Friday Night Lights – “The Lights of Carroll Park”

“The Lights of Carroll Park”

January 13th, 2010

The problem with episodes of Friday Night Lights which feel overrun by homicide or criminal elements is not that those stories are inherently terrible, but rather that they feel incongruous with the show’s world. This is purposeful, meant to manufacture tension, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary. It’s entirely possible to confront these types of issues within the show’s particular worldview, demonstrating the consequences of crime in ways which feel less contrived and disruptive of the show’s natural order. The show can be about the conflict between the criminal and law-abiding without the show becoming defined by that conflict (or by characters flirting dangerously between the two worlds), and “The Lights of Carroll Park” is a good example of how that can be accomplished.

It’s a slightly more problematic example, however, of how the show can confront the question of abortion. While I am not judging that storyline too quickly, as I’m sure it will be given more time to develop over the weeks to come (and perhaps into next season), the show sort of stretched the believability of its characters’ maturity in dealing with the situation. While I’m all for level-headed approaches to these kinds of storylines, as it’s one of the show’s strongest qualities, I also feel as if there are certain character who should be responding in ways that aren’t mature, and in ways that reflect how challenging these kinds of moments can be.

I guess me distinction is that I want the show to be challenging as opposed to challenged, and while the revonation of Carroll Park naturally fit into the first category I think the teen pregnancy sort of forced its way into the same position.

My issue with the way the show handled teen pregnancy, as Becky discovers she’s knocked up with Luke’s baby following their one-night stand early in the season, is not so much that it’s happening at all but rather how level its impact remained in this hour. Becky is a character who we’ve seen be self-destructive and (for lack of a better word) depressive in the past, so this kind of behaviour isn’t entirely abnormal from her (Tim’s timing was unfortunate, but he wasn’t wrong to presume it was about him, for example). And while involving Tim in the story makes sense, as she’d go to him before going to her mother, he’s not exactly someone you can talk to about something like this, so the actual issues involved aren’t going to come to the surface. For better or for worse, Becky needs to be able to have a discussion with someone about what to do with this baby in order for the show to do its due diligence, and since she has no interest in involving her mother that role falls on Luke Cafferty.

And I think that’s a pretty big stretch for me. Luke is an obnoxiously saintly character in most instances, hard-working and polite almost to a fault, which creates two problems here. First of all, I don’t buy that he slept with Becky to begin with: everything they’ve shown of the character, whether his apologetic reaction to getting kicked off the Panthers or his work ethic on his father’s farm or his response to Becky ignoring him (which involved gummy bears for pete’s sake) indicates that he’s not the kind of guy who does something like that. However, since we’re accepting the fact that he isn’t capable of handling his hormones or thinking about protection, the other problem is that he responds to this crisis with a maturity that is even unbelievable for Matt Lauria’s actual age. He is only worried about Becky, and he presents his concerns about a potential abortion with a care and attention which no sixteen year-old could ever muster.

[True story: I had completely forgotten that this exact same story happened to Jason Street. I think this is because the show never actually had to deal with the story beyond the final moments of Season 2 – this is actually new territory for the show, as it skipped over it last time.]

I understand that the show wants to leave some impact for the future, but we needed to see more of how Luke was handling this situation if we’re going to buy his measured response, and we needed to see something more from Becky as well. Perhaps if we had seen Luke go to Tim for advice (perhaps humorously presuming that this has happened to him before), or if we had seen him struggle to some degree with preparing to talk with her, I could buy it, but the storyline was designed so that everything revolved around Becky. And she even made the point herself that this is a two-way street, and I wish the episode would have reflected that more. It felt like it was forcing Luke to be too supportive, and Riggins too clueless, in order to build to that episode-ending moment – I wanted to see something legitimately earth-shattering for her life actually shatter her life, but it seemed like the show was tempering itself in order to avoid sensationalizing or objectifying teen pregnancy. And while I understand that concern, I think the show is strong enough to be a little bit more realistic in how this would affect its characters, or more accurately how it would affect more than one of them.

