Friday Night Lights and unmet expectations
My wife and I are latecomers to Friday Night Lights – we started watching the first season on Universal HD last winter and fell in love with the show’s sense of place, understated but compelling performances, and naturalistic dialogue. We heard that season 2 was disappointing, but we quite enjoyed it on DVD over the past month. I know that many fans found the Landry/Tyra plotline too unrealistic and out of step with the show’s naturalistic glimpse of working-class life – however, we both thought that it fit with the milieu sufficiently, and that the story emphasized the emotional impact the events had on the characters, which is the show’s strength.
Season 3 has come to NBC after its pre-run on DirectTV – I’d read praise for this season as a return to form, after the abrupt end to s2 caused by the writer’s strike. But after two episodes, I must say I’m quite disappointed. Spoilers beneath the fold if you haven’t caught up with NBC’s airing yet.
The first problem is that it feels far too much like a reboot. The dangling plots from season 2 are either ignored – Jason Street’s potential fatherhood, Tyra’s emergence as volleyball powerhouse and Tami’s move into coaching, Smash’s suspension and loss of scholarship, Tami’s old boyfriend, Santiago’s existence – or glossed over as irrelevant – Lyla’s relationship with the young preacher and Christianity itself, Matt’s attempt to move on from Carlotta.
Obviously this is in reaction to the strike, where 1/3 of season 2 was abandoned. I’m sure that NBC pushed the producers to make the show accessible to new viewers, so continuity was downplayed. And I’m sure part of our reaction is tied to having just finished watching s2 on DVD, with those dangling storylines fresh in our minds. But nonetheless, it feels like a slap in the face to fans who have stuck with the show and care about these characters.
Even more problematic are some of the new storylines moving forward. Tami becoming principal feels like a highly conventional television move – when you run out of stories, change a character’s job (even without rational explanation) to create new conflicts and situations. This move has a long tradition, especially in 1970/80s sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter and The Facts of Life. (And FNL has embraced the similar TV move for high school shows by having students perpetually remain seniors, as Riggins, Lyla, and Tyra all seem to have been held back for two years!) FNL should be better than this, as television storytelling has progressed to a point where viewers expect more from a program in terms of continuity than we got 30 years ago.
It’s not just that Tami becoming principal is so conventional – it’s also completely out of line with her character. In season 2, Tami is stressed out trying to juggle life as a mother of both an infant and teenager, and work is a refuge for sanity away from the kids – but her ambivalence between her roles as a mother and professional are in constant conflict. As a parent and professional, this experience is palpable, and Connie Britton’s performance captures all of the guilt, pride, stress, and regret that goes along with life as a working parent. So why would she suddenly take on a higher-stress leadership position (for which she is unqualified and probably unlicensed, by the way)? And in the first two episodes at least, her parental guilt has been ignored in lieu of professional ambitions for school reform, mostly to contrive conflict between Principal Taylor and Coach Taylor.
Clearly characters can change, and perhaps these stories will become more nuanced and less rote in coming weeks. But this misstep speaks to an important dynamic of serialized storytelling: a series needs to establish expectations for what a show might deliver, and either hold true to those norms or effectively cue the audience to the new rules. FNL has built its fanbase through a commitment to naturalistic, low-key storytelling, making the true-to-life issues faced by families the stuff of gripping character drama. More than those plots, however, the show is about these people – I feel like I know Tami well enough that I doubt that she’d actually want to be principal at this point in her life. And even if there is a rationale for it, I want to see it, not just be told about it out of the blue. I accepted Landry’s violence because it grew out of his love for Tyra, and it played out in a way that emphasized character drama over contrived crime plotting. But this promotion seems motivated solely by the network, not the character.
It’s hard not to compare FNL to two other shows returning this month – both Lost and Battlestar Galactica have come back to the air with surprising new stories to tell, but in ways that are true to their established expectations, moods, and genres. I’m willing to forgive FNL for story inconsistencies, discontinuities, and even the fudging of students’ academic years, while I would rail against BSG or Lost for much more minor continuity infractions. But FNL is all about the characters and their relationships, so my expectations are judged on those terms. And as of now, FNL is falling short of those expectations – let’s hope things turn around soon. And if any readers watched the DirectTV run, should I have faith (without spoilers, of course)?
Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows | 6 Comments
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