The crucial importance and splendid madness of Friday Night Lights season 2
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
In real life, character arcs aren't clean, and people regress. But "regression" doesn't come close to describing what happens to Jason Street. By the end of season 1, the former quarterback had experienced a profoundly moving psychological evolution, from despair to acceptance to ascension, all seven stages of grief playing out amidst physical therapy and quad rugby and romantic triangles gone rectangular. At one point, Jason made out with a Chillwave Pixie Dream Tattoo Artist at a kitschy real-life recreation of Stonehenge, one of about four hundred casual-glorious extreme long shots FNL could throw away on a dime:
I bring up Stonehenge II because it's one of my favorite moments, and it has nothing to do with football, and after season 2, a false orthodoxy would spring up about Friday Night Lights, that any distance from the football field was a distance from the show's emotional core. The series could always wander, and if season 2 has a sin, it is in its general willingness to wander too far.
Season 1 ended with Jason as, basically, the new Head Coach, already looking ahead to the next State Championship. In season 2, that future's gone rotten. There's a new Coach in Dillon who doesn't like the ex-quarterback very much. In response, Jason decides that he is going to walk again, the sort of mad hope that is maybe true to the paraplegic's experience but that's also definitely an abject bummer to behold.
But then the bummer gets surreal, florid, Fear and Loathing-y. Jason flees to Mexico with Tim. They go to prison and they sing Spanish karaoke. Their mutual lovemate Lyla Garrity arrives. There is talk of nanotechnology and there is the stated possibility that Jason will be injected with stem cells from a shark. At one point, apropos of nothing but the repressed anger boiling behind everyone's eyes this season, Jason jumps off a boat in the middle of open water. By then, the show has gone so wild that you're expecting him to swim down to the darkest deep, to wrestle a Great White so he can carve out the shark's own DNA with its own cold dead teeth. Instead, he swims to a beach and stares at the water and decides he will return to Dillon as a man, not a shark-man.
This is famously weird stuff, but it plays better on second viewing. The sensual pleasures are real. Street gets drunk and sings "La Cucaracha" to a cheering karaoke crowd. On the way back to Dillon, Lyla and Tim and Jason stop at a bar, have a drink. On the soundtrack, someone called Blue Merle sings something called "If I Could." Lyla spins on the lonely dance floor with Jason, and kisses him; she pulls Tim onto the dance floor, and he kisses her. It should feel like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but it's much closer to Y Tu Mama Tambien. "I gotta go pray," Lyla says, my favorite Mika Kelly line reading ever, sweet and sultry. FNL was always sexy, but this is the only time you could ever call it kinky.
There's an undisguised tension in that scene, a clarity about the Lyla-Tim-Jason trinity that the show wouldn't even try to find again. I'm not saying that the characters were diminished, far from it. Lyla's season 2 farewell to Jason is beautifully sad, and Jason's season 3 farewell to Tim is the show's crybaby high point, and the ultimate season 4 parting of Tim and Lyla is poetry, a Hemingway short story about old love in an Airstream.
But in this moment, in this nameless bar somewhere in the borderlands between Mexico and Texas, you can feel the potency and passion of this three-way love affair. And then they return to Dillon, and Jason has a one-night stand with a waitress, and somehow, against explicit biological odds, there is a baby: A veritable miracle, new life in a season that started with brutal death.
In season 1, Friday Night Lights created a portrait of a town. In season 2, the show tries to expand its vision far away. Coach Taylor is down in Austin. The menage a Street goes to Mexico. Smash cares less about his final season with the Dillon Panthers than about his bright future in college.
The show follows his wandering gaze. This is the least football-y season of the show. Characters who were once football-adjacent might as well exist in a distant parallel universe. Cheerleader Lyla is a reborn churchgoer and a radio host. Jason Street leaves coaching behind for his true destiny as a car salesman. Tami was never just Mrs. Coach – her status as a guidance counselor was an important school-focused counterweight to Panther madness – but in season 2, she's embedded in the domestic sphere, beset upon by a moody teenage daughter and a moody woman-child sister and a distant husband and little Gracie Bell won't stop crying.
