January 12th, 2011
Thanks to a particularly busy schedule and some difficulties getting access to the episodes in question, Friday Night Lights’ fifth season has been mostly absent from Cultural Learnings. And yet, this is about to change, both because of greater access and because there is a growing sense of urgency.
Not really within the show itself: while there is certainly plenty of tension on the series right now, it continues to follow the slow burn mentality it always has. And yet my relationship with the series has taken on a certain tension, as it is becoming more and more clear that this is a show which is about to come to its end. I could have waited until the NBC airings to cover the show, but this is going to be the real ending: this is when critics will write their posts on the series’ legacy, this will be when the fans will respond to the fond (or, who knows, potentially tragic) farewells, and this is when I want to say goodbye.
And so I’ll likely be checking in with the series weekly from now until the finale – for now, a few brief thoughts on the season as a whole and a more detailed review of “Gut Check” after the jump.
As I’ve been discussing on Twitter, and as Cory Barker sort of ran down in his review of last week’s “Fracture,” Friday Night Lights’ season five is a series of counterfactuals. What would have happened if Smash Williams had an opportunistic, drug dealing father running the show instead of Mama Smash? It’s a simple question, one which has pretty obvious and at times cliched answers, but it’s serving an important purpose for the series. This is a show which runs in cycles, as is necessary in a series about a high school sports teams: the schedule’s going to be the same each year, which means that it’s the players who are going to change. And while those players can emerge as individuals in their own right, with their own backgrounds and perspectives, the nature of the high school system is that they will be placed into certain categories. Vince, by nature of his success, would fall into the same pattern of college recruitment as any other player, and the challenge is navigating that while ensuring that he doesn’t simply turn into “one of those players” who allows his own ego to overshadow his team.
What has allowed the fifth season to work is that the show has accepted a certain degree of familiarity, and used these sort of counterfactual situations to give viewers the opportunity to linger on particular similarities. The Smash/Vince comparison is clearly the most obvious, but it raises a larger point about support structures. It seems like Becky could be heading down the same path as Mindy, tempted by the allure of the strip club at a young age, but you can sense that Becky wants nothing to do with it. And while I think that parts of the Epyck storyline have proven little more than an excuse to allow Connie Britton to play Tami’s desire to help people, Tami ends the episode running through numerous counterfactuals that might not have led to that particular conclusion. And what else was Julie’s visit to Matt in Chicago than an extended bit of imagination, allowing both Julie and Matt to visualize what life would be like if she had moved to Chicago from the very beginning?
Being the show’s final season, there is a clear desire to force a certain degree of reflection on the series as a whole, which is perhaps why we find Eric seriously considering the job in Florida. The evolution of the series means that this isn’t just a Quarterback coaching gig, and that he might well be at that point in his career where he does want to be dealing with “adults.” Heck, the show is sort of in the same boat, isn’t it? The show has always been about how kids deal with becoming adults, charting the way that football and the culture surrounding it necessitates this transition at an early age, and that has been expressly clear this season. Vince, once the head of his household while his father was in prison, regresses to a child-like state of obedience as his father takes over his future; Luke, who last season found himself under his parents’ thumb in his situation with Becky, chooses to stand up to them and invite her to dinner. Mindy argues that Becky is still a kid, but the latter argues that she is technically an adult, a claim that has some legitimacy (considering her poise in dealing with the abortion) and also welcomes considerable skepticism (considering the quasi-parent, quasi-sibling relationship that she and Mindy have developed which got her to this point).
What I love about this particular focus, and have loved throughout the season, is that it has allowed characters we love to become character we hate. It’s not particularly new that Julie Taylor should drive me crazy (see also: The Swede), but her sojourn with the married TA was a bad road from the moment she started driving, and the show never let her pull over to take a break. She just sort of kept floating through, and once she returned to Dillon things became even more depressing: this was not the character we cared about, although the fact that we were so morally outraged about it indicates that we still care a great deal. However, as “Gut Check” demonstrated, impulsively driving to Chicago was not some sort of epiphany: it was as desperate as her return home, or her decision to drive into someone’s mailbox, another attempt to run away from her problems.
