Friday, April 06, 2007

Friday Night Lights - 'Best Laid Plans' (1x21)

Until The Sopranos comes back on Sunday, and perhaps even after that, the best show on television is Friday Night Lights. Every week, this show gives us something amazing, with the most realistic, gritty acting and photography ever on a network television series. This is like the best kind of 70s filmmaking, but airing every single week.

While this week’s episode was great, I’m going to jump back and talk about lat week’s ‘Mud Bowl,’ the series’ best episode yet. I’m not someone who cries watching movies, I get emotionally involved, but I think knowing so much about the filmmaking process makes me approach things in a different way. I’m more awed by an incredible shot than the typical plot twist. But, the best directors, like Wong Kar-Wai or Terence Malick, use incredible technique to create intensely emotional moments. This show is probably the closest thing to Malick that’s ever aired on TV, using the filmmaking style to immerse you in the characters’ mindsets.

One of the reasons I enjoy longform TV series so much is that they give me the satisfaction of getting lost in a story. Watching most movies, I can see the seams of the three act structure, and the shortcuts used to develop character. Compare the TV show Firefly to the movie Serenity. On the show, the characters are just there, living their lives, sometimes they’re at the fore of events, other times they’re in the background. The events come out of their actions, but on film, the actions are imposed, and they are slotted into designated roles to fit with the story. Everyone has a little trait that is emphasized, an easy character arc that is resolved by the end of the film. It’s still a well done film, but it has nothing on Whedon’s TV work.

I haven’t seen the Friday Night Lights movie, but I’d imagine it’s a similar situation. I seriously doubt we would have gotten as deep into the cast as we have on this series. It’s particularly notable that characters who were initially on the periphery, like Landry and Tyra, have become central to the series, while one of the initial core characters, and most typical of TV, Lyla, has been drifting away. The series has evolved and become less about football and more about these peoples’ lives. If you’re not watching the show because you don’t like football, that’s like not watching Six Feet Under because you’re not a fan of funerals. The football is just a device used to center the action around, and with the exception of the mud bowl, most of the time I’m not as interested in the game as I am in the characters’ general lives.

This is a long way of getting to the point that the end of ‘Mud Bowl’ was the most emotionally affecting piece of cinema I’ve seen in a long time, probably since Inland Empire. Looking at the end of Babylon 5’s third season, I said it was a mistake to intercut a battle with the Shadows with Dr. Franklin’s bleeding death crawl because the two events didn’t have equivalent interest levels. Intercutting is tricky, particularly between a big conflict and something personal. There, I just didn’t care about Dr. Franklin and the intercutting dragged both stories down.

Here, they made the potentially dangerous choice to intercut an assault on Tyra with the muddy football game. By equating an attempted rape with a football game, you could wind up making the crime seem too insignificant, but in practice, the emotion of both situations compounded on each other, leading to a feeling of total desperation. The game itself became almost a greek chorus, commenting on Tyra’s struggle. This is what intercutting should do, make things more than the sum of their parts.

Tracking back, I’ve always been a fan of Landry, he was comedy gold throughout the series, and early in this episode, we got more of the same. I loved how he says he wants to move from supporting actor to leading man, and I was so frustrated when his car wouldn’t start. I figured we were headed for more comedy, with Landry desperately trying to reach Tyra.

So, I was really shocked when that guy attacked Tyra. Mix this in with the desperation of the game, and it was just total emotional immersion. I liked that they didn’t have Landry ride into the rescue, and when he finally does meet her, it’s clear that his character has been knocked out of his fantasy, comedy world into harsh reality. It was a masterful episode, and even though this week’s didn’t quite hit those heights, it was still brilliant.

I’ll start with the Landry/Tyra stuff. I love the way they skip over the obvious plot machinations we’ve all heard before, we don’t need to see Tami and Tyra talking about what happened, once she sees Landry in the car, cut to the police station, and we know everything we need to.

Landry’s ending speech to Tyra was an interesting mix of accurate and hurtful. I like that we’re not just focusing on him with a kind of puppy dog crush, instead we get to see that what she said to him affected him, and he wants a bit of revenge for it. And, even though it’s a classic TV thing to do, having Riggins show up right when Landry was telling her how he feels. But, it’s clear that what he said made some impact on her.

