Wednesday, July 27, 2011

TV Roundup: Season 5 of Friday Night Lights, Season 1 of Game of Thrones

Friday Night Lights Season 5

The usually stupendous and occasionally transcendent Friday Night Lights had to come to an end at some point, unfortunately. The show featured a large, expensive ensemble, and was watched by so few people that NBC had no problem pawning it off to DirecTv. And so one of the best things to air on television—and especially on the networks—in many years finished its amazing run with a stellar final season. Note: Spoilers ahead for the first four seasons. If you haven’t seen them…do.

When last we were in Dillon, TX, the new East Dillon Lions had completed their first season under head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). While the team was atrocious, the season ended on a positive note as they defeated the rival West Dillon Panthers in the final game of the season, denying their hated rivals a spot in the playoffs. As the new season begins, Coach begins to realize that this team might just be more talented than anyone thinks.

As always, the football aspects of FNL are strong. Coach and the team spend the season coming to grips with the team’s identity as a brash, sometimes rough upstart in the football establishment. As with last season, quarterback Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan, better known as Wallace from The Wire) and running back/linebacker Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) receive the bulk of the show’s attention, although lineman Dallas Tinker gets quite a bit more screentime than last season (strange for a show that rarely acknowledges anyone on the team outside of the skill position). New addition Hastings Ruckle gets very little to do, despite his actor receiving billing during the credits. The journey the team takes is well done as always, but still serves as the means to an end, not the end itself. What the show is truly concerned with, and what it does arguably better than anything that’s ever been on TV, is showing the trials and triumphs of its incredibly realized set of characters.

What Friday Night Lights always did better than just about anything on television—or indeed, better than just about any work of fiction in any medium—was provide us with a group of character who were wonderfully, and painfully, human. The show made us care about these fictional characters, their relationships, and their problems, big and small, by grounding the show in truth. These characters could easily be people you’ve met before. When the show faltered, mostly in the widely (and justly) disparaged Season 2, it was because the writers lost track of this goal. But because Season 2 never happened, Friday Night Lights hit remarkably few false notes. Season Five continues this tradition with its attention to its characters, old and new.

The story of Friday Night Lights is, consequently, driven almost entirely by character relationships. With the exception of some of the football material, things don’t really happen much. Instead, people happen. And, as always, some of these plotlines are better than others. Some of the weaker stories in Season 5 include Mrs. Coach Tami Taylor (Connie Britton)’s attempt to get through to a troubled teen, anything involving Luke Cafferty (a character the show often didn’t seem to know what to do with), and especially Coach’s Daughter Julie Taylor’s (Aimee Teegarden) misadventures during her first semester of college. This plotline—which takes place mostly during the early episodes of the season—is exceedingly annoying and somewhat out of character for Jules, which is a cardinal sin for this show. The plotline does have some consequences down the road which are much more interesting, but it doesn’t make up for a very weak beginning.

But, to the complete unsurprised of anyone who has watched the show up to now, the vast majority of the show’s plotlines are exceptionally well done. As always, the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Coach is a delight, and completely smashes the lazy lie that a TV drama can’t feature an interesting happily married couple. Vince’s ongoing story with his newly arrived (from prison) father manages to avoid most of the easy clich├ęs that writers manage to fall into with this sort of story. And several old characters make returns of one sort or another, all of which are both logical and delightful.

With only 13 episodes, there is an awful lot the show has to get through. That the writers did as well as they did is amazing, but a few things were still lost in the shuffle. A few characters are a little underserved, including Hastings Ruckle, as I mentioned above, and Vince’s girlfriend Jess (Jurnee Smollett). Also, narrative (as opposed to character) continuity has never been a strength of the show*, and a particularly odd instance pops up this season. During the previous two seasons the McCoys (West Dillon quarterback J.D. and his wealthy father Joe) and their allies had been prominent antagonists on the show, but suddenly they are completely absent. Not only is their absence never explained, but the show barely even acknowledges their departure.

*Nor has the plausibility of its sports segments, as demonstrated by the number of improbable last second wins the team has had over the years. Season 5 is no different, and the final play of the final game of the show is at least as implausible as anything the show has ever done.

I could go on about this wonderful for thousands of words more (and maybe I’ll write something talking about the series as a whole some other time—although admittedly this post kinds started morphing into that at times), but I’ll head myself off. One of the best shows of the past decade signed off its incredible—and improbable—run with a great season, either its second or third best depending on how one feels about Season 3*. It’s a show I’m going to miss as much as any, but I’m glad we got as much of it as we did. Since I have no affiliation to Texas, I’ll end with the show’s other enduring catch phrase: “Clear eyes, full hearts…can’t lose”.

