The accused: Friday Night Lights, “Last Days of Summer” (Season 2, Episode 1)
The crime: Releasing Landry the Killer onto the world, running away from the things that made the series so previously successful
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
If there’s one episode that embodies the atmosphere and mindset of #TVFail, it has to be this one. In fact, when I conceived of this feature nearly a year ago during an unfortunately boring day in a seminar course, the first episode I thought of was this one. This is the post I’ve wanted to do since the beginning of the feature, but one that I’ve also held off for that reason. Tackling one of the most obvious failures of one of the most well-respected series in recent memory is certainly a challenge and I think I’m now up for it.
Friday Night Light’s second season is, at this point, a joke. More than four years later, we can laugh. We can turn Landry’s murderous actions into something of a TV critic/TVitterati meme, a gag that we all know and mock because we went through those trying, traumatic times. But the jokes only come now because we’ve been detached long enough from the actual events of the fall of 2007 where it felt like one of the best dramas on television was going off the deep end, into the soapy, melodramatic abyss and we would never get it back. We did, but it was a little touch-and-go there for a long time.*
*Thanks, Ben Silverman? Excuse me while I vomit, beat my head against a wall, then vomit again.
Like I said though, if there’s one individual episode that embodies what #TVFail is all about, it has to be the season two premiere of Friday Night Lights. “Last Days of Summer” is infamous for its depiction of Landry deciding, in the moment, to beat Tyra’s assailant with a lead pipe, accidentally killing him and ultimately forcing the two conflicted lovers to dump the dude’s body off a bridge. What’s sort of forgotten amid all the gags about the dangerous Landry Clarke is how many other problems “Last Days of Summer” has. Folks, this episode is riddled with major problems: awful portrayals of previously lovely characters, melodramatics and a generally unrecognizable tone compared to how the series worked in its glorious, triumphant first season. Before I wrote this, I thought I might be willing to argue that season two is more disrespected than it should be, but then I watched “Summer” again. It’s hard to make that argument now. The Landry-Tyra story is easy to latch on to, but it’s just one of a dozen problems.
I want to back up for a moment and talk about why I think “Last Days of Summer” and season two of Friday Night Lights happened the way they did. Obviously, I don’t know exactly what happened or why they happened. Ever since the problematic season concluded, Jason Katims has sort of owned the problems with it, but also ignored specifics as to why he pushed the series towards said problems. I’ll get to Katims and his thoughts on the season momentarily. Nevertheless, we could speculate about NBC asking the production team to spice up the stories a bit (even if Katims denies that) or we could suggest that maybe Katims’ past early failures (My So-Called Life, Relativity, The Wedding Bells) spooked him into doing something that placated the network (he had a sort of similar issue with Roswell) or we could note that NBC asking him to also work on the Bionic Woman reboot split his mind too much and ultimately hampered FNL more than it should have. It’s all speculation and while I’d bet some of it is likely true, that’s not what I’m really here to do.
The one, concrete thing that we can point to as a major influence on the failures of Friday Night Lights season two? The end of season one.
Don’t get it twisted: The last few episodes of season one are splendid. “State” is a supremely thrilling and moving episode of television and one of my favorites the series ever did in its five-year run. But that episode and really the whole final act of the season were written as if the story would be ending there. Looking back, it feels like Katims and his staff took the Oprah kitchen-sink approach to resolutions. The Panthers somehow win state! Coach gets a great promotion and no one is that upset! Tami has a baby! And you get a car!
The great thing about all those moments is that they work together to create one hell of a season finale full of resolution. The danger with all those moments is that on the off-chance NBC wanted more of the Panthers and the Taylors, Katims and his team wrote themselves into a number of corners that make crafting a second season much more challenging to break. So although it was fantastic that NBC ultimately decided to bring the low-rated, beloved series back, it was always going to take some wiggling to back away from certain developments (Coach not being the Coach, most notably) and to move eyes away from the wiggling, all the other stories had to be compelling and different.
