Friday Night Lights and unmet expectations

24Jan09

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)?

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6 Responses to “Friday Night Lights and unmet expectations”

  1. 1 Chris Becker

    I’d suggest that you give it at least through episode four. If episode four doesn’t light your fire, it’s not gonna happen.

    I’ve watched all but the final two episodes of season 3, and I’d say it’s been superior to season 2. Yes, there are some character contradictions (one key character in particular develops in a way that I don’t buy), but then on the other hand, in returning the show to its first season feel, they actually have a tendency to repeat specific moments and emotions, and while I liked them enough to not mind the repetition, I’d also like to see the show building new layers, not just rehashing. Finally, there’s a real clunker of an episode in there, one of the most crappily written in the whole series.

    But all that negativity stated, I’ve really enjoyed this season. It’s funny, I didn’t care for much of season 2 for exactly the reason you saying you’re not liking this season: I felt it betrayed what attracted me to the show in the first place. And that’s not because of the Landry incident in and of itself. It’s that the season’s plotlines so often had the characters divided up into separate groups, like they were each on their own show, not the same one. What I love about vintage FNL is how interconnected all the characters are; when something happens to one, you get to see how it reverberates across everybody’s lives (with the high school and rural settings, and football of course, playing a key role in that). And that’s what I felt was lost with big chunks of season 2 (with exceptions, of course). As just a small example, Landry and Saracen together are magic, and yet we barely got any of that because Landry was too busy with his cover-up and Saracen with the hot maid. I think season 3 gets back to the good stuff in that regard, and if it has to break a few eggs to get the omelet cooking again, I’ll live with it.

  2. I agree that perhaps the shifting budget, network pressures, and the time lapse/strike causes a lot of jumps and changes in the process. The show can explain this in part by having quite a bit of a time gap between season two and season three. Although perhaps a cop-out, some of the changes you mention can be explained by the gap in time (Saracen getting over Carlotta’s departure; Lyla’s shift; etc.); some others will be addressed to a degree as the season goes along. I found that the show really started to pick up some momentum with the new season, and I feel more is done to make the aging of characters, and their potential for moving on, a little more realistic this season…

  3. Jason, I must admit – I didn’t think I’d ever find someone who was so positive about Season Two, so taking your perspective on the third season is a bit challenging for me. That being said, after some wrangling of my frustration with Season Two, I can see your point: Season Three is certainly not an extension of any of those ideas, and adds few new layers to this scenario.

    There is a nostalgia that permeates the third season, a back to basics approach that returns to the first season far more than the second. The result is a fair bit of self-plagiarism to be honest: the show goes back to the well on numerous occasions, an action that feels less like network wrangling and more like creative realignment that in the minds of many was necessary after Season Two. I’ll agree with Chris – the problems went beyond the Tyra/Landry storyline and into how that divided the series and removed some of the key relationships that made it work.

    What Season Three is, sometimes through contrivance and in other scenarios through well-drawn character developments, bring those relationships back to the forefront. I’ll echo Chris with Episode 4 being a real turning point – it’s at that point the show stops reminding us how solid it used to be and reminds us instead how much it is capable of giving us goosebumps. If you’re unmoved by that, then I’d keep watching but without an expectation that the show is going to suddenly enter into new territory: with a shortened order, a smaller budget, and considerable critical/audience backlash, this is a show that was done trying new things. It’s a reboot, simple as that.

    If it helps at all, if the show miraculously received a fourth season, the setup at season’s end for that feels much more like what you were looking for: a real extension of things. They just felt like, with the strike interruption and the complaints about quality, extending on Season 2 might not have been the best move, even though ignoring it has its own consequences.

  4. Thanks all for the replies. To be clear, I don’t dislike the first 2 episodes, as much as feeling that they were actually a step down from s2. Now since I seem to like s2 much more than everyone else, that decline is not as big of a deal as it might seem. But I do hope that what y’all suggest is true about the return to form – I have no doubt the s2/s3 transition will fade in my mind as I move forward, so I’ll be able to take it on its own terms.

  5. 5 Mike

    I’ve been looking all around the internet for some reactions to the inconsistencies between season 2 and 3(yes I’ve just got into the series by netflix), and found more, beacuse Jason’s thoughts absolutly reflect mine, and after 6 episodes into season 3 it still hasn’t changed. I understand the need to change but to do it so drasticly makes it very unconfortable to watch. It’s like one of the goals are to ridicule the 2nd season. Thanks for your thoughts Jason, I aboslutly agree with you, and I am curious if things turn around in season 4 and 5, becuse this one is lost on me.

    • I haven’t watched any of s5 yet, but s4 does continue some of the implausibilities in continuity that FNL started in s2 – namely that there’s another side of town that’s the wrong-side of the tracks, ripe for an intra-Dillon rivalry along class and race lines (plus Tami’s still inconceivable career arc!). But s4 was my favorite since s1, and features the best episode in the entire series, “The Son.”


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