Friday Night Lights – “Toilet Bowl”

“Toilet Bowl”

January 6th, 2010

Friday Night Lights is a show that, despite various dips in quality, has not fundamentally changed since its first season. It has always been a show about the people in a football-crazy town, revealing both the problems which complicate their lives and the people (and the sport) that helps them keep grounded.

The show’s problem has been those moments (primarily isolated in the second season, but cropping up in the first season as well) where it feels as if the problems are the only thing that’s working about the show. The second season didn’t just struggle because a character murdered someone, but rather because the show simultaneously retreated from the football culture that was its heart: I don’t believe the murder would have ever been a good idea regardless, but it could have been handled much more efficiently if it had been folded into the community rather than remaining a distraction.

While the fourth season started as an homage to Season Three, with Matt Saracen’s farewell arc echoing Smash and Street’s exits, it has quickly evolved into an extended test of whether the show better understands the mistakes it has made in the past. The show has never been beyond having people make mistakes, and delaying the consequences of those mistakes, but the show is stepping into familiar stories, and not in a good way. “Toilet Bowl” is filled with red flags, characters taking actions that come from a somewhat logical place but which for the sake of narrative expediency are coming faster than they probably should.

It’s adding up to a show that I’m not quite as excited as watching, even if (relative to the second season) there are more reminders of the show and the community that elevate that drama to another level.

Taylor Kitsch is an extremely versatile actor, and he does some fantastic work in “Toilet Bowl” (man that reads awkwardly) which demonstrates how important his character is to the show right now. He’s the one character who seems like he has some nuance: when he’s caught up in the middle of a sticky situation he’s capable of showing both the reluctance necessary to sell us on the story’s believability and the acceptance necessary to sell how life in small town Texas can lead you to make some decisions you might not make if there were something better on the horizon. I get that this is part of the show’s world view, and I think Kitsch is great at capturing Riggins as a character trapped in the middle: he wants to thank Becky without necessarily making out with her, and he wants to have dreams without necessarily breaking the law to achieve them, but he’s discovering that avoiding the bad only forces you back to that negotiating position. And for a former football player, used to being able to just play harder to achieve his goals, the real world isn’t offering the same opportunity.

Perhaps that is what the writers are getting at this season, that the things which once allowed the show to feel grounded despite car thieves and pending prescription drug abuse are no longer applicable. The episode wants the final scenes, as the East Dillon Lions finally win a game, to act as a buffer for the dark paths the show is taking its characters down, but it doesn’t work anymore. We know that a victory won’t fix these problems, and as a result we’re left worried about Luke’s physical condition (which Riggins and Taylor both ignore to allow both Luke and themselves to achieve some sense of victory) and about Billy and Tim’s legal future. The question, however, is whether we’re worried because we really care about these characters, or worried because we’re afraid that the show is once again going off the rails.

The other part of the episode, with Tami and Julie in Boston (actually in Boston, in fact) looking at colleges, was enough to convince me that things aren’t completely falling apart for the show. The storyline emphasized both the greatness of this mother/daughter relationship and the idea that where Julie comes from isn’t a point of embarrassment, which paves the way for Julie to remain part of the narrative even if she goes away to college (as she wouldn’t be actively avoiding all things Dillon in the process). It was a touching story, and Julie remains a realistic and balanced presence in the series even when under extreme emotional duress.

The show’s challenge right now is convincing me that the characters in less emotional and more legal/physical duress are that realistic and balanced, which the show isn’t quite selling me right now. I want to believe that there is a reason for all of this, that the show is preparing its characters for a fall in order to have something to build on for Season 5 (which was conceived at the same time, as far as I’m aware), but yet I can’t help but worry that the show will keep going down that path. While Season 3 gained back a lot of my confidence in the series, there are enough warning signs at this point that I’m constantly on edge and, more importantly, concerned that the resolution is going to feel false whether positive (glossing over the serious repercussions) or negative (overwhelming the show’s humanity). The season started as if it were getting back to basics, returning to a down on their luck football team rising amongst the ranks, and yet the show remains so disconnected from football that whatever emotional victory should have come from the Lions grabbing their first W went largely unnoticed in the grand scheme of things.

And that’s not the direction I want the show to be heading in as it enters the back end of its season.

Cultural Observations

  • The other major subplot here was the continued work surrounding Vince, Jess and Landry as something of a love triangle. I’m not entirely sure where the show is going with this, or what it wants to achieve: there’s no way we as an audience aren’t going to root for Landry, so it paints Vince in a villainous light that I find counterproductive (especially in his super jealous party mode). I thought the scene with Vince and Jess having dinner with his mother was well-acted, but it demonstrated that we’ve yet to spend enough time with these characters for them to be sustainable on their own.
  • Always love the glimpses into life around the Taylor household, so the packing scene (“Gracie doesn’t have any pants!”) was a whole lot of fun.
  • Buddy’s quest to get the Lions back on the radio (on a Spanish only station) was a great bit of comedy during the game itself and outside of it – Leland is a star in this cast in scenes like that, and I liked seeing Eric eating with the Alumni as well. Those parts of the football scenes are coming together, but the games themselves aren’t feeling part of it for some reason.

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