Saturday, November 17, 2007

FNL: I don't know Julie, instead

Spoilers for “Friday Night Lights” coming up just as soon as I find a store that sells tearaway pants...

So here’s a conundrum: I’ve been complaining about the Landry storyline for weeks, and yet last night’s episode – about 95% manslaughter angst-free – was maybe my least favorite of the season. If it hadn’t been for the Smash subplot, which was repetitive but thematically on point, it might have been completely forgettable.

As soon as Carlotta the Magical Latina nurse showed up for lots of wacky misunderstandings about sleeping quarters, laundry and porno mags, I assumed she and Saracen would be entangled romantically. It took longer than I had feared, mainly because Carlotta and Grandma Saracen disappeared for the last batch of episodes, but now we’re here, in the midst of an episode packed with age-inappropriate relationships. Tim moves out after catching Billy and his ex-girlfriend Jackie the MILF in casa Riggins, then flirts with Tyra’s older sister Mindy to the point of being threatened by Tyra. Julie, having broken up with slimy older guy The Swede, now falls under the spell of the school’s dreamy, deceptively young-looking new newspaper advisor, Noah Barnett (played by John From Cincinnati himself, Austin Nichols). And, of course, Carlotta gives Saracen some lessons in dirty dancing, and, after the initial shock, doesn’t seem that unhappy to have been smooched by QB1.

I’m baffled for all sorts of reasons. First, why are the writers so fascinated by stories where the high school kids date older people? I suppose some kind of thematic point could be made about how Dillon is such a dead-end town that the kids are desperate to get with more mature partners outside the high school gene pool. But the only stories where that really applied came last year, with Tyra’s forgettable dalliance with the traveling salesman (back when the writers had no idea what to do with Tyra) and Street’s hook-up with Tattoo Girl. These other stories just feel phony and larded with cheese.

Second, as my evil doppleganger Fienberg points out in his own take on “Pantherama,” the show has adopted the familiar, unfortunate double-standard about May-September (or, at least, May-July) romances: younger woman + older guy = creepy, but younger guy + older woman = potentially hot. Complicating matters is the fact that we’re not clear on how old some of the older partners are supposed to be, and using the actors’ ages doesn’t help. Aimee Teegarden is nine years younger than Austin Nichols, but she’s also seven years younger than Zach Gilford.

Speaking of age confusion, it turns out that Lyla is still enrolled at Dillon High, even though, as I vaguely recall, she was planning to go to college with Street. (Did Jason have no friends in his own class?) This provides an excuse for the writers to remember that Lyla and Tyra kinda sorta reached an understanding in the first season finale, but mainly it’s an excuse for a lighter story where Tyra flirts with a lot of boys and teaches them how to shake their booties.

I don’t object to lighter stories on principle – some of my favorite “FNL” moments are the funnier ones, like Landry and Matt’s various shopping trips – but this one wound up being another illustration of the wider-ranging folly of the Landry/rapist plot.

Again, that story barely got mentioned here, other than a scene where Landry told Tyra about the car fire and she largely blew him off. (“Landry, I don’t know what you want me to say.”) But it still colors how I then look at Tyra and Landry when they’re participating in unrelated plots. I don’t think there’s a believability problem with tough, pragmatic Tyra being untroubled by both the killing itself (which she was never bothered by) or even by the way Landry’s tearing himself up about it, but it makes me like her a lot less. I shouldn’t be watching a comic relief storyline and focusing on how callous one of its main characters seems to be, but that’s what happens when you introduce a subject as big and scarring as death and a cover-up into a show that’s not about that.

I’m glad to see that the writers remembered that Smash – and, especially, Mama Smash – existed, and that both were placed in a storyline that was germane to the series’ main subject matter. The shadiness of college recruiting and the unrealistic dreams of athletes who assume they’re destined to turn pro aren’t exactly new subjects, but they’re still relevant, and they apply well to Smash. As Mama Smash, Liz Mikel is one of the show’s best recurring players, and in scenes like the poster-ripping or her confrontation with Coach, the show felt grounded in itself in a way that it didn’t for most of the episode.

(I do think, though, that the 2-9 black college with no athletic scholarships was an odd choice for Mama to hang her hat on. There happen to be schools with equally strong football and academic programs that could offer Smash a full ride. Also, while the Whitmore recruiter mentioned academic scholarships, aren’t those merit-based in some way? Otherwise, what’s the difference between the school having athletic scholarships or just giving academic ones to football stars like Smash?)

