Monday, April 30, 2007

Welcome Friday Night Lights, Good-bye Grey’s Anatomy

Friday Night Lights debuted to critical acclaim this television season, but didn’t pull in the viewers a show ostensibly about football might have predicted. But then again, if it was only a show about football, I wouldn’t be watching myself, since I’m the only one in my Steeler-faithful family who wouldn’t know a touchdown from a soccer goal if someone showed me captioned pictures of either. The series takes its name and its themes from the feature film Friday Night Lights, which was in turn based on the book of the same name, by H.G. Bissinger. The stories concern the lives of families, friends, and colleagues linked by their dedication to the Panther football team at Dillon High School, in a small, fictitious but perhaps typical, Texas town. In the show’s central conflict, the new football coach and his family weather the sometimes brutal pressure of the town’s expectations for the team, on which Dillon’s residents focus all their thwarted wishes and desires.

Shot in and around Austin, FNL never loses sight of its feature film roots. Much of the camera work is handheld and lit without highly theatrical contrasts, which gives it a gritty, authentic look that nicely complements the story’s ambiance. The soundtrack, too, evokes dusty rural Texas, but manages to be suggestive without being stereotypical. In fact, the whole show works because of its deep respect for its characters, whom its writers paint with a nuance and depth rarely seen on network television. In situations ripe for caricature, FNL manages instead to convey the complexity of relationships, dreams, and desires, and the casual ways in which simple interactions can have lasting, if not cataclysmic, effects.

Although each episode includes at least a scene or two at a football practice or a highly anticipated Friday night game, each week’s plot focuses on the characters more than it does the score. Some of the games provide climactic moments, but they rarely end an episode, because the characters’ interactions off the field are much more central to the story FNL tells. Also unusual for network television, writers provide the actors with plot outlines and key moments, but allow them to improvise their scenes. This gives the actors a great deal of creative freedom and results in dialogue that sounds unfiltered and remarkably fresh.

For example, the banter between recently hired Dillon football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), who now works as the high school’s supportive, smart guidance counselor, rings absolutely true to the complications of a heterosexual marriage. Both partners are under public pressure to perform; they both interact with the same people in the same school; they try to parent a teenaged daughter; they're relatively new to Dillon; and the dreams they both harbor for the future sometimes conflict. But we actually see the Taylors work at their marriage, while they hang on to their bedrock love and affection for each other.

In the season’s finale, the coach contemplates a job offer that would require his family to move to Austin but that would send him higher up his career ladder. Tami and his daughter resist the move, Julie because of her relationship, and his wife because she believes her own work with students at the high school isn’t finished and is too important to abandon. Although the coach tries to resort to male privilege and insist his family follow his ambitions, Tami stands her ground and suggests that Eric commute between Dillon and Austin. Even Tami's unexpected pregnancy, which would (in another show) predict that the family should stay together and follow its man, doesn't shake her resolve that somehow, all three of them should get what they want.

Chandler’s performance as Eric Taylor is a masterpiece of restraint and wired, barely contained, intelligent energy. Chandler takes his time with Taylor’s responses, but he keeps his thinking process close to the surface. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male actor whose furrowed brow seemed so sincere and so transparent, his confusion and insistence on weighing complicated decisions so true. Chandler chooses unusual vocal rhythms for Taylor; he pauses in unexpected places and speeds through words that other actors would draw out. His quiet intensity makes him fascinating to watch, because it’s never clear how he’ll respond.

Britton, playing Tami Taylor, presents one of the most complex, mature female characters ever played on network television. She's generous with her time and her affections; doesn't mind admitting her mistakes when she makes them; has a useful, often used sense of humor; has an open (but not "bleeding") heart; and respects without reservation the students with whom she works. Her relationship with Eric prizes mutual support and respect; she's good at what she does, and while she's impeccably committed to Eric's coaching, her own counseling demans equal time and attention in their marriage. Watching Chandler and Britton create the nuances of this mature relationship offers viewers a real and rare pleasure.

Improvising dialogue is a challenge for actors accustomed to being handed inviolable scripts, but these actors seem to relish the opportunity. The whole cast is peopled with smart artists who can think through their characters’ likely responses in a variety of situations within the constraints of a quick moment. They always seem to be truly listening to each other, since they aren’t waiting for prearranged cues. Their conversations range from playful to painful, but they’re never predictable or pat.

The storylines, too, don't follow conventional television narrative patterns. Multiple plots overlap and develop, and the writers take the characters in unusual directions with rich results. For example, when Dillon’s star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) breaks his spine tackling an opponent early in the season, the show spends as much time with his rehabilitation as it does tracking Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the soft-spoken, diffident second-string player who tries to fill his shoes.

