TV Highpoints and Lowpoints of 2010-2011… Number 4

High Point Number 4: A Fond Farewell to Friday Night Lights and Smallville

It may seem a tad eccentric to pair Friday Night Lights and Smallville. After all, Friday Night Lights was—despite being almost completely snubbed by both viewers and the Emmys during most of its run—one of the great series of the past decade, while Smallville was merely a competent reworking of the Superman story, focusing on his small town roots. But both shows had passionate if small fan bases and the departure of each leaves a gap that is not likely to be filled any time soon.

Friday Night Lights’s story is both tragic and triumphant. When I saw its first season, I was stunned by its quality, the brilliance of its camera work, the outstanding writing, and the astonishingly gifted cast. I told friends that it was one of the best shows on TV, and that it was going to win a huge number of Emmys. I believed Kyle Chandler (who played Coach Eric Taylor on the show) was a lock to win Best Actor and Connie Britton was equally certain to win Best Actress. And at bare minimum Taylor Kitsch, Zach Gilford, and Adrianne Palicki were certain to get Emmy noms for their supporting roles.

When the Emmys came around and the show failed to receive anynominations, I was flabbergasted. Today the results seem absurd. While The Sopranos deserved its Best Drama nomination, the other four—Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, House M.D., and Boston Legal—were so clearly inferior to Friday Night Lights that its failure to receive a nomination is unfathomable.

Failing to win Emmys is not, of course, a mark of an inferior series. Three of the greatest series in the history of TV—The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—not only never won any major Emmys but received virtually no nominations. Friday Night Lights did later go on to receive various forms of recognition. It won a prestigious Peabody in its first season and routinely made the American Film Institute’s annual list of the best shows on TV, a much better indication of television quality than Emmys or Golden Globes. And last year Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton received Emmy nominations, while this year the show itself finally got nomination, as well.

Update: Immediately after the completion it was learned that Friday Night Lights won the Television Critics Association 2011 award for Program of the Year.

Fans love to criticize networks for cancelling great series, for favoring ratings over quality, but I don’t particularly want to join in on this ongoing chorus of displeasure. Television is a business, and sadly, executives must be attuned to whether or not a series enhances a network’s chances for overall success. A TV exec in charge of programming has to answer to his corporate overseers, and they are of necessity bottomline animals. I blame not networks, but instead viewers; if we watched great shows like Friday Night Lights instead of crap like So You Think You Can Dance with the Stars While Big Brother is Watching networks would not have to cancel so many great shows.

Friday Night Lights is actually a case where a network should have cancelled a show, but didn’t because it was determined to save it. Possibly it renewed it after Season 1 because it guessed, like I did, that it was going to win a passel of Emmys that would generate interest in the show. The Emmys, like the viewers, never materialized, and after the strike-shortened Season 2, I fully expected the show to be cancelled.

But NBC did something extraordinary. It found a way not to cancel a show that by every measure ought to have been. NBC worked out a deal with DirecTV, in which the satellite company would get the rights to air the series first on its own network, while NBC would get broadcast rights for the following spring and summer. After Season 3, the two renewed the deal for two additional—and final—seasons.

As a fan of Friday Night Lights I can’t express how grateful I am both to NBC and DirecTV for finding a way to keep a show alive for five seasons when it ought to have lasted only two. I’m not saying NBC did it out of the goodness of its corporate heart, but on neither network did the show get substantial ratings. On some level. people at both networks had to have felt that it was worth taking the effort to save the series.

It would be wonderful if this cooperation between two networks was a portent of things to come, but my gut tells me this was most likely a one-time deal. Even if an occasional show is prolonged through innovative arrangements, this is unlikely to be standard television protocol, though it should be noted that Starz and the BBC did something similar with Torchwood.

