Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Friday Night Lights: 3x01-3x06

I’ve talked a lot about my mixed feelings on two Friday night shows this year, Battlestar and Dollhouse. And, amidst their troubled runs, a show I’d kind of dismissed has just come back and started killing it every week, and that’s Friday Night Lights. After a second season that could be most kindly described as “troubled,” the show has been consistently getting close to season one highs every week. Right now, it just might be the best show currently airing on Friday nights.

Whenever a veteran band comes out with a new album, it’s invariably hailed as “a return to their roots,” a throwback to the spirit of their most loved album. Every new Radiohead album is at least rumored to be a throwback to the style of OK Computer, every Depeche Mode album is a callback to Violator. And, Friday Night Lights season three was treated as a return to the style of season one. Season two isn’t exactly wiped out of continuity, but most of its story developments are conveniently disregarded.

Grant Morrison proposed the idea of hypertime continuity for the DCU, in which all the stories are true, but some are more true than others, depending on the quality and staying power of the story. Batman’s origin will never change, that’s a fundamental piece of the character’s makeup, but various details about it can change, and the best way to figure out the “true” origin is to look at which version of the story is strongest. That way, if someone writes a story in which it turns out Batman’s parents were really murdered by space aliens, it can fade in to the background, technically still part of the mythos, but far away from the core timeline.

The hypertime concept is a good way of explaining how season three deals with the series history because what it boils down to is the stories that people like are the most true, and the ones that people don’t like can be forgotten. So, developments like Lyla and Riggins getting together can continue, but Matt and his maid sleeping together and the Landry murder plot fade away. Technically, the Landry murder still exists, but it’s drifting somewhere in limbo, hopefully never to be mentioned again.

At first, I felt like the show was just replaying its greatest hits. I have mixed feelings about U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind album because so much of it feels like a conscious decision to sound like what people think U2 should sound like. So, even though there’s great songs on there, it feels almost like a covers album, U2 covering themselves. The first few episodes felt this way, the emotional beats and style were right out of season one, but I was conscious of the show revisting those great storylines, and that distracted me from surrendering to the emotion of the stories.

But, starting with the last episode of the Smash arc, the show has just been nailing it on all counts. The first season of the show was brilliant because they would do moments where intellectually you knew what was going to happen, but they managed to maintain a huge amount of tension, and then give you a huge emotional payoff when the victory you were waiting for finally came. In the Smash storyline, we saw the amazing scene where Coach Taylor and Smash are told that they’ll have to come back for the next practice, which leads to Coach making a plea to let Smash on the field, for a moment there’s tension, then Smash gets his chance and the emotion just soars. The stakes have been delineated so clearly that just seeing him get out on the field is a huge emotional payoff.

I loved the end of that arc, it was an unabashed happy ending, one that skirted through sadness but made it in the end. Because we saw Smash really suffer, the payoff is much more satisfying. Particularly effective was the possible Alamo Freeze job, which made the practical considerations vs. following his dream conflict very clear.

The show has also focused more on the smaller details of life in Dillon, recalling the early days of the series. I loved Riggins’ tour of the seedier side of town in the last episode, and the contrast between the world weary senior and the totally naïve freshman. In high school, you have these kids who have already lived a hard life and done it all and you’ve got some people who are totally under the wings of their parents, and never really done anything. And, that’s conveyed well in those scenes. I also liked the detail of JD having a crush on Lyla.

Another beat that really worked in this episode was the Matt and Julie story. This show has always been one of the most beautiful on TV, and their trip to the lake felt dynamic and visual in a way that TV rarely does. It felt more like a Malick movie than a network drama. Compare to the look of the forest on Dollhouse, where it almost felt like they were on a giant soundstage. The scene on the lake made you feel like you were in nature, the sun sparkling and cutting through the trees to create an absolutely beautiful space. Even in the weakest days of season two, the show always looked great, and this season, they’ve been knocking out as well. My favorite shot of the episode was Julie and Matt driving back home in the glow of the rising sun.

This season has also brought Landry back to the character who first stood out in season one. I don’t mean to imply that all change is bad, but season two got away from everything good about the show. To go back to the style of season one, but continue to evolve the characters is what’s made the show so satisfying this year. I really like the band storyline, particularly the way that the band he’s in feels so specific to the town he’s living in. It sounds just like high school bands sound, all jumbled noise, with some snatches of skill struggling to rise above the mess.

So, I’m really excited to see the season continue to develop. The JD McCoy storyline is great, uniting a lot of the characters, and putting Coach Taylor in an interesting place. But, most importantly, the world feels real again, and it’s great just to spend time there. I thought season two had killed the show, but it’s back.

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