I’m not sure how I feel about the Santiago plot yet. First, it still seems odd that a defending state champ football factory school would be spending so much time on an inexperienced walk-on (and at a position where they already have another inexperienced walk-on in Landry). Second, the wounded puppy Santiago of the last couple of episodes doesn’t seem quite the same character who first challenged Lyla about her beliefs when he was still in juvie. I think there’s potential in the idea of shameless booster Buddy doing what he thinks is a favor to the team and finding himself seriously involved in this damaged kid’s life, so I’ll wait and see.

Some other thoughts on “Pantherama”:
  • In the midst of all the Matt/Carlotta silliness, it’s hard not to notice how much more lucid and focused Grandma has become since Carlotta’s arrival. If this story is heading in a place where the relationship – or, more likely, it’s awkward end and Carlotta’s departure – causes Grandma to backslide, then it might be slightly redeemed.
  • Connie Britton is almost as good at the sarcastic faux-charm as Kyle Chandler, as she displayed in her strong-arming of Tyra and Lyla into helping with Pantherama. ("Oh, honey, you are not using Jesus Christ our lord as an excuse to get out of helping your counselor, are you?")
  • Was I hallucinating, or was that a “Thundercats” logo sticker on the inside of Matt’s locker? Or did the show introduce a new Panthers logo modeled on the “Thundercats” logo and I only just noticed it?
  • “Don’t whisper-yell at me.” Ha!
  • Speaking of seeing things, did I catch the long-forgotten lesbian mayor of Dillon in the Pantherama crowd? If that was her, she’s clearly still in the closet, judging by her overenthusiastic response to the striptease.
  • I have no idea where they’re going with Tim’s new roommate, but despite the obvious attempts to make him look like a complete sleaze, any guy who names his pet ferrets after the sheriff from “Dukes of Hazzard” can’t be all bad, can he?
What did everybody else think?


Daniel O'Neil said...

Actually my favorite episode so far this year. Two reasons:

1) Up to this point I feel as if the show has been trying to get its feet underneath it again, basically by trying to figure out what it will be after creating some major thematic shakeups. This was the first week where I got the sense that the writers said, "okay. I think we can make these themes work."

2) Santiago and his plight is so very compelling to me. I agree that his juvie persona didn't match the deep vulnerability that he displays now, but sometimes it takes a while for a character to develop. I think what they are doing now goes to the core of a much more interesting character.

3) Don't worry about the age gender double standard thing. Show's too smart for that. Might turn out that the only real relationship that comes out of all this is the one with Julie and her teacher. Let's watch!

I was about to give up on this show. But this episode excites me and makes me look forward to the rest of the season.

Anonymous said...

"my evil doppleganger Fienberg"

Alan, are you trying to come up with variations on your annoying "my buddy Fienberg" line?

Also, the recruiter was from Whitmore (not Winthrop).

Alan Sepinwall said...

Alan, are you trying to come up with variations on your annoying "my buddy Fienberg" line?

My hope is that one day soon, I'll have found a way to annoy each and every reader of these "Friday Night Lights" reviews. If it comes down to multiple variations on the obligatory Fienberg references, so be it. But I will not rest until I've achieved that goal, dammit!

Will fix the college thing momentarily.

Bobman said...

Ugh. So many of the storylines in this show are veering out of control, and I find it so disheartening. I just can't agree with daniel that the writers are moving forward - they're still introducing new themes (Julie + teacher) that I'm scared they're going to screw up. It's perfectly reasonable to think Julie would fall for the young English teacher, but if anything actually comes from his side of the table it will just be another in a long line of poor decisions this season.

Tyra completely blowing off Landry I also found odd. While I agree that from the beginning they've never really shown her to have a problem with the murder, she was legitimately upset about hurting Landry (as ridiculous as that dichotomy is), so I'm surprised she has continued to be cold to him with little to no remorse.

That being said... I loved "don't whisper-yell at me". Cracked me right up.

Myles said...

In the end, this was the first episode where the efforts of Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler (Featuring Liz Mikel) were not enough to overcome the unnecessarily exploitative storylines.

That's not to say it was certainly the worst of the season, other episodes have perhaps had less quality overall. However, importantly, this was the first episode where I felt like everything was off the rails: the direction is wrong, the characterization is wrong, and the show feels like it has no idea what it's doing.

It's the first attempt at a REAL filler episode, always an indication of a show's current state, doesn't look pretty, whether Landry murdered someone or not.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Whitmore and Mama Smash. During last season, she seemed to encourage Smash when he talked about going to a big college school, and then going pro.

So it did seem odd when she decided that he should go to a school where the football programs sucks. (Unless, perhaps, her feelings changed after his experiment with steriods.)