In episode 6, Tami gets back to work, and you start to feel the show course-correcting, like an ocean-liner gone astray. This was actually a common experience when you watched TV dramas in the 2000s, mid-24, mid-Lost. That was the era of shows ending on wild season finale cliffhangers. Some finales were brilliant and destructive, breaking their shows' narrative spines asunder. The year Friday Night Lights debuted, Battlestar Galactica ended its second season with a time jump and the protagonists' nigh-total defeat. The O.C. killed Marissa Cooper. 24 killed everyone. The Sopranos put Tony in a coma. The Office transferred Jim to the Stamford branch. Grey's Anatomy killed Denny.
Some of these decisions were brilliant, some terrible. All of them reflect the spirit of the moment, the medium pushing its own boundaries. And all of them ran counter to what was still the essential nature of television circa then, its fundamental desire for a recognizable status quo. It took five episodes for Battlestar Galactica to fly spaceward again, seven episodes for everyone in Newport to forget Marissa ever existed, eight episodes for the Stamford branch to get absorbed into the central Office. 24 never really recovered from season 5. Tony woke up from his coma, maybe? Grey's Anatomy brought Denny back, sort of, then brought him back again, sort of, then just started killing everyone, a Beloved Character Murder Spree that won't end until the show does, no one left alive in post-apocalyptic Seattle except probably Alex Karev.
In this sense, Friday Night Lights season 2 suffers most of all from the brilliance of the Friday Night Lights season finale. At the tail end of the season, Coach Taylor is offered his dream job, a coaching job at TMU, with a clear track to being head coach someday; hell, maybe even a job in the NFL. After he wins State in the finale, the Coach says he'll turn down the job. But Tami is too tough – and the show too bittersweet – to refuse that easy victory.
Maybe there are some shows that could have sustained the drama of their separation, or that could have created new separate dramas for these characters. The same year Friday Night Lights debuted, The Wire was airing its essentially perfect fourth season, which barely features the show's nominal protagonist and introduces an entirely new central setting. The Wire was not much-watched by average citizens but was immediately beloved by people who make TV; its influence is all over Friday Night Lights‘ later seasons, not least because the show snatched a couple of The Wire‘s best casualties.
But almost immediately, it's clear that Friday Night Lights season 2 can't sustain its boldest narrative decision. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are pure cinema when they're together; their chemistry is Friday Night Lights‘ most convincing auteur theory. Keeping them apart is just a bummer, and the show admits that almost immediately. At the end of episode 2, someone asks Tami: "This whole ordeal, this living apart from your husband thing? What was the point of that exactly?"
Tami responds: "I don't know. That was just my idea. It was just a stupid idea."
It wasn't, actually! A coach like Eric – with big professional dreams and the understandable desire to provide for his family – couldn't possibly refuse the TMU job. And Coach Taylor's ensuing decision to reboot his career backwards is one of the show's least believable professional decisions. (The most believable part of Eric's resignation is the TMU head coach's wide-eyed disbelief: "Hope you know what the hell you're doing.")
But season 2 is bleak enough to suggest that the Taylor family's unlikely wish fulfillment – Dad's home, Coach is back! – has a bittersweet aftermath. Eric can only return after Buddy pushes out the new Dillon coach, a tough-faced man named McGregor. On his way out of town, McGregor visits the Taylor household late at night. "This is the first time I been screwed by another coach," he says. "I have a family too, you just remember that." And we can see the family behind him, packed into the back of his car like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath.
NEXT: Was the Writer's Strike a blessing?
"I'll be seeing you again," Coach McGregor says, sounding like a gunfighter in a neo-western, the kind of movie with no good guys and a lot of bad guys. It sounds like a threat that the show takes seriously. But he never sees Coach Taylor again – not as far as we know, anyways. Maybe he was supposed to return as season 2's final act antagonist, like Voodoo Tatum in season 1. The Writer's Strike put any such plans to bed. This would be a bummer, if the season had been telling a coherent story. Given the Landry murder and the Shark DNA, the Writer's Strike is possibly the best thing that ever happened to the show.
