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October 11, 2007 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | October 11, 2007 |

Regular readers know that I’ve plugged NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” pretty incessantly over the last year. And I know from your comments that I’ve successfully gotten some of you on-board. Fantastic — welcome to the club. The first half of this column isn’t for you. Instead, this is for the folks who still haven’t watched the show. A commentor once noted that I always tell you to watch “FNL” without ever saying why you should watch. Fair point, although my word should simply be good enough at this point, no? But if it’s not here’s why you should be watching.

“Friday Night Lights” is the best drama currently on network television. “But TV Whore,” you say,”it’s about football. Surely the best show on network TV isn’t some jock program?” Well the thing of it is, while the show is absolutely about football, it’s not about football. Yes, football is an integral part in the lives of almost every character on the show. In fact, it’s an integral part to many facets of life, in general, in the fictional town of Dillon (just as it is with many real small towns in Texas and throughout the country). But one of the brilliant things about “Friday Night Lights” is that it manages to use the sport as a window into the town and into the characters. Look at it this way — take a show like “Grey’s Anatomy.” I suspect that many people are fans of the show more because of the characters than because of the fact that they’re doctor-types. To such fans, the silly medical storylines are more about providing insight into the characters — showing how they react to a given situation, whether they man up or crumble, do the right thing or the wrong thing, etc. Well it’s the same thing here, only more so — the football storylines often take a back seat, acting as the thread that keeps things together and flowing. In fact, if you were to only tune into this show on the rationale of “well I like football, so I’ll like a show about football,” you could very well find yourself severely disappointed, because this is really a show about characters and relationships, not football.

“But TV Whore,” you say. “Those characters and relationships mostly deal with high school kids. Surely the best show on network TV isn’t some teeny-bop ‘90210’ meets ‘The O.C.’ crap.” Surely not. In fact, the single greatest strength of “Friday Night Lights” has nothing to do with any of the high school kids. Rather, it has to do with Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) — the Taylor’s relationship is the single best portrayal of a strong adult marriage I’ve ever seen on television. As is true for most of the show (but sadly, if the season two premiere is any indication, not for all of the show), the Taylors are written incredibly realistically. Their fights don’t feel like caricatures, they feel and sound like the exact type of argument you might get into with your own significant other. And they’re resolved in realistic ways, not in made-for-TV-movie cheese. But whatever with the fights — the portrayal of the Taylors is even stronger and more compelling, unlike most dramatized relationships, when they’re getting along just fine. The glimpses we get of the cuteness shared between the couple, or of their obvious and earnest love, is a joy to watch. I was recently relaying this same sentiment to a friend, and they were utterly shocked that I would be gushing about a lovey-dovey relationship, because I’m a rather cynical prick. But there you go — that’s how amazing this aspect of the show is.

And of course, while much of the strength of the Taylor relationship is due to the writing, it’s more due to the absolutely brilliant performances, week in and week out, of Chandler and Britton. Peter Berg, who directed the movie and exec-produces the show, said that he specifically cast Britton (who played the same role in the flick) because he felt her character was underused in the film and he believed there was so much more Britton could do with the role. Good call. She delivers a strong female character who also manages to be soft and emotional, all without tumbling into the lame trappings that most TV wives fall into show after show after show. Britton delivers a fully realized female character and even a male pig like me can recognize what she’s doing, and wish that there was more of this on TV. As for Chandler — well, he’s just on a whole other level. Absolutely amazing. There’s a line in last week’s season premiere, where he comes to pick up his teenage daughter, who’s been stranded at a bar. The line is simple — “You have got to be kidding me” — and on paper it reads rather corny. But Chandler manages to deliver the right inflection and tone so that it winds up being one of the funniest lines in the episode. And he brings this same ability to all aspects of his performance, yet another reason that the Taylor relationship works as well as it does. (In fact, he’s so good on this show that he probably now cracks the top five of my man crush list.)

