[2 July 2008]
By now it should be clear to viewers that Friday Night Lights is about more than football. In fact, it’s about almost everything but football. Families, friendships, and relationships drive the show and the acting, locations, and filming style bring it to life. Authenticity is the key to a series like this, if only because it is a look at a very specific place and time, but with larger and more identifiable stories to tell.
Friday Night Lights went into its second season with a great deal of critical acclaim, a small group of die hard fans, and very low ratings. Then the writer’s strike happened and the momentum of the season was cut short and several storylines were sped up toward their eventual conclusions. While the strike affected many series, Friday Night Lights was particularly hurt by the rushed and shortened season.
Because this season hinged on many changes and some questionable storyline choices, the strike made it even more difficult for the viewer to follow the direction of the new season. In essence, Friday Night Lights‘s second year was all about distance and its ramifications as characters were drifting away from one another and familiar dynamics. Most obviously, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) decided to accept a job at TMU, leaving behind his wife Tami (Connie Britton) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) in Dillon. Complicating matters was the fact that Tami found out she was pregnant at the end of last season and she would have to deal with her pregnancy and newborn without Eric.
Julie’s changes hinge on her rebellion against her parents and separation from boyfriend, quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). The interesting thing is that Julie is really the only teenager on the show allowed to exhibit this kind of behavior. While most of the other high school characters are dealing with broken homes and responsibilities beyond their years, Julie has the luxury of a more stable family life in which to act out her teenage dramas.
Without a doubt, the most criticized storyline in the second season revolves around the murder of Tyra’s (Adrianne Palicki) attempted rapist. The problem with such a big event like murder is that it threatens to take the viewer out of the small town, small moments world of Friday Night Lights, and that is just what happened. That is not to say that such large issues haven’t already been attempted. The first season employed storylines around steroid use and racism, but they were still grounded in the context of the series in a way that season two’s murder was not.
Part of what made the murder story so difficult in a show like Friday Night Lights is the shift in tone, particularly for a character like Landry. Usually the comic relief and goofy sidekick to Saracen, Landry was now dropped into a serious and traumatizing story. The problem here is that the writers still attempted to keep the character’s comic touches in interactions with his friends and even with co-conspirator Tyra, but it never gelled with the murder hanging so heavily over everything else.
The writers of the show have gone on to say that the reason for the storyline was to bring together Tyra and Landry in a way that only something so big as keeping a murder secret can do. It was also meant to introduce Landry’s family, whose father is a police officer, and showcase the dramatic abilities of Plemons and Palicki. It seems to me that there could have been other stories told, much more in keeping with the context of the show that would have achieved the same objectives without having the audience question the integrity of the series.
It is difficult to hit on the many storylines told in the season with such a large ensemble cast, but suffice it to say that many of the other characters were going through their own changes and many of these involved more insular storylines than season one’s more cohesive team story.
These separate stories were for the most part compelling on their own, but the interaction between the characters was missed. The series did a wonderful job of bringing together characters that had only passing contact in the first season. Tyra and Tami’s relationship grew (and sparked Julie’s jealousy) as Tami became volleyball coach at Dillon High School and recruited Tyra to the team; Tim’s short stay at the Taylor home also created a surrogate family dynamic that made his character much more interesting; and Buddy (Brad Leland) grew beyond the buffoonish obsessive football fan to a more nuanced character when he takes in troubled player Santiago.
Even with such an obvious misstep, Friday Night Lights is still one of the most well-executed series on television. Its use of handheld cameras, on-location shooting, and largely improvised dialogue lends the show a level of realism rarely achieved on network television. The subtlety and restraint of the actors, particularly Chandler and Britton, makes the small moments all the more natural and intimate.
Bonus features include deleted scenes for almost every episode, audio commentaries for select episodes, and the cast’s appearance at the William S. Paley Television Festival panel with the cast and crew. The deleted scenes have some wonderful moments that were obviously left out because of time issues and not because they were lesser scenes. The commentaries are very informative, particularly the ones featuring writer Jason Katims, who explains much of the writing and shooting process. The panel shows the cast and crew as a funny, engaging group and gives some nice behind-the-scenes context, but it seems to be cut short and feels incomplete.