Friday Night Lights – “I Can’t”

“I Can’t”

January 20th, 2010

If you’re one of the people who are holding off watching Friday Night Lights until it debuts on NBC, you received good news this week: the show returns on April 30th. And I’m going to be really interested to see how viewers respond to “I Can’t” when it airs in early July, because the episode has the show headed in some potentially controversial directions in terms of both cultural and narrative taboos.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the latter are my only real concern, as the show continues to demonstrate a deft hand when dealing with sensitive subjects. However, I don’t know if the same kind of sensitivity could possibly rescue the show from itself in its other major storyline, which is creating some compelling television now but is creating far more concerns than I would like heading towards the end of the season.

It’s a bit of faint praise, but it does say something that I care enough about Vince Howard that I’m frustrated with the direction the show is taking the character. It’s one thing for me to raise concerns about what the show is doing with Tim and Billy Riggins, who we’ve known for a long time, but we just met Vince, so the idea that Vince would be headed back to the wrong side of the law despite Coach Taylor’s best efforts could have no impact whatsoever. But I quite like Vince, and Michael B. Jordan was fantastic in the scene by his mother’s bedside in the hospital, asking her why she does this to herself, and why she does it to him, and why she wants him to be alone. It sold me that this is a character who has been torn apart, and a character who needs something to lift him up.

Which is why I’m growing more and more frustrated with the idea that the obstacle in front of him is a life of crime as opposed to a life with no guidance or support. I understand that the show wants to create serious consequences, but I don’t see why that’s necessary with Vince. The idea that Vince could eventually fall back into a criminal path is threat enough to convince us that he needs Coach Taylor’s help, so giving him a gun and making him part of the grand theft auto gang seems more than a bit unnecessary. While I would definitely say I prefer to see the show using football or Coach Taylor or Tami Taylor to transform or rescue characters (like Tami offering Becky advice), I think that showing the negative consequences doesn’t need to feel like a single decision would immediately resign a character to a different fate. There’s subtlety in individual scenes within the stories, like Vince at the hospital with his mother or his conversation with Vernon Merriweather, but there’s no subtlety on the other side of the coin: in the world of Friday Night Lights, crime doesn’t feel organic or natural in any way.

I think the show would be infinitely better off right now if they were not actually showing us the criminals involved, thus creating expectations that the show is leading to some sort of epic blow-up. If Billy got into business with an unseen car thief, and if we simply saw Vince brandishing a gun and skipping out on school to head in some other direction, I think the show could feel more focused on how the life of crime is affecting these characters. Instead, the presence of the external threat is turning the stories into ticking time bombs in the worst possible way: it’s dominating stories that should be more about how people respond when barriers are placed in front of them in terms of achieving their goals, and we should be seeing more of Billy caring for Mindy, Tim researching his property, and Vince caring for his mother. And because of the size of the ensemble, the stories seem so dominated by the impending threat (especially the Riggins story, which also suffers from similarities to their copper wire theft not that long ago) when we spend time with them that I’m just dreading their conclusion as opposed to enjoying or considering their predicaments.

The show did a better job with dealing with Becky’s teen pregnancy, although it’s a bit of a cheat for Tim to bring her to Tami. I understand that Connie Britton is amazing at selling this kind of subtle material, and I also understand that it make for some nice shades in terms of her relationship with Julie even while said daughter was off with her rebound douche Ryan, but it’s more convenient than entirely logical that Tim would turn to Tami on this issue. However, she was his guidance counsellor/principal, so there is some logic present and the nuance with which Britton handles the conversations totally sells it for me.

There’s a chance that some might argue that this is still dealing with sensitive subjects, especially when it eventually airs on network television, but I think the episode does a very clear job of laying out the various options and having Tami offer a comprehensive analysis of her situation that keeps her Mother’s insistence from seeming too forceful or making it seem as if Luke’s earnest desire to make it work was ignored. I thought that for all of the melodrama involved in such a story, the actual decision felt really personal and emotional, and Madison Burge has really come into her own in the role and really sold me on the fact that Becky eventually makes her own decision. The show was clearly working overtime to make sure all the options were placed on the table, so that her eventual decision felt genuine demonstrates the power of these actors at really bringing the material to life.

Ultimately, the abortion felt like it stemmed from characters and their decisions, which is I think my issue with the criminal side of things. Vince’s story has a lot of interesting shades, and I’d much rather spend time with Jess’ resentment of her father for only now warming to Vince because of football after having sworn off the boy for years than with the criminal overtones developing. If the melodrama feels like part of the world, or something that once established becomes about the characters, that’s fine: however, right now, it feels like the characters are getting carried off into a world of crime, and the show seems to be losing focus in the process. I think there was a really emotional and compelling episode here, but I spent so much time worried about where it was all headed that I don’t think I really got to enjoy it.

And that’s unfortunate.

Cultural Observations

  • Matt Lauria did some nice work here, although Burge was obviously the more important side of that conversation: what’s interesting about Luke is that the injury is hiding under the surface, and I’d tend to think his relationship with his parents (who we spent more time with this week) is about to come into focus.
  • There was some damn great comedy in this episode, both within the Riggins storyline (Billy is the worst brainstormer of all time) and with Eric and Tami, in particular Eric’s reaction to Tami waking him up at three in the morning to discuss Julie’s hypothetical pregnancy. Throw in Eric and Vernon’s discussion at the bar and Eric’s walk of shame to his car the next morning, and the little things really added up in the episode.
  • I’m growing concerned that the ending is leading up to some form of tragedy, and I’m worried that it’s going to be tragic enough that any chance of it not being spoiled for people waiting for NBC airings will be out the window. That would kind of suck, but remaining spoiler-free is tough (especially since I’m going to tag this post with abortion which totally spoils it. [/Part of the Problem]
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