A potential relationship between the two of them raises on a lot of issues. While I love Freaks and Geeks, I think the show’s biggest mistake was putting Sam together with Cindy Sanders. Even though the relationship was fun to watch, it hurt the realism. As Joss Whedon said, you have to give the audience what they need, not what they want, and this was a clear case of giving the audience what they wanted. It also felt sort of like the writers using the show to retrospectively reject the girls who had rejected them. But, the biggest crime was that it was a very TV thing to do. In the world of TV, it only takes a few episodes for a popular girl to recognize that the geeky, but sensitive guy is the one she really should be with. We all want it to happen, but it’s just too easy, and if Landry and Tyra were to get together, it would be a clear case of what we want, not what we need.

This puts them in the unfortunate position of having to crush Landry, but I think it’s what must be done. Maybe down the line that could bring him and Tyra together, but not here. It just doesn’t make sense considering the characters’ disparate levels of life experience. But, I think his speech to her was brilliant because it was so cuttingly accurate. He moved right through the bullshit and told Tyra that she was going to become her mother, married to a jerk, with no agency in her life. If anything, it’ll make Tyra want to leave Dillon even more.

These two are maybe the eighth or ninth most important characters on the series, but each of the actors brings incredible power to the scene. The ensemble here is one of the best ever assembled on television, primarily because they don’t seem to be acting at all. The Academy Awards are all about transformations and mimicry when handing out their awards, but to me, the best kind of acting is the kind that doesn’t feel like acting at all. These people are their characters, and that, combined with the documentary style photography, gives the show a feeling of realism that few shows achieve.

The only actress who doesn’t consistently work for me is Minka Kelly as Lyla, but I’m not sure if her slight unnatural quality is who the character is actually supposed to be. Lyla seems marooned from The O.C., a more typical teen drama character. I’m happy to see her and Street break up, because at this point, he seems much more suited for Susie. My reading of Lyla is that she wants her life to be like the idealized high school experience you’d see on a teen drama, and when Street lets her down, she reacts in that sort of bitchy, whiny way the characters there would. Only occasionally are we let behind the image she projects to the outside world. What grates her so about Street’s infidelity is that he is moving outside their world. With her and Tim, they’re both football players, it’s an acceptable betrayal, but by being with Susie, Street is leaving her behind, evolving beyond her. That’s what their trip to Austin was about, showing that he doesn’t need her anymore.

That’s why I’m a bit uncertain about Street being a coach. I think it fits with his desire for competition, but also is a move backwards from his new life built with Herc and the Austin crew. I would guess that they developed that plot as a way of reintegrating Street into the main action, but I was cool with him being off in his own subplots, and I’m not sure this will work in the long term. But, for now, it does let us see him recapture some of the joy he lost after being rejected from the Olympic team. While the show frequently questions the culture the town has built around the football team, it never questions the basic joy of the game. That’s why the mud bowl episode was so powerful, particularly when Eric and Tami stand amidst the cows and imagine the field they could build there.

Elsewhere, we get the family drama surrounding Eric’s job offer. I love the opening sequence of the episode, a montage style succession of scenes showing his awe at the stadium and program he could be a part of. Eric is living out his dream, and he just doesn’t understand why Tami and Julie can’t see that. He thinks in an objective way, that Austin is better than Dillon, but doesn’t understand their emotional connection to the place. I was assuming that he’d be turned around by the end of the episode, after the roast, and was really surprised to see him remain committed to going to Austin. That final scene, with Eric holding Tami, both looking toward the camera, had a fantastic air of menace, neither willing to budge, but giving up the fight for the present.

The first act of the episode was backed by a fantastic piece of music, I believe an Explosions in the Sky song. The opening of the episode was full of character conflict, and the swelling music united the disparate pieces into a coherent emotional whole. I was wondering how much worse things could get after this opening, it made the roast sequence incredibly tense because I kept waiting for some kind of major blowup.

There were so many highlights in the episode, I can’t go in depth on all of them, but here were some of the great things: Julie’s tearful talk with Matt, leading to his antagonistic stares at the coach for the rest of the episode, the way Eric refused to budge at all on Tami’s suggestion they stay in Dillon, and on a lighter note, the theft of the e-mail joke was classic.

So, this was another masterpiece, and I really hope that the show gets renewed next year. And, I’m looking forward to next week’s finale, I’m sure things will end on a high note.

