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Friday Night Lights Watch: Water Under the Bridge?

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SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this post until you’ve watched the latest Friday Night Lights, and checked outside your house for skunks.

NBC Photo: Bill Records

The first thing that worried me about the new episode of FNL was not the controversial Landry-kills-Tyra’s-stalker scene (which still sounds like a parody even as I type it, as if I were writing about “the Simpsons episode where Milhouse kills Nelson”). It was the opening scene, with all those slow-mo scenes by the pool and Get It On (Bang a Gong) playing. It was all, “Hot girls! Rock and roll! Don’t believe what you’ve heard, folks–FNL is all good times! Bang a gong, baby!”

But, you know, whatever. I can’t begrudge the occasional T&A scene in the service of FNL any more than I could a phony topless car wash to raise money for a fire department. Also, a later episode won me back musically by playing Big Star’s September Gurls, a soundtrack choice emotionally perfect for this bittersweet show. What is FNL if not the TV equivalent of Big Star: alternative Southern rock?

Up to those disconcerting last few minutes, a welcome episode of a much-missed show. How perfect that Lyla should find Jesus–in that lovely baptism scene–and that her first project should be Riggins, whom she offers temptation, judgment and redemption in one blemish-free package? How affecting and yet funny the scenes with Buddy Garrity, losing it upon finding his estranged wife taking up with a health-food-store operating vegan, the dramatic equivalent of the kind of supercilious Texas hippie Hank Hill would offer an ass-kicking in King of the Hill? (He is not going to turn my children into communists!”)

And though it almost goes without saying that each bit between Coach and Tami is flawless–her raw, brave emotion as she struggles to hold it together, his rock-jawed determination to make the impossible separation work out–I was actually most impressed this week with the scene in which Julie told Eric why she was no longer feeling it for Matt Saracen. It was that rarest of things on a teen drama: a teen girl breaking up with her boyfriend not for any melodramatic reason but simply because she’s freaking 16–restless and not ready to settle down and not wanting to become like Mom and Dad. It was just life, which is what FNL specializes in.

Which brings us to death. On the one hand, yeah, I wish they didn’t go there. The Tyra-rapist storyline frankly was over the top when they introduced it last season, and I didn’t like the idea then of bringing her and Landry together by having him rescue a straight-out-of-Lifetime-Network woman-in-peril. That said, I didn’t think the killing, or dumping the body off the bridge, was out of character: it was the sort of thing that someone, particularly a high-school kid, might do in a confusing, terrifying, adrenaline-rush situation with no good resolution and no time to think things through.

Actually, in a way, that’s the problem: no one knows what they’d do in a fight-or-flight confrontation like that, so when you put characters in one, it becomes a kind of wild-card situation. It’s like asking how you would psychologically, realistically respond if you were abducted by aliens or forced to perform an exorcism; the situation is so outside the realm of ordinary experience that character becomes beside the point.

I’ve seen the following two episodes, however, and while I don’t want to spoil them in advance, I do think that Tyra and Landry’s dealing with the aftermath is entirely in character. FNL is, after all, finally much more a character show than a plot show, and it’s at least better that it a storyline should become implausible than that the characters themselves should become implausible.

My big worry about the stalker’s death, actually, is practical. However it plays out in the long run, it has at least temporarily tarnished the critical and fan buzz on the show–namely, that it was as close as network TV dramas get to flawless. Yeah, yeah, I know, that and 50 cents, etc., but in fact is, that kind of buzz can make the difference in keeping a show that’s on the bubble alive. If the storyline continues to have negative fallout, it becomes less embarrassing for NBC to cancel FNL: they can always say, well, the ratings are off and the fans are staring to turn on it, so…

Fortunately, the ratings aren’t off, so far: the season 2 debut tied CBS’s Moonlight for 1st place in viewers 18 to 49. Let’s hope they stay up, though, or what looked like a gimmick to give FNL broader commercial appeal could end up being the worst commercial move the show could have made.