"So my question to you is, do you really want to make a difference, or are you just feeling sad because you saw a boy get shot?" -EldenI had an interesting conversation with "Scrubs" creator Bill Lawrence yesterday, in which he admitted that some of the creative problems with this season came from his attempt to treat it as a brand-new show with a few familiar characters, when viewers were looking on it as the latest year for an old favorite. Had he realized in advance how the show would be perceived, he would have written certain characters (notably Zach Braff's) differently.
I think this season of "Friday Night Lights" works whether you look at it as year four of "FNL" or year one of a spin-off in which the Taylors, Landry and Riggins wind up on the east side of town. But watching an episode like "The Lights of Carroll Park" made me think Bill's onto something about how people view new shows versus old ones.
As mentioned in several previous reviews this year, Jason Katims and company have had to serve several masters at once in saying goodbye to Saracen, preparing to see off Landry and Julie (and, as I'll discuss below, Riggins) and establishing this new world of East Dillon and all its residents. With so much ground to cover, shortcuts inevitably have to be taken, and so far it feels like some of the newbies have been the main victims. There's a lot of pre-existing history between Jess, Vince and Jess's father Virgil (aka Big Mary), but because we don't know all the details - and because the show hasn't had the time to fill in the gaps - we have to guess a lot.
And yet watching the scenes with the three characters in this one made me think back to the beginning of the series. We entered into the middle of these characters' lives, and there was already a long history among Street, Lyla, Riggins and Tyra. Some was made explicit (Lyla basing her entire life on following Street around), some strongly-implied (the dysfunctional, on-again, off-again nature of the Tim/Tyra relationship), some only hinted at (the reasons for Lyla's distrust of Tyra), but because it was a new show, we went with it, and very soon the present-day storylines were outweighing the pre-show history we never got to witness.
It's hard to view the East Dillon characters in the exact same way, because they're surrounded by people like Eric and Landry, whom we know so well by this point in the series. But when I took a step back and tried to see this as midway through "East Dillon Lights" season one, I was able to make allowances for what we don't know about Vince and Jess's relationship, their break-up, why Big Mary distrusts Vince, etc., etc. After all, even in the early days, "FNL" wasn't always perfect at servicing all the characters - in between when she broke up with Riggins and when she became Julie's BFF, Tyra practically disappeared from the show - and it's clear that more of an effort is being made in these post-Saracen episodes to make Vince and company important to the show's future.
So we see Vince trying to better himself by looking for a legit job instead of boosting cars, and - in a great duet between Michael B. Jordan and Kyle Chandler that showed how much each man is opening up to each other - asking Coach to be a reference on job applications. And we see Jess moving on to Landry while still coping with Vince's presence in her life - and Vince deciding, ultimately, that the team matters more to him than his feelings of jealousy, when he declines to pick a fight with Lance before the Carroll Park game.
It's not all clean and neat - the show skips over Big Mary's conversion from the guy who in early episodes had no use for the football team to the guy willing to let his daughter's hated ex-boyfriend work at the family restaurant as a favor to Coach - but there is definite, intriguing progress.
And if the new season/series had to rewrite the show's old universe in order to invent this seedy side of town that Eric seems barely aware of, the creation of East Dillon has paid real storytelling dividends, never more than in "The Lights of Carroll Park." We see an Eric out of his depth in this world, not just as the coach of a losing team, but as a privileged white man in a predominantly black, poor, crime-ridden part of town. Until now, he's been looking at how he can get the town to support the team. But when he stumbles across a seemingly senseless shooting at Carroll Park, he realizes that the relationship has to work both ways - that East Dillon can be inspired by the Lions just as much as the Panthers provide solace for folks on the west side of town.
And where Buddy, with all his talk of "taking back the park," is looking at this like the conquering hero he thinks he is for the Lions, Eric's goals are more modest (to get the lights turned back on), empathetic and self-aware. He knows he's still just a visitor to this part of town, but he also understands about people in need no matter where they live or what their skin color is, and so he'd like to help - even if, as he admits to Elden, it's partly out of guilt for seeing the kid get shot.
After the trouble Vince had with his criminal ex-friends at the BBQ place, I feared that the pick-up game between the Lions and the street team would turn ugly. Instead, it was exactly what Eric wanted it to be: a feel-good event for both his team and the kids who hang at the park, something that (like the Mud Bowl in season one) could just remind everybody of the fun of football for a night, without all the pressure and headaches that usually accompany the game in this town.
And as Eric was doing his good deed for the week at the park, Kyle Chandler also got to play some of his funniest scenes of the series as Glenn confesses his "Wow, my mouth is on Tami Taylor's mouth" moment to Coach. The glazed, horrified look on Chandler's face throughout that scene was hysterical, as were the Jack Nicholson laugh and the threat implied in "Oh, I'll see you sooner than that." Other than some missteps in season two, the writers have always had a firm handle on the Taylor marriage, so I wasn't worried this would cause a real problem - and sure enough, while Eric was annoyed Tami didn't tell him, there was never a suggestion he was mad at her for what happened. Instead, it turned into a running joke, letting Eric suggest that he had now, by proxy, kissed Glenn, and then letting Tami react to Eric canceling their "date" by offering to call Glenn. (Eric: "You call Glenn, you make sure he doesn't drink all my scotch.") The Taylors don't get their at-home date, but they do get to enjoy a nice moment together by the lake the morning after the Carroll Park game, and we know that things will always work out well between them, unlike the divorcing McCoys.
