Friday Night Lights – “New York, New York”

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“New York, New York”

November 19th, 2008

[NOTE: I go into what might be considered spoiler territory before the fold (it just worked out that way), so if you’re waiting until Spring and don’t want to know anything scroll away now! Hope this warning works – MM]

When Smash Williams received his swan song on Friday Night Lights, we ended that episode on an image of Smash’s face, smiling of pride (and his justifiably reinflated ego). It was a moment where you couldn’t help but feel like there was pride in his success, hope for his future, and that small tinge of disappointment that he was exiting our narrative and entering into another part of his life that doesn’t involve Dillon, Texas.

But for what will be Scott Porter’s last episode portraying Jason Street, we do not end on a shot of an admittedly fantastic Porter after pouring his heart out to Erin. Rather, we end on a shot of Tim Riggins, one that (for me) was far more emotionally affective. What is so amazing about Porter’s performance, and the character of Street as a whole, is that what could have been a hokey period after that pilot developed into someone who can serve as emotional and inspirational anchors for this series. While watching Smash succeed was satisfying, watching Jason grow into a man and a provider (even when the means were highly suspect) feels like the kind of story this show was born to tell: a story about a kid who was supposed to be on the path to greatness proving that, even when the terms changed, he never left that path.

And when we cut to Tim Riggins, of all people, overcome by emotion at the sight of Jason Street’s final moment, we realize that within both the show’s universe and our own, it doesn’t get much better than this.

I was worried about getting too spoiler-y above the fold, but it is pretty well common knowledge that Smash and Street were only on contract for a few episodes this year, at least amongst fans of the show. That resulted in what are probably quite rushed happy endings, sequences of events that required a lot of convenient copper wire thefts, convenient friends of Herc’s who buy copper wire, conveniently well done work on a house, conveniently quick offer, conveniently timed visit from sports agent, etc. We can officially add conveniently available entry-level position and conveniently personal friend of Jason’s whose employment could save a small sports agency to the list, which when you think of it in succession is a whole lot for four episodes to handle.

However, can anyone honestly say they were thinking about any of that when Jason rolled up to Erin’s doorstep and poured his soul out to her? Or, as noted, when Tim Riggins was overcome with emotion? Part of what made the second season of Friday Night Lights so frustrated is that the contrived and forced storylines felt like a dark cloud over the rest of the show: while there were some moments of genuine emotion, even related to the murder, there was always that reminder of where it came from, and how that went beyond the level of reality we were willing to accept. There never appeared to be a way out, a time when all of that would be forgiven in favour of focusing on the positives. The only time we ever got to that point was when Eric threw Matt Saracen, spiraling out of control due to his tryst with his Grandmother’s nurse, into a cold shower; that felt like the kind of highly emotionally powerful storyline that for once justified Taylor’s betrayal of the Panthers, Matt’s falling out with Julie, and everything else that took place in that season.

There can’t be enough said about Scott Porter’s work here, and the show will miss his versatility; while this episode was capable of being inspiring (and highly frustrating, albeit in what I’d consider to be realistic ways), I don’t know if there’s anyone who can pull this off like he can. While his final moments might have been disconnected, off in New York with only Riggins to react, Street as a character touched a lot of people, and the one point of potential contrivance that felt more natural than it was was seeing the people (like Wendell, and like Buddy) who were willing to change their minds for him. While Jason is right that many people only remember him for the chair, I think that Porter did a tremendous job of emphasizing those moments where he goes beyond pity to the point of inspiration – sure, it involves a little bit of overselling (he wasn’t on his way home when he went to see Wendell, but it sure made for a better story), but in the end I believe that Jason Street is exactly as he sold Graham to Wendell: someone who, when push comes to shove, will work as hard as he can in as unselfish a way as possible.

Saying goodbye to Jason and Smash means that we’re now waiting to see how the show resolves the high school football careers of Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen. As far as the former goes, we were missing a scene this week wherein Riggins asks for time away from the team to help Jason get to New York (I’d imagine there’s something on the cutting room floor, at the script stage at the very least), so Riggins’ football destiny was put on hold (rightfully) for him to be the one to get to say goodbye to Street in person. Saracen, meanwhile, has a very logical (and well-played) turn that deals with a suddenly emerging question: at what point, in his final year, does it make sense to keep him on the bench when he is obviously better at playing wide receiver than those suddenly incompetent wide receivers that dominate the Panthers lineup.

Now, Taylor is right to note that risking an injury to Matt is a serious problem, and he has no choice (despite having to put up appearances) but to hedge his bets considering how green J.D. McCoy really is and how much he wants to be able to rely on Matt being there to back him up. On the other hand, this is Matt’s last chance here, and the show has remained coy (while discussing the fates of its graduated characters) about what exactly they plan for Matt Saracen. When his grandmother involved, and with his Mother around, Saracen’s future remains murky: will his ties to family keep him in Dillon (plus, is Julie graduating? Or has the various age cheats the show has employed since the first season made them the same age?), or will he actually have a shot at advancing within football?

