March 16, 2011

Season Two of Friday Night Lights is so very, very awful.

I really enjoy television. So when a few of my friends started pushing Friday Night Lights, one of the few critically acclaimed shows that I hadn't gotten around to yet, I was intrigued. I remembered the movie as a mostly forgettable sports flick, but I knew the book was a supposed mini-masterpiece from Deadspin's number one fan, Buzz Bissinger. And when the final episode of the series aired recently, I saw an outpouring of FNL support from people I really respect on Twitter.

"What is this 'clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose' thing that everyone keeps tweeting about?" I wondered. "Guess I'll give it a shot."

So I started flying through episodes on Netflix. The beauty of Friday Night Lights is that it really captures the essence of small-town Texans struggling to connecting with each other, or at least the kind of stereotypical essence that a young guy from the East Coast can understand. But even if the show ends up invoking a few inevitable clich├ęs (girl struggles to overcome an apathetic upbringing, guy needs a football scholarship to escape, steroids, devastating injuries), it does it with heart and integrity. The littlest matters are taken seriously, and the football backdrop provides a perfect counterpoint to the soap opera-y drama.

Case in point: An early FNL episode starts with two young characters plotting to have sex and ends with them abandoning those plans to play a silly game on the floor of a tucked-away cabin. Meanwhile, the Dillon Panthers execute another outrageous come-from-behind victory and move one step closer to the playoffs. Oh, and did I mention that the two young, sexually charged characters are the coach's daughter and the starting quarterback?

It's amazing that storylines like those really work, because they look awful on paper. But FNL is cast so perfectly and executes everything with sincerity. Somehow, it all comes together.

Well, Season One did. Season One had so much cachet by the end that it could pull off pretty much anything. I'd heard talk that NBC's Season Two mandate was "turn down the football, turn up the drama," but I figured that was all overblown nitpicking. How could a show this good, this smart, this in tune with the message it's trying to send, totally go off the rails?

And then I watched the first five minutes of Season Two. The male football players sit around the pool while rock music plays and all the hot female characters walk around in bikinis. OK, I remember saying outloud, that's a little bit of a departure from the norm...but I can deal. Then two characters immediately undo a season's worth of character development in an inane conversation that demeaned every bit of progress they'd made so far. Well, I thought, that's really dumb. That negates half the reason I've been watching. So far, this isn't good television.

And it kept going on like that. The writers backed themselves into a corner with Coach Taylor's character; that would take weeks to undo. There was a new coach who turned out to be nothing more than a tough guy caricature. The handicapped former quarterback wheeled around for a while with nothing to do. And finally, in the ultimate insertion of unnecessary drama, a major character kills someone. KILLS SOMEONE! This had been a show about how a town defines itself through a football team, about the trials and tribulations of young people who too often peak at the age of 18. But everyone was right; it had lost its way.

Some friends told me to put my head down and power through. One guy even suggested I skip it entirely. "Nothing really happens," he said.

But I toughed it out. And luckily, it gets better near the end. All the unnecessary drama is wrapped up neatly; often too neatly to make a whole lot of sense, but I don't think anyone was complaining. Even the writers must have understood how poorly they'd steered their creation. The mandate was suddenly "get rid of the murdering, drop the overt sexiness, put the team back in the spotlight and treat everyone like real people again." Or at least the FNL version of real people, which is still light years ahead of other shows.

And now I'm onto Season Three, where things are getting wonderful again. Characters are making decisions that I can understand, that fall in line with who they are. The show is no longer forcing emotions down our throats, and it isn't manufacturing tragedy. The little victories are back to being the big ones: a smirk on Coach Taylor's face, a family getting a small bit of good news that renews hope. That's what makes it more than just a football show, what makes it a work of art. It's not the kind of entertainment that can come off as contrived; its admittedly overused premise puts it too close to the borderline already.

So I'm glad the show realized its limits, that everyone in charge understood the danger of pandering to previously untapped (and probably already uninterested) demographics. I know the show wasn't ever very popular, but it's insane to see how close Friday Night Lights came to alienating the only fans that were keeping it alive in the first place. Most shows stay strong for a few years and peter out; FNL took a different route. I'm told things stay excellent from here until the end of the show's run, and I can't wait to see where everyone ends up.

If anyone out there is interested, hop on the Friday Night Lights bandwagon. Just grid your teeth throughout Season Two. It gets better.

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