Pipe dreams and desert island discs: a look at the second season of “Friday Night Lights”

Since I finished Season 1 of my catch-up on “Friday Night Lights”, news came out about a possible deal whereby Netflix would pony up cash to actually produce a series called “House of Cards.” With David Fincher at the production helm and Kevin Spacey set to star in it, many (including myself) have wondered aloud what this could mean for the potential future of television. As several have wondered: if you can’t actually watch a series on television, then what do you actually call it?

Now, many (again, including myself) watch Netflix on our normal televisions. I have two PS3s, one in each of the main living spaces, and that means I have streaming Netflix available in both rooms for all to see. But that still doesn’t really hold to what people normally mean when they talk about “watching television.” “Mildred Pierce,” HBO’s newest high-profile production, is having a related problem: is it a miniseries, or simply a five plus hour movie broken up into multiple time slots. (Good friend of the blog Myles McNutt has a more coherent and thoughtful breakdown of that phenomenon here.)

I bring all this up before really delving into Season 2 of “Friday Night Lights,” because so much of what I want to deal with concerns my EXPERIENCE of watching the season more than the sum total of the episodes themselves. All this Netflix talk, coupled with all of my post-“Lost” catch-up work, has really reinforced how experientiality can inform one’s own viewpoint about absorbing a particular show at a particular time. What “House of Cards” could mean, if it works the way we think it might, is that a unified experience of watching a show in a certain prescribed, top-down method is going the way of the dodo.

The question is: is this a bad thing?

So here’s how I watched Season 2 of “Friday Night Lights”: on my couch, over two days. Fifteen episodes, all streamed, all via Netflix, in three separate sessions. The forces that conspired to produce such a marathon viewing were many, themselves the byproduct of a specific set of circumstances that would be difficult to replicate for any other person. I have a wife that works weekends. I have a lot of people whose opinions I respect that declared Season 2 not only the worst season of the show, but in and of itself a fairly awful season of television. I have an INSANE lack of life that made watching 15 episodes of the show (in addition to five other episodes of TV that will be made clear upon this week’s podcast) even possible.

friday-night-lights1207-103.jpgAfter taking my relative sweet time getting through Season 1 (about 5 weeks), this was my way of ripping off the Band-Aid that was Landry’s ill-advised murder, Riggins’ ill-advised robbery, Smash’s ill-advised movie date, and an insane amount of other ill-advised moves that must have driven people at the time in which these episodes originally aired absolutely ballistic. And, thanks to the miracle of Google, I KNOW it drove them ballistic. For them, the struggle to even get the show a second season meant that its abrupt and ill-advised turn to melodrama that would have been rejected from “The Young and The Restless” sat even worse than it did as I sat slack-jawed over my 48-hour session.

So which one of us had the “right” experience viewing this? Is it better to be part of watching something the first time through, where there’s not a cultural awareness/wikification of certain seminal shows? Is it better to discover “Terriers” only to have to snatched away, or better to watch it months/years from now knowing that it’s a self-contained masterpiece? Personally, I’m sick of trying to assign “right” or “wrong” to these things, because the myth of a centrality of experience has never been true from Day One. Sure, millions might watch something at the same time as dictated by a particular network. But if the comments on blogs are any indication, what we bring to the table as individuals that night suggests that only the time slot truly unites us in a meaningful fashion when it comes to serialized television.

An example of why this isn’t a bad thing: I used to have a worn out copy of Nick Horby’s “High Fidelity”. I got it in the early part of this century because a whole lot of people that knew me said, “Dude, there’s this book about you. You need to read it.” So I did. And yes, it was about me. Or rather, it FELT like it was about me. Soon after, I got in a relationship, which promptly ended. I reread the book, this time highlighting passages that spoke to me at that time. I repeated this process for the next two relationships, only to find that certain passages that previously didn’t mean anything were suddenly THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD to me. So, three times through, and I never thought to highlight the same passage twice.

