Friday Night Lights – “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

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“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

December 17th, 2008

It’s kind of inexplicably saddening to know that my two favourite Wednesday shows, Friday Night Lights and Pushing Daisies, are both in similar positions. They are both shows with a shortened life expectancy, airing episodes that are forced to start slowly wrapping up one side of storylines to please fans should they not get a renewal, and at the same time laying the groundwork for a next season that will likely never happen. For Pushing Daisies, we know its fate; for Friday Night Lights, everything remains (perhaps unrealistically) up in the air.

In the case of the football drama, in particular, this status is proving problematic, as Jason Katims and company are being forced to keep one foot planted firmly on each side (either wrapping up our existing stable of characters or preparing for a pipedream season four) of the fence, posturing like a sumo wrestler, putting their weight on one foot at a time at various points in each episode. The problem is that this never feels organic: when Jamarkus was introduced a number of episodes ago, alarm bells of “random, never before seen character = setup for season four” went off, and this week’s redistricting is by design something that won’t have an impact on the current plot but rather some long term ramifications.

But the largest example of all of this is the story of the McCoy family, which has gotten the short end of the stick since it began. Joe McCoy as a character has always been a bit of a threat to Eric, and to the team’s dynamic, thanks to his ironclad control of his son. In this episode, he transforms into something much more than that, and it feels like we needed considerably more time to get there. But this is a storyline that doesn’t have the same life as everything else: it isn’t wrapping up any storylines, it can’t really boil its way into season four, and as a result it was never given enough time to be as meaningful as possible.

The result is a sort of rushed shorthand, drawing from the depths of television villainy and the show’s own playbook to give the illusion of a truly meaningful and emotional storyline. What’s more frustrating, though, is that it actually ends up coming together as a pretty good episode in the end, because the two sides of the fence were achieving something just about right for this point in the season.

There’s a lot of disagreement on this episode, likely because of the transparency of the show’s motives therein. The second that Lorraine Saracen steps out of a moving vehicle in order to get her purse, you know that the show is once again playing the “Can Matt take care of his grandmother and have a future?” card. When the idea of redistricting comes up, savvy viewers will presume that this is the setup for Season Four, and begin to connect the dots of why we’ve been seeing Wade Aikman rise in the ranks of the Panthers. At a very broad level, none of this feels particularly organic, and stopping at this level it sounds like the episode just didn’t work.

But these two storylines offered some of the episode’s best moments, even if they were in some ways  forced (See: the PTA president being all “Oh Principal Taylor, only your opinion matters, since you’re the most principal actor in the room!”). The redistricting storyline was great because it brought Buddy Garrity into the frontseat again in a role that isn’t quite as sad as his parental one: the ringleader of the boosters and, in this instance, a plan to fix the redistricting to ensture that all of the strong present and future players will end up on the side of Dillon High School. It’s a plan that actually feels like the right kind of contrivance: state-level politics (the refusal to fund the school unless the districting changes) influence small-town politics to the point where it begins to affect people and they react accordingly.

It’s also not a bad setup for the fourth season, as unlikely as it may seem right now: the idea of having more of a football driven rivalry is one of those situations that would really open things up on the football side of things, and is the right setup for introducing a lot of new characters. It wouldn’t be perfect, sure, but it shows that the writers are at least breaking stories for a fourth season and we presume have been in contact with the networks involved in order to discuss whether or not there is any chance of it happening.

But the reason it still works here is because the balance between living in the present and planning for the future is inherent within the situation of our graduating players. At any juncture like the one they’re reaching, they are forced to continue to live their lives while looking ahead to the rest of it: look at Tyra having to plan a bridal shower while worrying about her SAT scores, or Matt worrying about his grandmother, or Lyla’s finances being at odds with her future, or of course the concerns about redistricting popping up just as the Panthers are going to the State championships. It’s a pattern the show has used often in the past, including in the team’s first visit to State as Taylor announced his plans to leave for the QB job at TMU.

But it’s something that works, especially with Matt Saracen. Yes, Saracen has been one of the show’s most consistent characters for quality drama, and his relationship with his grandmother is almost always a huge part of that, so we shouldn’t be surprised. The point with Matt Saracen is that his grandmother is his life – his first real date with Julie was interrupted when his grandmother had an episode and he had to come back and sing her back into bed, and the show has gone to this well before. And now that his life is expanding, he has to consider that he isn’t capable of taking care of her, and that her dementia has gone past the point where he can do it himself.

And yes, it’s the same message as before, but it’s just as effective now because of how heartbreakingly real it all feels: unlike Matt’s storyline in season two, this feels like the kind of thing that would easily happen. Even though the logline of the storyline is a repeat, the repetition of the events within the storyline only adds to its impact on long-time viewers: we’ve felt for Matt since the very beginning, and to see him here at the end of his high school experience with the same situation is a new sort of tragedy. The show can handle using some shorthand with this storyline because of how great all parties involved (especially Kim Dickens, who has had to make us like but not love a mother who abandoned her child and has wonderfully succeeded) are.

