the season, and one could express some concern at this point with a couple of early misfires – however, the episode just didn’t deal with where the real drama was. Street will be out of the way soon enough, and while losing Scott Porter’s fantastic acting is a bit of a bummer I think it will open up some room to expand on other storylines. For now, I remain optimistic about this season’s strengths outweighing weaknesses, at least for now.
- So was there any point to Buddy Garrity’s big storyline with his kids? Brad Leland is as good as ever, but unless this was a last sendoff for the character it seemed like a waste of time. The idea of football as a transformative property for his bratty kids visiting from Northern California rang false, unless it had come more full circle with Buddy’s discussion with Lyla being more about how football is his entire life, and the only thing he’s good at (it’s true). Buddy the Booster is the character we might eventually need to say goodbye to, so hopefully this wasn’t an attempt at a potential last hurrah.
- The lack of Saracen and Julie in this episode is frustrating after their big moment in the last episode – it’s another way Street is slowing down some storylines, although I think it’ll work out as long as next week spends some time on our former QB1.