Continued disappointment with Friday Night Lights
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
April 18, 2009 – 09:51
Back in January, I wrote about my disappointment in the third season of Friday Night Lights. After a wonderful first season, I found the second season more palatable than most fans did, but found the missteps more glaring in the third season, despite the consensus praise for the season as a return to form. Now that the season has ended (and I’ve caught up), I’m sorry to say that I haven’t improved my opinion on the show and where it’s going – I still find it overall a good show, but I’m frequently annoyed by how much better it could be based on what worked so well in the first season.
The show’s main appeal for me in the first season was its sense of texture – you got a feel for both the place of Dillon, Texas, and the relationships between the characters. The way they spoke to each other, the way they spent their days – this felt both dramatically engaging and new for television. Season 2’s flaws seemed to be with the directions the writers took the stories – they added new characters to disrupt relationships, and they created the unrealistic murder plotline. But, and I know I’m in the minority here, the show still worked because the feeling of place and characters still felt true – the texture between the Taylors, the conflicts over fitting in versus getting out of Dillon, the multifaceted dimensions of the town (including the new dimensions of the church culture and Santiago’s Latino neighborhood). And even thought some of the plots might have been unreal, the way they were told felt true to Dillon – the murder wasn’t about the crime, but how it mattered to Landry and Tyra’s characters.
Season 3 played to the show’s weaknesses instead of its strengths. The worst part of the show for me has always been the way it portrays the football games – contrived plays and scenarios to maximize artificial drama, a skewed sense of focus that makes it seem as if the team has no defensive or special team players (have we ever seen a kick or punt?), and an inability to offer a sense of what type of team the Panthers are, aside from a tendency toward improbable come-from-behind victories. I can generally overlook this, as the games are usually a small part of the episodes and the surrounding character drama is more relevant. But unlike the rest of the show, the football games lack a sense of texture.
Season 3 seemed to construct nearly all of its plotlines like its football games: maximized contrivances for exaggerated drama, last minute twists and reversals, inconsistency in tone and style, and rushing through moments that lack overt drama in favor of the sensational plays. As I wrote before, the entire Tami as principal scenario felt completely forced and unreal – and how it enabled the finale’s twist of Coach Taylor’s firing and switch to East Dillon was even more unearned as a plot development. The McCoy’s came in as caricatured villains, setting up obvious conflicts that were played for their extreme drama rather than nuance. And instead of portraying the potentially intriguing portrait of how McCoy’s money and influence poisoned the town’s attitude toward the extremely successful tenure of Coach Taylor, we fast-forwarded to the final minutes of the game to see the contrived twist that felt overly forced and unearned. In essence, season 3 sacrificed the texture of storytelling to emphasize narrative events – while that’s typical of much television, it’s not what makes FNL distinct or enjoyable.
For me, the dual emotional centers of the show are Tami Taylor and Matt Saracen, characters with rich depth that are often put in situations with conflicting priorities. In season 2, Tami’s portrayal of a mother grappling with an infant, teenager, absent husband, and career goals was one of the most satisfying and nuanced portraits of contemporary parenting I’ve seen on TV. In season 3, all that disappeared (including Baby Gracie), with Tami’s function shifting to a plot contrivance to facilitate other people’s stories – Tyra’s attempts to get into college, Buddy’s quest for the Jumbotron, the McCoy’s entree into Dillon, Julie’s teenage rebellions, etc. Connie Britton’s still great, but Tami’s character is a shadow of what she’d been in the first two seasons.
Matt seemingly had more to do this season, what with dealing with his grandmother’s decline, the return of his mother, being benched as QB1, and his reconnection with Julie. But some of his decisions were unrelated to his emotional motivations than conveniences of plotting – for instance, I never got a sense of what he wanted out of college, just that he needed to sacrifice something to stay with his grandmother. (I will say his attempts to switch to receiver was a high-point for the season.) The micromoments between Matt and Julie are golden, and his relationship with Coach Taylor continues to be a complex tangle of emotions on both ends; but Matt was too often buffeted by the plotting needs of the series to create conflicts.
Another aspect of season 3 that really disappointed me was the whitening of Dillon. The first two seasons presented interesting intersections between race and class, highlighting how the town was divided along a number of axes and the potentials (and limits) of football to enable cross-cultural dialogue. But with the conclusion of Smash’s storyline and the disappearance of Santiago and Carlotta, season 3 presented an all-white vision of Dillon, personified by the new additions of the McCoys. Perhaps the East Dillon plotline next year will rectify this, as it appears that the East side is the “wrong” side of the tracks in town, but it also seems that NBC’s strategy for the show is to create teen heartthrobs to draw in an audience, who are assumed to be white in the logic of commercial television.
Anyway, I’m curious to hear from some of the defenders who weighed in on my last FNL post, as I’m pretty burnt on the series. I’m on the fence as to whether I should return to Dillon for season 4, as I increasingly gripe at the TV more than getting swept away into its world. What am I missing here?