Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Friday Night Lights

"Wind Sprints"

I missed saying anything last week because, frankly, I'm barely holding it together here. I'm pretty sure it's OK to self-medicate with a glass of wine with dinner, though, so I'm feeling better at the moment.

Take away line: I'm still in love with this show.

The Big Question: have they sustained the glorious momentum of the pilot episode?

Honestly, no, but that was inherent in the structure of the pilot episode. Jason Street, the Moses who would lead the Panthers to the Promised Land of the State Championship, suffered a fatal injury to his football career. That was the essentially the end of the pilot, and the beginning of the series.

Last week's episode focussed on how the team was coping with the loss of Street, particularly sophomore quarterback Matt Saracen, he of the narrow shoulders and even narrower hips and jawline. At the end of last week's episode, they were poised to take the field for their first game since losing Jason, their second game of the season.

So tonight's episode opens with the game, which heart-breakingly echoed last night's pitiful defeat of the Arizona Cardinals by the still-undefeated Chicago Bears. In a cruel example of art imitating reality, the young quarterback's successful execution of nearly every play doesn't stop the rest of the team from making mistakes that ultimately lead to their defeat.

And in the fictional town of Dillon, TX, the Panthers are not supposed to lose. Of course things get ugly -- but not too ugly, yet -- but they get ugly in interesting ways.

Various team members act up and act out. Saracen shows his stuff in practice again and again -- the kid can put up a beautiful spiral, I'll tell you what. Things really start falling apart until Smash, the star running back, makes the mistake of dissing Coach Taylor on local television, which leads to a late-night practice consisting of running wind sprints, in the pouring rain, across a wash filled with calf-deep water, up and down a hill. If you've seen (the best hockey movie ever) Miracle, you cannot escape recognizing this as the "Again!" scene.

Does it work? By the end of the drill, the team appears to be back on the same page, but since we haven't seen the game yet, we don't know whether "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose," is a statement of fact or a just-out-of-reach dream.

But the wind sprints were only a tiny part of the episode; it amazes me how much gets packed into these things. The brief, nasty confrontation between Taylor and a townie when he takes his daughter out for a burger after the loss; a teacher (I think) at the school telling Tami, Coach Taylor's wife and the new school guidance counselor, that the last counselor committed suicide; Lyla's near-delusional faith that Jason can recover, and the concern this causes her parents and the fury it ignites in Jason himself -- these scenes all slip by in seconds, but every one of them adds to the mosaic of impressions that leads to a fantastically complex, compelling picture of a town that is struggling to cope with something that "just happened."

One thing I love is the dynamic between the Coach and Tami. Tami is a counselor; Coach is a coach, and she just doesn't get that. Throughout this episode Tami tosses ideas at Coach: be compassionate, let it go. What I loved is that Coach doesn't take her advice: it would be disasterous for him to let Smash dis him and get away with it. But he does listen to her, because he makes a point of pulling aside Riggins, who has been circling the drain since Street was injured, and forgiving the boy and making sure that he forgives himself. That scene doesn't end with a hug, though: Riggins owes him a practice, and he makes him walk home... at 3AM. "Call it even," he says, leaving Riggins standing there, open-mouthed.

I won't get into the whole Lyla-Jason thing, but I will comment briefly on the Lyla-Riggins thing. In an episode otherwise full of pitch-perfect notes, I'm going to withold judgement on just how unbelievable that was until we find out whether or not she slept with him. I would consider that a betrayal of her character. Someone with that much faith and love doesn't jump into bed with someone else just because her injured boyfriend has a bad night. So, we'll see.

The pace of the last two episodes is not quite as frantic as the pilot's, but that's a good thing. There's a sense of having space to breathe, except in the scenes where we're meant to be breathless (the early game scenes, for example.) The camera work, the quick cuts, the music are all coming together for me as seamlessly beautiful or tragic as they did in the pilot; the acting is outstanding.

Where does it go from here? The introduction of a Katrina refugee quarterback throws an unexpected element into the mix. We close with a scene of Taylor shaking his hand and Saracen wondering what the heck is going to happen to him, now. Taylor is already on record as saying that a starting position has to be earned, so we'll see next week how Katrina boy does on the field during practice. The rest of team looked at him, thinking, WTF? He didn't do no wind sprints in the pouring rain with us, who does he think he is?

But if he can win games for them, you know they'll love him as if he was Dillon born and bred.

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