With the departure of Friday Night Lights, television has lost one of its most special shows. Although most Americans live in lower middle-class or poor households, television series almost always represent the upper middle-class or the wealthy. A disproportionate number of poor individuals, as represented on TV, are not those who struggle to get by, but are those who have chosen to drop out of society, people who live on the margins by choice. Friday Night Lights focused on the lives of people who are not destined to be wealthy or particularly successful, and who didn’t choose to live lower middle-class lives.

Of the students on the show, perhaps the only one likely to do well in life is Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), the former school bad girl who, in Season 1, seems most likely to join her sister upon graduation as a stripper at the Landing Strip. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), sensing her potential, persuades Tyra that she has a chance to make more of herself, to go to college, and despite some struggles and setbacks, she gets into the University of Texas, where she thrives. But most of the graduates seem likely to live their lives vicariously by following the Dillon Panthers football team. At the end of Season 3, star running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) walks onto the field after his final game, and after lingering a bit, lays his helmet down in the end zone and walks off, as if to indicate that at age 18 he was leaving the best part of his life behind, that he had already peaked in life.

The show dealt with many of the issues that other shows did, only more memorably. Only Buffy has dealt with teen’s losing their virginity more powerfully. And has any show depicted the depth and reality of racism more powerfully than in the late Season 1 episode, in which assistant coach Mac Macgill makes a racially insensitive comment to reporters that threatens to rip the team apart on racial lines? The coach redeems himself, but not cheaply, and the crucial scene where Mac redeems himself was perhaps my favorite scene from any show in the 2006-2007 season.

The cast was outstanding and several performers are undoubtedly due for great things. Taylor Kitsch looks like he could become the next George Clooney in transitioning from television to major stardom in film. He certainly has the looks and the talent, and he has starring roles in several films that will begin appearing in 2012, including the big budget John Carter (in the title role), Battleship, one of the co-leads in Oliver Stones’s star-studded Savages, and will have the title role in Lone Survivor.

Although Friday Night Lights was a TV adaptation of a film, it may be coming full circle as Peter Berg—who was creator of both film and series—has begun to develop a new film to be based on the series, with most of the actors already stating their enthusiasm for the project. So maybe we won’t have to say goodbye to our friends in Dillon quite yet.

Smallville never received the critical acclaim that Friday Night Lights did, and few TV critics have lamented the show’s ending, but for me the show was for a decade a source of light-hearted fun. Although by the final season only Tom Welling—who played the show’s one absolutely crucial character—remained fulltime from those who began the series in 2001, I respected the series for actually improving as it went along.

The best seasons were the final three, as Clark increasingly dealt with the implications of his powers and abilities. The show also blossomed romantically. While Kristin Kreuk was impossibly cute as Clark’s high school flame Lana Lang, we all knew who he was destined to end up with. I had for several seasons been sceptical about how well Erica Durance’s Lois Lane was going to mesh with Welling’s Clark, but they turned out to enjoy a remarkable degree of onscreen chemistry, and their Lois and Clark made me easily forget all other past incarnations of the two.

The show initially distanced itself from the Superman mythology, apart from gradually rolling out his various abilities and dressing Clark in colors that anticipated his eventual costume; it was as if the writers and producers were scared to admit that Clark would eventually wear the famous cape and tights. But when they finally began to incorporate elements of the DC Universe, particularly in those episodes written by current DC chief scribe Geoff Johns, the show began taking on additional depth.

The major big bads were a bit of a disappointment, with neither Darkseid nor Doomsday as threatening as in the comics, but nonetheless, it was delightful to see various characters from the comics make an appearance, especially towards the end when they had no need to hold off. A late Season 10 episode (written by Geoff Johns) introduced Booster Gold, Jamie Reyes, and Ted Kord all at once. And a special two-hour Season 9 episode, “Absolute Justice”, again written by Johns, brought in to the show several members of the Justice Society of America, including Hawkman (played wonderfully by Stargate SG-1 veteran Michael Shanks), Doctor Fate, and Stargirl. The final couple of seasons had a variety of DC Universe characters, such as Metallo, the Suicide Squad, Zatanna, and Mera (Aquaman’s wife).

