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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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Premiere: Virtuality – “Pilot”

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“Pilot”

June 26th, 2009

After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.

It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.

The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.

All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.

But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.

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Season (Series?) Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Tomorrow Blues”

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“Tomorrow Blues”

Season Three, Episode 13

Leaping forward about six months at the beginning of the show’s second season nearly killed Friday Night Lights – there was a sense that all the time we missed had been eventful for these characters, and their motivations had changed in ways that were not something that should happen off screen. We found a Dillon, Texas that, in many ways, we didn’t know anymore.

What we find in the show’s third season finale, perhaps its last, is a show that has recaptured that time lost, given us a sense of who these people are again. We found a group of people we care about, a group whose futures are uncertain and will be our final goodbye to many of these characters. With the team’s State championship lost last week in the penultimate episode, the finale takes the risk of flashing forward five months to the moment when their present collides with their future.

The result is a finale that defines the ways in which this show is most successful, giving us those moments and emotional highs (and lows, to an extent) that the show is known for. But what is most strange about the finale is that it was less resolute than I imagined: characters we expected to ride off into the sunset (which the episode even ends with) ended up in their own sort of holding pattern. It’s as if, almost, we’re not saying goodbye after all, but to be honest I was so expecting definitive final moments that I almost feel sad about the fate of some of these characters.

I guess it makes sense, really: in what could be a bittersweet experience balancing the joy of getting a third season and the reality of a fourth being quite skeptical, it makes sense that as the show lays groundwork for a fourth season the balance of things would feel at least somewhat out of whack. It’s natural that we get the “Tomorrow Blues” as we transition from one moment to the next, but at least the tradition brings us another fine episode in a strong season.

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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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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Friday Night Lights – “New York, New York”

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“New York, New York”

Season Three, Episode Eight

Airdate: November 19th, 2008

Entering into its third season, which a majority of you probably haven’t seen yet thanks to the strange DirecTV exclusivity, Friday Night Lights had two main goals: to say goodbye to its graduating players who no longer felt organically tied to the Dillon Panthers, and to recapture that sense of magic that made the first season so special. With 11 of its 13 episodes finished airing, the season has managed the second goal quite well, and is on its way to achieving the first.

[To respect the fact that most of you haven’t seen these episodes (they start airing on January 16th on NBC), I’ll put the rest below the fold – Myles]

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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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Friday Night Lights – “The Giving Tree”

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“The Giving Tree”

December 10th, 2008

If you’re a fan of Friday Night Lights, “The Giving Tree” is an episode made for you. It’s all about callbacks to past events, to incidents that are three seasons in the making and which are reflective of past events. The episode’s main problem, in fact, is that it leans somewhat too heavily on those elements of the story, feeling fairly limited in its real “new” developments moving forward.

But I think we’re reaching the point where, the show’s renewal seeming more and more unlikely within the newly limited primetime environment at NBC, anything that speaks to the future seems premature (but tantalizingly interesting) while everything that speaks to its past seems like a justified farewell. So when the storyline circles back to the question of Julie having sex, and its impact on her mother in particular, it feels like something that had to happen, and did admittedly feel like a new sort of conversation than what we saw in “I Think We Should Have Sex.”

The other two major storylines in the episode felt somewhat more derivative, one because of the history of the two characters (as loathe as I am to discuss that history) and the other because it felt like a fairly contrived if socioeconomically realistic plot development. This isn’t to fault the episode on some broader level, and I’m happy that the resulting points of conflict are happening for the sake of getting more of characters I enjoy, but with only three episodes left in the season I’m getting to that point where I’m caught between past and future events.

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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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