Compared to a lot of fans and commentators, I think I’ve been pretty charitable toward the second season of Friday Night Lights, but charity has its limits: “Who Do You Think You Are?” is a flat-out clunker, a trite, soapy episode that’s easily the worst of the season to date and in the running for the lamest-ever episode of the series.
All of this week’s main plot lines came off as almost unbelievably contrived. I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about child development, but it seems far, far too early for the Taylors to be thinking about dropping Gracie off at daycare. Given the inherent chronology of the season—the Texas state championship takes place the week between Christmas and New Year’s—it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet on the show, meaning Gracie is, at a maximum, three months old. The whole separation-anxiety plot just felt like a flimsy excuse to generate tension between Coach and Tami over the issue of whether she should keep working outside the house. Coach, as has been clear since the beginning, is nothing if not stubborn, but his stubbornness here—amped up by Mac McGill, the last person from whom Coach should take relationship advice (other than Buddy, perhaps) was exaggerated to a degree that made him seem almost unrecognizable.
Carlotta’s departure from Dillon was so abrupt and so under-explained that it almost certainly has to be the first step in a plan by the writers to bring Matt and Julie back together—but now that Julie has been turned into such a complete bitch, does anyone want that to happen anymore? The only good things to come from the plot were the really funny, natural-feeling scene where Matt admitted to Landry that he and Carlotta were an item and the affecting scene where Matt admits the extent of his feelings for her.
FNL has been extremely shrewd with its use of recognizable guest stars, and at first I was thrilled to see Veronica Mars’ Francis Capra turn up as Santiago’s old pal (Capra, by the way, suffers from a medical condition of some sort that’s being treated with steroids, which first caused the severe acne that started to show up during the third season of Mars and which has now apparently caused him to put on some weight). Soon, however, it became apparent that Capra was stuck in a true eye-roller of a plot that the writers were milking for comedy one second and for pathos the next. Buddy’s paranoia about leaving his valued possessions at home was entirely justified, and his decision to drag them back home so as not to offend Santiago was just silly, especially since it was obvious from the beginning that his gut impulse was going to be on the money and it wasn’t going to be a Racism Is Bad story.
Lyla’s Christian-radio plot was similarly frustrating—the call-in show felt completely bogus (for a program called “I Was A Teenage Christian”, they certainly didn’t talk about religion very much) and the oral sex question felt like something a writer thought a Texas teen would ask rather than the kind of question that would actually get thrown out there in real life. Riggins’ prank call—which led to the two-second return of Jason Street, MIA for the past few weeks—merely served to set up what felt like the 40th time Riggins and Lyla have gone around the block dealing with the same issues. And could Lyla and her dweeby cohost have any less chemistry?
Most annoying of all was the plot about Smash and Noelle. Where to start? Noelle’s parents and Mama Smash are unbelievably stupid if they think ordering their kids to break up is going to do anything other than strengthen their bond and make them want to spend even more time together. Mama Smash has legitimate reasons for disapproving of the relationship that have nothing to do with racism, but Noelle’s parents seem completely out to lunch—they themselves don’t seem to be racists, otherwise they wouldn’t bond so easily with Mama Smash, and their fear that racism will cause problems for Smash and Noelle as a couple completely overlooks the fact that Smash is a future college football star who has already been on magazine covers and national TV before even graduating from high school. He’s one of the most recognizable and revered guys in Dillon, and it struck me as ludicrous that the yahoos at the movie theater didn’t recognize him and didn’t promptly shut the fuck up when they realized who they were dealing with. Obviously, as a white guy, I may not be entirely qualified to address the topic, since racism exists in places and contexts in which liberal whites like myself never expect to find it, and there could well be star African-American high school football players out there who find this story to be 100% realistic. Nonetheless, I feel I’m both qualified and justified to say that within the context of Friday Night Lights, it felt like a total crock.
On the subject of things that feel like a total crock, I have great respect for The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan as a television critic, but her column in this week’s New York Times Magazine, in which she says that FNL’s low ratings are the result of it not being a series that can be turned into a franchise with “online extensions” makes little sense to me. FNL has a thriving online community, as the show’s TWoP fanbase proves, and using stuff like a series’ volume of fanfic as an index of its success totally overlooks sitcoms—there isn’t exactly a lot of Curb Your Enthusiasm or 30 Rock fanfic out there, yet no-one uses that to argue that the shows are failing to connect with a mass audience. Neither is a network’s willingness to merchandise a show an inherent sign of its health—the CSI comic book, spinoff novels and video games, for example, didn’t start coming out until well after the original series was an established blockbuster. It’s possible that I’m somehow misinterpreting Heffernan’s thesis, but her column nonetleless left me scratching my head.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.