Jason revitalizes his athletic career despite his paralysis by joining a wheelchair rugby team on its way to the Olympics, giving him a new set of sports aspirations to replace those he lost. When the Olympic team tells him he’s too new in his chair to be able to compete this time around, Jason starts hanging around the field advising Matt, and eventually gets a spot on the football team’s coaching staff. The actors play these shifts in fortune with depth and insight, never reverting to predictable responses even to situations that might seem familiar.

The show also confronts the racial politics of small town Texas without flinching. Running back “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) anchors the team’s offense. When “Mac,” one of the older white coaches, thoughtlessly suggests that the team’s African American players are “like junkyard dogs” who provide its brawn while the white players offer its brains, Smash finds himself forced to address the racism incipient but never before so overt in the team’s power structure. He stages a walk-out of all the team’s African American players at a key moment in their season, turning the media spotlight on Mac’s unacceptable remarks.

The episode follows Smash as he becomes a reluctant spokesperson for racial oppression and simultaneously wrestles with his own desire to play for a team that desperately needs his talent to win. Everyone has something to lose in this episode; everyone is forced to confront Mac’s racism and develop an individual, somehow ethical, response.

When Smash decides to end the work stoppage and return to play the crucial away game, he and his colleagues suffer even more racism on the playing field. The white players on the opposing team taunt the Dillon Panthers; the referees make a series of bad calls; and the game devolves into a brawl that stops play. When the refs decide the Panthers get the win, since they were ahead before the fight, the locals throw garbage at Dillon’s players as they board their bus for home.

Two local cops follow their vulnerable yellow school bus down a forsaken country road, and try to arrest Smash on trumped up charges that he started the melee. Mac winds up confronting the police on Smash’s behalf, challenging their intent to arrest him without a warrant. His rather heroic action in very threatening circumstances allows Mac and Smash to come to a wary truce: Mac sees the power of his white privilege, and Smash sees that despite Mac’s racism, he means to do the right thing by the team and all its players.

The contretemps ends without a moral victory for either Smash or the coach, but rather as a simple moment of understanding that our motivations are never as clear to us as we expect, and that white racism’s systemic poison can always seep through, despite people’s best intentions.

FNL’s open-hearted, even-handed approach to Dillon’s identity politics makes it notable television, although strangely, it’s white v. black racial issues that structures the imagined town, rather than Anglo v. Latino or Mexican-American politics. In the feature film, another of the significant team members was Latino, which helped anchor the story in Texas demographics. The lack of a Chicano/a lead character seems a peculiar omission for this otherwise smart, perceptive series.

The characters’ lives are also crossed by the politics of class, brought home by Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), the high school’s “fast” girl, and her mother, who live in a shabby rental while Tyra’s sister works as a stripper at a local club. The family bears the burden of “white trash” circumstances: Tyra’s father is absent, and her mother beds a series of lowlife men, one of whom Tyra runs out of the house with a kitchen knife after he beats her mother once too often.

But when Tyra befriends the coach’s naïve daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), it becomes clear that Tyra’s shoplifting and other vices are practiced from necessity rather than spite. Tyra, in fact, turns out to be quite smart, her aspirations limited only by the much constrained dreams meted out to people whose class background cruelly stunts their imaginations along with their self-esteem. Watching Tyra come into her own as a capable, strong, bright young woman was one of the many pleasures of this first season.

Likewise, Lyla, the cheerleader who dates Jason, the disabled star football player, resists stereotypical characterization. Beautiful Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) comes from a home in which her father—Buddy, the bombastic, glad-handing car dealership owner who heads the Panther’s booster club and holds the highest, meanest expectations of Coach Taylor—cheats on her mother. Her painful realization of her father’s adultery is handled with careful grace, as Lyla’s illusions about her world are dashed one after the other as the season progresses. Even this young character gets fleshed out in complex ways on multiple levels, so that although we see her perhaps a little too often in her figure-flattering cheerleader uniform, she’s never dismissed as only a silly, pretty girl.

Lyla stands by her paralyzed boyfriend, even though her life has been turned upside down by his disability, until she catches him kissing a woman he met in Austin at rugby practice. Yet because of her own indiscretion—she slept with Jason Street’s best friend, the handsome, rootless, rather dissolute but good-hearted running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) after Jason was hurt—she can’t take the moral high ground. Instead, she tries hard to make sense of a life completely reconfigured when it was supposed to play out as the typical fairytale high school romance between the quarterback and the prom queen.

