Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook: Making Sense (almost)

My favorite new show of the season is Friday Night Lights - (Heroes, Studio 60, Shark and The Nine all have their moments, but suffer from certain flaws. KF Monkey covered Heroes overly-portentious dialogue pretty well; Studio 60 is, surprisingly for Sorkin, unsubtle; Shark is an unabashedly terrible show made watchable by James Woods; I think I think The Nine will become less interesting the further in time the characters move away from the opening bank heist.) And I don't think I'm the only one.

Despite this critical acclaim, the show has struggled for ratings out of the block, so TMQ says "save FNL":
Here are the good aspects of "Friday Night Lights." First, brilliant cinematography. Many television shows claim to offer theatrical-quality film values; "Friday Night Lights" actually does. NBC has spent a ton of money on "Friday Night Lights," a reported $2.6 million per episode -- perhaps too much for the long-term survival of the series. In Hollywood, production money often disappears into Ferraris for the director and presidential suites for the cast; "Friday Night Lights" producers are getting their money's worth onto the screen. The episodes have many outdoor scenes, which are more expensive than studio-filmed scenes; lots of crowd scenes; lots of gritty depictions of school corridors, parking lots, restaurants, gas stations and other standbys of daily life. (The greater the number of scenes, the more expensive an hour of television is to produce; many contemporary TV dramas have too many scene shifts, but that's a separate issue.) Next, the acting is first rate. Third, the situations and characters presented are as close to real life as television can come. Yes, the cast is better looking than any representative sample of actual people, and 25-year-olds play 17-year-olds. But there's no over-glamorized action, no preposterous subplots. Surely "Friday Night Lights" would have stood a better ratings chance had the show been some "Gilmore Girls"-esque teen inanity [Pooh: Seriously Greg, Gilmore Girls is your best shot at 'teen inanity?' Afraid to take a shot at The OC because it's on Fox? Tsk tsk]. Instead "Friday Night Lights" challenges viewers with material that isn't flashy or pumped up.

Now to the not-so-good aspects. The pilot episode not only was a total downer -- it ended with the character you thought would be the series focus being paralyzed for life -- but gave viewers the impression the show held small-town life and prep football in disdain. The pilot was heavy on subliminals suggesting the producers thought the sort of people who play or care about high school football are rubes or have warped values. That view might be defensible as an artistic choice, but my informal survey of friends who love football culture and who watched the pilot was unanimous on this point: Everyone one of them said that if "Friday Night Lights" was going to be about bashing football, they weren't going to watch. It turns out the show does not think small-town America or people who care about high school sports are weird; subsequent episodes have been sympathetic to the characters and to the town depicted. But as the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Having the pilot be depressing, then end with a character paralyzed and everyone sobbing, was the sort of touch effete Manhattan critics love, but viewers don't -- who wants to watch more of that? The "Friday Night Lights" pilot was a disaster in terms of stating the show's case for its audience. This show would have been better served to start with the second episode, whose concluding image -- the coach and his petrified backup quarterback standing alone on the field of an empty stadium late at night with all the game lights on -- was haunting.

Okay, so Easterbrook can't help being a populist anti-snob, no shock there. I'm not an effete Manhattan critic, and I loved those aspects of the pilot, features not bugs as they say. However, I think he's quite probably right from a viewership standpoint - the reason that all sports movies are the same is that the 'scrappy underdog making good in the big game' thing resonates. Even if you know it's coming.

And FNL turns that paradigm on its head a little - there have been legit "chill scenes" in every episode thus far (the hail mary in the pilot, the one-on-one under the lights and "eyes wide open" scenes in episode two, and the conclusion to the 'standard training montage' in last week's episode). But the show never ends on these high points, as if to say, after the game ends their is still life to live. Last week's was a particular gutshot sort of moment - bringing in the hired gun QB right after the team building solidarity of the previous day's midnight practice. Perhaps appreciating these reversals do make me a Manhattan elite, but whatever.

In any event, watch the show, it's worth your while to get caught up.

Update: Easterbrook can't help himself from being a tool in some aspects - see Yglesias, who disses so I don't have to...

7 comments:

crystal said...

Hey Seth...I just explored my way over here in the hopes of procrastinating more. It worked!

I'm psyched to see you talking up Friday Night Lights--it is absolutely my favorite new show. You can't beat tons of eye candy (mmm, Riggins), humor (the planned parenthood line by Smash's mom killed me), and a heartwarming grandma-slowly-going-crazy B-story. It's amazing the most intelligent show I've seen this year (e.g., naming the backup Saracen) is about high school football.

If this gets cancelled and Studio 60 lives on, I will protest NBC and pretend to be a Nielsen household out for the jugular(which really won't be too much of a stretch since I don't watch a single other show on that network).

I hope the lawyering thing is going well...I think the last time I saw you was about 25 beers into the March Madness case race two years ago. Good times.

Pooh said...

Mmmm, case race...

Why did I move to Alaska again???

CharleyCarp said...

I like FNL, but they've put it in the wrong place on the schedule.

How can you watch a show broadcast, that early, anyway? Do the partners know you're not still at the office billing time? ;- )

Pooh said...

How can you watch a show broadcast, that early, anyway? Do the partners know you're not still at the office billing time? ;- )

A) TiVo
B) Maybe I am still at the office billing...it's Magic!

(I kid..., I kid...)

CharleyCarp said...

You kids and all your new-fangled machines . . .

My question stands, though. There's an hour that you're not either billing or sleeping? And your bosses know?

BTW, you're not at the firm that's on the other side of my AK district court case, right? Cause if so, I think you should be watching a whole lot more TV . . .

Pooh said...

Knowing what little I do about your practice, let me say that it's doubtful. Are you doing the Bong Hits for Jesus case?

CharleyCarp said...

Land dispute in the Pribilofs. Currently on remand for damages after appeal on liability.