Sunday, April 12, 2009

A worthwhile hour

For me to write about a television show that has finished its run for the year, and won't be back for nine months, seems pointless. But Friday Night Lights, which had its season finale on NBC on Friday, is performing at such a high level that I'm going to call it out before memory fades.

You can find plenty of tributes to FNL on the Web - it's a real critical favorite - and I don't need to recount most of that. The actors, led by Kyle Chandler (and hasn't he done a nice job of overcoming his work on What About Joan; how has he kept his name off the IMDB page for that stinker?) and the writers have created complex, believable characters. The style, featuring handheld cameras and, apparently, improvisation, gives an intimacy to the show that's hard to match.

But I also like how issues are woven into the show through telling stories, rather than by didactically hitting the viewer over the head (the way this blog does sometimes, unfortunately). The conflict between the needs of education and the mania for the football team (a less artistic presentation here) was illustrated through the means of a booster-desired Jumbotron screen in the face of teacher cutbacks. That didn't come to a neat, happy resolution, which is pretty real.

The character of Tyra, well played by Adrianne Palicki, is a young woman who has come of age over the three seasons. Tyra, as we first knew her, was lost, hiding whatever her real talents were in romance and a who-cares attitude. Then she, for various reasons, got serious about school and her future. Without spoiling the final episode, I'll just say that it makes you think about the importance we place on young people making the right decisions off the bat, regardless of what role models they have or resources they can draw on. That a clearly smart young woman as Tyra can worry about whether she can go to college, even though her last two years were filled with achievement, feels wrong, in that we expect 14-year-olds to understand that their future depends on what they do right now.

The show is not, naturally, perfect. The football sequences are pretty poor, with far too many last second victories (or losses), and a real lack of coherence. There are times when characters are far too articulate - Tyra's mom has a speech in the next-to-last episode this season that has no precedent in anything we've ever seen from this character. Lyla is #2 in her class (because we know #1 just must be a grind, no one we'd ever want to hang with).

Some of these flaws are explainable by the exigencies of television. In real life, Tyra's mom might have said something far less articulate but equally understandable by her daughter, but it needs to be unpacked for the mass audience. The football games are meant to be significant, so are bended to the needs of the show.

These things aside, FNL is a welcome change from gritty police dramas and blue-lit procedurals and ersatz reality shows. If you haven't been watching (and, according to the ratings, most of you haven't been), you can catch up on NBC or buy the DVDs. I'd strongly recommend you add this show to your list - and it's been renewed for two more seasons, so you still have a chance to jump on board (even though it won't be back on NBC until it's finished its run on DirecTV, an unusual arrangement that splits the costs and helps the show survive).

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