Continued disappointment with Friday Night Lights

18Apr09

Back in January, I wrote about my disappointment in the third season of Friday Night Lights. After a wonderful first season, I found the second season more palatable than most fans did, but found the missteps more glaring in the third season, despite the consensus praise for the season as a return to form. Now that the season has ended (and I’ve caught up), I’m sorry to say that I haven’t improved my opinion on the show and where it’s going – I still find it overall a good show, but I’m frequently annoyed by how much better it could be based on what worked so well in the first season.

The show’s main appeal for me in the first season was its sense of texture – you got a feel for both the place of Dillon, Texas, and the relationships between the characters. The way they spoke to each other, the way they spent their days – this felt both dramatically engaging and new for television. Season 2’s flaws seemed to be with the directions the writers took the stories – they added new characters to disrupt relationships, and they created the unrealistic murder plotline. But, and I know I’m in the minority here, the show still worked because the feeling of place and characters still felt true – the texture between the Taylors, the conflicts over fitting in versus getting out of Dillon, the multifaceted dimensions of the town (including the new dimensions of the church culture and Santiago’s Latino neighborhood). And even thought some of the plots might have been unreal, the way they were told felt true to Dillon – the murder wasn’t about the crime, but how it mattered to Landry and Tyra’s characters.

Season 3 played to the show’s weaknesses instead of its strengths. The worst part of the show for me has always been the way it portrays the football games – contrived plays and scenarios to maximize artificial drama, a skewed sense of focus that makes it seem as if the team has no defensive or special team players (have we ever seen a kick or punt?), and an inability to offer a sense of what type of team the Panthers are, aside from a tendency toward improbable come-from-behind victories. I can generally overlook this, as the games are usually a small part of the episodes and the surrounding character drama is more relevant. But unlike the rest of the show, the football games lack a sense of texture.

Season 3 seemed to construct nearly all of its plotlines like its football games: maximized contrivances for exaggerated drama, last minute twists and reversals, inconsistency in tone and style, and rushing through moments that lack overt drama in favor of the sensational plays. As I wrote before, the entire Tami as principal scenario felt completely forced and unreal – and how it enabled the finale’s twist of Coach Taylor’s firing and switch to East Dillon was even more unearned as a plot development. The McCoy’s came in as caricatured villains, setting up obvious conflicts that were played for their extreme drama rather than nuance. And instead of portraying the potentially intriguing portrait of how McCoy’s money and influence poisoned the town’s attitude toward the extremely successful tenure of Coach Taylor, we fast-forwarded to the final minutes of the game to see the contrived twist that felt overly forced and unearned. In essence, season 3 sacrificed the texture of storytelling to emphasize narrative events – while that’s typical of much television, it’s not what makes FNL distinct or enjoyable.

For me, the dual emotional centers of the show are Tami Taylor and Matt Saracen, characters with rich depth that are often put in situations with conflicting priorities. In season 2, Tami’s portrayal of a mother grappling with an infant, teenager, absent husband, and career goals was one of the most satisfying and nuanced portraits of contemporary parenting I’ve seen on TV. In season 3, all that disappeared (including Baby Gracie), with Tami’s function shifting to a plot contrivance to facilitate other people’s stories – Tyra’s attempts to get into college, Buddy’s quest for the Jumbotron, the McCoy’s entree into Dillon, Julie’s teenage rebellions, etc. Connie Britton’s still great, but Tami’s character is a shadow of what she’d been in the first two seasons.

Matt seemingly had more to do this season, what with dealing with his grandmother’s decline, the return of his mother, being benched as QB1, and his reconnection with Julie. But some of his decisions were unrelated to his emotional motivations than conveniences of plotting – for instance, I never got a sense of what he wanted out of college, just that he needed to sacrifice something to stay with his grandmother. (I will say his attempts to switch to receiver was a high-point for the season.) The micromoments between Matt and Julie are golden, and his relationship with Coach Taylor continues to be a complex tangle of emotions on both ends; but Matt was too often buffeted by the plotting needs of the series to create conflicts.

Another aspect of season 3 that really disappointed me was the whitening of Dillon. The first two seasons presented interesting intersections between race and class, highlighting how the town was divided along a number of axes and the potentials (and limits) of football to enable cross-cultural dialogue. But with the conclusion of Smash’s storyline and the disappearance of Santiago and Carlotta, season 3 presented an all-white vision of Dillon, personified by the new additions of the McCoys. Perhaps the East Dillon plotline next year will rectify this, as it appears that the East side is the “wrong” side of the tracks in town, but it also seems that NBC’s strategy for the show is to create teen heartthrobs to draw in an audience, who are assumed to be white in the logic of commercial television.

Anyway, I’m curious to hear from some of the defenders who weighed in on my last FNL post, as I’m pretty burnt on the series. I’m on the fence as to whether I should return to Dillon for season 4, as I increasingly gripe at the TV more than getting swept away into its world. What am I missing here?



7 Responses to “Continued disappointment with Friday Night Lights”

  1. 1 scottellington

    Faith. I agree completely with each of your objections to the standardization of season three, and I’ve always objected strenuously to the show’s reliance on the cinematic kitsch that Grant McCracken recently cited as deriving from the Dektor approach to restless camera; widely-popularized in NYPD Blue.
    Nonetheless, I look forward with unjustified enthusiasm to the evolution of nerddom (Landry) and to the contextual delineation Tyra’s discovery of her emerging self-respect.
    That I find the characterizations fascinating has less to do with the admittedly arbitrary and contrived situations into which they’ve been written, and everything to do with the sense of engagement the show has provided for me; and the faith that season four will feature more of the stuff that’s stuck me to it. I probably rely too heavily on the tenuous parallels between Tim Riggins and Jimmy McNulty. The tempestuous fluctuations of their respective struggles with success and humanity is likely the engine that drives my faith in each of these outsider characters and bonds me to each of these shows.

