Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap emails with one another and debate something that is in the news. This week, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Childs Walker discuss the televison show Friday Night Lights, which has two episodes remaining in its third season.
Childs, 

As Friday Night Lights' third season winds down, I thought it would be fun to discuss your thoughts on the arch of the series, and explain why it's probably going to go down as one of my favorite television programs ever, even if it gets canceled this year. (Although according to Entertainment Weekly, it looks like NBC's deal with Direct TV might get renewed for two seasons, which makes me ridiculously happy). I've written some gushing praise about this show in the pages of The Baltimore Sun, and I'll no doubt repeat some of that here, but as someone who takes his television as seriously as he takes his sports, let me say that I'm not sure a non-HBO show has ever quite grabbed me the way this one has. Maybe the first four seasons of The West Wing, before Aaron Sorkin started handing in scripts late and binging on mushrooms, but even that managed to be a little too preachy in a way this show rarely is. It took me a while to convince my wife that this wasn't just a show about football -- I basically had to trick her into watching the first season episode "It's Different For Girls," where the school decides to cast Lyla as the Dillon High School slut for hooking up with Tim Riggins while Jason is still in the hospital -- but she's been on board ever since. Interestingly enough, for a show that so many people seem to dismiss because they think it's primarily about football, the football scenes are usually the ones I find least realistic, especially as an ex-linebacker. What I do think this show does better than any drama focusing primarily on the lives of teenagers is getting how kids actually talk. Maybe that's part of the reason it's never been very popular with kids actually in high school. If I were a teenager I'd much rather think that I talked in the witty style of the kids on The O.C. or Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the truth is, Zach Gilford's portrayal of Matt Saracen, and all his shy stuttering and pausing, is probably the most realistic teen-speak ever penned on television.
Before we delve into my gigantic man crush on Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor, and the inevitably uncomfortable discussion of whether your heart belongs to Tyra or Lyla, let me ask you this: When did this show first grab you? I know a lot of people were drawn in by the (spoiler alert!) surprise at the end of the very first episode, when Jason Street was paralyzed, but for me, I didn't quite fall in love with it until the very end of the second episode, "Eyes Wide Open," when we really began to get a greater understanding of what high school football meant to Dillion as a whole. The thing I always loved about The Wire more than anything is that David Simon didn't just tell a story about cops and drug dealers; he created a universe. It's the same thing J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. At the end of "Eyes Wide Open," Buddy Garrity calls Eric into his car dealership to inform him how badly the town needs a victory, and just as they shake hands, Tony Lucca starts singing a cover of Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town" over a montoge of scenes of Dillion.
We see the Rally Girls bringing players treats before the game, the cheerleaders practicing, the town shutting down in preparation for Friday's big game, and the muted browns and grays of the West Texas landscape. Coach Taylor gives his big speech about the big loss the team has suffered, and we see an entire town nervous with anticipation. It might be my favorite five minutes of network television in a long time. I can attest, as a high school football player, that nothing has ever nailed what it feels like quite like that scene. Of all the songs this show has nailed over its three seasons, the musical director, W.G. Snuffy Walden, gets major props from me for picking "Devil Town" for that montage.
 
Anyway, I kick it back to you. Any scenes stick out in your mind that hooked you? Do you want to see the show come back for a fourth season?
 
Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose, 
 
KVV
The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television

Kevin:
 
It's funny that you mentioned the "Devil Town" scene because when you first asked what hooked me, the word that popped into my head was "montages." And that's a great one, but the first that really hit me in the gut came near the end of the pilot.
 
I wasn't at all sure about the first episode outside of that montage. The Jason Street-paralysis plot struck me as exactly the sort of overblown, gimmicky hook that The Wire would have eschewed. We both played football in high school (you at a much higher level) and the reality is that most games go by without a dramatic happening. If you're good, you win a lot of games pretty easily, and the superstar often glides around without being touched, much less shattered.
 
But that montage, set to the same music as the opening credits, if I recall correctly, was so poetic. It captured the town's investment in the team -- that weird mix of innocence, insanity, desperation, euphoria, pride, squandered dreams, etc., that you mentioned in your post. I didn't encounter that here in Baltimore but my first newspaper job had me covering the town of Salem, Va., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Salem had one high school and the team contended for a state championship almost every year. The young boys in town dreamed of playing for Salem as much as Virginia Tech. The young girls started wearing their Salem windbreakers before they hit puberty. It was intense, in ways both wonderful and frightening, and Friday Night Lights took me right back to Salem with that montage.
 
