Apologies in advance for the length of this post, but there’s a lot of business to get through tonight.
As the end of last season was drawing near, Friday Night Lights fans (the dozens of us there are, anyway) were fretting over the fate of our favorite network show, which was a consistent bottom-dweller in the ratings and seemed on the verge of cancellation. Though critics loved the show and the network did, too, poor ratings are poor ratings, and NBC ain’t runnin’ a charity, right? Over on the excellent blog run by T.V. Club favorite (and Jersey Star-Ledger critic) Alan Sepinwall, people were generally divided into two camps: One group simply wanted to show to come back for a second season and beyond, trusting that the quality of the writing, performances, and direction would survive whatever creative pressures were imposed upon it by the network. The other group ascribed to what Sepinwall calls the “Beautiful Corpse” theory, which holds that if FNL were to get cancelled, at least it will have died young and pretty, with one near-perfect season in the sun. Having the show renewed, only to get tampered by a network desperate to jumpstart the ratings, would tarnish its legacy and lead to greater heartbreak for its fans.
As for me, I wanted another season. There have been plenty of television shows I’ve loved that have gone on longer than they should have, like The Simpsons, which more or less lost me after Season Eight, or Homicide: Life On The Streets, another groundbreaking NBC show that floundered once it replaced the tough, earthy Melissa Leo with more glamorous actresses like Callie Thorne, Michelle Forbes, and Michael Michele. Could these shows have ended with more dignity earlier? Yes. Are the great seasons diminished in any way by the not-so-great seasons that followed? I don’t think so.
Tonight’s season premiere of Friday Night Lights, “Last Days Of Summer,” offers one serious piece of evidence to support the “Beautiful Corpse” theory, and anyone who watched the show will know exactly what I’m talking about, because it’s that obvious. So let’s address the elephant in the room straight off: Last season, troubled blonde firebrand Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) fought her way out of a sexual assault attempt in a restaurant parking lot. The incident happened after lovably geeky Landry (Jesse Plemons), who’s carried a torch for her since puberty, had missed a tutoring session with her due to car trouble. He was there afterwards to give her some comfort, and toward the end of last season, an odd sort of intimacy had grown between Tyra and Landry—not quite romantic, but the sort of kinship that forms between two school pariahs with rough home lives.
In tonight’s episode, Tyra’s attacker suddenly reappears and starts stalking her. Late in the hour, Tyra and Landry take a break watching a video on the couch (Fried Green Tomatoes—such a perfect choice, which I’ll get to in a sec) to grab some snacks at a roadside gas ‘n’ sip. As Landry ducks into the store, Evil Stalker Guy reappears and immediately starts roughing up Tyra again. The altercation intensifies once Landry rushes out to help and in the heat of the moment, he gives her attacker a decisive smash on the head. With ESG unconscious, the two hop in the station wagon, with a panicked Tyra behind the wheel, ostensibly to go to the hospital. But when Landry reports the guy isn’t breathing, they wind up on a bridge, gazing on the rushing water below. It’s implied (but never seen) that the two dump the body in the river.
Okay, so what TV show are we watching again? It’s not like this development is handled poorly, exactly. It’s that it doesn’t belong on Friday Night Lights, a show that excels at evoking the day-to-day drama of a football-obsessed town with the utmost verisimilitude. Murder and cover-ups are the province of cop shows and courtroom dramas; FNL has always been about common problems, not extraordinary ones. Though showrunner Jason Katims insists that this subplot was discussed as early as Season One, conspiracy theorists are suspecting that NBC, in its infinite wisdom, has imposed this potential show-wrecker as a way to spice up the action. Whoever’s responsible for this is leading two of the show’s brightest characters down a very destructive path, and I’m wondering what (if anything) will be done to right the ship.
The thing that’s especially maddening about the killing is that Tyra and Landry’s relationship had been so carefully cultivated up to that point. They’re an odd pair, but they make sense, too, given how ostracized they are by their classmates, who find them freaks for different reasons. The killing essentially forces a bond that was developing nicely enough on its own. Scenes like Landry rubbing suntan lotion on Tyra’s back (“You gotta be sure to put on several coats throughout the day”) and that session where they’re watching the chick-flick Fried Green Tomatoes together make Landry feel like they’re ready for the next level. In fact, he’s becoming her Milhouse, and her affection for him is so clearly platonic that she’s barely aware of his longing—or at least she doesn’t feel threatened by it. But all of that solid character work goes right out the window at the end.
