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Series Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

“Always”

February 9th, 2011

“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”

Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.

In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.

He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.

They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.

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Friday Night Lights – “Gut Check”

“Gut Check”

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.

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Glee – “A Very Glee Christmas”

“A Very Glee Christmas”

December 7th, 2010

Generally speaking, the most difficult question for Glee to answer is “Why?” So many of its stories seem to have no connection with ongoing events that if you keep asking why precisely it’s happening, and so you sort of have to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

But “A Very Glee Christmas” offers an answer to this question at every turn: every time I imagine someone questioning the various hurried and forced story developments in the episode, the show screams back “BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS.”

It’s a pretty good excuse, honestly: while sometimes the show risks losing its heart amidst the broadness of Sue’s cartoon villainy, and it sometimes struggles with how theme episodes deal with ongoing storylines, Christmas gives them something cheerful and magical to bring it all together. We expect Christmas to overwhelm all other emotions, as holidays are all about coming together regardless of our differences and celebrating peace on Earth.

And for a show that is always most comfortable, in my eyes, when it merges its sense of celebration with a sense of sadness, “A Very Glee Christmas” at times hits the sweet spot: it uses the broad comedy to fuel the sadness, but follows through on the consequences with an investigation of the limitations of Christmas rather than simply a celebration of the holiday. The result is an episode which seemed charmingly celebratory and yet still felt like it could indulge in “Sue the Grinch” when it so desired.

And it’s pretty emotionally honest until it ends up with nowhere to go but sap, positing Christmas as collective rather than connective and losing its momentum and its charm in the process.

Bah humbug.

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Season Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Thanksgiving”

“Thanksgiving”

August 6th, 2010

The best compliment I can pay Friday Night Lights right now is that I left its fourth season finale wanting so much more than I received.

I know this is normally considered a negative statement, in that the show was somehow lacking in something that I desired, but that’s sort of the point of the ensemble drama: by showing us the lives of so many characters, there will inevitably be plots we don’t get to follow, relationships we don’t get to spend time with, and stories that could have had broader implications. The mark of a good ensemble drama is that we actually wanted to fill in those gaps, and the mark of a great one is that even with those gaps we are enormously content with the story that has been put on screen and want to see more.

Friday Night Lights hasn’t had a perfect fourth season, trapped between interesting new characters and paying service to those who came before, but the world of Dillon, Texas remains as vibrant and empowering as ever before. “Thanksgiving” is neither a definitive goodbye to original cast members nor a defining moment for the new characters who arrived earlier this season, but rather a series of moments that define this ensemble and the world in which they play football and, more importantly, live their lives. And while some part of me wanted a three-hour finale, giving us the scenes that it felt like we needed before the various stories came to an end, the selective gaze which Jason Katims adopts in the episode feels satisfying as a whole, bringing to an end an uneven but affecting season of network television’s finest ensemble drama series which bodes well for the final chapter this fall on DirecTV.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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