My favorite part of the episode was Coach Taylor's line about his non-quote in the newspaper:

"She asked me thru the bathroom door. What am I supposed to do? I was busy!"

Anonymous said...

I think Santiago probably felt comfortable in the juvenile detention center (it was his second time there, as we heard tonight) and is completely overwhelmed by what's happening to him now. Like a lot of kids who end up in foster care, he may not have much experience with family stability (at least once his parents were deported). He's probably trying to keep a lid on himself and not blow it, and if the writers are as smart as I think they are, they'll show that struggle.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and the teacher-student plot reminds *me* of the similar plot on Once and Again with Grace and Mr. Dmitri.

Unknown said...

The best part of the episode (with credit to my girlfriend who caught it) was Grandma Saracen's "Panther ears" she was wearing leaving Pantherama.

Daniel said...

Uh-Oh. The mere mention of my name has started to annoy annonymous people.

I like the folks who are taking the effort to "John From Cincy"-ify their headlines. You went with "I don't know Julie, instead." My buddy (not quite evil doppelganger) Rick used "Julie Taylor should get back in the game."




K J Gillenwater said...

Wow. I really liked this one. Right now, the relationship with the teacher does seem overly friendly, but Julie seems bowled over by his experience. He went to a very prestigious school for journalism, and he actually worked on a newspaper for awhile. I think she is just starry-eyed about that right now. I don't see her mooning over him in a sexual way...or him over her, for that matter. I think they are developing this is a very real way.

I don't mind the Matt thing with the live-in nurse. He's a teenage boy, and there's a hot chick living in his house. His hormones are on overdrive. What I thought was interesting was that the nurse was kind of pleased with what happened. I want to find out more about why she thinks this is okay. Or where it will go. And what does this mean for cheerleader girlfriend?

I did feel Tyra blew off Landry's concerns. But last week she told him how much he repulsed her, how she would never seriously be with a guy like him. She was really cruel to him. However, this week they didn't make it clear that she blew him off to keep him away from her...which I think is what they probably meant to do? Maybe there is a missing scene that would have showed Tyra going through some remorse or bad feelings over blowing him off? That was the only scene that was off for me.

Unknown said...

Alan, I agree with all of the concerns you've voiced, and I won't repeat them. I would just like to add that for me, this show has always been about attacking and dismantling cliches - whether it be sports movie cliches, or teen TV drama cliches, what have you. Sometimes the show embraces such staples as the underdog win, or the May-December romance, and manages to transcend them. Sometimes not, as with the murder plot.

But overall, the acting and cinematography - and the dialogue - is still so strong that I think the show could introduce aliens or something equally ridiculous and I would still be charmed and touched every Friday night. The characters and the acting are just that good.

Unknown said...

Sorry to put this here, but any chance you might review the doctor who children in need special

Anonymous said...

Overall I liked the episode. I hope Matt and the magical latina don't develop into a relationship, it makes much more sense that Matt is finally getting some confidence and wants to get the perks of being QB1. Hot chicks, $200 off junker cars, etc.

The Santiago storyline is growing on me slightly. I hated it until this episode. By moving in with Buddy it deepens Buddy's character and creates some interesting possibilities. I'd feel much better about it if Coach was interested in this kid as a DE instead of TE. His size and speed and lack of hands makes much more sense on the defensive front.

I was really surprised to see Lila in high school since not once this season have we been shown anything to lead us to believe she hadn't graduated with Street's class.

Matt said...

As someone who went to a college of similar size to the college Mama Smash was pushing that offered an extensive academic scholarship program and no formal "athletic scholarships," I will say that apparently, a person's athletic background/involvement was something considered in whether and how much of an academic scholarship to award. Hard to promise a full ride deal, but certainly, even though there were not "athletic scholarships," athletes were guided to scholarship money.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I too agree with all your points about this really disappointing episode. I would add the following: although the acting is usually fantastic even in the worst episodes, the show has picked up some really bad actors--the nurse and some of the other new minor supporting players are just not cutting it for me in the acting chops department.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I like the folks who are taking the effort to "John From Cincy"-ify their headlines. You went with "I don't know Julie, instead." My buddy (not quite evil doppelganger) Rick used "Julie Taylor should get back in the game."



Or maybe the fact that Rick and I both had the same idea suggests that it's slightly hacky. Don't beat yourself up, Dan. That's what the anonymous posters are for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,

You haven't annoyed me yet, so keep on trying. You can do it!

