Fumble! (with notes on the coherence of the TV text and the new season)

I agree with Heather Havrilesky and lots of other people that Friday Night Lights is in trouble. It might have been better for the show to have ended last season. Then we would have had our memories and our State Championship and our righteous anger at the greedy capitalist philistines of NBC. The show would have lived on as a glorious single season and an eternal what-if, a worthy successor in the teen TV before-their-time pantheon to My So-Called Life and Freak and Geeks. But now we may have to endure the pathetic degeneration of a favorite into just another show that we watch because we used to watch it. Woe betide us.

The problems are greater than just the murder melodrama plot, but this is the biggest issue. Landry was a good character because he was peripheral and he drew our attention away from the football heroes to the ordinary folks. He was not on the football team and not in a relationship with Tyra. His value was as someone looking in from the outside, and the show's greatest virtue was in the way it spread out our interest to so many unusual, marginal characters. But now not only has he become central to the show, he has become more of a type. Defending the honor of the girl he loves, who doesn't love him back, he kills her stalker in a fit of passion and then agrees with the girl to cover up the crime by tossing the corpse off a bridge. Not in my Dillon, Texas!

The show's creative leader, Jason Katims, says that there was no pressure from NBC to have them change the show to make it more likely to score ratings. But we know that there doesn't have to be overt pressure--the makers of FNL know that to stay on the air they need much bigger ratings numbers than they have had, and we also know that they have decided to de-emphasize the football this season in hopes of bringing in a wider audience. This already shows, as the first two episodes of the show have been set before the first game of the Panthers' season. Managing the shift from critical fave to something bigger cannot be easy. My problem with the murder storyline is very basic and simple: it moves the show away from its most central appeal, its tone. It can't manage to dramatize the texture of everyday life while at the same time working in a few beats of a murder melodrama plot each week. And let me be clear: I would love to watch a well-done murder melodrama on television. I'm not judging that genre in any way. I'm just saying that it's incompatible with FNL's tone. If this works, great, but I doubt it will still feel like the same show.

I have other problems. Too many plot developments in the two episodes so far seem lacking in the sense of organic development that would make them dramatically powerful. I have in mind the separation of Coach and Mrs. Coach and the downturn in the relationship of Julie and Matt. In both instances, I feel a strain of implausibility obstructing my attachment to the characters. I have to remind myself why the Taylors are living apart and the rationale doesn't convince me. And Julie's motivation for leaving her boyfriend is even murkier. She talks about not wanting to become her parents, but I don't buy that the character would be possessed of that kind of self-knowledge. The dialog in these scenes has an unfortunate on-the-nose quality that reminds you that the character's words were written for them to say in a script. In this week's second episode, Tami looks for comfort from her temporary replacement in the guidance office, a clueless science teacher named Glenn, and it makes no sense that she would have no other friends in Dillon to turn to. Clearly he is meant to be a substitute for Eric to make us want the married couple to reunite. In both cases, the characters appear to have been engineered into dramatic situations without having taken the plausible steps to get into them. And so it is with Lyla having been born again. I would have liked to see a scene or two that sets this up.

Other aspects of the show are different this season. I don't recall many talk radio voice-overs reasserting the centrality of Panthers football to the people of Dillon. This was another key element of the show's tone: a sense that too much civic pride was being invested in the town's young men, that they had to bear an unreasonable burden. I also get less of a sense of the show's scenes being shot in the loose, improvisatory style that characterized last year's episodes. The performances and camera setups both seem more formal and standard now. I'm still watching because I have an attachment to the characters, but I sense that they're now becoming a vestige of something that doesn't exist any more.

There is a lesson here, I think. Many critics like to compare prime-time serials to novels. Both tell long-form stories in a series of chapters, and many novels have been published in installments. But one difference between television and literature is that television is a more collaborative art that requires a huge network of cooperation, including producers and networks eager to realize a profit. Creative talent comes and goes. Maybe Peter Berg (or someone else) was important to FNL's tone and he (they) is less involved now. Friday Night Lights does not have the luxury of the premium cable shows that can be content with an audience of two or three million. It needs an audience several times that size to be considered a real success. Identifying the intentions of creative people can be tricky, but I don't think it's unfair to wonder if the creators of FNL are trying to boost the show's appeal by playing down some of the things that made people like me adore it and, perhaps, turned off potential viewers last season. I'm not a scholar of the novel, but I find it hard to believe that a book would be as likely to suffer from the shifts in tone, style, and focus of the sort we are seeing in Friday Night Lights. Few people start reading novels with the 23rd chapter, but NBC hopes people will start viewing FNL now, having missed the first season and not caring what it might have been like. Comparing a television series to a novel (or, for that matter, a movie) oversells the coherence of the television text.

