Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Friday Night Lights: 'Black Eyes and Broken Hearts' (1x16)

Hey look, a post that's not about Babylon 5 or The Invisibles, it's been a while since that happened. Anyway, in the wake of my B5 marathon last week, I got a bit backed up on other shows and didn't catch last week's Friday Night Lights until tonight. After watching it, I'm wondering why I waited, this show is so good it should be priority viewing from the moment it's aired. I'm not sure if it just caught me at the right moment, but I'm thinking this is the best episode since the pilot, capturing everything that makes the show so powerful.

There's three mains torylines in the episode. The major one is the controversy surrounding Mac, which carries over from last week. The story works well because it's the sort of controversy that could easily be built out of comments that are on the border between racism and just talking. In the scene where he says those things, I could see Mac getting pushed into saying what he shouldn't. The scene that really broke things for me was when Smash tried to talk things over with Mac, and Mac shot him down. That crossed the line and justified the walkout at the end of the episode.

Here, things are more uneasy. Eric wants to escape from the controversy, but it won't go away. The scene in the guidance counselor's office was fantastic, throughout Eric and Tami feel like completely believable characters and their relationship is the core of the show. The difference between great writing, like this show, and decent writing, like Heroes, is that here, the characters feel real, like they have lives independent of the plots that are created for them on the show. The world feels totally real, a function of the naturalistic acting and camerawork, but also the writing, the way that we know these characters from the moment they appear, yet they continue to reveal layers that surprise us.

The game itself was frustrating to watch, I was right there with Coach Taylor wanting the penalty call, and Riggins' attack on the rival player was a wonderful cathartic moment. The most powerful stuff came after the game, the other team's fans showering the Dillon players in garbage was a strong visual, and the pullover scene was the dramatic high point of the episode, taking a real event and turning it into a conflict more tense and dramatic than nearly any action sequence.

I think the episode lets Mac off somewhat easily here. Taylor is able to keep his coach and all his players, and finds a moment of healing at the end. But, that's just where this story ends, the tension is still there, it's just been resolved for the moment. For Smash, the critical line is Mac acknowledging that he made the mistake. I like the way that Smash's divide between his activism and commitment to the team is embodied in the two women in his life. I think we'll be getting some interesting confrontations between Waverly and Mrs. Smash later in the season.

All this was great, but it wasn't even the highlight of the episode. That was the stuff involving Julie. All the characters here feel like real high schoolers, even though Tyra looks like she's at least 25. Jason and Lyla have a more standard TV relationship, I prefer the goofy bumbling of Saracen and Landry. Those two are like people I knew in high school, a side of things you don't usually see captured. They're not geeks per se, they're just sort of there, goofy and awkward in the way that high schoolers are. Speaking of goofy and awkward, the casting on that JV team was great, with some people who look perhaps too real.

The scene at the strip club was hilarious, particularly Landry's stuff, and then led to some great drama with Julie and her parents. Julie is trying to assert her own identity, and that inevitably means clashing with her parents. The dynamic with her and Tyra recalls the Lindsay and Kim Kelly situation in Freaks and Geeks. That's the show that this most reminds me of. Every other show about high school is a glamourized version. While I love Buffy, I never considered it a great take on high school life. It was more a fantasy for the viewer, that rather than just being outsiders, you're engaged in an epic battle for humanity's future. That wasn't what my high school experience was like. It was more of the small triumphs and frequent troubles that these characters face. Both Freaks and Geeks and FNL are notable for refusing to play by generic rules.

Most high school shows are soap operas, and even though these shows use some of those generic elements, they're presented in an indie film style, dedramatized realist manner. FNL has some of the most beautiful cinematography on TV, capturing a unique environment in a dynamic manner. With Battlestar still stumbling, it might be time to bump this up to best show on TV status. I'm just curious how many playoff games they're going to have, there's still six episodes left in the season and I can't imagine there being more than one or two playoff games left. But, I guess we'll find out tomorrow.

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