Luckily, we can depend on Matt Saracen to set things straight, or at least offer a reminder of where Julie’s priorities should lie. That final scene is everything it needed to be: Matt needed to call Julie on the reasons for her visit, and she needed to leave to return to Texas, but they are meant to be together damnit. He realizes how broken she is by this, and also realizes that he could be the one to fix her: he also knows, of course, that she ultimately has to be the one to fix her own life, to put the pieces together in her own way. Perhaps that means transferring to Chicago the next year, or perhaps it means spending more time in Burleson, but the important thing is that we have a reminder that Matt Saracen will be a part of Julie Taylor’s life. It’s wonderful to have Gilford back, however briefly, but it’s better to have Julie returned to a place where we have some glimmer of the character we once knew (albeit without losing all of the complexity that the character has, against the odds of the early trope, gained this season).
Meanwhile, I think we’re meant to legitimately hate Vince right now. While his moustache-twirling father is getting to the point of losing any sense of subtlety, Cress Williams’ fine performance withstanding, the show hasn’t made it seem as if Vince has no autonomy in this situation. He’s being fed certain stories, but he made a choice to believe that, and even when you factor in his latent Daddy issues and his desire to rebuild his family the guy has bought into the hype to the point of complete frustration. Last week’s episode was obviously a low point, but her he started to see the consequences: a benching here, a breakup there, and a general sense that his present is slipping away as he focuses on a future that is still years away.
“Gut Check” is another strong outing in what has been a strong season, and works precisely because it lets certain stories linger. The Lions have made the playoffs after Luke Cafferty’s late-game heroics, and despite the Lions’ breakdown in the previous game, but those playoffs bring a great deal of uncertainty. And while we have certain expectations as the show heads into its final episodes (in terms of who will be returning, and the kinds of stories we might be seeing), I love the sort of runaway train vibe the season has going. While the show doesn’t seem to be moving that much faster, its characters seem to be struggling to keep from being swept up in it all, and that juxtaposition has served the show quite nicely. It has allowed the show to feel familiar while also adding new complexity, to tell similar stories while adding “worst case scenarios” that force characters like Eric and Tami to reflect on what they could have done better, or what else they could be doing in their lives.
That sort of broader existential question is something that Friday Night Lights has always focused on within its characters, but as the show enters the final stretch the show seems to be addressing those questions on a macro-level. Every character is being brought to a point where their entire lives are being placed into question, whether it’s Mindy reflecting on the impact of her pregnancy or Tami seeing that she can’t help every kid she might want to help. And as we prepare to say goodbye to these characters, that mass of uncertainty has the effect I think Katims and Co. want it to have: pure anxiety, worrying and hoping and praying that things turn out the way we want them to.
And that these characters find their clear eyes and full hearts by the time the finale comes around.
- I know that the show’s football sequences have, especially recently, been wonky as hell, but I don’t see how Luke was doing so bad. Sure, he had some turnovers, but presuming that he was still leading the defensive unit he seemed to be doing well on the other side of the ball, so I’m not convinced the crowd would have turned on him quite so viciously. But I might be overestimating that crowd.
- I quite liked the moment where Epyck spent some time drawing with Gracie – I know that many haven’t enjoyed this storyline, but I like Emily Rios, and thought that some of those small moments featured some fine work by both Rios and Connie Britton.
- As most have pointed out, the Landing Strip ladies deserve their own spinoff – the pageant last week was truly wonderful, and the sort of family unit vibe that it’s taken on has been a wonderful extension of the already fantastic focus on Billy and Mindy Riggins. That Stacey Oristano is not in the “guest starring” credits is a crying shame, considering how great she’s been all year.
- One other observation: I always had issues with the fact that Luke and Becky (as we knew them at the time) would have had sex at all that night, but to learn that it was in Luke’s truck just made it seem even more strange to me. I get that teenagers can be impulsive and hormonal, but the math just never added up.
- As noted, I’ll be covering the series from now until the finale, so be prepared for plenty of nostalgic remembrances of seasons past in the weeks ahead.