Monday, February 11, 2008

Lights out?

Although the writers' strike seems on the verge of resolution, this past week's final pre-strike episode of Friday Night Lights looks like it very well may have been the show's last. NBC head Ben Silverman has recently sounded less than optimistic about the show's future, and online commentators are generally treating the episode as a de facto series finale. Of course, there are a number of ways the show could return - it could be picked up by another network (ESPN is mentioned most often) or even renewed by NBC, depleted of new scripted programming by the protracted strike. (Best Week Ever is mounting a preemptive Jericho-style campaign to save the show.) As much as I'd like to have hope, neither of these options seems all that likely to me; the show just isn't enough of a cult sensation (like, say, Arrested Development) to inspire a cable outlet to spend the money and mount the promotions necessary to build it a new audience, and NBC's Silverman has consistently shown a disregard for scripted programming and originality, instead satisfied with the (admittedly successful) likes of American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal. I'd still love to be proved wrong, of course.

Then again, maybe not. As much as I still love this show, this season has been frustratingly uneven, and even after the resolution of the unfortunate Landry-Tyra murder storyline, it's taken up plenty of unsuccessful plot threads. I remember at the end of the first season thinking that, despite how much I loved the show and wanted it to continue, if it ended right there it would have been a perfect resolution to a near-perfect season, and sometimes it's better for a show to go out on top like that. Who knows how shows like My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks would have degenerated had they continued past their single, wonderful seasons. So this year has been a mixed blessing, and the final episode I think exemplified both the show's strengths and its weaknesses. The subplot with Tami's ex-boyfriend (amusingly played by series creator Peter Berg) returning to town and tussling with Eric was silly and inconsequential, but demonstrated the depth and quality of the relationship between the Taylors, which has been this season's strongest element. Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler do consistently amazing work, their interplay a wealth of subtlety, humor and emotion that represents possibly the best acting being done on TV right now.

Then there was Jason Street's sudden impending fatherhood, which struck me as completely absurd and melodramatic when it was first announced, only to win me over by the end of the episode. This is another thing that FNL often does well, taking cliched soap-opera plots and handling them in an honest, human and straightforward way, thereby making them seem both believable and new. Yet the love triangle with Tim, Lyla and Lyla's Christian boyfriend still seems forced, Landry's relationship with Tyra is tainted by the ill-advised murder back story (although I'd love to see the consequences of his stupidly choosing Tyra over the much more genuine Jean), Smash's decision to go to Whitmore comes out of a really awkward racism storyline, and Matt's characterization is woefully inconsistent.

Despite all that, I'll be sad to see the show end if indeed it does, and especially in such an unresolved way. For all its bumps along the way, it's depicted small-town life and high school and the South in an honest, respectful and affecting way that few shows can match, and it'll be a shame that at least the effort to capture something like that may no longer be on the air.

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