Tuned In

Return to the Scene of the Crime: FNL Season 2, Reconsidered

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SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet watched Friday Night Lights and don’t want to learn any plot points, don’t read this post. Also, for the love of God, watch Friday Night Lights already.

My wife, Mrs. Tuned In, and I have been spending some of our summer down time watching Friday Night Lights, which despite my pleas and her knowing that she would probably like it, she never watched when it was on. (Unlike me, Mrs. Tuned In has things to do with her time besides watch TV.) I tweeted about my rewatch earlier this summer, and several people almost immediately gave me the same answer: “Is she going to skip season two?”

If you’ve watched FNL, even or especially if you loved it, you know what they mean. The season overall was the show’s weakest, a function partly of amped-up plots evidently designed to get more people watching it on NBC, and, maybe, a general sophomore slump. But there’s really one thing that jumps to everyone’s minds first: the Landry thing. That Bad Thing. That awful, out of nowhere, suddenly-we-ware-watching-a-different-show thing where Landry attacked a man who had tried to rape Tyra, and killed him with a metal pipe. That thing that FNL fans laugh about in retrospect, or try to hurry past. (More than one TV critic has written about it with the same phrase: “We shall never speak of it again.” And to be fair, once the story played out, the show took much the same attitude.)

Of course we watched it. You gotta take the bad with the good in this life! (I did, after we finished the first season with “State,” make some kind of caveat like Whatever you think, just make sure you stick with it for season 3…) I braced myself for That Bad Thing, watched it happened again, watched it unfold, and hoped it wouldn’t put Mrs. Tuned In off one of the greatest TV dramas of all time.

And you know what? It was not that bad. It was, in fact, refreshingly the opposite of that disappointing feeling of rewatching an old favorite storyline and discovering that it has not aged well at all. OK, I will grant you: it felt like a forced heightening of the action and a wildly dramatic left turn and we were probably better off without it.

And yet—given that it happened—the way the killing and its repercussions played out are more real and affecting than almost anything else going on around it in the season. First, Jesse Plemons is fantastic: maybe you and I and he and everyone associated with the show knew that the storyline was out there, but he commits to it. He shows you the experience—the confusion, the searing guilt—playing out on a real person, a good kid who briefly tapped into something inside him he doesn’t understand. The way he comes to realize he has to confess makes it both an act of contrition and rebellion—asserting himself as his own person—and his face is a rubbed-raw wound of emotion.

Seeing the plot a second time, I think my reactions to it at first—and maybe a lot of people’s—were partly a result of context. First, fans of the show were well aware that FNL’s chances at NBC were dicey, and coming into its second season, it needed to boost its ratings to stay on the air. (It was ultimately not ratings but an unusual share deal with DirecTV that would save it.) So the storyline, coming like a lead pipe in the dark right in the first episode, just screamed, “ratings stunt.”

And it happened to Landry—which initially made it seem like a particularly an odd turn for a character who much of the first season was a sidekick to Matt Saracen and a source of dry comic relief. That’s how it felt to me at the time anyway, and maybe I was wrong. As Mrs. Tuned In pointed out, the first season also established that Landry was deeply principled, religious, that he felt things deeply—he was, when you think about it that way, exactly the character who should carry this kind of story. And Jason Katims and company had to see the kind of talent they’d tapped into with him.

So OK, maybe a murder and coverup were a step or two too far for FNL, which did eventually try to dump the incident like a body in the river. But I think, in retrospect, the Landry murder just became an easy shorthand for other storylines around it in season 2 that were actually much weaker. Landry aside, the show just lost control of its tone, got much more on-the-nose and started going to high-school soap standard storylines—Matt Saracen and Carlotta, Riggins falling in with the wrong crowd, Coach’s near-instant return from TMU, Buddy and Santiago, even a race-conflict storyline that was way less nuanced than the one in the first season.

For a while in its second season, FNL became a little less FNL, a little more 90210—and while Landry became the symbol of it, his storyline, in retrospect, was in many senses the season’s best-executed. (Though I also still appreciate, for instance, the realistic and excruciating tension between Tami and Julie. And we get Cary from The Good Wife as a Christian radio host!) The difference between the way I remembered the season, and the way it actually looked on rewatch, tell me something about how the context of seeing a season can affect how you take it.

Every team has an off season. But despite the reputation of That Bad Thing, Jesse Plemons can hold his head high about FNL season 2. He killed.