The other side of the story was perhaps the most nuanced investigation of the demographic challenges facing East Dillon we’ve seen yet, starting with Vince walking into a restaurant staring at a job application asking him whether or not he has ever been arrested. At first we think he’s going to lie, but he puts an X in the box for Yes and then hands in his application, only to be summarily brushed off by the proprietor. The message is that he’s never going to get a fair shake, just as Carroll Park doesn’t have any power because the city won’t give them the money. While the episode has to stretch itself to get Eric into the park in time for the drive-by shooting (I refuse to believe that Tinker, who would help Luke out like that a few episodes ago, wouldn’t be showing up for practice), once he gets there he realizes that this is where his players come from, and that he needs to do something about it.

But rather than actually pretending they are the Great White Hope, Eric and Buddy go to Jess’ father and connect with a local community member (played by The Wire’s Larry Gilliard Jr.) who can help them pull together a project that makes them seem less like outsiders. And what results is a scenario that very subtly connects Coach Taylor with this community, as he jumps over a fence to break into a circuit box (he’s just like the hooligans!) and then connects with one of the young players who will be entering high school next year (whether or not he’ll actually end up in Season 5 will depend on how far that season jumps forward in time, and whether the show bothered casting someone this far in advance). It was the first time Eric has felt “at home” with East Dillon, connecting with the players in a way which felt natural and easygoing. I don’t know if the show intends to make this last, or whether this was just a one-off message, but it was a good dynamic, and I’ve missed the days when Taylor could play football with the kids outside of Smash’s house without feeling like the show was making a statement about race or demographic issues.

Elsewhere, we got a series of small vignettes that really didn’t accomplish much of anything. Julie was off building a house for Habitat for Humanity while experimenting with an attractive male supervisor (basically deciding she isn’t ready to date anyone, but she’s entirely ready to make out with them and flirting with them non-stop), while Vince’s new job at Ray’s BBQ ends up putting him back in contact with Jess, who seems happy with Landry but definitely still has something approaching feelings for the new Quarterback. Neither story goes much of anywhere, but the former was a nice look at the dysfunction Saracen left behind and the latter story is (I presume) building to something.

The episode also raised the point that Tami and Eric haven’t spent a lot of time together this season, so it had them share some scenes that they might not have shared otherwise. None of them were big or dramatic, just small looks into their relationship which reflected their “Damn, I love you” attitude. We got a small little scene of D.W. Moffett’s Joe McCoy talking about his pending divorce, and we got Glen coming clean about the kissing incident, but a single bedroom chat about the issue brings only good humour (“Do you realize by proxy I’ve kissed Glen?”) and a resolve for their relationship. Sure, I don’t think they’re “local” enough to Dillon to randomly drive by the place where they had their first “date,” but it was a nice reminder of their relationship, and a good note for the show to hit.

We’re now just four episodes out from the finale, so it will be interesting to see where the show goes from here – we’ve got to get back to football eventually, but the drama seems to be ratcheting up, and we’ve still got a Matt Saracen return to contend with.

Cultural Observations

  • For about half its running time, this episode felt like it was running out of order. It was picking up on various storylines that seemed to have happened a while ago, and up until the Jess/Landry/Vince material nothing felt like a story that couldn’t have been told five episodes into the season. Once Julie started making out with the guy, and once the Jess situation materialized, it started to make sense, but it was odd to see so little continuity early on.
  • Buddy remarking that he and Mayor Rodell have a history going back before she started playing for the other team is a nice callback and all, but I would have liked to have seen the good mayor.
  • So that’s why D’Angelo couldn’t find Wallace: he needed glasses! (This repeats my tweet on the subject of the Wire reunion present in the episode). Would have liked a scene to more express call back to it, since contrived references to my favourite shows are more important than dramatic continuity to me, but meh – I’ll live.
  • Can Jesse Plemons actually throw a football that far? That pass seemed way too good.
  • The more we see of Becky, the stranger it seems that Madison Burge wasn’t actually added to the main cast. Is this a budgetary issue, or is there something we don’t know about her future on the show?
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2 Comments

Filed under Friday Night Lights

2 responses to “Friday Night Lights – “The Lights of Carroll Park”

  1. Ian

    Yeah, not too sure whether Jesse Plemons can throw the football that far, but the dude can throw the ball – he actually played high school football unlike some of the other cast members that are on the football team

  2. Dan

    It absolutely makes sense. He was Lance Harbor’s little brother in Varsity Blues. He learned from the best.

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