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Time of the Season / Eugoogly (?): S2 of Friday Night Lights

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 21, 2008

Clear eyes and full hearts no longer guaranteed to prevent loss

The Night the Lights Went Out in Dillon was not much unlike any other Friday we’ve spent with our favorite sons and daughters of the Lone Star State this last TV season. Coach felt jealous of a man in Mrs. Coach’s life and acted questionably as a result. Landy and Tyra had relationship quandries, and Saracen spent a couple of lonely nights. Tim made more attempts to reconnect with Tyra, whose sexual urges prove incompatible with her relationship with God Boy. Really, it was one of the least noteworthy episodes of Friday Night Lights thusfar–a pleasant ep, not one you’d tend to single out while thinking either of the classic FNL moments or the bigger “what were they thinking??” moments. In fact, so unextraordinary was the episode that it wasn’t until far after finishing that the thought really struck me:

“Wait a minute…Is that it?

Given some of the short runs the WGA strike has reduced TV’s best shows to this season, I’ve considered the 15 episodes filmed of Friday Night Lights a blessing. But what didn’t occur to me is that these 15 episodes were no doubt structured not as a season unto themselves, but as just the first 15 episodes of a 22-episode seasonal arc. But now episode #15 has aired, and it looks like that’s it for the year–NBC has already made plans to release S2 with just the eps that have already aired, so chances of the show returning before next fall seem doubtful.

Perhaps more upsettingly, it’s equally doubtful that the show will be returning after that. “I love it, you love it,” says NBC chief Ben Silverman. “Unfortunately, no one watches it. That’s the thing with shows. People have to watch them.” Kind of hard to disagree with the practicality of Silverman’s statement, especially since his estimation of an average FNL audience could probably be considered generous–Lights hasn’t produced a rating of 4.0 or better since the season premiere, and I think we’re probably beyond the “well, it just needs some time to gain it’s audience” stage. It’s time to face facts: despite everything it has going for it, this simply is not a show that was destined for mainstream success.

And so here we are, fifteen episodes down in the show’s second season, with absolutely no provided closure, and with little hope of getting any in the future. In all likelihood, we’ll never know whether or not Street’s waitress trystee decides to keep his miracle love child, whether Smash finds peace as an RB at familial but little-known Whitmore, or whether the Panthers make the playoffs and get a shot at defending their title. Hell, I don’t think we ever even found out if Julie got her driver’s license or not. Sure, there’ve been great two-season-wonder shows before–Twin Peaks, the UK Office, The Venture Bros (for now at least)–but despite their arguably premature ends, they at least got to say goodbye with a season (if not necessarily series) finale. The Twin Peaks S2 finale was like watching the end of The Empire Strikes Back with no Return of the Jedi to follow, but the FNL s2 finale was like turning off Aliens in the middle of Bill Paxton’s “GAME OVER, MAN!!” rant. No show deserves that, especially not a show as brilliant as Friday Night Lights.

But enough of all this talk about ends–let’s spend a few minutes talking about the season that was. Few would disagree that it started off a little shaky–the show could’ve ran for 14 seasons, and memories of that Landry murder storyline would’ve continued to linger unpleasantly in fan memories–and Coach being away from Dillon was just too distressing to watch a lot of the time. But once Coach reclaimed the Dillon throne, the show quickly kicked back into high gear, and if it can’t compete with the freshness of S1, there are plenty of moments in the season that rank with any of the beauts from the first–Coach telling Street how much he’s learned from him, Landry berating Tyra for acting surprised after telling her he loves her, and my personal favorite moment, Riggins listening to Lyla’s Christian talk show on his car radio and frustratedly exhorting “Damn it, Lyla!” as he realizes how much he still cares about her. Even last week’s lukewarm episode did have one all-series classic, with Coach and his ex-romantic rival (played, somewhat poetically, by show creator Peter Berg himself) agreeing “red light” at dinner before jumping across the table at each other’s throats.

You will, of course, notice a plot element missing from all these highlights–football. Indeed, with the show’s producers deciding that FNL was more marketable as a “woman’s program,” the football content took a definite backseat this season, especially once Coach was Home Sweet Home for good. It’s hard to say that the show really suffered from it–indeed, this show was never really as much about the football as it was the people whose lives it impacted–but you did kind of miss moments like Saracen’s miraculous first Hail Mary in the pilot, the unforgettable Mud Bowl episode later in the season, and even simpler moments like Riggins, Saracen, Smash and Street gathering on the field Dazed & Confused style and just goofing around in the arena where they all felt the most comfortable. With characters like this, the show could be about mini-golf, but the gradual phasing out of the athletic aspect entirely might’ve been a dangeorus trend for the show’s future.

But really, this was a show whose future could still have been very bright. I would’ve loved to see the show’s first wave of teenagers no longer being indespensible fixtures of the show, but rather being replaced in the third season by a new wave of kids, with new problems and new drama. This was the advantage the show really had moving into the future–since the true protagonists of Lights were Eric and Tami, they could’ve avoided the inevitable downfall of most Teen TV shows when the cast graduates by simpy letting them graduate and move on. It could’ve kept the show fresh through almost countless seasons, as well as allowing it to become one of the most reliable showcases of new acting talent to be found in popular entertainment.

Therein lies the problem, and maybe the solution as well. Like I said previously, Lights was never meant to be viewed as “popular entertainment”–the plot elements are there (sometimes even too much), but they’re filmed, written and acted in a way that feels far too real (gritty, unfrilled, non-televisual, whatever) for mass appeal. But what if the show just moved away from the majors? Given TNT’s oft-stated claim to Know Drama, or USA’s ofter-stated promise of Characters being Welcome, FNL could fit like a glove on either, while not having to live up to the significantly loftier ratings standards of NBC. But I think the show should maybe go even farther, and relocate all the way to IFC or Sundance, where in terms of look and rhythm, the show would be almost indistinguishable from most of the channels’ lineups. What’s more, it could set a precedent for the indie film world embracing the possibilities of the televisual format–the previous reluctance of which being one of the reasons why keeping a show like Friday Night Lights alive is so unfeasible in this day and age. Not everything can go to HBO.

No matter how you look at it, though, I think it’s hard to argue that we weren’t lucky to get as much of this show as we did. For the next generation of upcoming TV mavericks, I’d like to think that FNL was around for long enough to show that not all shows about teens have to be One Tree Hill, not all shows about sports have to be Arli$$, not all shows about a married couple have to be The King of Queens, not all shows adapted from movies have to be Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and hey, not all shows about the South have to be My Name is Earl. Perhaps most importantly, Friday Night Lights showed that you didn’t have to run from TV–the cliches, the contrivances, the character types–to make television that was urgent, innovative, and unbelievably moving.

Shine on, Dillon.


R.I.P. Friday Night Lights, 2006-2008 (?)

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One Response to “Time of the Season / Eugoogly (?): S2 of Friday Night Lights”

  1. […] prize of Brilliant But Cancelled cult status. So sure did the show’s demise seem that I even prematurely Eugooglized it last February. But in a comeback even more improbable than the Panthers’ come-from-behind […]

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