I am a relative newcomer to Friday Night Lights, having only started watching the show 6 or so months ago via Roku/Netflix streaming. As a result, I blazed through the first two seasons in a kind of blissed out pop culture overdose. Obviously there are shows whose pleasure increases when watched this way, and others that decrease. Now that I am watching the show in “real-time,” I have wondered why I feel less than dazzled by it. This phenomenological difference between streaming and televised, push vs. pull consumption probably has been commented on at length (but I’m too lazy to search it out), as much as the difference between reading a novel and watching a film adaptation.
When I really stop to think about why I am finding this season of FNL lacking, I can’t help but think about Dickens and Trollope. These two titans of Victorian fiction has two very different narrative styles (broadly speaking, of course). You could argue that in the best Dickens novels, a radical uncertainty and ambiguity hovers over the action. We may get certain signals about a character’s moral makeup telegraphed to us, and certain narrative events foreshadowed heavily, but there are numerous instances of extreme reversals, doubling, and other forms of contingency to throw these other relatively weaker narrative conventions out of whack.
Trollope, on the other hand, handles narrative like a pin-ball game designer designs a pin-ball game. The parameters of a pin-ball game are well-defined–the size of the game’s container, the position of the bumpers. Even the ball itself doesn’t change. What is uncertain is how the ball will react to these elements of the game; what it’s path will look like in each iteration. Trollope sets up a situation, establishes his characters, and watches as the chemical reaction unfolds.
Let me propose a somewhat artificial syllogism: Lost is to Dickens and Friday Night Lights was to Trollope. What do I mean by this? As per my previous post, Lost drew its energy from a boundless well of ambiguous and contingent content. Lost was at its best, in my opinion, when it dispensed with meaning altogether and deployed the generation of possible meanings as an end unto itself. Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, was most successful when you felt like a witness to the characters, their situations, and the environment they existed in.
In the first two seasons of the show, for instance, there were none of the question marks hanging over characters that there are in the current one. We typically knew who characters were, what their issues were, and how they responded to situations. Despite giving the viewer this kind of knowledge, the show was interesting because the fine-grained observations of place and person it provided. Instead, in the current season, we get ridiculous story lines like “will Tim Riggins start chopping up cars?”; “why does Jess’ dad hate football,” and so on. The show isn’t interesting because of these questions; these questions actually diminish interest and make the show less than it was.