So I watched the second episode and pretty soon, the character work pulled me all the way in. Not only do I wish Eric Taylor had coached me in school, I wish I could hire him as some kind of life coach now. Especially if his wife (a covert contender for sexiest woman on the show) came around sometimes. I've been married 10 years and they are the best representation of a successful couple I've ever seen on television. They share a deep affection and ability to make fun of one another in ways only life partners can. But they can also be pigheaded and reactionary without jeopardizing their underlying bond. It's really beautiful work.  
 
So many of the characters took on a pleasing complexity. We saw Jason's evolution from a guy paralyzed in body and life to an adult who could apply his old football leadership skills to work and family. We saw Smash flirt with the devil on his shoulder but never forfeit the basic charm and decency he learned from his mother. I could go on. I love Landry's Christian garage band, Matt's awkwardness, Buddy's follies (his recent strip club fight broke me up completely) and well, I better stop.
 
Tell me more about your love of Coach Taylor (neck and neck with Sandy Cohen as my favorite dad and husband in television history) and steer us to the inevitable conversation about the respective hotness of Lyla, Tyra and Julie.

Childs 

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The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television
Childs:
I think what I love the most about Eric Taylor is that he embodies so much of what is actually true about high school football coaches -- they're usually stern disciplinarians, they're good motivational speakers but not exactly eloquent, and they do genuinely care about their kids -- but he's also grounded by the ethical code good fathers have for their sons. There are high school coaches like that, but I also played for a few knuckleheads who were either too macho and pigheaded or too meek to make me truly respect them. Coach Taylor strikes the perfect balance between those character traits. He a tough guy, but he's not such a tough guy that he doesn't care about Jason or Matt or Smash or even Tim. The look on Kyle Chandler's face earlier this season when Smash comes to the door to tell him he made the team at Texas A&M is another one of my favorite moments in the series. There was so much emotion in his eyes, and yet his face was still stern, barely breaking into a grin. Chandler is such an exceptional non-verbal actor. He does as much with tiny facial gestures as James Gandolfini did playing Tony Soprano. I truly believe that. I'm not sure the premise of the show would really hold up if he wasn't cast so perfectly.
You nailed it about Connie Britton's character, Tami, and her chemistry with Chandler. I sound like a broken record on this, but she and Eric have the most realistic happy marriage in the history of television, in my opinion. The scene on the hotel balcony at the end of Season 1 where Tami tells him she's pregnant makes me tear up every time I see it, but I think my favorite interaction between the two of them in the whole series might have been a throwaway scene midway through the first season where he comes home from his office and finds her dragging the trash can to the front curb. Realizing it's a household chore she asked him to take care of and then forgot, he tries to step in and she says, in that beautiful Texas twang, "Oh, so you're going to take it the last 10 feet and then try to get all the credit for doing it?" I felt like that exchange could have been stolen right out of my own life.
The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television
As far as Tyra and Lyla are concerned, it's almost impossible to pick wrong in the great debate about who is hotter. Minka Kelly has certainly used the show to become something of an It Girl on the gossip scene, especially since she started dating Derek Jeter, but her limitations as an actress actually bug me on occasion. Adrianne Palicki's bad-girl charm makes her all the more beautiful sometimes, and while I feel like the show is sort of spinning its wheels with the Landry and Tyra will-they-or-won't-they stuff this season, she makes me laugh often, which points in her favor. I'm tempted to talk about the babe Julie Taylor has morphed into this past season, especially since Aimee Teagarden is, I believe, 19 in real life, but the whole thing does feel a little skeezy as I try to figure out what to say. Let me just close by saying, as an actress, Teagarden nailed the bratty-sophomore-transitioning-to-mature-woman thing.
Since I brought up Landry, maybe we should talk about where we felt Season 2 went wrong. I think we probably both agree that Season 3 has helped return some of the magic the show had in Season 1, and now I'm actively rooting for a renewal, even if it means saying goodbye to more characters. But Season 2 had me wishing maybe the show had just burned bright, and then gone away, sort of like Freaks and Geeks. Will Tim Riggins be a fourth-year senior if the show comes back? And can J.D. McCoy grow as a QB, as well as learn to carry scenes? His girlfriend Madison is no Lyla, but she's pretty cute, especially for a milk-drinking goof like him.
Texas Forever?