None of this is meant to belittle anyone else on the show. Almost every actor delivers a very strong performance, and the writing, across the board, is generally top notch. The point simply is that this isn’t a kids-in-high-school teen/tweener show. It’s a meaty show about small-town American life that tackles all types of relationships and issues in a very earnest and realistic way. It’s just a fine fucking drama, and those are few and far between on our TVs these days.

Of course, the show isn’t 100% flawless. For instance, some of the actors don’t quite perform up to snuff (I’m thinking of Minka Kelly — while she’s an absolutely pleasure to look at, she kinda sucks as an actress). But the writing and other performances around these weaker actors generally keep things moving so well that you hardly notice. Similarly, not every plotline on the show is a slam dunk. One from last season that leaps to mind is the plot thread focusing on running back Smash’s girlfriend having some sort of mental illness. Terrible storyline. But the writers smartly moved it along and eventually got it out of the way, so it wound up not being a major detriment to the show.

And that brings us to the just-started season two, which premiered last Friday (and I believe you can watch it online at NBC’s website, but I’m sitting on an airplane as I type this, so you’ll have to find the link yourself). The writers ended the show with a moment of suck unlike anything the show has done to date. (Spoiler warning, blah blah blah.) The first 50-odd minutes of the episode were generally fantastic and on the right track. I love the new Panthers hard-ass coach, and I particularly like the way they’re handling Julie Taylor’s relationship with quarterback Matt Saracen. Things seem to be rocky for them, and not because of any particular thing, just because Julie’s a teenager and teenagers get bored and want something new.

But the last few minutes of the show? Fuck. Me. Landry winds up killing Tyra’s rape buddy, and then the two of them dump his body in the river? That’s some “ER” cornball-drama right there. Now it turns out that this was something the writers/producers/whoever wanted to include at the end of last season, but decided to hold off until the fall premiere.I wish they had held off forever.

First (and this is a point which others have bitched about all over the interwebs already), this absolutely destroys the character of Landry Clarke. He started out as the show’s comic relief. But as the first season developed, Landry morphed into a more nuanced character, and Jesse Plemons started to show that he was capable of delivering a relatively strong dramatic performance as well, with Landry’s lightheartedness still shining through. So the fact that the writers/producers wanted to give Plemons a more meaty storyline? Fine by me. But this is such a dramatic character-changing thing that, if the show hopes to remain even faintly realistic with this preposterous plotline, Landry will never be the same. He has committed fucking homicide and dumped the body in a river. He’ll never be fun-loving Landry who’s nervous about trying to put an arm around Tyra. Ever. And that alone is reason enough to hate the plotline.

But the other problem is, as I mentioned, that it’s fucking ludicrous. Those in charge claim that it serves the purpose of bringing Landry and Tyra closer together, as well as allowing for the introduction of Landry’s cop/father. Well balls to that — there are a million ways they could’ve accomplished both of these goals without going all “Grey’s Anatomy”-event-of-the-week on us. Hell, they could’ve kept most of the rape storyline and simply had Landry knock the dude out and then call his dad to help come clean shit up. But this story is just preposterous and unbelievable and could ruin the whole tone of the show. Some critics/bloggers/general bitchers have gone so far as to argue that this is likely to be the ruin of the whole show. I won’t go quite that far yet. We’ll have to see how things play out over the next couple of weeks — it’s possible that the rest of the show will remain brilliant and that this will simply be a (big) broken spoke in the wheel. But I’m going to put my faith in the show, based on last season’s overall brilliance, and hope for the best.

And that’s why you should be watching the show. Because if you know anything about the TV Whore, you know that I’m a pessimistic prick who will leap at the chance to claim that a show is on a downward slide and jumping the big ol’ shark. And the fact that I’m willing to stick with “Friday Night Lights,” despite this big glaring beacon of potential ruin, is a testament to how good this show is.

Clear eyes.

Full hearts.

Can’t lose.

(One hopes.)

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. To be fair, he has also dumped a body in the river. But his dad’s not a cop, so he really didn’t have any other recourse.

Clear eyes, full hearts, WATCH THIS SHOW!!!

"Friday Night Lights" / The TV Whore
Oct. 11, 2007

TV | October 11, 2007 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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