Monday, October 22, 2007

The skinning of the Dillon Panthers

The first two scenes of this week's Friday Night Lights showed everything that's gone so wrong with this formerly great show.

First it's Landry waking up in bed next to Tyra. He's shirtless. They fumble awkwardly. Landry does his Landry bit that worked wonderfully when he played sidekick to Matt Saracen but feels painful when he's the center of attention. (Landry being the center of attention -- it would be like if halfway through Boogie Nights, the movie turned focus to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Scotty. It hurts.) Tyra clumsily dresses and jumps through Landry's bedroom window. In the back of the shot is Landry's dad, doing some kind of yardwork. Folk emo plays. We note that Landry's bedroom wall has a chart of the Periodic Table, the kind of telling detail to expect from this show, but not nearly enough to redeem the sitcom-quality opening sequence. Cut to Landry's dad, having spotted Tyra jump out the window of his likable but clumsy son. He's taking care of the trash. (Question: Does that signal to us that Landry's cop-dad thinks that Tyra is trash, or that he's going to be the one to clean up the mess? Time will tell.)

Then we segue to Landry's counterpart, Riggins, who's also shirtless and getting out of bed. He looks out the window and see his older brother embracing the same next door neighbor who was the subject of Riggins's affection last season. Poor Riggins!

Next it's Coach Taylor waking in bed with Tami. The new baby is between them. "I've gotta get goin'," he says. "Well that just sucks," she says. We see him in a diner. The local radio station plays overhead. Dillon's sportstalk guys talk about Coach Taylor as a "Judas." Walking out to his car, Saracen approaches him and apologizes to Coach for the fact that he and Julie broke up. Saracen stammers in that earnest Saracen way that made us like him so much in the beginning, and then he walks off.

Riggins is at practice. New Coach is punishing him again. Riggins has been punished by New Coach in every episode. This time he carries a tire overhead while New Coach badgers him with a series of taunts. Riggins staggers, then drops the tire. He's fainted. Poor Riggins! "Get up, Riggins!" screams New Coach. "Get up!" The players gather around him, and the next shot is Riggins on a stretcher, loaded into an ambulance. Pan to Landry, looking ridiculous in football gear; Saracen; Smash; and Street. All are concerned. Poor Riggins!

Roll credits, playing the theme music that once made me tingle but now makes me recoil.

More melodrama and nonsense has happened before the credits than we'd expect in three episodes last year. We've already had reminders of why everything has gone so bad.

Poor Landry, and poor Jesse Plemons, the actor who plays him. Last year Landry was a touch of comic relief and purity in a pretty dark show. A smart kid, he laid low. He was friends with Saracen. Saracen was a functional orphan at home. Landry was unloved at school. They looked after each other. It wasn't more complex than that. Their relationship was recognizable. They seemed like real high school kids. Three episodes into Season 2, and Landry has killed a potential rapist by bashing his skull. Now he's waking up shirtless next to Tyra. The window-hopping hijinks ensue, the dad spots this, and we're off to sitcom city. I'm sure Landry was pleased to get laid, but the mangling of this morning was bad for the show, and hence bad for us.

The Riggins collapse was another piece of farce that shouldn't have any place in the show. Guys collapse in football practice; every August there are a couple stories about kids dying this way. But now the show is just playing with us. This is not how it's supposed to be done on Friday Night Lights. We saw Jason Street taken down and paralyzed in the pilot episode. A year later, they're practicing blatant manipulation, filmed in the most dramatic way possible, his body tied to a stretcher and key character kneeling down, looking concerned.

Not to worry, though: It was just a close call. The writers were only manipulating you. Riggins isn't dead! He was just dehydrated, as we learn when we get back from commercials. Lyla Garrity happens to walk past his hospital room, where she stops in to see him. Awkward exposition follows, and then Lyla invites him to church. Minka Kelly overacts via facial expressions; she suddenly seems like she belongs on the CW. "You can be lost in Dillon, you know," she says.

And then we find out that Street is going to go to Mexico for stem cell treatments. And then things really start to go downhill.

The episode features Tami slapping Julie when she finds Julie frenching the Swede in his car. Landry fears that a lost watch is going to tie him to the murder, and that the police are going to find him. (A moment of silence, as we reflect on the horror that such a setnence exists.)

In the middle of the Friday game, Saracen punches Smash on the field. Bedlam breaks out -- what in the heck? Looks like New Coach can't keep the team together!

Then there's the hideous relationship between Saracen and the caretaker hired to tend to his mentally ill grandmother. I shudder to think about where this might be headed. Last week she found titty magazines under his mattress. This week we learn that she's from Guatemala, where her father is a teacher and her mother runs an insurance office. She's only in America to get a nursing degree and to help people. Hence, she can't ... do Saracen's laundry.