I have a feeling that the latter may be a bit of a stretch – while Matt is a gritty quarterback with whom we as viewers and Coach Taylor have a strong emotional attachment, I don’t know if he’d catch the eye of any major colleges. Right now, obviously, the show isn’t thinking of this, but considering that it might actually be good to let Matt play in his final games, to help the Panthers make their way to the playoffs and find their footing. Perhaps my favourite scene, balancing humour and sentiment, was that great sequence of his Coach challenging him (at the dinner table) to 10 passes. It was such a small scene: no big crowd, no false drama, just a heightened sense that this is a highly complicated relationship between a coach and his QB2. By the time we got to that tenth pass, I was as into it as I was into most of the actual football game activities (absent in this episode), which I think tells you something about the strengths the series can bring to the table.

At the same time, of course, we have that brilliant final scene as Eric asks Tami for some ice, as quietly as possible, after acknowledging that the last pass was garbage (it was, no one could have caught that without some sort of supersonic speed). It was a note that this relationship isn’t just that tense, authoritative stare: he was pushing his own physical ability to act like this was such a tense situation, having to balance that authority with the fact that he genuinely cares for the kid. While we got some great Saracen work early in terms of his mother’s arrival, he’s taken a back seat to both Smash and Street in terms of broad storylines (and even Riggins got his College future storyline started earlier). I have to feel like that is oncoming soon, and I look forward to it: Zach Gilford is just too darn good at this.

However, the other storyline is a far more pressing concern, and one that leaves me honestly quite anxious if not wholly surprised. We have known from the past that Tyra Colette is not good with patience, nor rejection. She is being raised in an environment where she was essentially instructed to hold onto her college application-paying cowboy for the rest of her life (not, in fact, sound advice considering what we know about Cash), and despite Tami’s best efforts it is beginning to colour how she looks at the college application process. Tyra is that dangerous combination of impulsive and malleable, trusting of too many people and took quick to move that trust at a moment’s notice. When Tami essentially gives her that “You didn’t do great, but consider it a learning experience” speech after her college interview (which was, not coincidentally, weak thanks to finding out that Cash wouldn’t commit to being faithful to her while on the road), you can see Tyra suddenly viewing her path to college as a much longer road.

And while this is no doubt frustrating (as many of Tyra’s actions, from her hateful “Look in the mirror, Landry” dumping to her decision to take Cash back in the first place, are), I think that it’s natural in this situation. So much of this season has been about people who, leaving Dillon, are faced with difficult roads to success. And while the show’s portrayal of Street’s romantic ascension is more than a bit unrealistic, I think it works to have this storyline being painfully without such idealistic conclusions. The fact is that not all of these kids can have happy endings, and Tyra in particular is going to take a particularly rocky road if she’s going to do so. Her path can’t be easy: it would be as much of a contrivance, consistency wise, as Street’s whirlwind ride in New York, and it wouldn’t feel right to me.

The episode was pretty wide ranging overall, to be honest, as we even got the continued impact of the McCoy family on the Taylor household. Mac’s timely cardiac event means that Wade (J.D.’s QB Coach) becomes a fox in the henhouse for McCoy and the Boosters’ interests, while Mrs. McCoy plants into Tami’s head the idea that a recent foreclosure would make a perfect dream home for the couple despite being entirely outside their price range. In both situations, Eric and Tami had to remember that they operate as part of teams, both in terms of their marriage and in Eric’s case as part of the Panthers organization. That sense of solidarity is what drives them both, so I am very interested to know to what degree this will be continued to be tested.

Even that storyline, though, had that great moment where they stopped and Coach offered the question of what happens if he loses his job (which seems like something that should be considered a real possibility considering how finicky the boosters are), and for that matter what happens if Tami (who has made some controversial decisions as principal, loses her own position? While I don’t foresee this scenario happening, this entire episode reminds us that the future is very unclear, and that there are numerous points of change and transition that we still have to address even with the departures of the two characters closest to that goal. Combine that impending situation with the fantastic work by Porter here, and this was a very strong episode of the series.

Cultural Observations

  • I like that we aren’t seeing a long, protracted discussion of Matt and Julie’s new relationship – while there will need to be some quiet moments spent with these two to understand where their relationship sits at this point, the normalcy of it all is kind of reassuring in and of it self.
  • I find it somewhat clever that the arcs for Smash and Street both mirrored real football: after three episodes of struggle, they got their fourth down hail mary and they took it. They call it a “Three and Out” in football terms, but that’s only if they have to punt on fourth down: that clearly wasn’t an option for these two.
  • This episode was missing Landry, but after a couple of weeks of sort of rough Landry storylines, I think it’s for the best. I just want to make sure, though, that if this is actually the show’s final season I need them to give us some more great Landry/Saracen friendship moments before it rides off into the sunset.

1 Comment

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One response to “Friday Night Lights – “New York, New York”

  1. Pingback: The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Friday Night Lights - “New York, New York” « Cultural Learnings

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