The Sopranos: Approaching the Final Season

After a layoff of over a year, The Sopranos is finally returning for its final season, and the press coverage about the return has been very frustrating, for a number of reasons. The main one is the way that nearly every article has a headline like “Who’ll get whacked? Sopranos returns for final season.” It may be a mob drama, but I think treating potential character death as a kind of sweepstakes dilutes the emotion of what’s happening.

I think it’s indicative of the fundamental divide between the show’s two audiences. One is looking for a Scarface style embrace of over the top violence, a glorification of the mob lifestyle, while the other is viewing the show as a character drama, which just happens to take place in the world of the mob. I grew up in a suburb similar to where The Sopranos live, and the episodes focusing on Meadow’s struggle to get into college are as accurate a depiction of contemporary high school life as anything I’ve seen on TV. For me, the genius of the show is the characters feel completely ordinary, despite being in the mafia. Much like with the slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the mob storyline is used to turn ordinary conflicts into massive, life or death drama.

And that’s why the show is so much more than either The Godfather or Scarface, it’s got some of the most complex, challenging characters on TV. Most shows flirt with the idea of moral ambiguity, but exist in a TV universe, where I want them to do bad things because it’ll lead to more interesting stories. When Buffy goes through her dark time in season six, I want to see her go further with Spike because it’s such compelling viewing. Because the characters are fundamentally good, it’s exciting to see them be bad. However, here, the characters are so flawed, I desperately want them to get out of the mob world and find something better. This is the conflict that played out in the first part of season six, with Tony’s struggle to deal with his new morality. It’s also the struggle that defined Christopher’s character in the early days of the show, culminating in the devastating finale of ‘D-Girl.’

That I want them to be better people is a testament to the reality of Chase’s universe. He refuses to play by typical TV rules, and that’s what can make the show frustrating at times. While I love the first half of season six, the second half was frequently frustrating. Not only was he rejecting traditional TV rules, he was rejecting basic storytelling principles, crafting a narrative that’s so loose, drifting over major events and dwelling on smaller things, it’s difficult to understand what he was doing. I’m really curious to see how this season relates to what we saw there. I get the feeling that the final six or so episodes of this season will tighten things up, but not rely too closely on what we saw at the end of last year. Adding the additional episodes was a storytelling experiment, that would allow him to take a more rambling approach to the finale. But, it’s impossible to say, more than any other TV auteur, Chase is completely unpredictable.

So, I’m eager to see the new season, as much out of curiosity as anything. I have no clue what he’s doing to do, and I’m eager to find out. One final gripe I’ve got, I’ve seen a bunch of articles that mention the missing Russian from ‘Pine Barrens’ as some kind of grievous loose end that must be rectified. That is completely missing the point of the episode. First, the Russian is just a macguffin, to get Christopher and Paulie into the woods. Also, the whole point of his fate is the ambiguity, that we don’t know if he’s alive or dead. To answer that definitively would kill the episode. No answer could live up to the mystery. The only reason people care so much is because it’s such a good episode. It’s the equivalent of viewing the Gentlemen from Buffy’s ‘Hush’ as a major loose end. Just because they were in a classic, it doesn’t mean they’re any different from the countless other standalone villains who’ve disappeared from the series. So, please, don’t ask for resolution about the Russian, that conversation Chris and Paulie had about him last season was the closest you’ll get.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #5: 'Time Machine Go'

After the hyper compressed pop excess of the end of 'Black Science,' it's nice to pull back a bit and have a bit of a break with this issue. At first it fees a bit too slow, since we've been made so accustomed to the frantic pace and action stylings of 'Black Science,' but once you dig into the issue, there's some truly fantastic stuff. Only Morrison can make an issue that's largely setup so emotionally engaging and thought provoking....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #4: 'Black Science: Part 4: Safe'

The first storyline of the volume ends in pretty spectacular fashion with a hallucinogenic burst of pure action and conceptual insanity. It’s close to The Invisibles at its best, and it’s certainly The Invisibles at its most.

The opening page draws us right into the world, with Austin’s dancing. This gets right to the core of the previously established between traditional, natural magic, and the lifeless mechanisms of the Outer Church. As Dane says “This is fucking mental, man. It’s brilliant but it’s mental.” There’s another line that sums up the whole series....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!