The reason the episode never ascends to something approaching genius (See: last season’s “Mud Bowl” that covered the same game, chronologically, with similar weather-related problems) was that this same shorthand approach was spread to the episode’s other major development. The transition of Joe McCoy from forceful parent to controlling father to abusive jackass has been as rote as it gets: it is the very epitome of almost cartoonish villainy, and is precisely the kind of caricature that the series tries to avoid. There is no depth to Joe McCoy, realistically speaking: while his wife, especially last week, started to show something closer to an emotional side, Joe has never had the same humanity.

What frustrated me is that the episode tried to pretend it had, as if their work on other characters in situations like this one (like Matt’s father, for example) was enough for them to justify not bothering to build this character. The episode portrayed him as pure antagonist: his phone call to Madison’s parents was never portrayed as protective or concerned, his overreactions to J.D.’s “attitude” were misplaced, and his eventual game behaviour was not given enough background to really click. There was a number of scenes where, listening to another spectator yelling at his son, Joe had to make a decision: defend his son, or yell at him just the same. That decision should have felt like a pivotal moment in a father’s descent into something beyond protection, but all episode we saw only the most harmful and angry side of this man.

But I could have bought all of that if not for the shoving, slapping and punching that took place in the Applebee’s parking lot. That just felt like them taking the character too far, choosing the quick and dirty route of pure villification as opposed to something approaching a real story arc. I think that J.D. has been a solid addition to the series, and both Moffett and Sumpter have given some good performances where required, but there was nothing subtle about this: even if the fallout offers further drama, this moment felt like a cheap ploy more than anything else. The show seems to have mistaken shock for tragedy, as if something so abhorrent is the same as something that is really emotionally effective. And while no one could be entirely unmoved by Mrs. McCoy and J.D. at the Taylor household, how they got there felt too fast by half.

This is a show that can usually get away with that shorthand, but not in this case: they spent so much time saying goodbye to characters earlier in the year that they’re rushing with the new one, and the result is perhaps events counterintuitive creatively for a fourth season. So while the show can justify cutting a few corners with characters or situations that feel like part of the show’s reality, moving to the point of cartoon villains is not something in the show’s best interest. Seeing how this manages to come together into the final two episodes will really be the final judge of whether they have made the best use of their 13 episode season.

Cultural Observations

  • Lyla as a character only works when drunk or played for comedy, so this should have worked better for her: however, it felt just a bit too false for its own good, and I don’t really care enough about her downward spiral for us to be spending time on her this late in the game. At this point, I think writing off Lyla (if not Buddy) and letting Tim take center stage (even though he made it to college in a strangely emotion-free moment) would be the smarter move.
  • Tyra is similarly one-note at this point, and I didn’t find there was anything new there: her mother’s speech could have been given two seasons ago and it would have felt just as out of place then really. Tyra’s character hasn’t actually changed, and her mother’s excuse for her erratic behaviour (that she was “always surprising”) feels like the show trying to sweep her inconsistency under the rug. I’m actually fine with that, and have defended their decision to make Tyra so infuriating with similar logic, but combined with another rote Tyra/Landry scenario I can’t really say that I bought it here.
  • Loved the moment where Buddy had to put on a brave, Buddy-like face at the boosters meeting after Joe McCoy’s comment – there’s a villain with humanity, unlike the evil mastermind look we got from Joe (who did it on purpose in his efforts to take over as head of the boosters and eventually rule the world).
  • The real question for the final two episodes, which won’t air until January – will we be getting an episode of climax and an episode of deneoument, or will we see an episode of setup before the climactic final episode? Both would make sense at this point, but I’d expect the latter (in the vein of the first season).
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2 Comments

Filed under Friday Night Lights

2 responses to “Friday Night Lights – “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

  1. In honesty, I didn’t read the whole post because of spoiler issues for me. I’m still on season 1 of FNL. But its really moved me. I just posted about how people don’t watch quality TV shows like it enough on my blog here, check it out. Cheers!

    http://www.liftingfogblog.com

  2. I think Tyra has changed, though. Sure her behavior is still erratic (aka surprising), but I think with her it’s been a slow battle with her upbringing and who she is as she tries to overcome a handful of obstacles in order to get to her ultimate destination. Whether the obstacles were external (like with the douchebag vice-principal) or her simply battling with herself, she’s certainly continued to try and better herself and achieve her goals even if she’s slipping up every other episode. So I guess I kind of felt the talk with her mother was very touching and it made sense.

    Also, I do agree that Mr. McCoy is being painted one dark shade of bad, but I also have known athlete’s parents who are seriously as crazy as him. The progression did move a little fast, from being a little peeved at his son to beating him, but the leap wasn’t so jarring that it made the scene’s bite any less. I certainly saw them building to this point so I wasn’t really surprised to see it all unfold in the way it did.

    Another really good review (all of your articles are very thought provoking and well put together) even if I felt differently about some of the points.

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