KVV

The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television

Kevin:

Totally agree about the power of little moments between Eric and Tami. For example, I loved his tone when steering her away from buying a new house this season. He danced the line between indulging her dream and being the realist and never stopped sounding like a real person. The writing for those characters is good, but the actors deserve a ton of credit for mastering tone, facial expressions and physical chemistry. I think watching them carried me through a lot of the disappointments of Season 2.

Look, it's pretty clear what happened to that season. They didn't have a clear plan for what they wanted to say past Season 1. They barely got renewed. So in a grab for greater popularity, they pumped up the melodrama, especially with the ridiculous Tyra murder angle. The writers and producers showed commendable understanding of what would seem true to the show throughout Season 1. But the murder storyline was a brazen misstep and piled on top of that, you had the awkwardness of them getting Coach Taylor back to Dillon. It just didn't work and given that Season 1 had been such a self-sufficient narrative, I believed FNL was only tarnishing itself by going on.

But they gradually won me back. I don't remember the individual Season 2 episodes as well, but a lot of the Smash stuff remained compelling as did the maturation of Julie Taylor. This season has offered near-total redemption, with moving conclusions to the Smash and Street storylines, the ongoing complexity of the Taylor family, the collapse of Buddy and the J.D. storyline (Coach Taylor's mixture of toughness, wariness and grudging politeness to the overzealous father has been spot-on.)

Now, on to the ladies. I don't know if you've seen the movie PCU. But there is this space cadet college senior who's doing his thesis on Gene Hackman and Michael Caine movies. So he spends the whole movie watching television, waiting for said movies. Finally, a flick featuring both Caine and Hackman comes on and he has his eureka moment, screaming, "I can finally stop watching TV!" That was how I felt when Lyla and Julie were standing together before the same bathroom mirror in a recent episode.

And here's what I decided. Lyla is clearly the most beautiful woman on the show. We were watching recently and Caroline (my wife) noted that her storylines have been boring this year. "Yeah, but she's really hot," I replied.

Caroline waited for a second and said, "Yeah, she is." So if Lyla's hotness is enough to justify her existence to my wife, well, that's something. Here's my problem, however. She's too gorgeous to be a high school senior stuck in small-town Texas. She looks like a starlet who's dating Derek Jeter, and nothing about Minka Kelly's performance makes me forget that.

I don't know why you're pussyfooting around Julie Taylor's desirability. She's the perfect attainable-but-not-really high school hottie. You know there are dorks all over Dillon High secretly lusting after Julie Taylor. She's smart and nice, so she seems like a real possibility to the kind of guys who know that Lyla Garrity exists only in the realm of fairies and elves. The kicker is that Julie is way too hot to date those guys. But the fact that they feel they could ask her out is enough to make her hotter than Lyla in reality.

After that disturbing trip into my high school psyche, I'll toss a relatively benign question back to you. If the show continues past this season, where will it go? Who will last? And for the record, if Tim manages a fourth season with the Panthers, I'm done.

Childs

The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television

Childs,

Midway through the first episode of the second season, when Gracie Taylor was born and Wilco's "Muzzle of Bees" provided the backing track, Eric and Tami exchanged a look and I thought "Well that pretty much seals it. This is the greatest show ever. Never in my life did I think I'd hear "Muzzle of Bees" on network television." And of course, by the end of the episode, after Landry and Tyra decided to throw the attempted rapist's dead body in the river, I felt completely betrayed, like someone had stolen the last 10 pages of an FNL script and swapped them with an episode of Law and Order.

