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Friday Night Lights 2.1: 80% fantastic, 20% stupid

Posted Oct 08 2007 12:00am
"Last Days of Summer"
(spoilers)

So, last week I tried to convince you to watch Friday Night Lights, and I really hope you did.

Now, I'm hoping you'll stick around for the rest of the season, because the season two premiere, "Last Days of Summer," may not have been what you signed up for, especially if you were already a fan.

Click here to read the rest.

A lot of people have complained, a lot, about the character betrayals and set-ups this episode threw at us, and I can understand that. I'm not ready to quit, though, because I well remember how often the writing staff dug itself into a pit only to somehow get itself out again in just a few nimble episodes. So, here's the rundown:

The Taylors: by far still the best thing on television now, and possibly ever. Tami goes into labor unexpectedly, three weeks away from her due date; Coach has to fly back from Austin and gets there just in the nick of time. When we last saw this couple, Panthers had just won State, Tami had told Eric about her pregnancy, and Eric had accepted a job as the quarterback coach at fictional TMU in Austin. Eric wanted to move the family up so they could all be together, Tami insisted that she and Julie stay. Tami, because she loved her job as a guidance counselor and felt she was making a real contribution to the town, and Julie so she could have some stability for a few years before she graduated high school.

Apparently, Eric had been coming home for the weekend every two or three weeks, or maybe there were longer stretches in between. This long-distance commuter marriage/family situation would be enough to make anyone crazy, and it has had its effects on Julie, who while not exactly unhappy with Matt Saracen, is wondering Is this all there is? This can't be all there is! Julie's scene with Tami at the pool is marvelously underwritten. There's no need for dialog to convey exactly what Julie -- and every other teen at the pool -- is thinking: There's Mrs. Coach, hugely pregnant, living proof that she has sex with Coach! Every guy is thinking how lucky Coach is, because Tami is hot, and every girl -- except Julie -- is thinking she wouldn't mind bearing Coach's babies. Julie, meanwhile, wants to die, because she's a teenager and she does not want to think about her parents having sex, because it's just too gross to contemplate. All of this gets communicated through facial expressions and body language and tone of voice, and it's completely brilliant.

Connie Britton has an Emmy reel already, from that pitch-perfect scene with Julie at the pool to holding back tears when Eric has to return to Austin, only to completely collapse as soon as she hears the click of the door. Here's the thing with Tami: she knows that staying in Dillon was her idea, that Eric never wanted it, and now she's regretting that decision even though she will never be able to admit that to anyone, ever herself. She promised Eric she could do it, and so she will.

Meanwhile, Coach is trying to figure out what the heck he's doing with his family, including his new baby, hours away from where he works. That kind of divided life ages you quickly, and he looked worn out even before the baby was born. This life is weighing on him. I know he hates it, but he promised he would endure it because Tami asked him to, and she promised him they could do it, together. Then Gracie comes three weeks early (we'll cut them a ton of slack for not casting a smaller baby -- it's impossible to get newborns), at a time of the year when the coaches are establishing their teams and everything. Eric has to go if he's going to keep his job.

I've always hated -- in real life or on film -- any dialog containing the words I have no choice, because there's always a choice. When Eric says it, what he means is, My choice is between my job and my family, and if I don't have a job, that's the biggest betrayal of my family I could ever commit. The choice has been made; if Eric's not working, there's no income. And if he walks away from this job, the odds of him getting another approach zero very quickly. Still, I hated hearing him say it, convincing himself that it was true. And Tami didn't argue.

The Coach/Julie scenes were right up there with the Coach/Tami scenes, ranging from frustration and anger (on both parts) right up through forgiveness and love. Julie was doing a lot of acting out in this episode, especially with the passive-aggressive stuff like not cleaning up the house, and going out on her little sister's first day home. But she was so miserable, all those things were literal cries for help. When her dad came and rescued her in the car, and they talked, really talked, you could see her relaxing back into her love for and faith in him, and their family. The next day, with the tiniest of nods, Tami called Eric's attention to Julie washing dishes, unbidden by anyone. The contrast of how good and right everything is when they are together and how miserable they are apart can be seen in the difference in the family vibe at the beginning of the episode and at the end. Family life is a constant series of negotiations and compromises, but if a major player is absent a majority of the time, everything gets skewed.

Matt Saracen is still a total sweetheart and I love him dearly, and I loved how he was practically aggressive in asking Julie to the party after Coach quite pointedly told him not to just stand there and watch it happen. I expect (hope) now that Julie's eyes have been opened re: the Swede (cute, but way too old for her), she'll be much nicer to Matt. I've read elsewhere that Matt could do better than Julie, and I suppose that's true; she is a bit whiny and hasn't been very nice to him lately. But he loves her, and understands the pain of separation and family responsibilities -- Julie should let Matt help her cope, instead of shutting him out.