This might sound like I'm saying that literature and cinema are superior, but I am not. They are all different. It might be unreasonable to assume that a television series will form a globally coherent text over the course of its multiple seasons. Assuming this might unfairly impose aesthetic assumptions from other forms and media. It's especially unlikely for a long television series to be coherent in the same fashion as a movie or a novel because it's unlikely to have a television series plotted out in advance of multiple seasons. Everyone in a long series is basically making it up as they go along. Coherence may be imposed top-down by viewers, but it is also a function of design, and network television series are not typically designed for global coherence. Maybe the better analogy would be to a series of novels or films or comics, like a series of mysteries centered on a recurring detective character or a superhero franchise. These are produced by different creative personnel as time passes and their audiences age and change. We don't expect these to have the same kind of textual coherence that a single novel or film would have; they do have coherence, but it's of a different kind.

I have coherence in my head lately as I have been reading Greg M. Smith's new book Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal. Smith argues that that series has a kind of global coherence, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through the book so I'll hold off on commenting further for now except to say that it's weird to be getting reacquainted with Ally--a show I first really loved then really really really hated--after not having thought about it for several years, and that I had forgotten how essential and influential it was in introducing so many wacky comical devices (fantasies, flashbacks, digital effects, musical numbers) later picked up by the single-camera sit-coms.


The new season is a few weeks old, so here's my scorecard:

-I can't live without The Hills, Mad Men, and Tell Me You Love Me. These are the current absolute faves. Tell Me You Love Me has two things you almost never see: therapy scenes where characters learn something about themselves and each other rather than just providing exposition and amping up conflict, and sex scenes that advance the plot and reveal character rather than being merely erotic. I also still love the real estate and design porn. Something has to turn us on if the sex is going to make us feel so uncomfortable.

-Also keeping very close tabs on the good but not great Damages, which is heading for a crescendo ending, and the returning standout 30 Rock. Still never miss episodes of Degrassi, Newport Harbor, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

-Of the new shows Pushing Daisies is the obvious pick of the litter, but the second episode was less flashy with the CGI and other tricks of mise en scene than the pilot and the ultra-quirk might not make for compelling weekly viewing without good serial arcs to hook me. The shows it most reminds us of are Moonlighting (this was Elana's observation, and I like it: the weekly mysteries are exaggerated and bizarre and what you really care about is the will-they-or- won't-they) and Twin Peaks (we both thought of this one independently: basically, both shows are audacious and like nothing you've seen before). I might check in again on Chuck, Reaper, Dirty Sexy Money, and Gossip Girl, but none will be weekly appointments for now. And although I got a big kick out of Back to You and Aliens in America, I don't feel like watching either of them again.

-The surprise show of the fall slate is the vampire thriller Moonlight. I'm not ready to sell it hard yet, but the first two episodes were both dramatic and engaging, with genuinely surprising twists and powerful revelations. It gets points off, though, for indulging in my pet peeve of television clich├ęs: the nefarious graduate student/ teaching assistant. The grad students of America might need to organize an action coalition if this stuff keeps up.


Jason Mittell said...

I agree with the trouble of coherence in writing TV criticism - and probably even more so in creating TV. Some shows are better at it than others, while many shows embrace a lack of coherence as part of its charm (The Simpsons comes to mind) or simply manage viewer expectations to forgo the quest for week-to-week unity.

So here's the question for the FNL virgin: should we bother starting with season 2, or let the chips fall & turn to the s1 DVD as a stand-alone object? Do you think watching s2 without nostalgia & investment from s1 would sour me on the show? Or should I seek coherence by going to the beginning and working through the inevitable disappointment?

As for Pushing Daisies, I've blogged my affections already. I agree the Moonlighting is a good parallel, except that it's totally different in tone. Ultimately the show will be redeemed by the characters being involving & engaging, whether arcs are central or not. I just want to spend time with these people in their odd little world!

michael z newman said...

I don't know how n00bs should approach FNL in an ideal world, but I want people to watch this season so that the show gets a chance to stay on the air. I say watch it now. You are already spoiled in lots of ways (not that that's a bad thing necessarily) so I'm not sure how much the order of viewing matters. In a way, it's unfortunate that the existence of TV on DVD becomes an obstacle to people watching shows when they're on (the optimal viewing condition, IMO) if they prefer to they wait and catch up from the beginning. But this might be a personal quirk--I prefer to think of TV on DVD as an improvement on watching reruns rather than as an alternative to watching shows when they're on originally. (For the latter, of course, there are DVRs.)

Anonymous said...

Dunno if you saw, but Jeffrey Jones has a piece on The Wire and FNL over on Flow. I haven't seen more than 10 mins this season, but reading your piece here was a shocking sign of how what Jeff and you both liked so much could be flying away at the speed of light. what a pity. What next? Is Lyla going to join the team as the new running back?
- Jonathan Gray