Friday Night Lights ended its second season, and perhaps its entire run, last night. After a starting the season with episodes that portended both more of what was great about the first season and the half-baked, melodramatic digressions that were to come, the fifteenth episode was, mostly, an understated triumph. (Peter Berg's goofy cameo didn't feel at home with anything else, but it did look like he and the Taylor family actors were having fun.)
The season never hit a consistent stride. It opened with the Taylor family fractured. Eric spending the week in Austin as TMU's quarterback coach; Julie and Tami living uneasily together in Dillon. Julie resented her father's absence, and the attention her mother paid the new baby. As with last season, some of this season's truest-feeling, and best, scenes were played between Tami and Julie.
Julie was also restless in her relationship with Matt, too, but their break-up never really pays off in any way. Briefly, Matt is the center point in a love triangle between Carlotta, his grandmother's Guatemalan nurse and the blond cheerleader who knows so much about cars. Matt's affair with Carlotta had its moments (for one it explored Matt's attraction to care-givers and parental figures), but Carlotta's presence and departure were both totally inexplicable.
Grandma Saracen's care needs frequently overwhelmed Matt in the first season, and it seemed uncharacteristic for the show that Carlotta mysteriously came to their aid. Matt seems as surprised to meet her as we are, which is odd given that he's been the only one in charge of his grandmother. It's never explained, for instance, how she's being paid. Does Medicare pay for around-the-clock, live-in nurses in Dillon? It seemed likely (or at least plausible) that the Buddy Garrity and the booster club were sponsoring her, but we never did figure it out. It also seems like the question of a replacement might come up after she suddenly moves back to Guatemala. I'm going to leave the quincinera scene in the past.
More briefly, some of this season's other misbegotten and aborted storylines:
- Lyla Garrity's transformation into a megachurch-going Christian. Lyla seems happy now, sure, but it seems like we're leaving her pretty much right where we found her in the opening of the series (having traded cheerleading football for cheerleading for Jesus). She was much more interesting at the close of the first season, when we saw her setting out on what seemed like would be a lonely new identity as someone who was rejected by, and the rejected, the Dillon football culture. She seemed much too humble, and much too cognizant of what she didn't like about Dillon, to become the harshly judgmental fundamentalist she was for most of the second season.
- Similarly, Jason Street seemed to be seeking some new way to exist as a former Dillon Panther. His decision to leave his coaching job seemed like a prologue to leaving Dillon. Alas, as the second season closed he, too, was embracing, in an out-of-character way, the divine: insisting that the pregnancy resulting from his one-night stand was a miracle. Anyway, shouldn't he just a year after being paralyzed still be in some sort of physical therapy?
- Coach Taylor's return to Dillon, following the booster club's ouster of Coach McGregor, was promising but never went anywhere. Eric having to serve as athletic director to the school in order to draw his old salary seemed like a clever return to the Bissinger book's examination of the high school football cult and culture in Dillon, but the conflicts it seemed likely to create were pretty much left out of the show.
- Smash's secret relationship with a rich white girl. Friday Night Lights has been pretty nimble and thoughtful (relative to prime time, network standards) when it came to race and class, but the whole business with Smash beating up the obnoxious white kid in the movie theatre made everyone I know cringe. I will presume, for the sake of the show I once loved, that had the writers not gone on strike this would have been smoothed out and better-handled.
- The murder. This was handled much better than could have been expected (or, was hardly the biggest problem the series created for itself), though it obviously belongs in another, crappier show. Still: How is it that Coach Taylor gets a call from the police when Smash gets in a fight, but is totally out of the loop when Landry confesses to murder?
- Almost everything involving Tim Riggins. This season spent a lot of time on Riggins. Like Lyla and Jason, he was also seeking something, though he never figured out what. His pursuit of Lyla was tiresome and repetitive, redeemed only by how she's portrayed as not-at-all conflicted about not wanting him. He also spent some time living with, and then stealing from, "one of the biggest drug dealers in Dillon." This was the only development dumber than his falling out with Coach Taylor after Coach thinks he's caught Tim and Julie making out. The Riggins-Taylor family storyline was especially disappointing since it's the sort of thing this show can do beautifully. Speaking of which...
- The show has always been best when Coach Taylor is acting as surrogate father for the players with absent fathers (Saracen, Riggins, Smash) and for the one he's always been close to (Street). His relationship with Saracen has been special, though, because Saracen actually longs for a father figure (and because Eric seems to have mixed feelings about his own father). It seemed a waste to me that Eric and Matt were only on screen together a handful of times, and almost not at all for the mid section of the series.
Likewise, the last episode's scene between Eric and Street showed how good the show could be. Jason is asking for advice on convincing his one-night-stand to not have an abortion, and Coach Taylor, radiating humanistic wisdom, refuses to indulge him, though he does recognize Jason's pain.
I don't have any magic words for you and it's not for me to convince her, its for you to find those words yourself. I can tell this is going to be one of the most serious conversations probably you'll ever have in your life. I can tell you that your children and the mother of your children are the two most important things in life.... I can't give you any answers. You've got to make the answers.Incidentally: I liked that this show actually used the word abortion (several times, even) and never once in a derogatory way. Street only wants this girl to continue the pregnancy out of a previously unmentioned concern that he might never be able to have kids. There was otherwise no judgment that I picked up on.
Whether Eric's overtime work on his players' off-field lives is compensation after realizing in the previous episode how much Saracen had counted on him, and the degree to which he failed the boy, we won't learn unless we get a proper conclusion to the season. If this does prove to me the last episode of the year (to say nothing of the series) we were at least treated to some scenes of vintage quality, and we'll be leaving everyone facing in the right direction.
Other highlights, from the last episode and the whole season:
- We were treated to one last scene of Landry and Matt's affectionate bickering, and a glimpse of Landry's family having survived the earlier crisis intact.
- Coast Taylor, refusing to "drop the hammer," allowing his opponent a score during a post-season blow out.
- Unlike Lyla and Jason, who sought refuge from the Dillon of their past, Tyra embraced the aspects of her town she'd always kept at a distance, and it seemed to suit her. After prevaricating on whether she loves Landry or not we see them unabashedly holding hands at school, and her enthusiastically cheering during the game. She's also found a place on the volleyball team and a surrogate family of her own in the Taylors.
- The relationship between Buddy Garrity and Santiago never developed in a very satisfying way, but the game sequence, set to ...Trail of Dead's Source Tags and Codes where Santiago takes his place on the Panther team was pretty awesome.
- The premier episode's use of Wilco's Muzzle of Bees.
- The suggestion that Coaches Taylor and McGregor would face off at some point was exciting.
- The weird, fleeting sense that, while in Mexico, Jason, Tim and Lyla might have a three-way.
- Tami's scenes with her sister, in whom she gets a glimpse of how different her life could be, and the resentment and love inherent in their relationship.