15 comments
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paperbuildings
paperbuildings

This is a good piece. It's very similar to how I feel. Honestly, Tim Riggins living with a ferret owning meth-head was the weakest part of the season as far as I'm concerned. I really don't mind the storyline with Landry when I rewatch it because I actually feel like it is, for the most, very well done. I also loved the relationship between him and Tyra, and I don't think they could have gone to the places they went with that relationship without that dark shared experience.

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

Re-watched all of FNL except the last season (I felt like watching it 3x--DirecTV, NBC, and Netflix--in one year was a little much even more me) this summer, and I agree. It was so shocking (in a bad way) at the time that it was easy to overlook Plemons' acting. I'm happy to see that his career seems to be going so well, especially since he doesn't have the traditional Hollywood look.

brer
brer

I woudln't call it a "murder." It seemed to me they could have claimed self defense right from the beginning. Don't know why they hid it.

That's what I thought was the unbelievable part.

highiso
highiso

Friday Night Lights -- one of the few shows that was actually better than the film it was based on (and the film was quite good).   The Landry plot line was a great way to showcase the talented Jesse Plemons and the excellent actor who played his father (you will recognize him as the secret service agent from 24).   I avoided this show when it first came out -- and now consider it one of the best series ever shown on television.  Let me put it this way:  each episode of Friday Night Lights is better written, acted, and filmed than most big budget movies.   Great writing, acting, and cinematography at its best.

bolaw
bolaw

I watched it amp; loved it when it was first on. I agree with you, I was not so shocked by the Landry episode. His reactions were so real, the acting so good. I still miss the show, but glad to see all those fine actors moving on to good things. (Well, Tim Riggins needs some help with better projects....) Wonder how Connie Britton's new show will do.

SageJerry Levine
SageJerry Levine

who knew that Jesse Plemons would feature in another jaw dropping story line in another well received TV series, Breaking Bad, featuring a surprising murder. Landry say it ain't so: you've grown up to be a stone cold killer!

Reed Evans
Reed Evans

This plotline was much more believable than Lyla having 3 senior years and then getting into Vanderbilt.

Poppersci
Poppersci

No! You can't make me! American "football" isn't real football. I've tried to get into it--every year I watch the Super Bowl and tell myself I'll pick a team and follow it next season. I don't--and don't care, apparently.  Same with dramatic representations of it.  If they made a critically lauded show about tennis, say, then I'd watch that.

ipfletch
ipfletch

"He KILLED". That was just bad.  lol

To be honest, I don't remember too much about that season beyond the Landry thing. I feel much the same, however- bad idea for the show, but well-played by the actors involved- something you could always count on with this show when the writing wasn't 100% on the ball.

katy93
katy93

I miss Landry. I remember my horror at the time, though. It's exactly like when a character asks the genie for a wish and once it's granted we all realize how little divides our greatest hope from our worst nightmare. I watched all of season 1 wanting them to do more with Landry. And then they wrote this crazy-a$$ storyline for Landry and I was like, "Oh my God, what have you done to that sweet boy?"  

Sometimes I wonder whether knowing what's coming makes it easier to take. When my boyfriend takes me on a hike without mentioning that it is almost straight uphill for at least a mile, I get about a half mile in before I just stop and ask him if he's kidding me. But if he warns me, I can work through it. Maybe the Landry fiasco is easier to take because you know it's coming and you know the show course corrects eventually.

It was definitely easier the first time because Plemons rocks. More Jesse Plemons! (Oh, dang, there I go asking the genie for something again.)

Brent Kossina
Brent Kossina

I just finished watching this on Netflix. GREAT show.  

nycgeoff
nycgeoff

Poor Christian Radio Host and Santiago - they were erased from history. I kept wondering if we'd see Santiago working at the dealership or playing basketball, but no, he became a nonperson.

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

Good riddance with Christian Radio Host. He made my skin crawl. And he did as Logan on GG, too, just in a different way. There's something about that guy ...

Mary McGuire
Mary McGuire

THis was so nice to read.  I did not watch the show when it was on TV but in one long stretch when it hit Netflix Instant.  I had been warned.  My reaction was the same as yours here.  THere was a whole lot wrong with that season but Landry The Acccidental Murderer" was not the worst of it.  I thought the Carlotta storyline was the worst of the season by a HUGE margin. 

katy93
katy93

Carlotta! I think I developed convenient amnesia about that whole storyline, but yes, you're absolutely right, that was worse.