Where the second season really went astray, though, was that it drifted too far away from the football field. The first season had its share of storylines that, in retrospect, stretched the bounds of believability -- I think the Panthers won their last seven games on last-second plays, and Tim's Mrs. Robinson dalliance with the hot neighbor was a bit much -- but the fact that the universe was always grounded in the week-to-week doings of the football team gave it a specific focus. The second season lacked that, starting with the fact that we were supposed to buy into the fact that Tim Riggins was BFFs with the star quarterback, even though it turns out he was a sophomore. (Didn't Jason Street have any friends his own age? Cripes, no wonder Buddy was mad when Lyla and Jason said they were getting engaged. Turns out she was like 15.) By the time they put the silly murder storyline to bed, got Coach Taylor back in Dillon and started to focus on football again, the writer's strike doomed the entire thing. The low point, I think, was the episode where Tim saved Julie from a tornado.

It's funny you mention that Minka Kelly is so hot, her presence seems justifiable even to your wife because my wife doesn't seem to mind my running commentary on Lyla's hotness as long as she can continue to swoon over Taylor Kistch's portrayal of Tim Riggins. It used to be I didn't think he was much of an actor, but he's really grown on me. His final scene when he tearfully told Street he hoped he would get everything he wanted in life, and then watched his quarterback convince his baby momma to give them a shot was probably my favorite moment in Season 3 that didn't involve Smash.

What would make me stick around for Season 4? I'm probably in the minority, but I'd like to see the show shift its focus to a whole new group of Dillon kids. I'd love to see Riggins and Saracen go to college, Lyla leave for Vanderbilt, and Tyra start working shifts at the Landing Strip. (Or whatever fate awaits her.) The writing on this show is so good that I could easily see myself getting invested in another group of football players. JD McCoy is a decent start -- the dynamic between athletic prodigy and crazy father could make for a two-season arch -- but I want to get to know an offensive lineman or a linebacker on next year's Panther squad and follow his story. I want to see a Terrell Owens-esque receiver in a hot tub full of Rally Girls. (By the way, can we get another powder puff football game? Thanks.) As long as the show remains anchored by Eric and Tami Taylor, and even Buddy Garrity, I think it can succeed. I think if Riggins hung around Dillon to drink beer and Saracen became an assistant coach, it would mirror where so many teen dramas go wrong. They hang on to characters for too long instead of trying to reinvent and in this case, have the team, and the high school, remain the focus of the show.

I wonder what Slamming Sammy Meade thinks of all this, 

KVV

The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television

Kevin,

Wow, yeah, the tornado. I really had blocked out a lot of Season 2. You raise a good point about getting away from the football, but I have mixed feelings on that subject, because the game scenes have always strained credulity. The most recent episode was a perfect example with JD's Joe Montana scramble in the muck. I mean, really, if you had Riggins, wouldn't you just slam him off tackle and call it a night? Has Riggins ever been tackled by one guy in the history of the show? But no, every game has to be like the state final in Hoosiers.

You know I've complained as much as anyone about the characters not aging, so I'm right there with you in wanting some newbies to be integrated. I wouldn't mind if Riggins screws up his scholarship and becomes a background character as he follows his brother into useless semi-depravity. I also wouldn't mind if Lyla gets stuck in Dillon because of Buddy's irresponsibility. Those strike me as the sorts of things that actually happen to kids in small towns, or anywhere really.

I'm intrigued by the redistricting plot, because the intra-town rivalry was a compelling subplot in Buzz Bissinger's classic book. And JD's dad as Marv Marinovich has potential as well. They've regained my trust with this character-driven Season 3, so no matter where they go with the plot, I'll go with them.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose,

Childs

The Conversation: Friday Night Lights and why we love television

Childs,

OK fine, I'll admit it before we get out of here, Julie Taylor has become a stone-cold hottie, and I'm not going to apologize for it. I actually thought the scene where she came into the house and looked in the mirror, shortly after losing her V-card by the lake with Matt, was one of the truly tender moments of the entire series. And her scene with her mom, where they both realized this meant she couldn't be daddy's little girl anymore, was really touching.

Since we've spent plenty of time talking about the ladies of this show, I'd be remiss if I let us close without mentioning my favorite one of all: Corrina Williams, or as she's known in our house, Mamma Smash. I absolutely adore that woman (played by Liz Mikel), and believe she's stolen every scene she's ever been in. As thrilling as it was earlier this season to see Smash juke and cut around Texas A&M defenders (inspired by one of Coach Taylor's greatest speeches in the history of the show) it was even more satisfying when he told his mama he was going to college to play ball.

All the way to state (and hopefully beyond),

KVV

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