Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Night Lights: The Fifth and Final Season

Producers: Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, Jason Katims
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Michael B. Jordan, Matt Lauria, Aimee Teegarden, Jurnee Smollett, Madison Burge, Grey Damon Taylor Kitsch, Zach Gilford, Adrianne Palicki,
Original Airdate: 2010

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Let's just go ahead and add Friday Night Lights to the list of shows that should have been one of TV's most watched, but for whatever reason, wasn't. Praised to high heaven by critics but ignored by audiences, the big question remains "Why?" It's easy to blame NBC, who dropped the ball with their constant schedule shuffling and lack of promotion, but you could also argue the network saved its life when they struck a deal with DirectTV extending its run for three more seasons, which is three more than anyone thought it would get. FNL may have never amassed the rabid cult following of other ratings-challenged shows that got the axe, but this lasted longer, and those who watched all five seasons still feel like part of an exclusive club. Whether you chalk it up to it being "too real" or not sensationalistic enough (its two best attributes in my mind), the show didn't catch fire nationally like it should have. But it's very difficult to care when you look back at the finished product over five years and consider the creative high it's departing on. And in achieving what no other drama in television's history can by not just surviving, but somehow thriving when most of the cast departed, there's nothing at all for fans to be disappointed about here. In keeping with that trend of final seasons never representing any series' creative pinnacle, season 5 definitely isn't its best, but it sure is great, cementing its status as being head and shoulders above any recent drama on TV.

Coach gives the team a pep talk before State
The series' fourth (and best) season saw a major upheaval for Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), after being replaced as the head football coach of the Dillon Panthers and initially struggling in his new position as coach of the East Dillon High Lions, the school where his wife Tami (Connie Britton) works as guidance counselor. The show's writers have had to literally rebuild the series from the ground up after losing some major players, both on and off the field. Gone over the past two seasons were Minka Kelly's former Panther cheerleader Lyla Garrity, Adrianne Palicki's bad girl Tyra Collette, Scott Porter's paralyzed Jason Street, Zach Gilford's star QB Matt Saracen, Jesse Plemons' geeky Landry Clarke and Taylor Kitsch's troubled ex-Panther running back Tim Riggins. While the last three stuck around for much of the fourth season before departing as series regulars, these blows were enormous and would have killed any other show outright. Instead, the writers were brilliant in how they maneuvered around it using the big three characters that were left last season to gradually get us to warm up to the new faces who would now be carrying the show, and succeeding. Before long, I'd forgotten that almost the entire cast was gone. Turning the tables and repositioning the Dillon Panthers (who we'd been conditioned to cheer since the pilot) as the spoiled, dominant villains in a rivalry against Coach Taylor's poor, underdog Lions from East Dillon breathed new life into the series and gave every character (with the exception of Brad Leland's underutilized Buddy Garrity) a fresh purpose and direction.

Lions booster Buddy Garrity has a heart-to-heart with troubled son Buddy, Jr.
As the star Lions QB Vince Howard, Michael B. Jordan has been a revelation but this season sees an already troubled home life with his recovering addict mother, Regina (Angela Rawna) complicated by the return of an important figure from his past. With his ego swelling to gigantic proportions, Vince must also adjust to his off again, on again girlfriend Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) taking a job as the team's equipment manager, while farm boy teammate Luke Cafferty's (Matt Lauria) somewhat controversial relationship with Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) moves to the next level despite her shocking abortion last season. The relatively new cast have no problems carrying a full season on their own for the first time without the help of any of the originals and any problems are relegated to the first half of the season and have little to do with them. Half-hearted attempts to add more new supporting characters to an already seamless cast results in failure as there just isn't enough room to define them. The arrival of Buddy Garrity's son, Buddy, Jr. (Jeff Rosick) is a bust since he spends the whole season on the sidelines doing nothing, while a new addition to the Lions' squad, former basketball player Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), is forgotten about as quickly as he's introduced. Tami's sub-plot involving her attempts to rescue a troubled student named Epyck (Emily Rios) feels more like an after-school special than a development befitting one of TV's most restrained dramas. 

Julie Taylor reunites with Matt Saracen in Chicago.
The season's worst storyline revolves around Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden), the weakest character on the series who's always been borderline intolerable whenever separated from soulmate Matt Saracen. Topping previous hall of shame Julie moments like drunkenly coming on to Tim Riggins in season 1 or hooking up with the "Swede" in season 2, the writers take it to a whole new level of embarrassment this time as we actually follow Julie to college, where she has an affair with a sleaze bag teaching assistant. Tonally inconsistent enough to conjure up bad memories of Landry the murderer from season 2, FNL was always so strong because it avoided over-the-top, teen soap histrionics in favor of subtle, more realistic storytelling. I understand the need to get Julie back to Dillon and reunited with Matt but the same thing could have been accomplished without us having to follow Julie to college, watch her struggle to fit in on campus, then endure a cringe-worthy spectacle that has nothing to do with the show, even if it was only for a few episodes. Then again, if they did that, I wouldn't have anything to complain about, and whining at length about this silly storyline is probably more fun than I'd want to admit. Luckily, Julie is mostly redeemed in the second half of the season when she does reunite with the returning Matt twice. And therein lies the conundrum with Julie Taylor. Teegarden's always been handed the worst material on the show so it's nearly impossible to judge her worth as an actress, yet whatever craptastic storyline gets thrown the character's way, you still can't bring yourself to actively dislike her. A big part of that just might be she's Coach Taylor and Tami's daughter, and since they're the heart and soul of the show, we view her as we would an annoying little sister, at times empathizing with her growing pains. So in a strange way, there is some real truth in the character.