It was not a perfect show. Creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar pledged that we would never see Clark flying or wearing the famous shorts-over-tights costume, and this was, I believe, a mistake. When they made the pledge they probably envisioned the series lasting five or six seasons; by its seventh and eighth seasons the no fly/no cape pledge just seemed irrelevant. Early seasons were marred by a meteor freak-of-the-week format, as locals were given odd powers by the kryptonite that arrived along with Clark’s capsule. And the early seasons seemed less connected with the DC Universe than with a mythology of its own invention. I felt a bit of disdain for the comics in this strategy. What’s the point of doing a Superman show if you don’t avail yourself of its tradition?

The show also held on to certain characters well past their expiration date. Michael Rosenbaum made everyone forget that anyone else had ever played Lex Luthor, whether on TV or film, but at a certain point all things Lex bogged down the narrative. Much the same was true for Lana. The weakest seasons were Lex and Lana’s final few (with the exception of the outstanding It’s a Wonderful Life take off in Season 5, “Lexmas”, in which Lex gets a vision of a middle-class but extremely happy future for himself, but he draws the wrong lessons from his vision). Their departure made possible a variety of new arcs. Anyone doubting whether their time had passed had only to watch Lana’s final episodes in the middle of Season 8, when her return to Smallville ruined the budding romance between Clark and Lois.

On the other hand, Allison Mack was an unceasing delight as Clark’s best friend Chloe, although she became a part time character in Season 10. Erica Durance grew into her role as Lois. Most noticed her physical attributes first, and nearly all TV reviewers—as well as regular viewers—were left gasping in their reviews of the first Aquaman episode, which featured Lois getting coming out a lake in a bikini. That scene was perhaps key in her consistently winning fan polls of the fittest (i.e., best built) actress on TV. But I really came to appreciate her as an actress, as she was given a greater variety of scenes. Her chemistry with Tom Welling’s Clark recalled the famous quip by Katherine Hepburn about Ginger Rogers giving Fred Astaire sex appeal. If the two were a sexy couple, it was entirely because of what you could read on Lois’s face. And she made their transition from mildly belligerent friends to lovers believable.

Tom Welling. Not a great actor and not much range. I believe his future on TV will consist of producing and directing, and he has already shown interest in these. He was one of the producers of the underrated CW cheerleader series Hellcats and I look for him to turn now to other such projects. But I imagine that despite his rather minimal acting skills (though he possesses a likability that many more talented actors lack) the casting director’s first thought when Welling walked in for his initial audition was, “Hired”.

Welling looked exactly like Clark of the comics. He was instantly believable as Clark, except possibly for lacking the enormous intelligence that Clark projects in the comics—in fact, my one major carp with the series is that Smallville’s Clark is a bit slow-witted. But Welling does project the goodhearted decency that we associate with Clark. The show was only going to be as good as Welling made a believable Clark Kent, and there is no question he was successful as the show’s anchor.

Smallville is not going to make many “Best of” lists and will not be remembered as one of TV’s greatest achievements, but I’m going to miss my weekly trip to Smallville and Metropolis.

Low Point Number 4: ‘Glee’

Glee baffles me more than any show on television. It’s a moderately interesting show that relies on glittering production numbers fashioned on fairly bland Top 40 pop singles. The writing is half-assed; there’s a complete absence of character development. Yet the show consistently garners a string of award nominations and receives a degree of discussion and notice completely out of proportion with any real merits.

There are a host of genuinely intense questions facing kids in high school. On Glee, these tough questions are not so much dealt with as used as ornament. The collection of kids on the show seems like tokens of the various versions of “outsiders”. And the problems that get weekly treatments feel almost like the writers were working down a list.

Take the question of kids who struggle with morbid obesity. On another celebrated high school series, Freaks and Geeks, some of the characters on the show gradually get to know a kid who not only is extremely overweight, but has a serious body odor problem. The protagonists on the show befriend the guy in a way that doesn’t dismiss or minimize the very real social stigma—whether justified or not—that attaches to his weight and odor problems.