Talk of Saracen of course brings us to the indomitable Landry, who is, somewhat improbably, still friends with Tyra, and trying out for the football team in an effort to win the respect of his dad, not to mention the admiration of Tyra. We haven't met Landry's father yet, so who's to say the ploy won't work, but with respect to Tyra, Landry doesn't get that she likes him because he's not a football player. Jesse Plemons has the build for football, so it's not completely unbelievable when he makes the team, but I'm a little disappointed that Landry's abandoned his counter-cultural hatred of sports. On the other hand, Landry is Saracen's best friend, and Saracen is QB1, so Landry really can't be a big sports-hater after all, can he?

Let's address the murder, shall we? I'm not going to talk about previous versions or any of that crap; the only thing that's "real" in the universe of the show is what NBC broadcast, which is that Landry picked up the pipe and attacked Tyra's would-be rapist from behind, while he was walking away, and Landry hit the man again once he was down. There's no spinning this, it was murder. I think he could reasonably plead temporary insanity but there's no question that it was murder.

So, having murdered the creep, Landry freaks out and Tyra is no help whatsoever. They don't, apparently, call 911, when it would've been so easy to lie and say that Landry whacked the guy while he was attacking Tyra, that would've removed any thought of murder, and there would be no reason for anyone to suspect they lied, anyway. We really don't know what they did, though. Yes, we saw them driving to the bridge, and we got shots of the rushing waters, but did they dump the body? Would they really be that dumb? Hello, the guy's car is still parked at the convenience store.

The only thing I can say is: in real life, people do panic and do stupid things. Also, in this show, the writers have the characters do stupid things, like having Smash lead all the black players off the team while they were in the playoffs, just to impress Waverly. That was stupid, and a betrayal of his character; if you ask me, the one thing Smash understands is the importance of football to Dillon and to his own future, and that kind of showboating maneuver, especially over a trumped-up "offense" supposedly perpetrated by a coach he had worked with for years, was ridiculous. So I hated that plotline, although I did love how they resolved it: Corrina, Smash's mother, gave him a good talking-to and straightened him out, and he called off the strike.

It was stupid of Tim Riggins to start sleeping with his 30-something neighbor, too; when last we saw them, she had kicked him out of her bed and, given Tim's current drunken state, she has kept him away. Tim needs someone to anchor him, and without Tyra or Lyla or neighbor lady, he's toast. I've seen particular complaints about Tim's backsliding, but given his character, it makes a lot of sense to me.

Lyla Garrity, born again? Not such an angel, though -- I cracked up at her scene with Tim ("Enjoy your depravity!") and the "blessing" she said for grace, archly telling off her mother's would-be boyfriend and her mom for wearing "skinny jeans." She's every bit as much of a control freak as ever, only now she has Jesus on her side, Lord help us all. And Lyla's parents are obviously still mired in their breakup, with Buddy still sleeping at the dealership, and snooping around his kids' afterschool activities.

Poor Buddy, his life completely sucks: the new coach won't even let him watch practices. Of course we're meant to detest the new coach, who in real life would swearing a blue streak at his boys, but since this is not HBO, has to make do with the lamest swear-free rants I've yet to hear. Jason Street, looking fit and enjoying his coaching job, can see where New Coach is going to have problems that Eric Taylor never did. I kind of like that New Coach is a hardass, but the problem is, he's a hardass even when he doesn't need to be, and it was over-the-top to accuse Jason of being a mascot.

We can easily read into this situation how things will go, eventually: Dillon hates the New Coach, Coach Taylor hates being so far away from his family, New Coach is let go for some pretext, Taylor is brought back in. How many episodes will this take? I know a lot of fans want Coach Taylor back in Dillon asap, and wish he were already there, but I'm not one of them.

Here's what I'm hoping: Coach Taylor sticks with his team at TMU for the entire season there, and somehow manages the bouncing back and forth between Austin and Dillon. Anything less than that, the writers better have something mock-proof to justify him leaving any sooner. In the real world, that's the way things work. He'd have to stick it out at least a year before he could leave with any credibility or hope of getting a job anywhere else.

As for the murder plot, I have no idea where they're going with that, and I'm scared for both Tyra and Landry. They are two likable characters and I want them to succeed, but again, in real life, sometimes good people get screwed over, and sometimes good people are screwed over by their own very bad decisions. People are freaking out about this scenario because they love Tyra and Landry, and I understand that, but this show is not afraid to show that even good people make mistakes, and good people often fail.

I've read complaints that the murder took viewers out the story, and made the show less real, more tv-drama. These complaints have validity, but since the murder and its aftermath took up so little of the premiere episode, and we don't really know what happened, we're just going to have to wait and see how the writers handle this. I've seen them write themselves out of some jams before, particularly Smash's steroid use and that whole business with the ineligible Voodoo. So I'm not quitting, because I think it's possible to deal with this storyline in an honest and affecting way.

I have faith, and hope -- what can I say? This team gave me a full season's worth of mostly good stuff. The 80% of this show that is fantastic is among the best there is, and even the 20% that's stupid is better than most. Go Panthers!

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