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.