Thursday, December 07, 2006

Friday Night Lights (1x02-1x07)

After a fantastic pilot, the show keeps up the intensity and visual mystique, even as it falls into some well worn patterns of serial drama. In the pilot review, I talked about the way that recent debut episodes have totally raised the game in terms of visual and narrative progression, creating fully formed narrative universes in a television hour. But, after building this universe, where is there left to go?

In terms of presentation, the show's kept the very dynamic, verite visual style of the first episode. The handheld camera work brings our eyes right to the most important part of the frame, telling the story in glances and body language. I think this kind of camerawork can really help actors because it allows us them to just perform without worrying so much about how to emphasize what they're doing to the camera. A traditionally shot show necessitates a somewhat theatrical performance, with the actor catering to the audience in a set location. This show goes in a more dogme direction, allowing the action to happen and just catching it with the camera. I'm sure there's still a lot of planning and blocking, but you get the feeling of spotaneity, and that's what matters most. It's hard to keep this level of stylization on a weekly basis, but, with the exceptin of Battlestar Galactica, this is the most interesting looking show on television now.

That said, I do miss some of the nonverbal storytelling of the pilot. Now, with more responsibility to advance the plot arcs, the drifting shots of the town and silent focus on the people has largely gone by the wayside. There's always some interesting musical moments in the episode, but the focus on visual storytelling that was present in the pilot just isn't there. I may not be in the majority here, but I'd rather see a slower paced show that emphasizes the visual than one that rushes through stories. I find it annoying that people constantly criticize shows for moving too slow, particularly Heroes and BSG, then rush to say they're not as good as they used to be. It's not a race, events are more meaningful if they build, and we get to know the characters.

Buffy season six and Six Feet Under season three, arguably the two greatest seasons of television ever, both have a slow build structure, totally immersing us in the characters' troubles and then blowing everything up at the end. 'I'm Sorry, I'm Lost' isn't the best episode of the series solely because of what happens, it works so well because we've been immersed in what's Nate feeling, and are able to completely understand what he's going through in that moment. Sure, there may be a few slow episodes earlier in the season, but if you're going to approach a TV show as one big story, there's got to be slower parts. So, rather than filling the slow parts with circular narrative stopgaps, just focus on the visuals and the world and just relax in the characters' presence. Certainly by the end of Buffy, it wasn't the narrative moments that made the show work, it was hanging out with characters I'd come to love. If there was a follow up Buffy project, I wouldn't want a big bad, I'd rather see a Before Sunset type thing, with the characters just being together and reflecting on their lives.

But, that's a digression. This show isn't to that point yet, though the characters are becoming more interesting and developed. Saracen is probably my favorite, a goofy guy who probably just played football to make his dad happy is now thrust into the ultimate position of power in the town. His basic conflict is his reluctance to fully move into the football players' world. These are the people he's mocked all his life, and most notably in 'El Accidente,' we see that he knows this glory is fleeting. He's not going to go pro, and it's tough for him to get caught up in things when he knows that it will all end in a couple of years.

That's the spectre hanging over every character on the show, the knowledge that this is probably the high point of their lives. As we see with the former state champion quarterback, it's a lot tougher on the college level, they lose the chance for uncomplicated glory they have in Dillon. And, after those couple of years on top, the fall will be harsh. In the scenes with the team, there's the inevitable knowledge that the people there next year will be a very different crew, the coaches stay, but the kids move on, and that's the way of things in high school, football and otherwise. I think it must be weird being a teacher, staying in the same place, while those you teach move on to different things. When you're in class, you're unaware of the fact that the teacher has done this many times before, and with a few exceptions, you're probably not that special a class. Go back in ten years and who's going to remember you? Certainly not the students, everything changes, and soon no one who remembers you even works at the school.

Anyway, back to Saracen, he's the axis through which we can see both inside and outside the football machine. His friend, Landry, is simultaneously reveling in his connections to the football team and worried that Saracen will fully assimilate into their world and leave him behind. So far, that hasn't happened, but it's not easy for Saracen to navigate this world. On top of that, there's the trouble with his grandmother, the kind of realistic touch you usually don't see in TV. He's got so much going on, it's excusable when he doesn't give his all on the field.