Vince's recently paroled father, Ornette plots his son's future.
The possibility that Coach Taylor could leave Dillon, Texas at some point has always loomed large so it's fitting that this final season presents the biggest chance yet of that happening as he fields offers from interested universities, while deeply considering what such a move would mean for not only for him, but his marriage, family and players. This is juxtaposed against Vince dealing with the return of his recently paroled father, Ornette, played by Cress Williams in a season-stealing guest performance that invokes fright and uncomfortable laughter. An unpredictable loose cannon who helps Vince violate every college recruitment regulation in the book, the character is presented with the subtlety of a sledge hammer but in this case it's completely called for since the storyline itself is so gripping, bringing Vince's inner demons to the surface and tearing his relationship with Coach apart. You're on edge waiting to see what this delusional, but oddly well-intentioned nut job will do next, knowing it can't possibly end well. It's a testament to Williams' work as this villain we love to hate that there's more to Ornette than just his scary side and at times you see shades of the cool dad Vince wants to view him as and please. Vince's worst enemy has always been his past so this was the perfect way to go with him as he has to finally stand up and be the man his father couldn't. Even by the finale, it's clear that battle will be ongoing.

A depressed Tim Riggins is comforted by the returning Tyra.
The final hours rank among the series' best as the writers go all out bringing back  Saracen, Saracen's Grandma, Landry, Tyra, Jason Street and the recently incarcerated Tim Riggins who took the fall for his brother Billy's (Derek Phillips) chop shop last season and now emerges from prison a sad, depressed shell of his former self. That storyline really hogs the spotlight for the last couple of episodes and it's really tough to argue with that decision since the final episodes represent the best acting work Taylor Kitsch has done since the series' inception and the issues with his brother and sister-in-law Mindy (Stacey Oristano), is given the closure we've been hoping for. Sad and defeated in a way he he's never been before, his readjustment the daily life is almost tortuous to watch until you realize he's finally hit rock bottom and emerged with a new outlook and set of morals, obvious when Tim is the only sane person who sees a problem with a 17-year-old girl working as a waitress at a strip club. One of my favorite surprises of the season was the blustery, boisterous Buddy Garrity embroiled again in the town's football politics as he returns to his pushy, annoying Panther roots. Given how vital Brad Leland's work was to the show's success in the first three seasons, it was great to see him back in the forefront for the home stretch.

The Taylors contemplate the decision of their lives.
The show's biggest strengths during its run has always been how the football action on the field helps tell the story of what's happening off it and the amazing music choices, whether it's a slow-burning southern rock anthem after the team's win or lose or the perfect indie song played at just the right time to make a potentially sappy moment (like Matt and Julie in Chicago) connect on the right level. At the end there is a "big game" but for a change it's outcome has never been less relevant. It's all about Coach Taylor and Tami as it's always been and the writers deserve credit for knowing that's where it should leave off. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have given us one of the most honest depictions of marriage on television in years. That the decision Coach Taylor makes in the final minutes actually comes as a surprise and feels earned is all due to the Emmy-worthy Chandler, who's been the glue holding this show together for five years, playing the part with an unsentimental blend of toughness and compassion.  

"Clear Eyes, Full hearts, Can't Lose."
Despite giving us as good a closer as it gets, there are still rumors of a movie, as there always seems to be when any critically hailed series with a following leaves the air. But unlike other promised movies based on canceled shows, I'm betting this is the one that'll actually happen since it makes sense. For one, it was already based on a successful novel and feature film directed by series creator Peter Berg. And though Berg's creative output as a feature director has been spotty at best (Hancock, anyone?), there's still no denying his movies made money and he's had success outside of the show. Add to that the fact that many of actors' stocks have risen considerably since leaving the series and the idea starts to make even more sense. Of course, this still isn't a guarantee it needs to happen but I'd give this a much better chance at succeeding than most. For a show that's always seemed like a feature length film each week, it just might work.

Crafting a fully satisfying final season has to be the most difficult challenge any screenwriter or showrunner could possibly face and if you don't believe me you can just ask the Lost creators. Delivering a truly great series finale is even harder. It's near impossible to tie up every loose end, give closure to each character past and present, close the door (but leave it slightly ajar "just in case") and send all the fans home happy. So difficult is it I almost feel funny criticizing anything that goes wrong, since it's a given whatever occurs on screen won't match expectations. A couple of storylines don't work, but what does work is superb and even its minor flaws are kind of absorbing too. Whatever debate lingers about the quality of the season as a whole is tempered by the final 43 minutes, which are unarguably perfect, putting the focus exactly where it needs as the show signs off for good. Series finales are rarely ever as strong or as emotional as this. Coach Taylor's motivational catchphrase over the past five years may have been "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" but it's unlikely any loyal fans watching the final few episodes of one of television's best written and acted series will have clear eyes at the end.


Ryan said...

The series finale is among the handful of finales that you couldn't ask for anything more. Clear eyes, full hearts.

Jordans Gems said...

well stated

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