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.
“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.
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.
December 9th, 2009
“What else do you want?”
Last season, when Friday Night Lights said goodbye to Jason Street and Smash Williams, they were leaving to be able to follow their dreams. Jason left Dillon so that he could be with his baby mama, while Smash left so that he could fulfill his dream of playing college football despite his recent injury. In both cases, what kept them in Dillon was out of their control: Street’s injury kept him from taking the path he had always imagined for himself, while Smash’s injury delayed what was supposed to be his triumphant moment. They did not so much stay in Dillon as they were forced to remain in Dillon, and as such we were able to view their eventual departures as an overcoming of unique circumstances.
However, if we root for Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen to leave Dillon, Texas, we are effectively arguing against staying rather than arguing for their departure. Dillon is holding these two characters back more than it is helping them move onto the next stage of their journey, and while both Jason and Smash found support and opportunity in Dillon that could give them the boost they needed it has become inherently clear that living in a trailer and delivering pizzas is not going to be a stepping stone to a prosperous future for either 7 or 33.
Accordingly, “Stay” is about those characters (and quite a few others) dealing with the separation anxiety that people have with the town of Dillon, the people who live in it, and the connections they made that cannot be overwritten so easily by things like common sense or opportunity. You may want to stay, but if you ask yourself what else you might want out of life you might find that staying isn’t going to achieve those goals. While not quite the emotional powerhouse of last week, it’s an almost too consistently themed hour that connects well with the last we’ll see of Matt Saracen for at least a little while.
“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.