Thursday, July 10, 2008

'Lights' out for two of the series' bright spots

It's actually good to read that Friday Nights Light is phasing out two of its most prominent characters now that it's somehow survived for a third season.

Two main ingredients in the fanaticism the show inspires (among many) is that the show's writers go at it the same way that Brian (Smash) Williams, who is apparently being written out of the show, runs the football -- straight ahead. It doesn't juke and jive or step out of bounds when it has to show the saints as sinners and the sinners as saints. That's lacking in most prime-time dramas. It's even set in this decade, too (take that, Mad Men).

The series' focus is on the people connected through a Texas high school football team, so changing some of the players makes sense for the FNL franchise. Besides, you pretty much have to go along, since Rule No. 1 of being a FNL fanatic is always presume its writers and producers know what they're doing. If they're planning to just have a four-episode storyline apiece in Season 3 for The Smash, played by Gaius Charles (pictured) and Jason Street, the quadriplegic former star quarterback and coach played by Scott Porter, they probably have their reasons (some of which might be budgetary). It also saves Porter, who's 29 years old and has a bit of a receding hairline, from being the oldest-looking teenager on TV since 90210's heyday).

In the FNL universe, key characters should move on, since that's life during the period between ages 16 and about 24. People can be dominant figures in your life for a few months or couple years and then they're gone. Writing out Smash and Street means FNL is also avoiding another classic TV trap of what to do when characters finish high school. Granted, a cynic would point out that if they were going to let go of any teen character, it should be Lyla Garrity, who was somewhat dull -- but played by Minka Kelly -- as the head cheerleader in Season 1 and was somehow duller -- but still played by Minka Kelly -- as a born-again Christian in Season 2. There's a compromise there. Losing Lyla might have hurt the show in the key demo of Lonely Guys, Aged 28-34. (Or am I projecting?)

Besides, you just know the writers and producers will see how far they can take it before Lyla ends up with Tim Riggins (the fact Riggins is played by a Canadian, Taylor Kitsch, is enough of a small victory for at least one Lonely Guy, Aged 28-34).

Street was a senior in the first season, while at the end of the truncated Season 2, Smash had signed on to play football at fictional Whitmore University, an academically prestigious Historically Black College that just happens to be within a short drive of Dillon, Texas. For all intents and purposes, the Smash ceased to be integral to the show once he gave his word to Whitmore. He had his ticket out of Dillon and presumably, a better life, and having him go to a HBC also removed any of the moral ambiguity about a young black man going off to the salt mine of big-time college football.

One reading of Smash's story would be that it addressed some liberal guilt on the part of series creator Peter Berg, who also directed the 2004 movie, and his cousin, Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the book (about 20 years before he became the embodiment of evil in the blogosphere). One of the major weasel-outs in the movie was the way it used a real-life Smash, James (Boobie) Miles, an African-American running back whose career was ruined by a knee injury during the 1988 season chronicled in Bissinger's book. Sixteen years later, the movie as an epilogue, only let us know that Miles had grown up to become a father of two, but it never let on whether he ever got a shot at an education once he was no longer of use to a football team. Bissinger wrote in a 2004 Sports Illustrated article that Miles lived in penury and that he had occasionally loaned him money.

Granted, someone a whole lot smarter would really have to be the one to make such an accusation.

The point is that the series has to evolve, so dropping a couple characters whose story arcs had played themselves out makes sense. It might help get FNL back to showing and not telling, which didn't always happen in Season 2, when the writing staff was likely aware it needed to try something/anything to draw more eyeballs. (That was the most grating part of the much-loathed Landry/Tyra murder plotline -- the writing staff actually acknowledged the compromises the show has to make to stay on the air in the long run. It just didn't do it in enough of a "yeah, we know" way, like The Simpsons and Arrested Development ("Save Our Bluths!") have mastered over the years.

The only sad part is that just reading about this in July increases the appetite to see the show. February -- when a 13-episode Season 3 will begin airing on NBC after a fall run on DirecTV -- is too long to wait. Seriously, some of you are going to check this show out, for the rest of us' sake?

Anyway, last and certainly least, here's here's a Top 5 of Smash and Street moments.

