Saturday, June 18, 2011

Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Win?

I am an Emmy voter. And boy was I happy when buried in the mailbox onslaught that included discs for Gene Simmons' Family Jewels and George Lopez and Lifetime movies and that Kennedys atrocity, I got the complete set of the 13 episodes of Friday Night Lights final, fifth season (above). Last night I devoured the last three episodes, which will air in the next couple of weeks on NBC.

Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor
Well, not devoured, really, I kept hitting the pause button, to wax nostalgic over a familiar face like Adrienne Palicki and Jesse Plemons who had graduated and left seasons ago -- but really,  to just extenuate the inevitable final lights-out. Because nothing like it will come this way again any time soon. A realistic show about people with realistic relationships, feelings, hardships and triumphs in this era of Jersey Shore, Glee and Desperate Housewives, was a major miracle.

It's part of the sad saga of FNL's undeservedly checkered airing career that instead of there being a hugely anticipated finale night like The Sopranos that everyone tunes into at once, many people will have already seen it.

DirectTV helped keep the show in production by paying for early airing rights, so their subscribers saw the finale months ago (and passed along burned discs to friends who couldn't wait).  Others will just wait for the DVDs or stream it on Hulu or Netflix -- or not bother at all, having been told too many times that it's good for them.

Even though I myself work in scripted TV -- and vote for Emmys -- I have become guilty of this "I'll get to it later" approach for many serialized dramas.  There are only so many hours in the day (and night). And this means shows like FNL suffer at Emmy time. (To date, its only victory was in 2007 for casting.)

The online guide for Emmy balloting
The Emmy voting process starts with a fill-in-the-dots ballot with numbers corresponding to every eligible series [left].  But for the writing awards, individual episodes are nominated by their writers and then the top ten get into the pool of 5 final nominees.

Some shows pit many of their episodes against each other. While Mad Men, 30 Rock  and Modern Family don't seem to have suffered too badly from this, other shows probably miss out on getting nominated at all by not focusing on one best episode to focus the first round of balloters. Trying to marshall their chances, this year FNL only put one episode forward -- the finale, "Always," written by showrunner Jason Katims.

Friday Night Lights was one of the classy shows chosen by Kevin Reilly during his brief run at NBC (he's now at Fox, an even harder place to class up). It premiered in fall 2006 alongside Studio 60, a show I was out in L.A. writing for. The same way I wrongly dismissed Lost as some kind of attempt to fictionalize Survivor, I thought FNL was mostly about football, and didn't think it would last. 

But a few seasons later I was back L.A. in  another writers' room, and everyone there was obsessed with Friday Night Lights. They hung on every new episode, passed around DVDs. And so finally I borrowed season one and ripped through all 24 in a few weeks.  

I instantly understood their allegiance: the show was able to realize things that few writers' rooms can achieve.  A working, complicated, parenting marriage; realistic, heartfelt teenage characters with real problems, all beautifully underwritten and surprisingly believable (thanks in part to shooting completely on location instead of soundstages). 

Does it have a chance to get nominated for best series, and win the Emmy? I hope so. Its momentum seems so fractured at this point -- it's not on magazine covers, it got relegated to Friday night airings during the second half of the TV season.

As far as the writing nomination, a finale, while snagging sentimental "last chance" votes, is not always the best episode to judge a series by. First of all, it's up against pilots -- this year, the one for AMC's The Killing seems a shoo-in. And a pilot's main function is to explain the series to the uninitiated, and entice them to watch more. It can be labored over for months or longer, whereas ongoing shows are usually up against a million deadlines and constraints.

(The Killing is actually an interesting comparison, because it had the added help of being a very close remake of a Danish series; whereas while FNL began as a kind of spinoff of a book and movie, from the get-gp had a completely new set of characters, and by the end had actually reinvented itself by moving the coach to the poor side of town and giving him a whole new cast of teenagers to manage -- quite an achievement, that will be at best confusing for those who are just looking at this season's DVD's).

But also when a series is trying to wrap up several story threads dating back over several seasons for the dedicated viewers, it can't possibly be a stand-alone, self-evident episode for a judge to watch cold.
From the finale of "The Wire"
I know this from experience, because the very first episode I saw of The Wire was its final episode -- and I didn't vote for it.

The reason why sheds some light on how difficult is for longtime serialized shows coming into Emmy season. It's humanly impossible to have watched every episode on the initial ballot, there's an intermediate, not very publicized step in the Emmy process, that narrows down the 10 finalists to the 5 actual nominees, and I participated in it in 2008.

The Emmys understandably want to make sure the nominated shows have actually been viewed by the nominators. So the people who narrow down the list volunteer to sit in a dark movie theater and must watch 5 episodes in a row, then take a break, and then watch five more. You rank them from 1 to 10 and the top five vote-getters become the final nominees.

Well, in 2008, alpabetically The Wire was the last one to screen. So we had already seen 9 dramas, and the scenes I saw -- including, improbably, a bunch of black cops singing a Pogues song -- seemed a little farfetched and treacly. It was like walking into a movie late and never quite catching up. The episode ended up getting the nomination, mostly as a parting salute, but it lost to a MadMen.

Not long after,  I mainlined he entire series of The Wire in a month or two, andit became my favorite eries ever. I wholly regretted having seen the last episode in advance. But I would also say as its biggest fan that the final season was its most uneven, and the finale wasn't even the best written one that year.

I'm happy to say that the final Friday Night Lights is a worthy choice if it does get nominated. There's an amazing plotline in which the life of the daughter of Coach Eric and Tammy Taylor resonates with what's going on with them, and they learn hard-won lessons from each other. And you see enough about the lives of the past characters who have returned to understand their emotional journeys.

So what will happen this year? Last year, FNL didn't get a best drama nomination -- even though there were six instead of the usual five - but did finally eke out one for writing, It was up against both the finale of Lost and the pilot of The Good Wife., but the winner was one of two nominated MadMen.

I am hoping that the critics darling finally gets its due, but even if it does, it is done and gone and in the DVD/streaming bin. I will sorely miss it.

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