Becky's situation is much dicier - for the character, and the show.
Before we go any further, I want to remind you of the No Politics section of the commenting rules and to make clear that any attempt to turn the comments into a referendum on abortion itself will not be tolerated, no matter what your views are on the subject.
I want to only discuss it in the context of Becky's story, and of how TV generally deals with abortion - which is to say, awkwardly.
Because opinions on either side of this debate run so hot, it's incredibly rare that a pregnant TV character will ever actually get an abortion. They might think about it, but in the vast majority of cases, they'll either go ahead with the pregnancy or the writers will cop out by causing a miscarriage. (Two notable exceptions, but not the only ones: Bea Arthur had one on "Maude" in the '70s, but that was before positions were quite as stratified as they are now, and at a time when network shows actually had more freedom to be politically adventurous; and Claire Fisher on "Six Feet Under," but that's on a pay cable channel that doesn't have to worry about appeasing sponsors.)
We've had two unplanned young pregnancies on "FNL" so far - first with Street's waitress one-night stand, now with Becky - and in both cases the father has either argued strongly in favor of having and keeping the baby (Street) or at least expressed deep unease with an abortion (Luke). These are perfectly reasonable positions for these characters to have, given what we know of them (particularly Street, with the miracle conception), but I always find it hard with these stories to separate what's consistent for the characters with the pressure the writers are under from outside forces. These episodes debut on DirecTV, but they do eventually have to air on NBC, and when Luke tells Becky he's not comfortable with this, all I can do is think of someone in Standards & Practices drafting a cautionary memo to Katims, you know?
Madison Burge and the writers have made Becky the most clearly-established of the four new characters this season, and I can understand how she might wind up accidentally repeating her mother's history, even though I was surprised to realize she had sex with Luke after she ran into him at the liquor store in "The Son." But I'm wary of where this story goes over the rest of the season.
Some other thoughts:
• As soon as I saw Larry Gilliard Jr. as Elden, my heart sang, because it meant for sure, I thought, a scene between Elden and Vince - and a "Wire" reunion between D'Angelo and Wallace. But though the two characters were both part of the big group scene at Carroll Park, they never had any one-on-one interaction, and when I asked Katims about it at press tour a few days ago, he said for now Elden is a one-episode character. I then laid some "Wire" guilt on him, and he sheepishly offered to find an excuse to bring him back and put him with Vince; I'll be disappointed if he doesn't.
• Two other bits of "FNL" news from press tour: 1)NBC originally wasn't going to air this season until summer, but because they're about to have five hours of primetime to fill after the Olympics - which is also the exact point when DirecTV's exclusivity window lapses - there's a chance the episodes could turn up on free TV sooner rather than later. Based on a conversation I had with Angela Bromstad, I'm guessing not - the season three NBC ratings were really, really pitiful - but this is a desperate network without a lot of inventory lying around. 2)Katims (who was here to promote "Parenthood") told TV Guide that Taylor Kitsch won't be a regular next season because of his budding movie career. I love Kitsch, and I think Riggins' story this year (until the chop shop story, at least) has helped capture what life is like for a former football hero who's not ready/able to move on to college, but I also know his absence (or diminished presence) will allow Katims to focus more on the high school kids.
• Speaking of Riggins, my recollection from the end of last week's episode is that Becky kissed Tim - his mistake was not pulling away fast enough - where in his apology here, he suggested he was the one who kissed her. Can we get a ruling?
• After being in a hurt, angry shell for the post-Saracen episodes, Julie finally gets a bit of happiness with her new Habitat For Humanity boyfriend. A welcome, needed development for the character, even if her moping made sense given recent events.
• The McCoys have occasionally bordered on cartoon villains this season, but D.W. Moffatt was very good at playing a defeated Joe McCoy, coping with the end of his marriage and the realization that his behavior with JD - focusing on football to the exclusion of all else, moving the family to Dillon, the violent, controlling temper - may have driven his wife away and turned his son into a punk. I've been assuming the season will climax with the Lions beating the Panthers and giving Eric some karmic retribution over Joe and Wade. Depending on what's done with Joe over the next few episodes, revenge may not feel quite so sweet; the guy's already suffering the consequences of his actions.
• Though the episode begins with Eric venturing to Carroll Park to look for Tinker, Tinker himself barely figures into the episode, and doesn't seem to get in much trouble for missing school and/or practice.
• Okay, now that the character has been referred to on-screen as Calvin, I guess I have to retire the Angry Necklace Guy nickname. Faretheewell, ANG...
• So, should we expect to see Maurice from the street team suiting up for the Lions in season five?
• Has anyone kept track of how many season four episodes have featured a football game? And how that compares to season one? This is the second bye week the Lions have had so far, and I can think of a couple of other episodes whose timespan didn't include Friday night. There's still plenty of football focus, don't get me wrong - this isn't like when the writers tried to downplay the team during season two - but it feels like the Lions have had a bunch of weeks off from playing a real game.
What did everybody else think?