Regarding Mama Smash: I think she was seeing an opportunity for Smash to be exposed to a more meaningful heritage than just football. (Which is the only heritage that counts in Devil Town.) That said, the recruiter guy was blowing smoke when he said "Academic" instead of "Athletic" scholarship. Because Smash is known nation-wide for his book-learning, right?

Regarding the disturbing May-July double standard: For most of the age-inappropriate pair ups, my alarm bells weren't going off because I always got the feeling that both parties could say and accept "No" at any time. (This is not to say that my Annoyance bells weren't ringing incessantly, though.) And, sadly, I readily believe that there are a number of adults out there who can fool themselves into thinking a relationship with a toughened-by-life man-boy like Riggs or woman-girl like Tyra would be a good idea. (Which is possibly another demonstration on why Dillon is a Devil Town.) And as for Julie and the skeevy Swede - well, he seems to have accepted "No" readily enough, and Julie was the instigator in taking things to a more intense level. Noah, on the other hand, looks to be a potential predator. His failure to say anything reassuring to Tami's questioning glance could be interpreted as either naivete or skeevy-ness. Dunno which, although I suspect the latter. But Julie? Make some intelligent decisions some time soon, OK?

However, my major problem with this episode (for the first time ever) is that I felt most of the life-changing things that happened to each of these characters didn't have much of an impact on what was going on in the episode. e.g. The Murder resulted in L: My Dad burned my car. T: What do you want me to say? And then both characters going off into their separate stories. Huh?

The way the episode played out, it wasn't necessary to know, for example, that Tyra and Lyla used to be enemies, or that Smash did steroids, or that Coach was gone for almost a year, or that Jason quit, or that Grandma Saracen had dementia, or even that they won a State championship against all odds last year. Those things added colors, perhaps, but not impact.

That's never happened to me before on this show. It's always been so specific on where the characters are in their lives. For example, it always bothered me the way "Best Laid Plans" was put together -- because it was so obvious to me that the Matt Saracen being comically double-teamed by Coach and Street was not the same Matt Saracen who knew Coach had taken a job with TMU. And yet the editors placed that scene after the one in which Julie told Matt about it. (I dare anyone to watch the episode and disagree that it was out of sequence. Zach Gilford is just too good.)

I mean could you tell that Tami was post-partum-ly emotional? Or that Coach had a pay cut? Or that Lyla had found Jesus? Or that Tyra had said some really cruel things in order to break up with Landry? Or that Jason was *gone*?

I hope that this episode improves in retrospect, when viewed in context of the entire season.

In the meantime: huh?

Anonymous said...

This episode was just a mess, as most of the season has been, really.

The only real reason to watch anymore is the terrific interaction between Coach and Mrs. Coach.

What should have been the best part of the episode, the fight scene between Smash and his mother just seemed so incredibly forced and phony, almost as if they told them they had to cut the scene down to make time for more age-inappropriate friendships. Smash went from apologizing to Mama to arguing with her in the span of about three seconds.

Anonymous said...

I know it was recruit day or whatever, but the complete and utter lack of actual football made me wonder why I was watching.

Other thoughts... when a show confuses the viewer("Oh, Layla *is* a senior," I thought), it's not a good sign.

I don't think I liked anything about this episode, except "Don't whisper-yell at me."

I'm watching Season One again right now, and it's funny you mention the Mama Smash and Smash storyline. I just got finished watching Mama Smash barge into Coach's office. She's legit.

Other thoughts, and not to ramble on and on, but since when did Tyra turn into a porn star? She looks like Jenna Jameson Lite right now.

And Saracen? Why the car? Why the girl? Why the maid?

And Julie? Seriously? If she turns into a Chris Hanson episode, I'm out.

Anonymous said...

"That said, the recruiter guy was blowing smoke when he said "Academic" instead of "Athletic" scholarship. Because Smash is known nation-wide for his book-learning, right?"

You'd be surprised how many top tier universities provide athletes with "academic scholarships" in order to get them in around the books. Happens quite often.

Anonymous said...

I am starting to think that the Julie/Noah thing will be one-sided. Julie figured out that "The Swede" was not someone who actually cared about her. I think the same will be true for this teacher.

Once again, I go back to the writers knowing how a teenage girl operates. This is the age where you look like an adult, but you certainly don't have the experience of an adult. And any 'adult' person coming on to you in a sexual way is very creepy and overwhelming.

Remember how much Julie wanted to sleep with Matt last season? And then she completely flipped on that when confronted with the reality of what she decided to do.

The same thing is true with The Swede. She backed out of that very quickly. And I think the same will happen here.

She wants to appear like she is adult--wearing that itsy-bitsy top her aunt gave her--but she really doesn't know how to be one. And the same with happen with this teacher. She will trust him, she will like him, and then he will make a move on her, and she will panic.

