The Summer Speed-Watch: “Friday Night Lights” Season 2

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The second season of Friday Night Lights is the television equivalent of a gourmet five-course meal with a side order of undercooked McDonald’s French fries. All of the elements are seemingly in place for a high-quality continuation of the show’s brilliant observation of Texas small-town life and football drama, but the show’s writers mucked up the enterprise with a series of baffling story decisions that derailed much of the show’s first season momentum, at least in certain storylines and characters. On the other hand, I eagerly gobbled up each one of those episodes, encouraged by the high-quality moments that appeared to varying degrees in each one, hoping that the upward trend would continue. And, to an extent, it did. From what I’ve heard about the ensuing three seasons, order will be restored. In a way, I’m glad I started watching this show long after the second season was a distant memory. Otherwise, I would have been even more frustrated with a show I love so much.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Landry-Tyra storyline in the first half of this season (I won’t spoil it, but if I did, you’d agree that it’s a bad idea) is that it had many elements of a storyline that I might have liked. That is to say, despite the ridiculous dramatics and unconvincing tonal shift that this storyline required, the acting in this storyline is PHENOMENAL. I always enjoyed Jesse Plemons and Adrianne Palicki during the first season, but they really brought out the big guns, often keeping me invested in a storyline that in the hands of lesser actors would have been the soap-opera trash that it very nearly was.

And yet, the last thing that Friday Night Lights should have done in season two is flirt with soap-opera trash. The show excelled in its first season because it generally avoided easy melodrama and instead dealt in the more painful, genuine, hopeful, confusing, contradictory moments that make for interesting and unexpected TV drama. The show’s executive producer Jason Katims insisted that he concocted this storyline as an excuse to incorporate Landry’s parents in the mix (a worthy goal, given the greatness of Glenn Morshower as Landry’s father), but he could have accomplished that in any number of ways without going into a storyline that, even beyond its melodramatic and tonally inappropriate origins, failed on a number of levels. The story felt hermetically sealed off from the rest of the show; even though Landry and Tyra are good friends with other prominent characters, we never heard even a brief discussion about the rather significant things that happened to these two characters over the course of the season. And the romance that developed between them felt icky because it started, once again, with a development I couldn’t support as a logical extension of the characters as written or a convincing foray into overdramatic silliness for the show.

Although it is certainly the most egregious, the Tyra-Landry storyline was hardly the only misfire of the season. Matt Saracen’s short-lived dalliance with his grandmother’s caretaker Carlotta didn’t feel consistent with the shy, tentative, quietly intelligent young man we came to know in season one, and the romance between the two felt like a script requirement rather than a natural evolution. Tim Riggins’ brief foray into thievery took the show into a crime drama vein it never should have tried out. And Jessalyn Gilsig’s grating performance as Tami’s sister Shelley never justified the character’s prominence.

Even in a disappointing season, Friday Night Lights bounced back from these regrettable events, though. In fact, many of the episodes that included this storyline also featured great moments for characters like Tami Taylor (Connie Britton, demonstrating superior crying skills and continuing to be one of the most fascinating, awesome female characters I’ve ever seen on television), the Taylors’ daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden, in an often-unlikable but utterly true performance as a “typical teenage girl”), and the season’s possible MVP, the drunken football star Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). You wouldn’t know it from John Carter, but Kitsch is an extremely funny guy, and a rather convincing dramatic actor as well.

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Even in episodes that focused on ill-conceived story decisions, the show created plenty of superior moments: Tami and Mama Smash (the great Liz Mikel) having a heart-to-heart in the grocery store parking lot; Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) confessing to Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) that he hasn’t felt wanted by anyone since his father abandoned him; Tami and Tyra joining forces to bring the volleyball team to newfound glory. The show’s aesthetic continued to be perfectly matched with the show’s location, and I even appreciated little details like the show’s non-judgmental depiction of religious faith. I just wish the show had given these great actors more consistent opportunities to show their stuff without being weighed down by inconsistent writing. Perhaps a return to the football schedule that drove the first season would have allowed the characters to have storylines that served the show’s central mantra. Perhaps the show needed to find ways to goose the sinking ratings by emphasizing storylines that would play well in 30-second previews. Or perhaps the writers simply tried to make the best television show they could, faltering several times but never entirely failing.

If reputation is any indication, though, season 3 finds Friday Night Lights in a much more stable place. I look forward to returning to Dillon very soon.

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