“Seeing Other People”, like “Pantherama!” before it, is a midseason episode with something of a holding pattern feel to in, and which places a much heavier emphasis on character than plot. Yet despite the absence of Santiago, the most intriguing character to join the show this season, “People” was the better episode by far. This week’s installment featured some of the richest and most intense scenes between Coach and Tami in awhile, yet though the performances of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are among FNL’s most reliable elements, what really impressed me this week was the filmmaking. Last season, much was made of how the series’s editing style in early episodes put off some viewers, and the distinctive visual style was indeed somewhat toned down as a sop to mainstream viewers. “People” was hardly avant garde, but the scenes between Matt and Carlotta had an intense intimacy to them that wouldn’t have come through if the series wasn’t committed to visual storytelling in a way that few TV dramas are.
We begin with something many viewers have been begging for since early in the first season: A Panther game in which the outcome, for once, is not determined at the last minute. As many have noted, you’d expect a state championship team to have at least a couple of one-sided blowouts over the course of a season…but here, it’s the Panthers who get their butts whipped. One might expect Coach Taylor to be a little upset about experiencing such a brutal defeat so soon after returning to Dillon, but he’s rapidly distracted by his marital situation, much as Smash is distracted by his recruiting visit to a notorious party school.
As the title suggests, this week’s episode is all about the relationships, a focus that’s established before the end of the teaser. After Lauren invites Matt to stay over and he defers in the interest of tucking in Grandma Saracen, I half expected him to say “...but I can sneak out and be back here in half an hour, baby!”. Instead, when he gets home, it’s clear he deferred because of his interest in Carlotta, who promptly shoots him down. As the “open relationship” scene later makes clear, Matt’s confidence around women now exceeds his actual level of experience, which is a classic recipe for trouble, and he soon learns the hard way that if you expect a woman to give you credit for something (in this case, for blowing off Lauren), it’s almost certain that she won’t.
If it wasn’t for the tenderness of the Matt and Carlotta scenes—which reminded me of David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls—everything with Matt and Smash this week would have come a little too close to Varsity Blues territory. Certainly, Smash getting chased out of the dorm in his boxers was a scene that could have come from any number of teen movies. I was amused that Matt was the one he asked to bail his ass out of trouble, and pleasantly surprised that Matt resisted the urge to twist the knife, allowing the scene to evolve into an organic bonding moment between them. In their scenes at the Alamo Freeze, Smash has usually been the alpha dog socially (despite Matt’s status as the more senior employee), and after the antagonism between the two that erupted after Coach McGregor began giving Smash more of the spotlight, I’m really enjoying seeing them relate as something resembling peers for pretty much the first time ever.
The real drama this week centered on the Taylors, and after the recent jokiness about Coach’s desire to get “back in the saddle” following Gracie’s birth, I enjoyed seeing their marriage get treated seriously once again. We’ve seen Coach and Tami fight before, but never to the point of him getting exiled to the couch for the night. From the moment he was introduced, Glenn was too transparent a dweeb for Coach to logically envy him—or at least, that’s how it seemed. The reason for his envy—that he missed being her best friend—struck me as incredibly poignant and very apt in light of what we’ve seen of their relationship. The strong, believable friendship component has always been the most compelling thing about their marriage—they’re one of the few couples on TV who seem like real partners, as well as one of the few who it’s easy to buy as a couple that have actually been together for 18 years or so, and for Coach to acknowledge how much it means to him to be the guy who cracks Tami up made for a really striking moment of vulnerability on his part. Just as touching, in a totally different way, was the bit where Tami talks about needing a night out and he immediately offers up a date-night scenario so fully developed that it’s obvious he’d been waiting ages for an opportunity to toss it out there. If there’s ever been another a couple on TV who constitute a better advertisement for marriage than the Taylors, I sure can’t think of them.
Yet while the Taylors seem plenty healthy as a couple, Tami’s tirade directed at Noah was the latest of several occasions this season on which she’s come across as somewhat less than stable. It was disappointing when she told Noah—who, for all his arrogance, is clearly focused on Julie’s best interests—that she could have him fired, and funny when she said she could have Coach kick his ass. But when she said she could have him sent to prison, she went way over the line. I mean sure, recommending the dreadful A Prayer For Owen Meany over a superior work such as The Hotel New Hampshire is a shame, but it’s certainly not criminal.
Tami’s actions were exaggerated by the time they got back to Julie, but even so Julie’s response didn’t seem that out of line to me—and I say this as someone who’s found Julie to have pretty much become an insufferable bitch this season. Julie saw Tami’s attack on Noah as an attack on her, and, as with the Swede, Tami’s sense of righteousness kept her from seeing how her actions would come off in Julie’s eyes. It seems pretty clear to me that the mother-daughter feud will be one of the season’s major story lines, and I’m hoping it doesn’t take long for the plot to yield some good material for Jessalyn Gilsig, who’s terrific at playing characters like Shelly and who has so far been criminally underused since her arrival on FNL.
Riggins’ scenes with his ultracrass housemate struck me as lame, needless comic relief until it became apparent that the result would be his return to the Panther lineup. I didn’t expect him to b back on the team so soon, but I’m glad it worked out this way—too many story lines have been drawn out longer than necessary this season, for one thing; for another, his apology to his teammates was a really terrific scene. Riggins’ tendency to refer to Jason as “Six” in Mexico always struck me as a little odd (he never did that last season, did he?), so I was glad the writers provided some continuity by having him refer to the other players by their numbers. While his comments to the benchwarmer were funny and poignant, they also underscored Landry’s absence from the practice scene, since in light of last season’s tutoring and Riggins’s previous insight into the Landry-Tyra relationship, he surely would have had something to say to the guy.
As to Landry, the whole bit with the rapist’s brother seeking to apologize to Tyra seemed like a fairly contrived way to push the character down a path he was already on. Landry’s discomfort with his father’s actions would seem to make his confession inevitable. When he met with the rapist’s brother and kept reiterating that the guy was beyond redemption, Landry was obviously trying to justify the killing to himself, even though we’ve seen him display a level of guilt which suggests he’s already long past that stage. The only really interesting thing about it was how, as an apparent only child, Landry was unable to relate to the guy’s desire to reconcile his brother’s cruelty with the support he’d offered his sibling. By the time Landry got around to talking to Lyla, he seemed almost too casual about the burden he was carrying, and their scene would have frustrated me completely were it not for the casual way he talked about trying to be a good Christian, which struck me as a fine example of the way the series normalizes religion and makes it seem like an organic part of the characters’ lives. At the same time, if Landry holds such beliefs, it seems unlikely that he’d need Lyla to give him a push, especially since the preview for next week suggests that he feels a deep need to be punished for his actions regardless of how they’re interpreted by the authorities. It seemed odd two weeks ago that NBC would have shown a trailer for next week’s “Confession” in lieu of one for “Seeing Other People”, and the final scene, which felt tacked on, came off as an attempt to justify that trailer by having the tail wag the dog. Some people may consider what NBC did to be a classic example of promo monkeys going too far with the spoilers, but look at it this way—by emphasizing the confession, which we all knew was coming anyway, the network made it possible for a lot of strong moments in “Seeing Other People” to take us by surprise.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.