Friday, April 13, 2007

Lights Out, But For How Long

o there I was, making supper ('cause a guys got to eat, right) and catching the rerun of the first hour of the Bartlett re-election on The West Wing, and yet again picking up on some detail that I hadn't seen before or had seen before and forgot about for a while. And it's good, sort of like that favourite restaurant where you've been going to since you developed a palate that favoured something more than hamburger cranked out in some factory in Indiana and has the perfectly done steak that you order every time. Then I settle down to watch...well I started out to watch Bones before I discovered that it was being replaced – entirely inadequately – by 'Til Death. It's just as well because I forgot to set the VCR to tape Jericho or Friday Night Lights and I can't tape one and watch the other on the late feed. So I settled onto the finale of Friday Night Lights but it's obvious that I'm going to miss some of the nuances. But let me tell you folks, even missing some of the nuances, this show is like that new place that opens with a cuisine that you've rarely tried before and never seen done really well until now, and suddenly it's on the list with your old favourite. Or at least it is until it shuts down after a few weeks because only you and a few others went there while the rest of the world was stuffing Mickey D's products down their gullets. The comparison to The West Wing is deliberate; while Friday Night Lights just possibly might not be the best show on television, it is undoubtedly the best new show to survive to the end of this season but unlike The West Wing, because people were too busy with shows they were comfortable with and because their perception was that the show was "just" about sports or teen angst it may also become the best "one season" show of the decade. And that's a shame.

The Friday Night Lights finale – three weeks before the start of May sweeps; not that good of a sign – brought the Dillon Panther's season to its conclusion. There was football of course, with the usual last minute heroics by Matt and Smash and Tim Riggins. But if football was all that the show had going for it I wouldn't be enthusiastic about it. And there was teen angst – Lyla Garrity dealing with here parent's impending divorce, Julie Taylor worried about being separated from her first real boyfriend (Matt) because her father is intent on taking a college coaching job, and poor Landry doomed hope of get into Tyra's pants during their trip to the big game in Dallas. But if teen angst were all that the show had to offer, it wouldn't make the show special. The show brings more. In a lot of ways it is about relationships, but even though the central relationship is Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami, the relationships we're talking about aren't just male-female. Eric is under constant pressure to perform miracles as coach – he has to recover from the loss of his starting quarterback and groom a kid who by rights is a year or two away from being ready for the pressure of leading the team. He has to deal with the team's boosters led by Buddy Garrity and which basically includes the entire town of Dillon Texas. Everyone's a critic and everyone has a suggestion, and yet the whole thing is done in intimate detail. The stories are personal but at the same time the viewer is aware that these people – players, coaches and their families – are under a microscope from people who aren't going to cut them any slack because of their personal crises.

Friday Night Lights has excelled with casting and in making the relationships seem like they'd be real. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tami Taylor have an amazing chemistry that makes them work as a married couple. Zach Gilford, who plays Matt Saracen, is a perfect choice as a kid who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight and is coping with what must seem to a kid in his position to be the weight of the world – a beloved grandmother who is slipping into senility, a father who is less distant when he's off with his military unit in Iraq than when he's at home, and the expectations of an entire town. It's no wonder that he latches on to Coach Taylor and his family as surrogates. In the season finale, when Matt discovers that Coach has decided to take the job at a college, he more than any other member of the team feels personally betrayed. It is a nice bit of acting made even more impressive by the fact that the sense of betrayal isn't expressed in words so much as it is in Matt's actions and expression. And then there's Jesse Plemons as Landry Clarke. The character is an outsider when it comes to the team who gains what access he does because of his friendship with Matt (and the fact that he has a car and Matt doesn't). It's a sign of something that the show's creators chose to name the character, who has the slightest relationship to football, "Landry" after the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry is, in many ways, comic relief. He is something of a mediocrity with a good heart and ambitions far above anything he can hope to achieve now and possibly ever. In the finale it is illustrated by his expectations that he will get a romantic weekend with Tyra which is smashed when he find that she's taking along her mother and sister. Yet his good heartedness makes him stop to take Matt's grandmother with them, and then to persuade Tyra to let them give a stranded Lyla a ride to the game. The thing to note is that while these are performances that stand out, the other actors turn in performances that are just as good. It is a great cast and the writers give them great material to work with.

The season finale neatly brought the show's first year to a close, to the point where it would not be entirely disappointing if it were also the show's series finale. The team goes to the Texas State Championship Game – there's a scene in Texas Stadium as the team enters that is reminiscent of the scene in Hoosiers where the Hickory team enters the Butler Fieldhouse. They win the championship, which also sees them defeating Ray "Voodoo" Tatum who services as quarterback had briefly been bought for the team by Buddy Garrity. Eric's decision to leave the Dillon Panthers becomes public in a way that he isn't able to control. Tami Taylor is surprised to discover that she and her husband are finally going to have a second child but while this is enough to get Eric to reconsider his decision because of his devotion to family, Tami insists that he follows his dream while she and their daughter stay in Dillon. The episode ends as the season began, with callers to a local radio show expressing their doubts about the coach, this time about his lack of "heart" for leaving the team. If the show were to end this, combined with the team winning the championship would provide closure for the story. And yet because of Tami's pregnancy the writers have left open the possibility that Eric will choose family and Dillon over football and the job offer in Austin.

There's some reason for hope among Friday Night Lights fans. NBC has ordered six more scripts, and NBC President Kevin Reilly has indicated that renewal is likely. The Peabody Award and the recognition from the American Film Institute probably haven't hurt either. Still there's absolutely no guarantee that these scripts will air or even be shot – it may be that the network just wants to see where the producers intend to take the show before deciding on renewal. Reilly's suggestion that the show's renewal is a strong possibility has to be tempered with the knowledge that the show has never been a strong ratings performer even though it attracts a strong and affluent fan base. The worst that could happen is not that the show would be cancelled; the worst thing that could happen is that the show would be renewed but with so many "suggestions" for "improvements" that we wouldn't recognise it. I don't want this show to end up like Boomtown, killed by those determined to save it. This show doesn't deserve that particular fate worse than death.

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