But she can give him a massage and sing to him in Spanish. It's a song she learned from her grandmother. By now it's only a matter of time before Saracen and the Guatemalan home healthcare worker share a tender moment, make out, and probably bang. Then something will happen and Matt will be confused. Based on the writers' decisions so far, she'll probably get harassed by the Minutemen or some kind of anti-immigrant group, and then Saracen will punch and/or kill them for being mean to her.

It's off the rails. Stick a fork in it. The writers and producers are murdering this show, but it's slow death. They keep toying with us, throwing in a handful of moments reminiscent of what made Season 1 special, only to bastardize it a few minutes later. The good FNL sneaks in when Buddy Garrity meets Riggins at the hospital. Someone over 18 needs to sign Riggins out, and luckily it's Buddy. This is appropriate because Buddy's now alone in the world, just like Riggins. They've alienated the women in their lives, and both like liquor. You get the feeling that Riggins could be Buddy Garrity one day, if only he had some polish and social grace.

They drive past fields. Garrity blames Riggins's collapse on New Coach. New Coach has been pushing the guys way too hard in the blazin' sun, showing no mercy, practices running over 15 minutes. "It's no wonder you passed out," says Buddy. "Actually," Riggins says, "I think I passed out cuz I was hung over, Mr. Garrity." Buddy pulls over. He turns deadly serious. He doesn't ever want to hear Tim Riggins say that again. "I've seen you play with a hangover many times, and you played like a champ. This is because of that coach. This is all about McGregor, and I don't want you to put any of it on yourself. Okay?" "Okay." "Okay."

That stretch was sterling stuff. The writers have put Buddy in a quasi-physical confrontation with his wife, but otherwise, Buddy, Riggins and Coach Taylor are the only two characters not yet betrayed by the show's writing staff. Among most of the principals, the performance remain flawless. There are some Minka Kelly problems, but the writers haven't been helpful to her. She's born again, after all -- one of the only new themes that I find convincing. The problem may not be her performance so much as adjusting to the newfound righteousness of her naive, entitled character. I still can't help but feel like she's underwater. Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton and Zach Gilford are as good as ever. The show might be better if we just put the three of them in a diner, talking for 60 minutes.

I might need to quit this. Tonight I dropped in a DVD of Season One, which I bought back in August, when I was looking forward to Season Two in a way usually reserved for Michigan football and Hold Steady albums. Watching series' the first two episodes was a reminder of what made the show so special in the first place -- the way that all the drama unfolded in conversations on front steps and smoky restaurants. Everything was between the lines. The show knew how to use silence. There was a meaner edge, one that didn't need to be communicated with slapping and fistfights. The drama was all about adjusting to the threat of failure, and a very real sense that when these people were away from the escape and promise of high school football, they lived in a very unhappy world. There wasn't room for error. The terror was failure and alienation, not being caught by the cops for killing a rapist. Season One hardly made a false move.

Twin Peaks suffered the same fate. It had a fanatical but small fanbase and critical acclaim. It wasn't a commercial success, so the plots shifted. They became tidier. The viewership didn't grow with the show losing its soul.

This may have been unavoidable. Fans rallied against a likely cancellation by NBC, and renewal followed. Sometimes it's bad to want more, though. Season One gave us perfect closure. Good novelists know what to leave out and when to end the story. The Office (the real version) had just 13 episodes and didn't waste a second. Now I'm stuck with the memory of Landry as a murderer and Lothario, Tammy punching Julie and Saracen starting on-field fights before getting a neck massage from his grandma's home healthcare provider. It wasn't meant to be like this.


evil girl said...

i think two of my braincells just died.

CrimeNotes said...

Me too.

dmbmeg said...

I skimmed over this entire post. I haven't seen one episode of this show.

But thanks for the Boogie Nights reference.

blythe said...

ok, now wait one hot minute here. granted, i'm new to the FNL scene (I spent the weekend catching up on season one), I think season two isn't as horrible as you're intimating. yes, there are some fantastical elements in the mix, but, dude, small towns have fucked up shit happening in them all the time. tyra/landry = no one ever taking them seriously prior to each other - it's high school, it makes sense, all you want is for someone to get you. and i like the garrity/riggens parallels - both father and daughter. and, my ex bf totally got blown by his cleaning lady in high school, so i know that happens. the only bit that's a little off the mark (ok, a lot) is the upcoming episode of streets losing it in mexico. i don't think so. also, it's better than anything else on tv, except maybe the hills. now that's solid stuff.

crimenotes said...

I really like Terrence Malick's movies. I also love Oliver Stone. If The Thin Red Line turned into Platoon halfway through, I would have been pissed. The show made a radical switch in temperament, pace and focus, but not in a way that feels like creative growth or ambition. It's just a different show, one with many watchable moments, but little of the care and subtlety that made the first season more than just watchable. Not many shows maintain a high quality forever, but not many make such a quick change.

As annoyed as I am, the first season really was like NBC's biggest gift to American popular culture in a decade. I can't be too harsh when these people gave us something so special; it's more like I'm sad that it's over, and I miss it.