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.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Lost - 'What Kate Does' (6x03)

Last week's Lost had me feeling some uncertainties about the season's direction, and this week's only enhances that with an episode that feels right out of the problematic characters in cages era of the third season, backing it up with an alt-verse storyline that felt tacked on and inessential at best, outright illogical at worst. The cliffhanger ending and teaser for next week look great, but this week's episode was not a winner.

Let me start with the worst of it, the alt-verse Kate storyline, which didn't seem to add anything to the universe of the show. The big problem with any alternate universe is that you're not going to invest in the characters in the way that you have in the main universe. That usually leads to stories that have shocking twists, think Peter Parker's marriage to Gwen Stacey in House of M, or just pile on the spectacle, kill a bunch of characters and get out, like “Days of Future Past,” or Buffy's “The Wish.”

The Lost alternate universe is weird primarily in the way that it's being used. The very first moments of the alt-verse were fantastic, with the exciting trip to the drowned island, raising the question of how one change can create a butterfly of consequences. I'd be curious to explore the entire alternate history of the island, and the Dharma Initiative, and even see what happens to our characters, but that's something that I'm not particularly interested in on an emotional level, it's something I want to do on an intellectual level.

As such, it's mildly interesting to see that Claire winds up with Aaron anyway, and that Ethan happens to be a doctor on the mainland, and that information may play a big part in the prime-verse storyline down the line. But, even if it does, that doesn't make up for the fact that it's about the journey not the destination, and this Kate story didn't work. It felt like some leftover scripts from season three, repurposed for a new era. I have no idea what this story told us about the character that we didn't know before, namely that even though she does bad things, she secretly has a heart of gold. I didn't need to see that again, and certainly not in a storyline that seems inherently consequence free.

The creators promised to bring back a season one feel, and unfortunately, that's very much the case here, with a series of meandering island stories, intercut with a pointless off island story that has enough interesting ideas and a good cliffhanger to keep things moving. Notably, this episode featured none of the great characters introduced from seasons two through five, except for Miles who has to announce he's going to “the food court” just to get a line in the episode.

The fundamental flaw of many peoples' approach to the show is the idea that the off island flashbacks were character based storytelling while the on island stuff is all convoluted mythology. Character development in a six year series isn't telling us how someone got to where they were when the show began, it's about letting them change and develop in the moment. I feel like Juliet/Ben and the freighter people were a conscious effort to bring in characters who were more interesting than the first batch of characters, and now spend so much time with Jack and Kate drags the show backwards.

The series' most effective character arc happened not off island, but in the Dharma stuff that turned Sawyer from rogue to hero and domesticated man. One of my big problems viewing this season is that I was so invested in that Dharma stuff and the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet that I find myself hating Kate and Jack for ruining that, and being trapped in a position like Sawyer, lamenting the loss of those days.

And, I will commend the episode for showing us more of Sawyer's pain. And, the most effective Kate moment here was her crying on the dock, after realizing just how badly she'd screwed things up. I get the sense that she always felt like Sawyer was on the shelf, waiting for her if she ever wanted him, and knowing that he fell in love with someone else hurts her, and makes her realize how many things she's messed up in her life.

Elsewhere, the temple storyline is reminding me a lot of season three's troubled polar bear cages arc. It started out interesting as we get a glimpse of a new world on the island, but by this point, it's basically our characters sitting around doing nothing, asking questions that aren't answered, and being manipulated by all powerful enigmatic figures. The problem with this from a plot construction standpoint is that it reinforces the show's worst tendencies to be willfully obscure and make us focus on how many questions aren't being answered. I don't care about answers at this point, I think most stuff has been answered, but if you're not going to give answers, the episode has to have more to it than asking questions.

It's also frustrating to have an episode where Jack and Kate totally dominate, leaving everybody else on the sidelines. Hopefully they'll have the week off next week when we return to Locke, Ben and the rest of the gang, as well as the reborn feral Claire.

In terms of questions raised this episode, the big issue seems to be the nature of the Smoke Monster, and the way that his infection works on Claire and Sayid. Are they implying that Rousseau herself was infected by the Smoke Monster, hence her at times mentally off behavior? If that's the case though, it doesn't seem worthy of killing. But, this may be a more insidious infection. It would make sense to have Claire and Sayid corrupted so that Fake Locke will have some people to back him up in battle. Could we be building to a big battle where the Fake Locke revives everyone who's dead on the island and puts them into battle against the living?

It could also imply that Ben's own corruption and lying nature is a result of his corruption in the temple healing pool. That would tie together a lot of things, and would it mean that Sayid would essentially become Ben? The question then is why would the temple people let Ben go if they want to kill Sayid? Perhaps being actually dead makes your condition worse than if you were just injured then healed. As in all stories, every good things comes at a price.

It's also notable that some of the Others from Ben's group are in the temple. The question that raises is whether Ben knows about the temple and its healing properties in the present day. He went there as a kid, but do these guys know about what he's doing now? Is he exiled from their group? I'm imagining we'll get some clarification on this once the two stories come together. I do really like the idea of the Smoke Monster as incarnation of this essentially evil force, and I think it helps tie together a lot of disparate elements of the mythology in a satisfying way.

So, there's some good elements in this episode, most notably all the Sawyer stuff around the ghostly Dharma barracks as he struggles to come to terms with losing Juliet. However, the basic structure of the season still has me very concerned. I have no idea why they feel so resolutely committed to the off island/on island structure, particularly when the backhalf of season five, which featured no off island, was by far the show's high point. This alt-verse structure recalls the worst of seasons one through three, and even if it is vindicated by a great plot twist down the line, these episodes will still be dramatically flawed.

But, let's hope things pick up next week when we get a more interesting set of characters back and dig deeper into the mysteries of Fake Locke and perhaps even finally see Jin and Sun reunited.

The Third Age: Episode Twelve/Thirteen: 'The Last Supper'

Here's the last episode of Volume One! Zinone mulls an intriguing proposal from Jerrod Woolf, and makes a decision that will irrevocably change his world. The apocalypse begins here!

I'm really proud of this episode, and the series as a whole. Thanks to everyone who's been watching, and I'm eager to hear your thoughts on the season finale. And, if you aren't caught up, head over to, where you can see all our previous episodes.

Also, look for a Lost post later tonight, and some more content later this week!