Thursday, February 11, 2010

Friday Night Lights: Season Four

I just watched the season finale of the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, a season that rivals the series' first for emotional power and directness. The show has performed an astonishing course correct, after plummeting terribly in the second season, the third brought together a lot of elements successfully, and paved the way for the series' impressive full on rebirth in this fourth season. The series seamlessly managed to integrate an entire new premise and cast of characters, while still giving some long timers their best material on the series to date.

Let me first talk about perhaps my favorite arc of the season, and a great example of the show finding power and drama in everyday life, the Tim Riggins storyline that crossed the season. The arc felt like a David Gordon Green film played out across thirteen episodes, with the same heartbreakingly gorgeous visuals, particularly during Tim and Becky's kiss in the field at golden hour, as well as the low key drama that flows organically out of daily life.

The thing I loved most about the story in its final moments, and the season as a whole across all characters, is the way that it downplayed situations that could have been big blow ups, and made them feel more real. The season ends with Tim Riggins going to prison, but no one really talks about it in a direct way, it's all beneath the surface, and I think that's how a lot of real life conflict is dealt with. It swirls around in your head and you try to ignore it, but just can't. When you experience big events in your life, they usually don't feel big in the moment, it's only in retrospect that you fully realize their significance. So, even though this decision he makes for Billy is perhaps the most important in his life, Tim doesn't break down or betray his fears. We know they're there, but this feels like a moment that just happens. In real life, narrative arcs aren't quite as clear, and you just do the things you have to do and press on.

This approach, keeping events that could be played huge either dramatically or melodramatically, low key and realistic also worked to ground some of the crime elements in reality. Vince gets caught up in criminal activity, and it just sort of happens, it's not dwelled on or fully dealt with on an emotional level. He's in over his head and that's reflected in our experience of what he goes through. The key thing to note is that it's not simple dedramatization, or a decision to take the emotion out of the viewing experience. We feel the emotion all the more because the characters can't fully admit it, they soldier on even as things crumble around them, never realizing the extent of what's happened to them.

Getting back to Riggins, the show ran into trouble in season two when it separated characters and left them on story islands that didn't connect to the main arc. Riggins' story does that again, he mainly interacts with Becky, and she barely interacts with anyone else, but the story feels so connected to the town and the kind of lives that people like Riggins live that it seems totally essential to the mission of the series.

And, on top of that, we've been with this character for so long that he can command his own storyline in a way that Tyra in season one or Lyla in season two could not. The slow growth of his relationship with Becky was fantastic, and she really blossomed as a character as well, struggling to move out of the shadow of her mother, even as she found herself getting closer and closer to what her mother has become.

The pitch of a love triangle between a mother, a daughter and Tim sounds like a recipe for comedy, but by making all the characters emotionally real, it takes on a gravity that it would otherwise lack. Becky loves Tim because he functions as the perfect hybrid of the father she never had and the boyfriend she'd always wanted. He's always there for her, and doesn't have much going on to distract his attention. He cares about her and goes to her pageant even though her father fails to, she's spent her own life playing the role of the perfect smart, polished girl, and it's only with Tim that she can be herself, and it's precisely because Tim won't just sleep with her that she likes him so much.

The last few episodes of the season converged in a brilliant, intense tragedy, with everyone's world crashing down around them. And one of the most devastating was the breakup of the perfect little family Tim had built for himself. For once, he had people who were proud of him and cared about him, but it was untenable. Cheryl is getting older, and for a woman who based so much of her identity around her sex appeal, that's hard to do. When Tim rejects her advances, he does it to try to keep things the same, but what it reads to Cheryl as is that she's too old. This devastates her, she has lost something that she can never get back. And, when she sees Tim and Becky together, she jumps to a conclusion and takes it all out on Tim. One of my favorite scenes of the season was Becky going to Tim and telling him that her mother wasn't right, that he is a good guy. That was extremely powerful and came organically out of the story being told.

