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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 – “Don’t Go”

“Don’t Go”

January 19th, 2011

If Friday Night Lights had ended after three seasons, I would have been incredibly disappointed. The fourth and fifth seasons of the show have featured some tremendous moments, introducing new characters and offering more opportunities for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton to demonstrate their command of the Taylor family dynamic. The idea of losing the tragedy of “The Son,” and never meeting Vince Howard and Luke Cafferty, is the sort of televisual counterfactual that I don’t even want to consider.

And yet, “Don’t Go” made me consider it. While the episode demonstrates the degree to which these two short seasons have made a considerable impact, it also demonstrates how far one character in particular has fallen. While the series may be reaching its conclusion, there has been no attempt to sugar coat the fact that not everything is going to turn out in the end. In fact, “Don’t Go” is very much about the interrogation of what exactly would constitute a happy ending for this series, questioning if there is any combination of conclusions which won’t simultaneously touch our hearts and break them in half.

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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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Friday Night Lights – “In the Skin of a Lion”

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“In the Skin of a Lion”

November 11th, 2009

It isn’t precisely a dud, but “In the Skin of a Lion” is certainly the weakest episode of the fourth season thus far. It’s really an issue of premise more than it is of execution: every scene and storyline that they ask these actors to portray is effective and hitting the right notes, but there are some underlying imbalances to be found within them.

It’s a problem that the show had, to some degree in its third season, but which felt overcome by an intense emotional centre that kept the show balanced. Part of what the episode is about is how that emotional core is absent in East Dillon, and while the episode works to bring it back the vacuum at the centre of the East Dillon Lions makes this episode distinctly less enjoyable or empowering than the episodes which came before it.

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Friday Night Lights – “After the Fall”

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“After the Fall”

November 4th, 2009

“What exactly does that mean, start over?”

Going into the show’s fourth season, the narrative was drawn as clearly as the zig-zagging border line: with two football teams in town, one led by our fearless hero and the other by the villainous interlopers, this season was going to be about the fight between the Lions and the Panthers. And the season finale drew out this narrative, pitting the respective opening games of the two teams against each other as Coach Taylor put together a group of scrappy underdogs and Wade Aikman looked to continue the Panthers’ momentum from last year’s state championship appearance.

But what the season premiere demonstrated, as we abandoned the Panthers narrative to witness the bludgeoning of the East Dillon Lions to the point of Eric Taylor forfeiting the game, is that the show can’t sustain that narrative. The East Dillon Lions are not ready to become rivals with their crosstown brethren, for as we learn here they are not actually a team at all. After the humiliation of their loss, the players are either disillusioned by the less than glorious nature of the team or angry at Coach’s hypocrisy to warn them against quitting when he did the very same thing on Friday night.

What Coach Taylor needs to do is start over not so much in terms of abandoning these players, but rather shifting his own narrative perspective to one of building a team more than building a competitive one. They’re not unconnected ideas, of course, but the show has to essentially take a step back from the season’s central premise to get the Lions (independent of the Panthers, unless when entirely necessary) up to fighting shape.

The result is another strong episode, but one which is somewhat trapped by the need to rewind the clock and yet also advance ongoing storylines that don’t necessarily relate to the team.

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Season Premiere: Friday Night Lights – “East of Dillon”

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“East of Dillon”

October 28th, 2009

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts…”

In the very first episode of Friday Night Lights, a “can’t lose” football team became a longshot. When Jason Street went down on the field, ending up paralyzed, the Panther football program went from being a contender for State to being a rudderless ship with a rookie quarterback at the helm. The arc of the show’s first season was watching Matt Saracen become a leader in his own right, someone who would eventually deliver a State championship to the people of Dillon, Texas even when nobody really gave him a chance.

What allowed that team to come together as it did was that surrounding Matt Saracen was not only a collection of great players (Riggins, Smash, for all of their faults) but also a football culture that bred success. Panther Football was not only just the players involved, or even the inspired coaching from Eric Taylor, but a community that rallied behind its team because there was nothing else they wanted to do on a Friday night. That culture, that once seemed so far away for Saracen while throwing footballs through a tire in his driveway, has given the football program substantial financial support, and bureaucratic power in the form of lobbyists like Buddy Garrity. While some of the elements of Panther football were political and thus avoided by Eric Taylor (and, as a result of our appreciation for his character, maligned by the audience), they were parts of the team that provided a solid foundation. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” is as much a construct of years of success as it is about the players or the words themselves, a fact which becomes increasingly clear in “East of Dillon.”

What becomes clear in this fourth season premiere is that the first season wasn’t an underdog story at all, but rather a story of a team recapturing glory that never really left them but for those brief moments when all seemed lost. The story of the East Dillon Lions, handicapped by a biased redistricting that we were once on the other side of, is a true underdog story because this team has nothing. Not only are they handicapped by the inexperienced nature of its players, but they are also crippled by their lack of that community surrounding them – they don’t have lobbyists, they don’t have an experienced coaching staff, and they only have a few storefront signs to bring them together.

All they have is Eric Taylor, a true underdog whose only weapons are his coaching ability and the words (and the emotions behind them) that inspired the Panthers to victory for three years. With them, he needs to build not only a football team but a community around it, the equivalent to Noah’s Ark more than a texas high school football team. “East of Dillon” establishes this challenge, and tells us two things: Eric Taylor is going to make this work, and the people who are going to help him are slowly lining up to be a part of it.

And I’m already in the stands to enjoy the result.

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Friday Night Lights – “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

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“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”

December 17th, 2008

It’s kind of inexplicably saddening to know that my two favourite Wednesday shows, Friday Night Lights and Pushing Daisies, are both in similar positions. They are both shows with a shortened life expectancy, airing episodes that are forced to start slowly wrapping up one side of storylines to please fans should they not get a renewal, and at the same time laying the groundwork for a next season that will likely never happen. For Pushing Daisies, we know its fate; for Friday Night Lights, everything remains (perhaps unrealistically) up in the air.

In the case of the football drama, in particular, this status is proving problematic, as Jason Katims and company are being forced to keep one foot planted firmly on each side (either wrapping up our existing stable of characters or preparing for a pipedream season four) of the fence, posturing like a sumo wrestler, putting their weight on one foot at a time at various points in each episode. The problem is that this never feels organic: when Jamarkus was introduced a number of episodes ago, alarm bells of “random, never before seen character = setup for season four” went off, and this week’s redistricting is by design something that won’t have an impact on the current plot but rather some long term ramifications.

But the largest example of all of this is the story of the McCoy family, which has gotten the short end of the stick since it began. Joe McCoy as a character has always been a bit of a threat to Eric, and to the team’s dynamic, thanks to his ironclad control of his son. In this episode, he transforms into something much more than that, and it feels like we needed considerably more time to get there. But this is a storyline that doesn’t have the same life as everything else: it isn’t wrapping up any storylines, it can’t really boil its way into season four, and as a result it was never given enough time to be as meaningful as possible.

The result is a sort of rushed shorthand, drawing from the depths of television villainy and the show’s own playbook to give the illusion of a truly meaningful and emotional storyline. What’s more frustrating, though, is that it actually ends up coming together as a pretty good episode in the end, because the two sides of the fence were achieving something just about right for this point in the season.

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