For the record, I’d take Season 3 by a hair.

Game of Thrones Season 1

I had a strange mix of expectations going into Game of Thrones. I was certainly excited, and confidant that I would enjoy it. After all, it was an HBO (the one network I’ve come to trust completely) adaptation of one of my favorite book series ever. How could they go wrong? And yet at the same time I knew that the story is awfully complex, and it would be so easy to take the path of least resistance and make a more accessible, less intricate show than they could have*. But after seeing the pilot, all of my fears vanished nearly instantly. They had done it.

*I knew of course that there would be certain things lost in the adaptation; every book that’s ever been adapted for the screen (little or big) has had some nuance chopped away. Its unavoidable, and not even necessarily a bad thing (see Rings, Lord of the).

With a plot and setting as dense as anything that’s ever been put to screen, taking on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (the first book, called A Game of Thrones, is being used as the title for the entirety of the TV series) was always going to be tough task. It’s a story described glibly but not entirely incorrectly by series creator D.B. Weiss as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth”. What that description misses could fill the Library of Congress…but it is a fantasy setting with a gritty, realistic (and very grim) focus on prominent families. So I’m willing to accept it as an acceptable one-sentence summary of the show

The one (long) paragraph summary would go something like this: Game of Thrones is the story of Westeros, a continent recovering from a civil war less than two decades previously. The winner, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), has proven a mostly ineffectual ruler, and the vultures—including among many others his wife Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and finance minister Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aiden Gillan) are starting to circle. To try and head them off, Robert travels north with the Queen and her two brothers, twin Jaime Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldeau) and dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to recruit his old friend Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to come south to the capitol and help run the kingdom. Ned takes some of his children, including daughters Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) while leaving his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairly) and sons Bran (Isaac Hampstead-Wright) and Robb (Richard Madden) at the castle of Winterfell. Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) decides its time to head even further north to the gigantic glacial Wall and join the Night’s Watch, an strict martial order charged with protecting the realm from the primitive Wildings who live beyond the Wall, as well as the semi-mythological White Walkers, a far more sinister and dangerous threat. Meanwhile, across an ocean, the young niece of the previously deposed king, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) weds a nomadic warlord named Drogo (Jason Momoa) in order to eventually persuade him to help her retake her homeland. And this is just the setup.

Naturally, with the gargantuan amount of information the series needs to convey, it takes it a while to get moving. The number of important characters is perhaps unprecedented—everyone I named above is vitally important to the story, and they represent a mere fraction of the characters introduced in the first season. It’s a testament to the work of the cast—which is fantastic—that we get as much a sense for the character as we do, for even the ones with the most screentime (probably in some order Ned, Catelyn, Tyrion, and Dany) have little more than an hour total during the season for the audience to get to know them.

But know them we do. Somehow, by the end of episode 10, all of these people—or at least, the ones that are still alive—are completely realized. This combined with some impressive production values* makes the show’s fantasy setting completely believable—the biggest problem faced by any speculative fiction representation on TV. The cast is so uniformly excellent—with really only a couple of mediocre performances, and those mostly from relatively minor characters (Rory McCann’s Sandor Clegane was disappointing)—that it’s difficult to pick out any to specifically praise. So I’ll just add my voice to the chorus praising the usual suspects on the show, which include Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Mark Addy, and Emmy Nominee Peter Dinklage. But even beyond those five, there was one that I found particularly memorable.

*The scope of the show is probably second in history only to Rome in sheer ambition. Of course, Rome’s extravagance required a budget so large it killed the show. Game of Thrones is quite a bit cheaper (even including a more expensive cast), but it remains to be seen how sustainable that is.

The performance that, to me anyways, stood out most was one that went bizarrely under the radar. Maisie Williams' interpretation of Arya Stark was so thoroughly definitive that I’m never going to be able to imagine the character as anything else—something that no one else on the show managed to completely achieve. She was an absolute delight to watch, totally nailing Arya’s combination of innocence (the character is 10 or 11, after all) and spunk. While I suppose she isn’t the only character I could say this about, I would absolutely watch a show that did little more than follow Arya as she ran around the capitol, King’s Landing.

The show had a few flaws to be sure, including over-reliance on the plot device infamously termed “sexpostion” and a tendency to be budget conscious at bad moments. But overall I was more than pleased by the first season, and eager for more. The show has a real chance at joining The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Friday Night Lights and (possibly) Breaking Bad as a Pantheon-level drama. I can’t wait.

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