Even when we all come together on, say, a Monday to watch a program, we watch it from an inherently singular point of view. That’s not to say that we can’t agree about touchstones around which we can gather, but one’s personal assortment of biases, perspectives, upbringing, socioeconomic/religious/political viewpoints…these all contribute mightily. The question then becomes not when we watch a particular show in terms of when it airs, but rather when we watch a show in terms of the point we are in our lives. There are parts of “Friday Night Lights” that will completely blow by me during my viewing. And it’s not because I’m watching 15 episodes in a weekend. It’s because I watched them as a 35-year old male with everything going on in my life that just about never gets discussed when I talk about television.

There’s a tendency that’s arisen in the recap/review culture that seems to imply that there should be more of a singularity of experience around watching television shows, or at least a restricted range through which to experience them. This particular culture emphasizes watching something as close to the airdate as possible, in order to not miss out on the discussion that starts almost immediately after an episode airs. After watching a chunk of episodes during my weekend marathon, I occasionally would read an old review by Alan Sepinwall, or check out the TWOP boards, or read old Mo Ryan interviews. I wanted to get a flavor of the tenor of the times, just to compare/contrast with my own viewing. It was an apples/oranges comparison, to be sure, but still an interesting experiment all the same.

I did so because I wanted to gauge the reaction to a certain episode of the season AT THAT TIME versus my own reaction in the present. By and large, I aligned with what was felt at the time in terms of overall opinion, but diverged widely in terms of tone. Since Landry’s murder of Tyra’s would-be rapist was a plot point I knew through cultural osmosis, the moment didn’t really land the way it did at the time of initial airing. Since “Season 2 might very well suck your soul” was a warning given by many before I entered into this lost weekend, I knew to prepare for the worst. Since I spent only 48 hours as opposed to four months with these episodes, I got to skip both the agonizing wait between episodes and the agonizing fear that THIS would be the last stretch of episodes after a stellar (if imperfect) Season 1. So as much as possible, I was prepared to deal with whatever the second season threw my way.

frid-aimeetees.jpgSo what was my overall sense? That the show did what many first-time novelists do: throw everything they have into the first novel and find out they don’t know how to follow it up. Or, if music’s your thing, think about a band that spend a decade honing their craft, put the best 12 songs on their debut album, and found inspiration much harder to come by after their first successful arena tour. Everything about the build-up to the end of Season 1 said, “Screw it. We’re going for it all right now, and worry about he consequences if and when we ever get renewed.” It’s a noble notion, and far better than the one taken by shows like “V” that feature cliffhangers that aren’t optimistic so much as supremely naïve.

Sure, the Landry/Tyra stuff reeks of desperation, but could have been compelling television if the writers knew how to handle this overly operatic turn. Every show does certain things fairly well, but “Friday Night Lights” knows how to write a compelling, tight-noosed crime story about as well as “Chuck” knows how to write a realistic spy caper. But the double whammy of “where the hell are the small, heartfelt stories of Season 1” coupled with “I fear seeing the Dillon Police show up more than Rodney King fears the LAPD, but only because I know sheer stupidity is going to step out of that cop car,” well, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

It took the show nearly two-thirds of the season to extricate itself from that mess, or rather, to finally admit defeat that the story straight up sucked. What could have been a 2-episode mistake (kinda like Julie’s “blink-and-miss-him” newspaper advisor) stretched out nine episodes. Not because the plot needed nine episodes to unfold, but because the show artificially kept throwing obstacles in the way of the story actually ending. The tail end of the season featured a simple, sweet, affecting story involving an unlikely love triangle featuring the pair plus nerdy, over-her-head Jean. That’s in the “FNL” comfort one, but for some reason the show didn’t think that storyline in and of itself could have provided enough reason to tune in on a weekly basis.

And yes, I cheered and maybe fist-pumped when the pair finally got together in “Leave No One Behind,” just as I wept when Matt Saracen asked Coach Taylor, “What’s wrong with me?” while sobering up in a bathtub in the same episode. But both moments had to wade through insane amounts of narrative muck to get to the other side. Landry and Matt went off into their own little orbits this season, even though being teammates on the football team should have made them closer than ever. If I had to compare this season to anything else, it would probably be the 6th season of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” which dealt also in trying to dramatize how sometimes kids do really stupid things on the way towards growing up. But I don’t think either series really cracked that nut, because I don’t really think there’s a nut to crack there. It’s a perfectly correct thing to note that teenagers/young twentysomethings do a lot of crazy stuff without really having a sense of why they do it. But I’m not sure that’s a particularly dramatic thing to present, at least in serialized television. Thus is the stuff of indie film, I suppose.