Thus, season two of the series was always going to be challenging and likely going to be more problematic than the first season. And then, for whatever reason, Katims and his team fell victim to some of the classic season two disease of more problems that sure felt like byproducts of overcompensation. There was already enough conflict with Coach away from Dillon, but the writers decided to pile on the drama by breaking up Matt and Julie (and turning Julie into an awful, super-immature devolved version of herself), making the new football coach something of a caricature instead of a character and rebooting Smash into the overly arrogant version of himself from the pilot. Oh yeah, and Landry killed a dude. And this doesn’t even take into account Lyla finding God or the classic season two introduction of many new characters no one really cares about (Hey there, Santiago! Sup,Waverly? Grandma Saracen’s caretaker, where you at?)
Season one of Friday Night Lights succeeded so beautifully because it avoided so many of the pitfalls and staid plots that drive similar stories. Season two not only didn’t avoid those pitfalls, it wholeheartedly embraced them and tried to integrate them into a world and a tone that didn’t need them. Katims and his team painted themselves into a corner at the end of season one. And with season two, they tried to plow their way out of that corner instead of taking their time and approaching stories in the same way that they did in season one. This isn’t backed up by 100 percent fact or anything, but this has to be the biggest sophomore slump of all-time, right?
As for this episode itself, “Last Days of Summer” is completely off-tone and feel from the very beginning. I’m not saying that the people of Dillon don’t go to the pool in the summer, but beginning with these generally cheesy montage of attractive, toned bodies in bathing suits feels like the season-opening sequence for 90210, not Friday Night Lights. There are moments in that sequence that bring back the series’ vibe, most notably Connie Britton’s humorous work in the pool and the Saracen-Landry conversation, but from the beginning, it feels like the series is signaling to the audience that this is going to be a different kind of series. Guess what? People didn’t want a different kind of Friday Night Lights.
From there, things don’t improve that much. Lyla’s pretentious lack of self-awareness is somewhat nauseating. Smash’s aforementioned attitude is unappealing considering all the great work Gaius Charles did in the first season to add shading to him. Matt, on the other hand, has lost some of the self-assertive qualities Coach helped instill in him. Street barely has anything to do. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton do their best, but they’re stuck in a story that never should have happened and that the series is trying to run away from as quickly as possible. And worst of all, Julie apparently got a brain transplant over the summer and begins acting in a way that only television characters act, talking about how she doesn’t want to end up like her parents. In terms of straight character development and construction, Landry and Tyra are actually the most compelling – and honestly, most recognizable – characters of the opening episode, even before the murderous event. Despite its heightened circumstances, the attack/murder sequence is well-done and quite moving. It’s ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than now annoying and stupid Julie acts throughout season two.
Nonetheless, right there is this episode and this season’s biggest problem: It’s too heightened. The football action might have always been unbelievable and ludicrous, but Friday Night Lights took its characters and their emotions very seriously in the first season. Moreover, their interactions were so raw, so natural and generally as real as television real can be. Landry murdering a guy and he and Tyra subsequently covers it up tore down that realness and in the void, a bunch of other terrible, heightened, soapy storylines squirmed their way into Friday Night Lights’ world.
The heightened nature seeped into not only the storylines themselves, but also the pacing. Although I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing why the end of season one caused so many of season two’s issues, I’ve always wondered how much better season two would have been had it slowed everything down. I understand the desire in trying to get Coach back to Dillon as fast as possible or to avoid much of the generic pregnancy stuff with Tami, but if those stories, along with many others, were handled with a bit more care and parceled out just a bit, season two could have, theoretically, been more interesting.
In fact, I think that the writers actually handled the murder plot quite well in subsequent episodes because they didn’t run away from it. They explored the kind of emotional toll it took on Landry, how it impacted his relationships with Tyra and his father. It ended very stupidly, but the middle portion had a solid character focus that I honestly liked. But with all the challenges already weighing down the story and then the heightened approach to many of the new stories, speeding up the pace only exacerbated season two’s issues further. I hate to pile on here, but it’s literally as if the writing staff did everything thing wrong that season.