Other equally appealing, interesting, well-rounded characters flesh out FNL’s story, all of whom go about trying to lead their lives the best way they can, given their circumstances. The show’s obvious affection for each of them, and its willingness to treat them with both humor and gravity, makes FNL one of the most human, humane, radically humanist shows around.

Spectators understand the town through the newly-arrived Taylors’ eyes, and come to see that people they first thought were forces for evil (like Buddy Garrity, the powerful, garrulous dealership owner) are actually people whose foibles, eccentricities, and weaknesses humanize them and make them compelling and sympathetic. We come to understand, along with the coach and his wife, that these characters truly want to do the right thing, for themselves and for each other, and they’re keenly aware of the community in which they live. Their lives intertwine for better or for worse, and they measure themselves against each other’s accomplishments with a healthy lack of jealousy or deceit.

FNL has replaced Grey’s Anatomy in my television affections. Grey’s has sadly “jumped the shark” this season (a phrase I just learned, which means that the show has lost its luster, become outlandish and illogical, and now reaches far from its original milieu to find plots and situations. The saying apparently comes from the moment in Happy Days when the Fonz, I think, literally did jump a shark while water skiing, propelling that series into its eventual decline).

Grey’s plot lines have indeed become outrageous: Meredith’s near-death experience; her reconciliation with her recently deceased mother in a hospital-set limbo; McDreamy’s anger with her because she “didn’t swim” when she fell into the water by the ferry accident; the ridiculous competition among the attending physicians/department heads to replace the Chief as the hospital’s administrator; and, among many other things, the laboriously deferred romance between George and Izzy, which makes a mockery of Callie, who remains one of the show’s only interesting characters.

For a show that began as an intelligent, unconventional hospital dramedy (see my earlier blog on the series), Grey’s has abandoned its progressive politics and sunk to the slapstick, heterosexist schtick that’s routine for sit-com tv. Where the doctors’ relationships were once complicated by their ambitions with a refreshing disregard for gender binaries, the sublime Sandra Oh’s character Cristina is now regularly punished for her “un-feminine drive.” (And this when she’s even given “work” to do, since much of her character's time is now spent debating about her upcoming marriage to Preston Burke.) Despite her understandable reservations about marriage, she’s going forward with the ceremony and even changing her last name to Burke, completely capitulating to heterosexual tradition.

Burke’s investment in the ceremony offers a slightly gender-forward twist; he’s the one who bakes 10 different cakes to decide which will be best for the reception, and he’s clearly more compelled by the arrangement details than Cristina. But although this revises typical gender assumptions, his behavior seems out of character, given his sharp-edged professionalism and his brilliant surgeon’s arrogance. While his preoccupation with recipes jives with his compulsive character, it mocks his focus on his work.

Meredith and Derek’s relationship has settled into dull complacency, although it seems that the Chief’s admission that he won’t promote Derek because he promised Meredith’s mother that he’d watch after her daughter has startled Shepherd into rethinking his commitment. Would that they’d break up; it might give the show back some of the sexual tension that drove the much more delicious earlier episodes. Likewise, George’s precipitous marriage to Callie moves still another couple toward unexamined, conventional, ironically unhappy heterosexuality. The sudden jumping-the-shark influenced revelation that Callie is wealthy only made George revert to macho Neanderthalism, making him anxious about his own manly ability to support his wife.

George’s girlfriends’ inexplicable dislike for Callie has become more and more offensive (especially given that Callie is the show’s only Latina). How George has become the man in the middle of two intelligent, beautiful women like Callie and Izzy also challenges logic. His character works much better as the drippy lovesick puppy who can’t get Meredith to give him a treat.

Even the McSteamey-Addison-Alex triangle has been pushed into predictable jealousies and competitions. Addison challenges Mark Sloan to curb his sex drive to prove his allegiance to her, but she can’t help cornering Karev in the broom closet for some quick sex. Meanwhile, she pretends that what she wants is a man who will settle down and command her backyard grill. Her originally mordant, sardonic wit has been replaced by dunderheaded dithering about men that drains the edge out of a character that had a great deal of potential (so much, in fact, that ABC plans to give Kate Walsh her own Grey’s spin-off next season).

Its racial complexities were once the most interesting part of Grey’s anatomy, as the characters of color and the white characters conducted their lives in ways that made racial difference an important but “natural” part of life at the fictional Seattle Grace. This season, though, in addition to Callie’s unending ostracism, Richard Webber (the Chief) mopes over the end of his career and the dissolution of his marriage while his residents buzz around him like vultures picking over the carcass of his job.