Smash:

  1. Scoring the last-second touchdown, on a hook-and-ladder play, to win State (ep. 22) -- that has to be in there.
  2. Schooling the Matt Saracen (the team's quarterback) in Guy Code for breakups: "Takin' it like a man, Matty. You know, avoiding the calls, ducking out, hidin' in the bushes."
  3. In Season 1, Smash's girlfriend was a minister's daughter named Waverly Grady. The expression on Charles' face in one episode where they sneak into someone's backyard to go skinny-dipping in the pool -- caught between the conquest and being caught -- is priceless.
  4. Leading the Panthers' African-American players in a walkout before the first playoff game in Season 1. (My Season 1 DVDs are out on loan, so details are fuzzy, but it's a great transition from self-absorbed jock to rabblerouser.)
  5. During a recruiting trip to fictional Oklahoma A&M, being caught el flagrante delecto with a girl by her nosetackle-playing boyfriend and being forced to use his 4.3-in-the-40 speed to avoid a beatdown. It also meant running out of the dormitory in just boxers and having to wait until after sun-up for Matt Saracen to arrive with clothes and a ride home, but hey, you're only 17 once.
Street:

  1. OK, so it's not a moment, but the treatment of Street's paralysis in the first half of Season 1 came off as pretty authentic -- having to re-learn basic motor skills, the loss of friends. When his buddy at the rehab centre, Herc, who has the same spinal cord condition, says, "We're the lucky ones -- we've got the use of our hands," well, it kind of hits home. The same goes for when he loses it on Lyla in the Mud Bowl episode.
  2. Becoming the town pariah after word gets out about his parents suing everyone involved with his injury (Season 1). Street unsuccessfully tries to buy beer at a corner store that he'd presumably always been served since he was a football hero. "You won't sell it to me 'cause I'm in a chair?" ... "No, I won't sell it to you because you're underage." Just then, Riggins, whom Street is on the outs with, saunters into frame, and of course, gets served thanks his fake ID -- "there you go, Sergeant Riggins."

    Outside, Riggins hands Street a six-pack. And they're buddies again? Well, not right away. The show doesn't work that way (unless the plot line is based around race, then it always get resolved easily).
  3. Singlehandly resolving his parents' lawsuit (Episode 20). It was a little over the top, but it kept the series from having any scenes in a courtroom.
  4. Turning Saracen into a QB (toward the end of Season 1).

    Coach: You don't have any laurels, you understand me.
    Street: You don't have any laurels, Saracen.
    Coach: Not a damn one.
  5. Selling that car (Episode 35). Toward the end of Season 2, right before he impregnated that strawberry-blond waitress (come to think of it, Street's mom is a strawberry blond; this show's writers think of everything), Buddy Garrity hires Street to sell cars at his dealership. None of the other sales reps are none too keen on competing with a paralyzed ex-football hero, so Street gets foisted on the mother of all tire-kickers -- and reveals why he was the type of QB who would make his teammates want to run through a brick wall for him:

    Street: "Why won't you let yourself buy this car? ... I'm just trying to understand ... all these salespeople around here, look at them, they've given up you, so they send me, wheelchair guy, rookie, low man on the totem pole, to talk to you, because none of them believe that you can actually pull the trigger and purchase a vehicle. Well, let me tell you something. You love this car so much that you come in two days a week -- two days a week! -- just to look at it and you walk out. Gerald, life is too short, life is too short. It can change in an instant. Take it from me. So be a man. Take control of your life. Be a man. Buy this car. Show all these people that you're capable of making a decision."
    Gerald: "I'm gonna really think about it."
    Street: "No. No more thinking. No more dithering. No more wasting everybody's time -- especially your own, because that's what you're doing every time you come in here. Buy this car because you love it, because you want this car and you want to drive off this lot, in this car, today."
    Gerald (long pause): "Okay."
Brilliant. See what you've been missing?

(Thanks to Erin Nicks for the link.)

Related:
Exclusive: 'Friday Night Lights' Cuts Two Players (Mike Aussiello, Entertainment Weekly)

5 comments:

Amrit Ahluwalia said...

FNL needs to return to its first-season roots. They were brilliant, have an incredibly football-centric first season to draw in guys, but have really attractive people to draw in girls. Then they made it more of a soap and phased out the football in season 2, but some of the guys (read: I) accidentally became interested and continued to watch. I hate myself knowing that I'll keep watching, even if they continue phasing out the football, but I pray they bring it back.

Also, has anyone else noticed how they always seem to win in the last few seconds of every game? Can a team really be that good if they can only ever scrape out a win in the last few seconds of a game?

krister said...

As for scraping out a win in the last seconds of a game - ever heard of Turkey in Euro 2008???

Amrit Ahluwalia said...

Refer to my blog for my take on the Turks in Euro.

When you get that far only having been winning for 14 minutes total, it's not an impressive record. It means you have no technical skill, your entire game is based on emotion, and as such your team contains no consistency. Your ability to squeak out a win becomes more based on rage than ability, their wins came from catching teams with their pants down more than anything else (read: Petr Cech literally dropping the ball on Czech qualification)

Amrit Ahluwalia said...

That's not to say it's not entertaining, it's just not the mark of a good team.

sager said...

Yeah, that was a little much -- even the powderpuff game (Ep. 16) wasn't decided until the final play.

That's a favourite episode, especially when the referee (Landry), throws a penalty flag on Coach Taylor for unsporsmanlike conduct, "That's your first one."

Coach Taylor is like, "Hey, come on, Lance."