Furthermore, I’m very curious about a few things in regards to this episode, this season and how we ultimately view them. First of all, I’m wondering how the series’ ultimate response to this episode and season two as a whole impacts how we view “Last Days of Summer” and everything that followed that year. I want to drop in a few lines from Katims himself from an interview with Alan Sepinwall earlier this year after the series came to an end:
“Any way we thought of that, it just felt like it wasn’t whole cloth. It felt like we would be starting and stopping, so we decided to make a clean break and move forward to the next year of school, and with that, there were some leaps that the audience had to take with us. It was a bigger jump, not only in terms of time but in terms of story that we would normally do. We never got to see what happened to these characters for what would have been the last seven or so episodes of that season.”
If you read that whole interview, you can (or at least I did) get the impression that Katims is still very conflicted about how fans responded to season two. It seems to me that he still thinks it was a good idea in theory to take the series the way it was taken in season two, but is more or less resigned to the fact that the whole universe disagrees with him. What interests me the most though is how we respond and discuss season two now in the light of the fact that the series just disregarded most of it moving forward. Meaning, why the hell should we care or think much of season two if the production team itself doesn’t give a damn about it either? Katims won’t admit outright failure and I don’t expect him to, but taking a “clean break” and not including or even mentioning certain characters or plots from the strike-impacted second season suggests to me that everyone just wanted to move on. The FNL team might not be ashamed of the work they did that season, but they sure as hell aren’t proud of it either.
Obviously, then, it’s good that Katims and his team learned from their mistakes (no matter what they say). Season three is arguably the series’ strongest and the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights are equally tremendous as well. However, it’s hard to deny that implicitly, running away from season two and all its baggage only further evokes that it was a disastrous failure. So on one hand, we have to take solace in the fact that writers figured it out, re-focused on the things that mattered to the characters and world of FNL and never looked back. In that sense, “Last Days of Summer” and season two are pitch-perfect examples of the positive impacts of major failures. As Katims said in that interview with Sepinwall:
“On the other hand, there were lots of choices that we made in doing the show before that and since that that were bold choices that we went with that people might have rejected. You could say the idea that we’re going to take the show we’ve lived with for three years, throw away two-thirds of the castmembers and the school and we were still going to have a good show, you could say that was not a good idea. And I think that was the best idea – literally the single best thing we did in the show.”
The failures of season two didn’t, then, keep the writing staff from making big, bold choices and taking improbable risks. They happened to take better-calculated risks that made more sense for the characters and for the fictional world of Dillon, Texas, but they were still dangerous risks that theoretically could have alienated the audience. For me, a great series has to take risks and more importantly, keep taking them, even in the face of criticism and adversity. Jason Katims could have reined the series back in season three and kept business as usual. He didn’t and ultimately, Friday Night Lights was better for it. He learned, we benefited.
However, on the other hand, a failure is a still a failure, especially one of this magnitude. And the way that the production team sped away from this failure only further emphasizes how much of a failure it actually was.
Finally, I’m wondering what the series’ ultimate length and conclusion does to this episode and season. If Friday Night Lights ends in season two, with no conclusion because of the strike and with this tepid season being the last thing we get from it, how do we remember Friday Night Lights? Does that first season automatically become one of the most-talked about “single seasons?” Do we devalue it because of what came after? Does season two become discussed with more of a depressing tone instead of an awkwardly backhanded embracing one that it is now? Do Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton get the kind of respect they have now? These are all hypothetical questions that we can’t totally answer. However, I do think that the series’ eventual survival and perfectly-planned conclusion allows us to disregard this season and these issues. Because we got “The Son” or “Always,” because we got Vince Howard and the East Dillon Lions, we’re more forgiving.
In the end, the series’ failures in the second season and ultimate successes make for one hell of an underdog story, one that’s not unlike the dramatic (and somewhat unbelievable) story of Coach Taylor and his teams. This episode and this season were the series’ deepest lows, but somehow, some way, in complete improbable fashion, Friday Night Lights survived and thrived.