Saturday, August 17, 2013

TV Watch: "Friday Night Lights" provides reason to celebrate the existence of DVDs


At the center of it all: Eric and Tami Taylor
(Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton)

by Ken

With the cancellation of today's Municipal Art Society walking tour to Willet's Point, Queens (I sure hope that leg comes around soon, Jack Eichenbaum!), I found myself with an unexpected day of leisure. Oh, there were thousands of things I could have plunked onto the schedule, but instead I took advaantage to pursue my current video craze and finish the race through Season 3 of Friday Night Lights. And tonight I am a big fan of the whole DVD thing.

First, because it would be a terrible shame if the five seasons of Friday Night Lights (2006-11) were nothing more than a dazzling memory of one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of the English-speaking television world. Here it is all gathered together, not just for the considerable pleasure of rewatching but as a demonstration that those of us who wrote enthusiastically about it while it was on the air weren't imagining its qualities -- the show seems even more extraordinary on re-viewing, especially in a clump.

Second, in the case of Friday Night Lights, the special features, which don't look so special, turn out to be extremely special. In fact, through much of Season 1, I think I mostly skipped over them; at some point I'll have to go back and check them out. What we get are deleted scenes for most episodes and one or two episodes a season with a commentary track. As we learn in the commentary track for the Season 2 opener with executive producers Jason Katims and Jeff Reiner, as well as from the deleted scenes themselves, the deleted scenes were a key part of the way the show was made and were cut, not because they weren't good enough, but because something had to go.

Katims was the overall master of the show, responsible for its creative content, doing a lot of writing himself and apparently overseeing the rest, while Reiner, responsible for the translation of that content to the screen, apparently did pretty much the same thing with the corps of directors. They explain that they were allowed to shoot enough film to assemble an initial 80-minute cut for their eventual 43-minute end product, where most shows start with maybe six minutes that need to be cut. This gave the editing process vast opportunities but also enormous burdens; clearly an enormous amount of utterly air-worthy content had to go. Often, the producers explain, scenes that were too strong in their own right benefited the show by being cut. I only wish that: (1) we had been given even more of the cutting-room leavings, and (2) we had the possibility of seeing the scenes undeleted -- i.e., in place as part of the episodes.


. . . while it was still on the air (for example, the June 2010 post "Friday Night Lights remains one of the best things on TV, for viewers who happen to have found it"), when it impressed me more and more with its depiction of this small-town Texas community and the communal passion for high school football. It was one of those shows with a large ensemble cast that was cast and written for with perfection, and the authenticity of its look and feel were immeasurably enhanced by its being shot entirely on locations in Texas; in the commentary track for the Season 3 finale, Jeff points out that they basically never built sets, instead finding existing settings they could use for each scene. Jeff also points out how much this affected the way the show was shot. Much-admired shots through screen doors or windows came about because so many of the interiors they worked in had so little space for cameras.

That commentary for the Season 3 finale is additionally fascinating because even as of the time they were recording the commentary -- never mind back when they were writing and filming this reduced 13-episode season -- they didn't know whether there was going to be a Season 4. Jason explains that this was a consideration in imagining all 13 episodes: that they had to be written and shot so they could work both ways, as a concluding season and as one that laid the groundwork for a whole new series of plot lines, as thankfully eventually proved the case. Eventually there was a 13-episode Season 4 and even a 13-episode Season 5, produced under conditions of increasingly rigorous penury, but produced nevertheless. I can hardly wait to look at those last two seasons again.

At the center of the show was one of television's most remarkable and cherishable (not to mention hottest) couples, football coach Eric Taylor and schoolteacher (later principal) Tami Taylor. Both Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton gave performances of such unbroken brilliance that it's again a thrill just to see it all laid out on DVD. It's the nature of the actor's life that once a job is finished, all you can do is move on to the next one, and it doesn't matter how extraordinary that last job was. I don't suppose either of these actors is going to spend much time watching themselves on DVD. But the discs are there to make sure everyone has the opportunity to see for themselves what an incredible job these folks did.

As enthralled as I've been by just about every scene in every episode, and in particular the scenes between Tami and Eric, there was one that, as it played, seemed to me so perfect in its grounding in this special relationship and in its delicate understanding of the emotional stakes, that I had to bring it back down to earth by transcribing it.

Back in Season 1, Eric was in his first season as the team's head coach, having had enormous success as Dillon High's quarterback coach, having developed star quarterback prospect Jason Street to the point of being ready to lead the Dillon Panthers in a challenge for the coveted state championship. Tami wound up taking a job at Dillon High as guidance counselor. Now in Season 3, after two years as a guidance counselor who really made a difference at the school, Tami is in her rookie season as principal,

Mostly what Tami discovered she was up against was budget crises, one after another. Even after she's laid off four teachers, she doesn't have anything like the money she needs to keep the school running in terms of basic supplies and maintenance. At which point the school's boosters came forward with a hefty donation for a JumboTron for the football field. Tami, discovering that she could legally redirect the money for general school needs, made the crazy-brave decision to do that, given the range and urgency of the school's financial needs. But it was a fight she now realizes she never had a chance of winning in a football-mad Texas town. Naturally it has been assumed that Eric is against her.

