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.
“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.
“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.
“Keeping Up Appearances”
November 12th, 2008
One of the concerns I’ve had with the most recent set of episodes in Friday Night Lights’ third season is that the behind-the-scenes planning is becoming fairly transparent: it feels like things are happening that are in fact predictable, and in some cases feel less like organic character development and more like pieces being moved on a chess board. Last week, though, everything moved in the right direction: even if it was predictable, it felt totally in character, and like the proper culmination to the storylines set up over this season and last season, for that matter.
What doesn’t work in “Keeping Up Appearances,” however, is that none of it felt natural: every storyline had an element to it that felt artificial. Whether it was in order to rush Jason Street to a happy ending, or introduce a potential character for a reboot-driven fourth season, or push Tim Riggins into college, everything felt dialed in on that purpose. And in an episode all about selling (house, people, football, etc.), I feel like the show was all too willing to show us, their audience, that they had a (somewhat) shameless agenda on the table.
“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.