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Friday Night Lights – “Texas Whatever”

“Texas Whatever”

February 2nd, 2011

Friday Night Light has never really been interested in the challenge of coming home. The vast majority of its story arcs are about the idea of moving beyond Dillon, Texas, of taking that next step towards the rest of your life. Despite the fact that the series opened with Jason Street and Tim Riggins sitting over a fire swearing that they were ‘Texas Forever,’ the show has to some degree indicated that one must leave before they truly find themselves.

Tim Riggins would be the one exception, really. While Jason Street has returned to Dillon, it was only as a successful sports agent who could comfortably connect with his former hometown from a privileged position. By comparison, Tim Riggins has twice returned to Dillon with no sense of direction, and considering that the last time resulted in an illegal chop shop resulting in an extended jail sentence there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it’s not easy to try to reintegrate into society.

“Texas Whatever” brings the notion of coming home to the forefront more than perhaps ever before, pulling together two people who are having to deal with the question of what being from Dillon, Texas, means to the rest of their lives. And while the conclusion of the series is obviously concerned with the idea of saying goodbye to Dillon, understanding what it means to “go home again” seems just as important to closing off this particular chapter in the life of a small Texas town.

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Series Premiere: Lone Star – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

September 20th, 2010

“If you want to make something last, you need to make it with your own two hands.”

David Bordwell, a prominent film scholar, wrote earlier this month about his personal experience with television as medium, in particular why he doesn’t write about it despite the so-called golden age of serialized television. While his piece briefly speaks to his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) lack of interest in modern texts, it focuses primarily on his childhood experience with television, which leads him to this depiction of television viewership:

“Having been lured by intriguing people more or less like us, you keep watching. Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon.”

I raise this point because it creates the image of television as an investment, which leads me to FOX’s Lone Star. A show about a con artist who convinces others to invest in a lie, the series itself raises an important question in relation to Bordwell’s notion of devotion: is Lone Star a con?

It’s the question that everyone has sort of been struggling with: the pilot is a polished, intelligent episode of television, featuring a strong lead performance by James Wolk and a strong supporting cast, but there remains this sense that it is all smoke and mirrors. It isn’t necessarily that we think the writers and producers are incapable of making a great series, but rather the concern is that the premise just isn’t expansive enough to sustain itself over multiple seasons (or an entire network season, for that matter), leaving room for future heartbreak when it (as Bordwell predicts) fails to live up to our lofty expectations.

But, as someone who enjoys the ups and downs of television and wouldn’t have it any other way, I don’t think that this uncertainty should keep us from enjoying it. Lone Star is not, in fact, a con: the pilot doesn’t hide anything beneath the surface, resisting the sense of mystery and uncertainty that plagues other series of this nature. While the premise may not have the longevity of your basic crime procedural, this is a well-made premise pilot that rarely blinks in presenting a clear scenario to its audience.

Yes, it could all come tumbling down in a few episodes – based on this pilot, however, I (unlike Bordwell) will take that risk.

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Friday Night Lights – “Underdogs”

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“Underdogs”

January 7th, 2009

If you are a fan of Friday Night Lights, “Underdogs” is going to be mightly familiar: as the Dillon Panthers head off to the State High School Football championships, there’s a quarterback having trouble keeping his focus on the field, there’s a road trip to the big game, and there’s a scene where Tami and Eric Taylor find their way to a balcony overlooking the city and remind us how starkly real their relationship really is.

As the episode title suggests, there are things that are different this time around, but “Underdogs” remains partially caught up in its own nostalgic tendencies towards the first season and its unquestionable quality. It’s not that this is entirely unjustified: as our characters begin to move onto the rest of their lives, they are nostalgic for the safety net that the Dillon Panthers have in many way provided just as the show is nostalgic for the days when it was nearly critic proof. But there comes a point where that nostalgia needs to break away, and when the cloud of the Dillon Panthers will peel away leaving behind a collection of confused eighteen year olds and a show that is facing a tough challenge to stay alive.

The message of the penultimate episode of perhaps the entire series comes from Tami Taylor, who tells her husband that, win or lose, the sun is going to shine the morning after. Before the big game is even done, “Underdogs” is able to emerge from the clouds primarily because of that hope of sorts: while the episode may lean heavily on existing patterns the series has dealt with before, it eventually uses that nostalgia in a way that feels organic for most of the show’s storylines.

So while it doesn’t quite excuse the show’s near season-long reliance on recycled storylines, “Underdogs” is a more effective episode because of it.

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Friday Night Lights – “Game of the Week”

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“Game of the Week”

December 3rd, 2008

“It would be good to get the ball rollin’, you know?”

It’s “Beer-Thirty” in the afternoon in Dillon, Texas, and Buddy Garrity sits in his recliner with a beer and a football game. A knock at the door sends him a reminder: it can’t be his ex-wife, who hates him, or one of his friends, because he doesn’t have any of them. For Buddy Garrity, his life is football.

But while the show has always used football as a point of dramatic tension in the lives of these players, and this episode featured some of the most football-oriented plotting since the show’s first season, this episode was about the show’s continued reminder that their lives go beyond the gridiron. While our two “goodbyes” pre-planned before the season may be over, this doesn’t mean that the theme won’t continue: they have a lot of characters to send off into some form of television sunset, and we’re starting to see the plot, well, get the ball rolling.

While the stories don’t quite have the same resonance as did the emotional exits for Smash and Street yet, what they do have is football. If this week’s game is any indication, the stakes are higher than ever and we’re back to having the big games as the backdrop for our action. What resulted here was a reminder that, as the stakes for the Panthers grow higher by the week, so too do the characters’ drive to go to college, to solve their interpersonal crises, and to (in some cases) get over significant hurdles to their future.

And if things are this captivating now, I’m fairly certain the State Championship will be happening in my living room, live in person.

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Friday Night Lights – “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

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“It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

November 5th, 2008

In our new era of highly serialized television, we have vilified predictability. We want to be shocked, surprised, knocked off our feet by revelations and swept up in complex storylines that twist and turn every which way. However, evidence shows that execution becomes a much larger concern when one gets caught up in walking off the beaten path: look at what has happened to a show like Heroes, one that is so obsessed with being unpredictable that a lack of logic has become, well, predictable.

So when I say that Friday Night Lights’ third season has been preditable, I don’t want you to look at it as something with negative connotations, at least not entirely. See, I won’t argue that predictable can be bad: last week’s episode of Friday Night Lights, even, was predictable to a fault, retreading old storylines that were not all that interesting to begin with. I speak more of the fact that, now almost halfway through the shortened 13-episode season, I don’t feel as if anything has snuck up and surprised me yet.

But do we really need to be surprised when a show is operating at such a high level? While the various events of this week’s episode have been long foreshadowed by the show’s trajectory, the payoff was exactly what we were looking for; the fact that I “called” the character of J.D. McCoy during his silence of early episodes does not mean I didn’t enjoy seeing it, and the sheer inevitability of the episode’s romantic climax was handled with such grace that it’s yet another powerful emotional moment for a season that’s had more than a few.

The real surprise for Friday Night Lights these days is that it isn’t trying to surprise us, and yet here I am sucked in more than ever; I just hope that, considering the show’s past attempts to surprise us with homicide, they’re content with dramatically satisfying predictability and don’t feel the need to shake the boat too much.

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