Today, the day before the schools superintendent is going to hold the hearing that will lead to a final decision on the JumboTron donation, after grasping that the boosters have been lobbying their pal the superintendent nonstop on the golf course and everywhere else, Tami has screwed up her courage to waylay him at the restaurant where he lunches to do some lobbying of her own. And she understood that she doesn't have a chance tomorrow.

In this scene she'e in her and Eric's bedroom, sitting on the bed, fighting back tears, as she is throughout the scene. Eric comes in and sits beside her.

TAMI [shaking her head]: I'm an idiot.
ERIC: Honey, no.
TAMI: I should never have picked this fight.
ERIC: Yes, babe. You should have.
TAMI: Oh, honey, you don't even mean that, I don't think. I think you thought it was a bad idea the whole time.
ERIC: That's not true. I never said that. That's not what I thought. I think it's obvious that you're right and they're wrong. Period.
TAMI: Really?
ERIC: You're damn right. You think we need a JumboTron? We don't need a JumboTron.
TAMI: Of course we don't need a JumboTron.
ERIC: We need more teachers.
TAMI: Of course we do.
ERIC: You're right. They're wrong.
TAMI: Mmm-hmm. It doesn't matter, though, 'cause I'm gonna lose tomorrow.
ERIC: Okay, yeah. They're gonna get the JumboTron. In that sense, you lose tomorrow. But you stood up for what you believed in. In that sense, you win tomorrow.
[TAMI makes an indecipherable sound.]
ERIC: Hey. You can at least make them feel a little guilty about that big old stupid JumboTron.
[TAMI with difficulty smiles.]
One thing we learn from Jason's and Jeff's commentaries is that Kyle Chandler is the almost-unheard-of actor who always preferred to have less rather than more to say, and as the producers point out, it's amazing how much he was able to communicate without words. They make a particular point -- not that it needed pointing out -- of the moment in the Season 3 finale when Tami arrives late at the wedding that becomes the focal point of the episode, having just come from a fateful school-board meeting, at which Eric himself incredibly reluctantly made a brief appearance. As Tami takes a seat next to Eric, all they have to do is exchange looks and Eric knows that the cabal trying to oust him from his job has succeeded. Indeed, one of the fascinations of the second time through Season 3 was seeing the process of Eric, through no fault of his own, losing his grip on the coach's job.

I don't want to dwell too much on Eric and Tami, because all of the characters and all of the actors, down to the humblest single-scene desk bureaucrat, are just just unbelievably good. In the course of those five seasons, the recurring characters all became treasured acquaintances in at least this viewer's imagination. Again, the second time through I'm even more bowled over. And this time there was the literally added advantage of all those deleted scenes.

In the first couple of seasons this seems to have been an especially frequent fate of Derek Phillips as the older brother of charismatic football star (and life screw-up) Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch, right). But then, Billy was never meant to be a major character, and I assume his scenes kept being cut because they were just too far removed from the core concerns of the plot. Jason and Jeff mention Derek Phillips as one of the sizable roster of Texas actors hired originally for small parts who made themselves indispensable, the ultimate case being Brad Leland as Dillon High football booster supreme Buddy Garrity, who was originally meant to be the conventional figure of an obsessive booster as well as the father of one of the core characters, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), but endowed the character with such dimension that the writers incorporated him more and more.

There are so many characters and actors you want to talk about. But they group easily into families, and I can't imagine any show that has done more with and for families -- the ones that work and the larger number that in one way or another don't. In addition to the Taylors (including daughter Julie, played by Aimee Teegarden, whose character went from 15 to 18; and later baby Gracie Belle; not to mention Tami's sister Shelley, playled by Jessalyn Gilsig), the Garritys (including Lyla's mother, younter sister, and brother), the Rigginses (including the brothers' briefly met father, played by Brett Cullen), the list included: budding-star QB Jason Street (Scott Porter) and his family, whose lives are all transformed by Jason's catastrophic accident in the series opener; thrust-in-the-limelight backup QB Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), struggling to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother Lorraine (Louanne Stephens), with pop-ins from his briefly home-from-Iraq father and later his long-absent mother (the pre-Treme Kim Dickens; how could I not have remembered her?); Matt's friend Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and his eerily look-alike cop father (Glenn Morshower); the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Collettes -- bombshell student Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and her stripper sister Mindy (Stacey Oristano) and their fading-beauty mother (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson); tailback Brian "Smash" Willams and his mother (Liz Mikel) and sisters (Whitney McCauley and Nieko Mann); and of course freshman QB J. D. McCoy and his father (D. W. Moffett, in an especially splendid performance as the ultimate football father, who comes to Dillon to take over the football program) and his mother (the radiant Janine Turner).

I've slighted all sorts of people, not least the characters who were not notably associated with families -- for example, the pre-Good Wife Matt Czuchry as a brief Christian fling of Tyra's. But one thing I do want to take note of is the remarkable end points the producers gave to the arcs of wheelchair-bound Jason Street and of draft-denied "Smash" Williams -- both great storylines brought to about as happy conclusions as their situations permitted.


For a "Sunday Classics" fix anytime, visit the stand-alone "Sunday Classics with Ken."

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