This collided with the stealing cars storyline, leading to one of the best moments in the entire series, Billy's speech at Thanksgiving. The surface of the moment is fine, not totally unexpected, but the mix of emotions there, the knowledge that Billy will have to leave his family gives it an incredible poignancy and power. No one else there knows what he's talking about, except Tim, who is already formulating his plan. This leads to the great scene outside the house where he tells Billy what's going on, and the final sad march to the police station. Tim is taking the bullet on this one, and it reflects an incredible amount of growth on the character that he chose not to run, but to instead ensure that his nephew has a chance at a better life than he did.

But, the season was not just about Tim. I think there were some bumps along the way, not all the crime stories worked, and I feel like it would have been great to get a few more episodes to develop the Lions' progress a bit more, but perhaps this season took on the hyper pacing of Morrison's Final Crisis, giving us just enough of each story to get the emotional impact and then getting out. Think of something like the decision to not reveal that Becky and Luke slept together until she says that she's pregnant. I think it works because it makes their awkwardness around each other during the mid season more explicable, and also avoids the obvious foreshadowing and imposition of consequences that sleeping with someone once leads to a baby. The narrative event still happens, but our experience of it isn't the same because there's no moralizing about the action itself, we're just dealing with the consequences.

I would have liked more access to Becky's feelings about the abortion and how she's dealing with it, but again, the choice seems to be to not dwell on the obvious story, and instead to show her pain beneath the surface, but also acknowledge that this is something that happens in real life, and not everybody has to ruin their life because of it. I've only seen one TV series actually have a character get an abortion, Six Feet Under, so it was particularly courageous of them to go down this root and not do the obvious adoption or she decides to keep it storyline. Contrast that to films like Juno or Knocked Up to see where the edgier storytelling of 70s Hollywood lives on.

If there's one big frustration for me this year, it's the fact that Landry, the breakout star of season one, lost virtually everything that made the character unique. I'd have loved to see more of him and Devon in his band, but I guess the need to make him the one character we know on the Lions overwhelmed that. In general, I think the character was ruined, not so much by the murder plot which has been essentially retconned away, but by placing him on the football team. That made him like everyone else in Dillon, and took away his outsider status. He didn't have much to do this year, though it was satisfying to see him kick the game winner, and get a flash of the old Landry when he hung out with Matt.

Perhaps the best testament to the series' work this season is the seamless integration of so many new characters into the story. Looking at the fate of Rileys or Nikki and Paolos, it's clear that it's not easy to introduce a character into an existing series. But, Vince was an anchor of the season, and had one of the most interesting arcs, and Luke, despite not getting much screentime, still registered as a real presence. I'm eager to see more of Vince next year, and I think the show has done the near impossible of managing to see off virtually the entire main cast and still flourish and feel like the same show.

Of course, a lot of that is due to the continued wonderful work by Britton and Chandler as Eric and Tami. They're the best, most interesting functional couple in the history of television. The show seems to enjoy teasing the viewer with the suggestion that they're going to have blow ups or arguments, by doing scenes like Coach staying out drinking too late, or Tami not telling Eric about Glen kissing her, but they always weather the storm, and usually wind up joking about what could be a breakup motivator on another show.

I also like that Coach wanting to stay out drinking was played subtly, not made into a big deal. We know how frustrated he is with the Lions, how he's not used to having all the resources he wants and a winning team, and that frustration plays out in wanting to run away from his problems. I also like how the show makes a point of showing how he can't quite keep up with drinking all night anymore, particularly during the funny looking for his car scene.

And, the show remains one of the most beautiful in all of television. The shooting is realistic, but not in an ugly way, it captures the beauty of everyday life in a way that so few films do. It can make Dillon look like a prison, or make it look like the most beautiful place in the world, and the series' impeccable music always adds to the creation of sublime moments.

Ultimately, the fourth season was intensely powerful and riveting throughout. I know there are flaws, but I'd put this right up there with the first season, and maybe even a touch above. It's amazing that a show this low rated has had the chance to run for five years, and will get to go out on its own terms, but I'm thankful for that. It's one of the best series on TV, and I'm eager to see it finish its run next year.


Clyde McCoy said...

Incredibly well said.

It's very satisfying to see
someone articulate how significant
FNL is.

It really is one of the best programs we've ever seen on tv, and I'm very grateful it was given a chance to run for 5 seasons.

(Free Tim Riggins!)

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