On Glee, in contrast, a morbidly obese girl (by definition someone whose Body Mass Index is over 40)—in one of the most cringe worthy arcs in any high school series of memory—is not merely treated as a good, interesting person (although in fact, the character is presented as a bit mean), but is the object of the passionate interest of Puck, one of the hottest guys in the school. The problem of how we confront our own feelings about others who are obese is not so much dealt with as dismissed into comic fantasy. Like all problems on Glee, all apparently solid problems melt into air.

Although Glee parades out a group of kids that supposedly are ostracized one way or another—kids identifiable by the slushy periodically tossed in their faces—none of their problems ever feel real, apart perhaps from Chris Colfer’s sense of persecution for being effeminately gay. Most of the kids have their problems evaporate in fantasy or dismissed in song. But in real life problems are confronted by being confronted, not by being dismissed.

This is not to imply that Glee never deals successfully tough questions, only that it rarely does. I can count the number of times that I have felt the pain of a character on the number of thumbs on my left hand. Contrast the stories on Glee absent the songs to any other good show about high school—say My So-called Life or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars or the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks—and Glee’s superficiality becomes palpable.

Or contrast the songs on Glee to the way music functions on what is probably the finest musical episode on any show of the past 15 years, the Season 6 episode of Buffy, “Once More With Feeling”. Two things stand out. One is that Glee relies on nonoriginal material; well, except for the end of Season 2, and that was enough to make us all hope they won’t try original material again. Buffy’s songs were all original, fully integrated with the narrative. The second thing that stands out is that on Buffy, each song moves along the story. On Glee, the songs never drive the story, because there isn’t much of a story to begin with.

On “Once More with Feeling”, each song was a transition to something more; the episode was more than the sum of its songs. On Glee each song is not a transition, but a destination, or to put it another way, on Buffy the point was the story, while on Glee the point is the song. Interestingly, one of the few episodes where the songs did advance the story was in the Season 1 episode “Dream On”, where Joss Whedon—who not only directed “Once More with Feeling” but wrote the episode and all of its songs—was the guest director on. Interestingly, none of the songs on Whedon’s episode of Glee were nondiegetic, which is to say that each of them arose from within the narrative, like when Will and guest star Neil Patrick Harris sing “Piano Man” along with a jukebox, and later perform together Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as part of an audition for a musical.

And then in what may be my favorite performance ever on Glee, Artie tells his girlfriend that the cure for paralysis that she had investigated has worked, allowing him to sing and dance to “The Safety Dance” with the poignant chorus “I can dance if I want to,” only to have the song end when we learn the whole thing was his fantasy, and that really he can’t dance at all. The tragedy is that the way songs were used in this episode was the exception and not the rule on Glee.

Clearly, there’s acknowledgment somewhere—the producers? the studio? the network?—that the writing on the show leaves much to be desired. For the first two seasons, all the writing was done by the three person crew of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. This created two problems: the writing can never be better than the joint abilities of these three and; three people are too few to spread writing duties between. The best shows employ a team of writers with an executive producer who does rewrites on each individual script to make them fit with all the others. On Battlestar Galactica, for example, Ronald D. Moore only received writing credits on a handful of episodes, but he actually worked extensively on every script on the show. But on Glee, there are overwhelming time demands on the writers because there are so few of them to begin with. The writing on the show as a result always feels a bit trite.

Glee will have an expanded writing staff in its third season, an obvious concession that things have not been working as smoothly as they might wish. They include Allison Adler (Chuck, No Ordinary Family), Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men, as well as films Fright Night and I Am Number Four), Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Big Love), Michael Hitchcock (MadTV), Matt Hodgson and Ross Maxwell are joining the show as producers or writers. Will it be enough to turn a mediocre series to a good one? I’m doubtful, but at least with this degree of a shakeup, there is hope.