Along with this heavier stuff, there is some humor. Saracen's almost painful awkwardness is very true to life. I love the scene where Coach Taylor tells him to take some girl in the backseat, and then realizes he was talking about his daughter. Because the show is so realistic otherwise, they can get away with what might be broad humor on another show. In comedy, I find it's always funnier to do a realistic universe. Cheech and Chong smoking pot, not particularly funny. Lester Burnham, straight laced businessman, smoking up is hilarious becuase it violates the code of the world he lives in, and does so in a realistic manner. The scene where Saracen asks Julie out works really well because he's so awkward and unconfident, saying "I'm just throwing it out there." You're simultaneously laughing at his lack of confidence and realizing that you'd be doing the same thing, or at least I would be.

A more troubling plotline is the relationship between Lyla and Tim. It plays fairly well, but comes off a bit too soapish. The Saracen stuff seems to take place in the real world, but they're from TV reality. It's very difficult to do a story like this without desending into melodrama. For me, the most realistic kind of writing is when characters don't do or say what they want. So, having Lyla say "I'm sleeping with my paralyzed boyfriend's best friend" may be designed to hit the nail on the head, but it winds up feeling a bit melodramatic. That said, the section where they go out on the boat is wonderful, Jason's lack of knowledge coupled with our knowledge makes his happiness painful, and just when we're thinking that maybe it can work, he finds out what's going on.

In general, the Jason storyline has been well handled. The best moment was definitely when he saw the wheelchair basketball, and for the first time was able to recover some of his hope. I like the way he makes no progress before that, but after is working on improving. Now, you could argue he's recovering too fast, but I think it makes sense. This is a guy who was in peak physical shape, if anyone can come back quick, he can. All it took was the will. The other great thing about this is the mix of pain and happiness he feels when with the team. The scene when he rolls out onto the field really conveys this mixed emotion, as does the locker room scene after that.

Elsewhere, Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor continues to own the screen. They've done a good job of allowing him to totally buy into what they're doing, but still keep a bit of distance. He's torn between Buddy and his wife, between the idea of winning as the number one priority and football as something help the kids grow up into better people. This is the core tension of the show, and it was hit on a bit obviously in 'El Acidente.' I think the show is good enough that they don't need to spell things out in the way that episode did. Like in Battlestar Galactica, any time an episode too obviously tackles a theme, it comes off false. It's better to let things play out as subtext, the show is good enough that we get what they're doing.

So, in general I'm thrilled with the direction of the show. The few hiccups along the way don't detract from the way the series has created a very unique world that's unlike anything I've seen before on TV. I'm not a big football fan and I usually hate stuff about the middle of the country, but the show completely won me over. This is easily the best new show of the season, and one of the best on TV right now.


Anonymous said...

Hey. I enjoyed reading your post. I really love "FNL" and I agree with the bit about the camera focusing on the details and how that adds to the story.

I think its funny how you say that you hate anything to do with the middle of the country. So many shows are set in NY or LA and believe it or not way more Americans live elsewhere. Its refreshing to see a story that is set somewhere else and is about something else besides murders or being rich or working in a hospital.

It always cracks me up how New Yorkers think that people who aren't from there wouldn't "get" them when the majority of movies and TV shows are about life in New York.

Oh, I'm from Texas, btw! Keep up the good work!

Patrick said...

Perhaps I was a bit condescending in my treatment of the middle of the country there, especially considering the vast majority of people who write for TV are from NY/LA, you're likely to get a much more realistic picture of those places than we do of the middle of the country.

And yeah, it's great to see a show that isn't about doctors or lawyers. I think a lot of people who aren't fans of the sport are reluctant to watch a show about football, and people who are fans might not appreciate all the relationship stuff here, though I'm sure a lot do. I'm really glad the show got picked up for the season and I think it's the kind of show that could catch on if it starts getting more media buzz. I saw one episode and was completely hooked, so all it takes is getting people to that first one.