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There’s no reason to defend season 2 of Friday Night Lights. The show survived it and thrived. But it deserves study, close analysis, and maybe a new cockeyed appreciation.
This is the season where Landry infamously kills a dude, one of those GREAT-SHOW-BAD-PLOT memories cherished by TV fans as a What-Not-To-Do tutorial. (Think Don Draper flashbacks, think Sand Snakes, think “He’s the real Seymour Skinner!”) But revisiting Landry’s justifiable homicide, and the ensuing Southern Gothic teen-noir that ensues, I realized that the plotline makes sense amidst its own mad context. The killing of the rapist is the catalyst for all that follows: An extremist plot-meteor strikes Dillon, ripple-effecting extremism across all 15 episodes of season 2. Everyone becomes their most aggressive worst self. Tami slaps Julie. Matt tackles Smash, and kicks his car, and calls his teacher a “bitch.” Racist teens hurl insults at Smash; when he punches back, racist society steals his future and crushes his dreams.
This is the only season of Friday Night Lights where a football coach hurls himself onto the field of play, tackling a high schooler in a fit of unrepressed rage. This is the only season where someone steals $3,000 from one of the biggest drug dealers in Dillon. Season 2 is when an opposing football team shares Dillon’s practice space for a week, and so this is the only season when a full-fledged fight breaks out in the cafeteria. That fight’s only a bit less violent than the tornado that blows through town as if Earth itself has started to declare war on Dillon.
It all builds up to the season 2 finale. Coach Eric Taylor is, usually, a paragon of paternal Job-like restraint in the face of all-encompassing societal abuse. Tami Taylor is, unquestionably, a paragon of matriarchal power and can’t-go-on-I’ll-go-on responsibility, strong against a civilization run by good ol’ bros who love football and hate education. And in the season 2 finale, Tami watches Eric tackle her old high school boyfriend into a table, a drunken brawl that seems to destroy an entire restaurant, one more tornado in this season of twisters.
Tami’s ex-boyfriend is Mo McArnold, a creature out of some florid Texas fantasia, played by Peter Berg with maximum sneer. Mo is one of the most elaborate guest-characters ever. In his single episode, he wears a white cowboy hat and a black cowboy hat. He favors loud farmboy shirts; he rides a helicopter. Berg plays McArnold not as merely a rich Texan but as some rollicking money-mad ideal of TEXAS brought to life. Next to Mo McArnold, Buddy Garrity looks subtle. Next to Mo McArnold, John Wayne looks subtle. Berg was, of course, the guy who originally developed Friday Night Lights as a TV enterprise. So here we have Eric Taylor, on-camera avatar of authority, grappling with his off-camera overlord. You think of Jacob, the gone-astray patriarch, fighting against his heavenly mystery man, the angel some theologians say must be God Himself.
Certainly, the Eric-Mo restaurant brawl is the far boundary-point for this show, a Great Barrier marking the fiery edge of the Friday Night Lights cinematic universe. On a show where teenagers would struggle eternally with grown-up concerns – their family’s financial future, the possibility of existential ruin, sexuality as something discussed with dreamy frankness between precocious teens and understanding parents – here are adults acting like petty children. On a show where people could always talk about anything, here are actions speaking drunker than words.
“He was being an idiot,” is how Tami explains the fight to daughter Julie the next morning. The Taylor women leave Eric in bed, moaning; they have to get to Church. This season finale was accidental, because of the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike, and could have been the series finale, due to low ratings. So there is an alternate reality not far from our own where this was our last image of Coach Eric Taylor is bruised, hungover, laid low and idiotic, our beloved Coach gone Full Riggins.
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We’ve become too precious about TV shows as works of steady coherence. We overvalue a certain kind of embalmed clarity, a hysterical continuity ensuring that the story told in every premiere will flow directly into every finale. Seasons have gotten shorter, and sometimes one filmmaker directs every episode, and some shows have become two-hour movies overstretched to binge capacity. The middle half of any Netflix season – and any FX show with episodes consistently rolling past the one-hour mark – will start to feel like deleted scenes cobbled together for contractual purposes, the motion picture equivalent of juking your font size to make your essay longer. There is a greater visual quality in modern television than ever before, but there is a dispiriting narrative safety. Any show that takes a big swing runs the risk of angering fans. And fans have never loved TV more, but have never been so willing to hate the people who make the TV they love.
Friday Night Lights season 2 was not much beloved while it was happening. That was almost a decade ago, when fandom was blogs and comment boards. If season 2 happened today, there would be Tumblr riots. Any rage is justified, maybe: From the beginning, this season is so different from what Friday Night Lights seemed to want to be.
In season 1 (and forever after season 2), Friday Night Lights was about people who talk. This was always the show’s brilliant problem: The reason why it is so great, but also the reason it struggled to find an audience back when television was still merely something you watched on television. Characters work out everything, gradually but eventually. Precocious teenagers debate the merits of losing their virginity. Dreamers explain the agony and ecstasy of their impossible dreams. Sons talk about the emotional void created by their absent parents; frequently, those sons talk to those absent parents, and their parents hear them, and try to respond with appropriately careful words.
It is a show about football, and so there was always intrinsic violence dangerously lurking under the surface or safely sealed away under the lights. The show started in 2006, a year after Dr. Bennet Omalu published his first paper on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (and a decade before anyone from the NFL would acknowledge a link between regular headbashing and brain injuries.) Friday Night Lights was not so gutless, would never shy from the tragic possibilities of violence; “debilitating spinal-cord injury” is the show’s inciting incident, after all. But the show was always sensitive, skeptical of the sport’s brutality and the madness of its fandom, hopeful in its fundamental belief that humans could talk through their issues toward some higher truth.
But then there is season 2, bloodthirsty with soap operatics and pseudo-fantasies. All sensitivity is thrown out the window. Julie falls for a Julian Casablancas body double nicknamed “The Swede,” who doesn’t look Swedish and who barely talks. Given license for single-dude horndoggery, eternal grandma’s-boy sweetheart Matt Saracen smooches a rallygirl but falls in true wuv with Carlotta, the Guatemalan caregiver who lives in his house. Carlotta massages away Matt’s pain while she sings him a lullaby, and she unburdens him of his helpless virginity, and then she leaves. If people made fan theories 10 years ago the way people make fan theories now, everyone would think that Carlotta was a ghost or a waking dream, some Saracen family mass delusion shared by dementia-addled Grandma and heartbroken Matt. (Wasn’t the ghost in Vertigo named Carlotta, too?)
Essential character arcs from season 1 are tossed aside as if the characters forgot their own catharsis over the summer. By the end of season 1, Smash Williams had experienced a political awakening, developed a close relationship with an activist intellectual, become less egocentric and more team-focused. In season 2, it’s the Smash show all over again, his id re-unleashed. He visits a college, takes a girl to bed, and winds up running through the streets half-naked when her boyfriend shows up.
NEXT: Much ado about Jason Street