But if this season fails as a narrative, it works as an extended laboratory experiment, a show testing itself. If you've watched all of Friday Night Lights, you can spot some of the show's finest moments in embryonic form here in its least successful season. Infamously forgotten Santiago is a proto-Vince, Howard a last-chance kid with criminal pals struggling to rise up from the "rough" side of Dillon. The show tries hard with Santiago, giving him a whole arc with his old pals; like Vince, he has one Old Pal in particular, who keeps pulling him away from school and team into bad old habits. This is, unfortunately, the only season Friday Night Lights would try to delve into Dillon's Latino population, and the results are not encouraging. But you can feel the show starting to set up its own internal critique: You can sense how, on some level, the general whiteness of the main-character Dillon Panthers is a problem the show wants to solve.
Santiago's role as foster-son also helps to establish a series-defining arc: The ascension of Buddy Garrity from Glorious Gasbag to Caring Parent. Tim Riggins would evolve in parallel, over the course of the show, from bad-boy hedonist to noble self-sacrificing good dude: That evolution begins in season 2, when Tim briefly becomes Julie's big-bro protector – a role he'll play, in much stranger and more poetic circumstances, for Becky in season 4.
Some of season 2's best ideas are short-lived, but they would come back in interesting ways. Coach McGregor gets pushed out because Buddy wants him out: It's established in the early episodes that McGregor doesn't think much of Buddy's unwieldy influence. Buddy strikes back quickly, but the show would pick up the thread of the idea that he was losing his grip on the Dillon Panthers. In season 3, the show introduced Joe McCoy, a carpetbagging Neo-Buddy with his own Coach and his own fascistic brand of boosterism. And maybe there is some follow-up on the McGregor arc, on a purely karmic level. To return to Dillon, Coach Taylor pushed McGregor out of a job. On season later, Eric would be unceremoniously fired, kicked across town to the East Dillon no-hopers.
Not all of the ideas workshopped herein are great. (Whenever you see Julie Taylor spark romantic chemistry with a teacher, run for the hills!) Some of them would be further explored outside of Friday Night Lights. (Long before Fargo, this was the moment we learned Jesse Plemons is great at accidentally killing people.)
And some of the best ideas in season 2 were never fleshed out. Eric becomes Athletic Director and immediately runs afoul of Bobbie Roberts, outspoken girls' soccer coach. Her first scene should be iconic: She demands more money for the soccer team and makes a joke about how ludicrously overbudgeted Dillon football staff is by comparison. She appears in maybe three scenes total, but she is one of the show's all-time great throwaway characters – and when she brings up money, you can feel the early idea that will power season 4, the possibility that the beloved Dillon football team is decadent and overprivileged. Bobbie Roberts is the only person who ever makes Eric Taylor look like a fatcat.
Elsewhere in the Dillon sports community, Tami becomes (practically against her will) the volleyball coach and Tyra becomes (practically against her will) a brilliant volleyball player. Like most plotlines in season 2, the volleyball arc plays out start-to-finish in what feels like a few minutes. It could've run longer. Tyra is weirdly convincing as the Riggins of volleyball. (Adrienne Palicki is tall enough, and has a great war face.)
You sense, maybe, that the Friday Night Lights writers were plotting for some future beyond football. And you feel the alternate future where the show became a more recognizable network-era show. Maybe the main characters didn't have to leave, and the series evolved into a drama about a smalltown Athletic Director and his Educator wife and the grown-up kids they used to coach/teach. See the alternate season 5, with Jason a car salesman, Lyla was a minister, Tim as a local radio host, Tyra at college down the street at UT-Dillon, and maybe Landry skipping college to solve crimes with his cop dad.
Maybe the writers were just bored, wanted to tell a story set sometime outside of the show's eternal autumn. Desperation and frustration bubble up frequently in the dialogue. "You ever notice that no one ever changes in this town?" says Jason. "Nothing ever changes. Everybody goes to the same church, or the same job, same restaurants. Everybody goes to the football game on Friday night. It's like this huge fish tank we're all stuck in and you can't find a way out."