I'm looking forward to the fall out from this situation.

Anonymous said...

It's a sad day when a line of dialogue ("Don't whisper-yell at me") is almost the only good moment of a whole episode of FNL. Sigh. A very forgettable episode overall.

And I know it's TV, but Tim's brother and the MILF carrying on right in front of Tim in the Riggins' household? It's bad enough that Tim's brother would do that to Tim. Can't they at least go over to her house?

Steve said...

The most realistic part of the writing on that episode was when Julie, instead of admitting any fault upon herself, told the journalism teacher that she had been dumped by her QB1 boyfried for a trite pairing with the head cheerleader. The denial is typical of a 15-year old while the characterization of Matt's relationship shows Julie's sense of mock irony.

In that scene the writers did a nice job of showing that Julie is still not self aware enough to be in a mature relationship. This does lead to concern that something untoward is going to happen between her and the journalism teacher.

Donny said...

Ok, please explain the "don't whisper, yell at me" line. I must have missed it or just didn't think it was that good.

Alan Sepinwall said...

It's not "whisper, yell" it's "whisper-yell." Eric has just brought Buddy to see Tami about the idea of Santiago moving in with Buddy, and as soon as Tami sends Buddy out into the hall, Eric orders her not to whisper-yell at him, which is exactly what she proceeds to do.

Donny said...

Ah yes, a great scene overall. I've noticed that a lot of good scenes take place in Mrs. Coach's office. I'm assuming that is mostly due to her superp acting. Either way, I loved when she made the smart-ass comment about Coach being jealous.

fregan said...

I don't think Julie is going to fall for this teacher. She's seeing a way out of her pain by finding a vocation. She's going to be a journalist. She's smart enough to know that she shouldn't screw around with trying to seduce a teacher. He, on the other hand, might be the vulnerable one and could be a nascent stalker.
Smash is getting to be such a fine actor. Mama Smash must be enjoying their scenes together. I think make up/apology conversations can go two ways, either they work or they reignite and get all nasty again. Smash was perfect in trying to smooth his way into giving Mama bad news.

Scene for scene this is still the best show on hte TV's.

Anonymous said...

I agree with general opinion here regarding the bad (lots) and good (scattered moments). But am I forgetting a definitive "Jason Street is leaving town" moment, rather than his vaguer pronouncements of needing to shake things up? I kept wondering why Riggins never bothered to seek him out (and I felt his absence in the ep). The Santiago plot hasn't done much for me yet, and could wind up being terrible, but it has way more potential than most of the other story threads right now, so here's hoping. More Buddy is almost always a good thing for the show.

Hal Incandenza said...

"whisper-yell" almost--but not quite--totally redeemed the episode for me (which, on the whole, was really only ok). I do, however, like the idea of a more confident Matt (seems realistic, given that he's been QB1 for over a year now, and won a state title).

troy said...

No good reason to do this; I'm three years late, and I tend to think there's not much I catch that you don't, Alan. But I'm going to risk it anyway:

I think you're undervaluing the scene where Landry's dad warned off Tyra. Under normal circumstances, I imagine she'd ignore him. But given the events, not to mention his job, she probably feels compelled to obey. She's also obviously conflicted about Landry, popular perception of him versus what she's gotten to know of him, so I imagine her subconsciously using Landry's dad's warning to kill that second bird with the same stone.

Looked at this way, her REAL act of callousness, which was the cruel kissoff of Landry where she tells him to look in the mirror, is her simultaneously 1. doing the one thing she can think of that she's sure will keep him at arm's length without having to tell him that his father's the reason she's not going to be with him 2. even as she says it so vehemently in order to try to convince herself she believes what she's telling Landry. This "What do you want me to say" in this episode is half her trying to keep up the charade, half her honestly not knowing what to do; she hated it enough that she'd dragged Landry into her situation and put him in position to murder, and she'll be damned if she's going to add alienating Landry from his father, just as he's maybe making him proud with the football, on his resume.

You wouldn't have known it at this point in the season, but with the benefit of having watched the rest of the episodes, I think this -- my impressions on first watch, by the way -- turned out to be totally plausible. When she saw she had competition for Landry, there was a scene where she was describing all his positive attributes to someone -- I think there might have been a similar scene in a second episode -- and the immediacy of Landry's dad's warning faded even as she was being reminded that she is a fighter by nature. The scene at the formal where she asks him for a little time is her starting to realize (again) not just that he's what she wants, but why.

If you turn out to have written all this in the next episode's recap, I'm going to go burn up my car.