  2. This surprises me, as everyone I know who watches the show has been unbelievably pleased with the developments of the Third Season. Are we just so involved with the respective character lines that their fulfillment (whether in the form of the endearing development of Lyla and Tim, Landry and his band, or the renaissance of Saracen and Julie) blinds us to other deficient, including your excellent point on the ‘whitening’ of Dillon?

    Nevertheless, the last time I felt this uniformly pleased with a season was Season 4 of The Wire. I submit, for consideration, three scenes that absolutely made the season for me (spoilers below, for those of you who haven’t seen Season 3):

    1.) Lyla with beer breath

    2.) Tyra’s mother tells her that she’s always been unpredictable

    3.) Julie telling Matt that she didn’t come over to eat his leftover lunch; Julie and Matt in the car in the early morning; Julie and Matt mouthing ‘I love you.’

    4.) Coach sitting on the bed waiting to tell Connie that he walked in on Matt and Julie.

    5.) And, most importantly, Connie and Julie’s sex conversation. At first I thought it was a female thing, but I’ve spoken to numerous men who’ve felt enormously moved by this scene, both for its honesty and heartfelt sentiment.

    What sticks out to me most is the lack of cliche in each of the above scenes — each of which grappled with incidents and emotions that regularly pop up in serial melodrama. I know we (media scholars) always talk about naturalness and poignancy when we talk about this show, but that’s what continues to draw me back to the show, and, for me at least, I see Season 3 demonstrating the refinement of those traits.

  3. That should read “blinds us to other deficiencies”; and there are 5 Scenes, not 3 Scenes.

  4. 4 scottellington

    I guess I’ve always suspected or hoped that the fortunes of the inhabitants of a small Texas town would eventually relate to longstanding, unresolved, legacy problems faced by the rest of the nation. Jefferson Davis McCoy’s rise, East Dillon’s contentious seccession and eleven series starters locked in uncertainty at the end of this third season fan the flames of my original curiosity while bolstering my confidence that this television show has always been about something of historic importance and that it’s fundamentally meaningful, even though it wasn’t set in Crawford, and it’s mission has not been accomplished. So I’ll stay tuned.

  5. I share a number of your thoughts about season 3, including the regrettable narrowing of the show’s racial and ethnic diversity, the re-orientation of Tami’s role, etc. – but I still find the murder storyline from season 2 to be the single biggest crime committed by the writers and producers against the show. I also think that the East Dillon development, as contrived as it is, is much more credible than the move to TMU at the end of season 1. But, most of all, I found the show’s handling of the lives of first generation college students this year to be wonderful. My classes at Western are full of kids like Tyra, Tim, Smash, Matt, and watching this season helped me to imagine, with greater empathy, what it means for those students to be at university. I can forgive a lot for that.

  6. Thanks all for the comments. I think much of my frustration stems from the high expectations I had after loving s1, finding s2 still enjoyable even after everyone’s complaints, and then seeing s3 undo much that I liked while moving more toward convention and contrivance.

    Annie – I definitely find many individual moments of pleasure on the show, typically in the low-key relationship moments you mention. But it feels like those moments are more rare, crowded out by heavy-handed plotting and drama.

  7. Jason, I had hoped to write a much longer response to this, but with the new little one in the house I have never found the time to get to it, so I just submit and write this. Since I have recently been re-reading your interview with us on soaps, I suspect that my immense enjoyment of season three has everything to do with my feeling that there’s nothing more quintessentially a soap opera at the moment than FNL and that my thorough enjoyment of this show, feeling still that it is leagues better than any other show that I’ve watched, has everything to do with whatever underlying reasons there are that I’m drawn to soaps. You say that you “find many individual moments of pleasure on the show, typically in the low-key relationship moments you mention,” but that those moments are challenged by “heavy-handed plotting and drama.” Soap opera viewers have been trained for many years to seek out the low-key character moments amidst heavy-handed plotting and drama, the likes of which put soaps to shame, so perhaps part of the difference has to do with the question as to why people watch. For me, plot is an excuse to watch characters I love, and that defines the soaps viewing experience. I want to see the low-key moments, and FNL gives more fresh low-key moments than almost any show out there.

    I’m in the midst of watching The Wire at the moment. I find myself much more bothered by watching women jump in bed for no apparent reason with McNulty on The Wire, but it’s because I’m grading the shows with much different criteria in mind. FNL gives me much more of a feminine perspective and a focus on community relationships (more so in a true communal sense than a “struggle for power” perspective) than any other show, and I find that wholly satisfying in a way that I’m not by mystery-driven shows that are, plot-wise, much tighter and more masterful. I’m intrigued by the intimate details of The Wire (as I’m plowing through the third season), but it just can’t compare to the small moments of Buddy’s camping experience with his kids or Lyla trying to use the bathroom at the Riggins’ house.

    But, I’ll admit that there’s an identification with rural America playing a part of this here with me as well, in addition to the soaps tie-in…That being said, I totally agree about the unfortunate lack of emphasis on Connie this season, as well as the bleaching of the show.


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