Season 2 tries to break that fish tank. It almost breaks the show, and maybe the most admirable thing about Friday Night Lights is how completely the show recognized its own limits. It got rid of all the new characters. Having established that Landry was halfway decent at football – Landry gives a freaking halftime speech! – the show decided he was a nerdy kicker. Nobody ever mentioned soccer again, or volleyball, or Mexico. "Neither of us can be who we are without football," Smash tells Riggins, after way too many episodes where they haven't played any football. "It's the keys to the ignition."
When the show returned for season 3, it was focused on football. In the premiere, Tim says he's "focused on football and only football." That was never entirely true, of course: The show found time for college guidance, abortion ethics, institutional racism, petty automotive theft, a trip to Times Square, beauty pageants, the tantalizing ecstasy of land ownership. Every other season of Friday Night Lights is better, but the show needed season 2, to find its limits, to test its own waters.
Truly, I wish every show had a season like this. I wish every fundamentally nice show would try to be mean, that every soothingly human dramedy would try to become a tense murder-coverup noir. Friday Night Lights season 2 is why I'm not worried about UnREAL or Mr. Robot, two shows that spent their second seasons rolling around barely-digested ideas about race or reality or murder or power. That kind of stuff gets the "sophomore slump" stamp, but there is something worthwhile in exploring the outer reaches of your franchise's own possibility.
"Do you think that all human beings are capable of evil?" is a question Landry asks in season 2, apropos of nothing. He's talking to his clueless rallygirl; from the look on his face, you can tell that visions of manslaughter are dancing behind his eyes. It's a hilarious line reading; Plemons is so good this season, a kid from Clerks lost in his own private Double Indemnity. I don't think Friday Night Lights was remotely equipped to explore humanity's capacity for evil, certainly not in the same episode where Jason talks about stem cells and Matt learns about his attractive live-in nurse and Coach Taylor struggles with the peculiar ethics of college football.
None of those plot points are really important, in the long term. The show forgets about Landry's killing, doesn't magically let Jason Street walk again, banishes Carlotta, barely seems to remember that Eric ever coached college ball.
Actually, the greatest legacy of Friday Night Lights season 2 was how it established a very careful sort of narrative amnesia. Having tossed out almost every key story point from the season, the show would willfully carry that tradition into its finest seasons. Plot points could be dropped; cathartic season-finale moments would become throwaway moments in the following premieres. Tim Riggins would work a whole season to get to college, and then drop out immediately. Tim's love for Lyla powers season 3; it takes half of season 4 before that relationship is even addressed. Joe McCoy and JD McCoy could be the show's chief antagonists, and then simply recede, their ultimate absence never even remarked upon. Some of this reflected the show's limitations; the show's budget couldn't keep up with its ever-expanding cast of characters, so in season 5, half the parents seem to be on vacation, and people keep talking to Tim on the phone and staring at pictures of Tim above the dinner table.
This never felt like a problem: The show embraced the bold possibilities of its own elliptical storytelling, cutting to the chase where two many shows would linger endlessly. Landry and Tyra could be wonderfully together in one season finale, and then simply never talk again. Buddy's car dealership could close, offscreen, with no explanation beyond his general downward trajectory. Julie and Jess could both dance and then suddenly never dance again. Characters' ages and archetypes could scramble: Witness the undergraduate career of Landry Clarke, a freshman with his own car taking Calculus classes, then a good football player, then a terrible football player, then the final remnant of a whole generation of Dillon Panthers, last seen in a strip club.
The failures of season 2 were important. The people who made Friday Night Lights learned from them, even if the characters forgot. And: Maybe they didn't forget. Maybe the weird secret at the core of Friday Night Lights is that the nicest and most relatable person on the show killed a man with a metal pipe and tossed his corpse in the river. All kindhearted dramas should try to be this weird. All good TV shows should dare to break so bad.