friday-night-lights0125-103.jpgBut even if Landry, Matt, Tim, Jason, Julie, Smash, and others went into their own little orbits this season, “Friday Night Lights” has the Taylors as the sun that holds all these stories from flinging into the darkness of space. At least, that’s what I clung to for a majority of the season, until I realized that not even Mr. and Mrs. Coach could salvage some of the crap being displayed on my television. That’s not a knock on Kyle Chandler or Connie Britton so much as a knock on the things they were asked to do. It didn’t help that their home, once a sanctuary for both the characters and my fragile soul, was invaded by Tami’s sister Shelley, a character seemingly designed by scientists in a lab for the sole purpose of pissing me off. (Talk about timing: Terri Scheuster’s due back on “Glee” when it returns, and I’m now instinctually trained to throw a shoe at the television every time Terri Schuester appears on it.)

Just as it’s not inherently interesting to watch listless, directionless teen angst dramatized in a long-form story, nor was it interesting to watch the Taylors try to put their lives back together at the outset of the season. That’s probably because so much of it felt like the show trying to put itself back together rather than a family organically try to regroup. Tami and Eric realize they made a bad decision in thinking they could have it all, but it’s really the show that miscalculated by removing the show’s core and splitting it up.

The struggle for this pair to balance work and family should have cut me to the core. In talking about experientiality, nothing should have connected with me more than this storyline. As we speak, my wife’s sitting about five week away, flipping through the stations while I wrap up this column. We both have 9-5 jobs, but hers involves weekends. Throw all my writing on top of that, and we have around 2 hours of face time a day in which one of us isn’t working or asleep. It’s hopefully temporary, but fairly insane and not remotely pleasant. But because the Taylors’ storyline was a byproduct of the show painting itself, not the couple, into a corner, most of what should have been an onscreen reflection of my actual life rang hollow. All of their fights should have gutted me. Instead, I sat back, passively watching.

Passivity didn’t have a place in my time watching Season 1, in which small moments effortlessly became universal. I cared about the characters not because they were in particularly dire straights (Jason as the exemption, although the show never made him a martyr) but because they had recognizable, relatable struggles. We could identify them because we identified with their problems. There’s a time and place for drama that’s either escapist or fantastical. But there’s not really a time or place for it on “Friday Night Lights.” And the inability of the writers to recognize that impacted and infected its second season.

It sounds like the show gets back to its strengths in Season 3. But a show once marked by clear eyes and full hearts seemed opaque and empty for so much of what I just watched this past weekend. I could move through it thanks to the particular time, cultural knowledge, and present psychological space in which I encountered it, but that doesn’t mean I forgave the show for its transgressions anymore than a majority of its loyal fan base did when it first aired. But at least I can wipe the bad taste out of my mouth a lot faster than those beleaguered viewers initially did.

With all that said: what are your thoughts on Season 2 of “Friday Night Lights”? Sound off below!

One Comment

  1. Ben M
    Posted March 30, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I really like FNL, but I also have to watch it on DVR so i can fast forward through alot of the waste-of-time story lines they do. And no season did I fast forward more than season 2. I think you are correct that in season one, they threw everything they had into it, and then woke up, and realized they had no idea what to do for season 2. (as example of this, weren’t Riggins and Jason best friends? was it then realistic for them to be 2 years apart in HS?). I think the taylor’s having a new baby was a waste of time, and something that has proven a complete mistake as the show has gone on. they could have done everything they did, just by having Coach leave Dillon to be an assistant in college. The Landry-Tyra storyline i did not ever like. I know it is TV, but there also isn’t a high school anywhere in America where a Tyra would ever ever date a Landry. That just doesnt happen in high school. And just thinking back over the season, there were a lot of moments like that (and in future seasons) where they just drop a story into the show because it is something to do – and not because it makes sense and not because there is any sort of long-term plan for where the story will go. This leads to a number of times where plots will either just go away, or drag on far too long. Like I said, I really like FNL, and when it is good it is as good as anything on TV. But to me, it will always fall short of other great shows because there are far too many times throughout (but especially I think season 2) where bad story lines are taking up far too much time.