The killing seems especially incongruous because the rest of “Last Days Of Summer” is vintage Friday Night Lights, so clearly (to my mind, anyway) heads and tails above what passes for drama on the other network shows this fall that I nearly can’t bring myself to watch them again. Eight months have passed since the last football season ended with Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) leaving Dillon to coach college ball in Austin, and also leaving Mrs. Coach (Connie Britton, proving again why was robbed at Emmy time) and his daughter Julie (Aimee Teagarden) behind in the process. Their scenes together as a family are the strongest in this episode, starting with Mrs. Coach giving birth to their daughter, a moment that Mr. Coach has to rush to the hospital to experience.
(The two big framing montages, set to Wilco’s “Muzzle Of Bees,” are both so heartbreakingly beautiful that I have to give them special mention. The song is gorgeous—possibly my favorite track off A Ghost Is Born, which is possibly my favorite Wilco album—and more than that, the texture of it is just right: achingly tender, yet churning with tension and passion in the guitar lines. And then there’s the lyrics, which close with these lines: “With the breeze blown through/ My head against your knee/ Half of it’s you/ Half is me.” I just can’t imagine a more poetic expression of marriage and childbirth than that, and it chokes me up just to think about it.)
There have been a lot of big changes in eight months, but each of those developments is similarly well-handled: In the wake of her parents’ separation and her falling out with Street (Scott Porter) and Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), it makes sense Lila (Minka Kelly) would take such a sharp turn towards the Lord, getting baptized in a river and passing out flyers for Christ Teen Messengers. Part of it is acting out, of course—as evidenced by her bitter (and frankly, a bit over-the-top) grace at dinner—but she also wants to restore her virtue in the face of men who have violated it in different ways.
The puppy love between Julie and Seracen (Zach Gilford), long one of the show’s sweetest elements, has started to sour a bit, again for good reason. Julie still resists the limits of a town like Dillon; as much as she resisted moving to Austin with her dad—ironically, because she was so madly in love with Seracen—she doesn’t like the idea of settling for a life in some rinky-dink Texas town. The guy she chooses to flirt with, therefore, couldn’t be further from Matt; he’s older, he’s the lead singer in a rock band, and he’s from Sweden, all qualities that make him exotic (and, to her eventual humiliation, taken). Her chilly disregard of her boyfriend (and her parents, too) may seem out of character, but it all pays off in that wonderful scene with her father after the Swede rejection. She’s a very young girl in a very serious relationship, and it’s scaring her a little, even as she feels guilty for blowing off sweet, reliable Seracen for seemingly no good reason.
And oh yeah, there’s some football going on, too. As well as the seeds are planted at home for Coach Taylor’s return to Dillon, they’re flowering on the field, too. His replacement, a hard-nosed bully called the “Tennessee Tyrant,” isn’t terribly flexible about how the program is run; it’s his way or the highway. We can see right away that he’s doing nothing right: He’s changing the offensive scheme to center on running back Smash (Gaius Charles), which shows Seracen no confidence; his temper has a bad effect on Riggins, who doesn’t have the fortitude to withstand that kind of heat; he’d rather boot Street off the coaching staff than follow his gentle advice; and he kicks chief booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) off the practice field. It’s hard to tell precisely how the new coach is going to get run out of town—my money’s on Garrity asserting his will after an early loss or two—but it’s just a matter of time at this point.
In any case, there are very few missteps in this episode other than the Very Big Misstep, so I remain cautiously optimistic about how the season will play out. It’s all-too-possible that the Tyra-Landry development will consume the rest of the show like a cancer, but in other ways, I think the writers have done a fine job setting the table for Season Two and providing those lovely little moments that continue to set the show apart. Here’s hoping that they ignore any future notes from corporate.
• Boy, could they have stuck Lila’s mom with a more ineffectual wimp of a boyfriend? I remember Taylor Nichols fondly from Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, so it was odd to see him come face-to-face with a loudmouth Texan like Buddy Garrity. I can’t imagine Buddy choking down Nichols’ “tofu with porcini mushrooms” dinner if it was the last scrap of food on the planet.
• More proof that the Taylors are perhaps the most resonant couple in TV history? That scene where Coach has to tell his wife that the university wants him back from paternity leave a week early. He knows it’s going to break his wife’s heart, but what can he do? She knows it’s something he has to do, but what can she do? It’s Britton’s Emmy scene, the first of many to come I’m sure.
• I’ve already written 1800 words. I must stop. In the future, I promise to keep it briefer.