Once dubbed “the Nazi” for her exacting standards, resident Miranda Bailey has lately sunk to playing Mammy to the white characters, caring for Izzy when the daughter she gave up for adoption suddenly (and unbelievably) reappears in her life, and preoccupying herself with the clinic instead of the surgery for which she’s trained. Even though she's a resident, and can't be promoted to Chief in the present competition, Bailey seems much less focused on her career than she was in other seasons. Seeing her character capitulate to her new and less flattering role as the show's emotional caretaker is a waste of Chandra Wilson's huge talent and skimps on Bailey's story lines, which used to be much more powerful and compelling (and that much more so because of the paucity of meaty, complex roles for African-American women--especially ones who aren't rail thin and tall--on network tv).

Even the inimitable Preston Burke—the heart surgeon with elegant, adept hands worth their weight in gold—has been reduced to wedding planning by the show’s race to marry off or otherwise partner up its characters. Burke walks through the show in a daze, even unfazed by a visiting (white) surgeon (played by the appropriately oily though alarmingly aged British actor Roger Rees) who obviously vies for Cristina’s affections. The complexities of adult life have been drained from these characters, who now seem more like high school teens playing doctor. Could the very talented producer Shonda Rhimes have capitulated to shlock tv conventions so quickly? What a shame.

But of course, despite its precipitous drop in story quality and character execution, Grey’s will continue to prevail on ABC. Sadly, because of its low ratings, Friday Night Lights could be canceled. You can watch the season’s episodes and catch up on FNL’s truly inventive, moving characters and story lines at If you’re already a fan, you can sign a petition to keep the show on the air at NBC’s web site also has a link through which to offer feedback about their shows. Write to tell them how much you value quality television like FNL, and how much you’d like to see these characters back for another season next fall. And write to ABC to tell them to cut the crap with Grey’s.

Your Friday Night Light's fan,
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Terrence McNally's Some Men at Second Stage in NYC

Terrence McNally’s reputation as a bankable out gay playwright and adaptor precedes him, so it’s not surprising that this spring alone, he has two plays running in New York: Some Men, the Off Broadway trifle recently produced at Second Stage, and Deuce, starring Angela Lansbury and Marion Seldes as two aging tennis rivals, opening on Broadway in May. McNally’s brand of liberal gay storytelling and conventional, comfortable dramaturgy makes him a natural for popular audiences; no doubt Some Men will become a staple on the regional theatre circuit.

Or maybe not. Because despite its rather pat resolutions and rather unsurprising turns of plot and character, Some Men does address the history of gay men over the last fifty or so years, and tries to put in perspective the seismic shifts in their politics and their emotional and sexual practices. With a company of seven men—one or two slightly older, the others mostly 30 somethings, all white except for one African American man and one or two perhaps Latinos—McNally creates a generationally and genealogically overlapping crowd whose adventures tell an episodic story of the highs and lows of American gay men’s recent past and present.

The stage is first set—quite beautifully, in fact, by set designer Mark Wendland—at the Waldorf Astoria, where in the opening scene a disparate group of men forms to attend a wedding. One is a couple fighting about who remembered or forgot the wedding gift; another is a father attending alone; another is a young man in uniform; another is a rather disheveled young punk; and another is playwright/actor David Greenspan, camping (already and always) through the scene. The stage is decorated almost completely in white, and graced with one wall of mirrored tiles, huge heavy chandeliers, and a baby grand that give the proceedings a sense of both gravitas and wealth. White wooden chairs face out to the audience; throughout the play, director Trip Cullman uses vaguely Brechtian devices to position the audience as a participant in the history the play unravels.

From here, the play leaps backwards and then forwards again in time, offering a non-chronological travelogue of key moments in the recent gay male past. The scene at the Waldorf bumps back to the late 60s or early 70s, when Mayor Lindsay regularly sent vice squads to entrap gay men staging assignations at hotels, and finds a married man arranging a tryst with a hustler whose day job is being an English major at Columbia. The hustler reassures the anxious married man, instructing him to take off his shirt and the rest of his clothing, acting more like a nurse than an erotic companion.

(The night I saw the production [March 30, 2007], the Second Stage audience seemed to tense, just a bit, wondering how far this strip would go, and seemed to feel palpable relief when it ended before the men were fully, frontally nude. As a subscription-based theatre, many of its spectators are white, middle- or upper-middle class, and heterosexual. Many of them are dressed up, as though this is a night on the town that differs from their regular routines. For Some Men, at least a third of the audience was white gay men.)

The military man approaches the older man at what’s turned into his son’s funeral, and subtly helps the mourning man understand that his son was loved, even if his lover was a man. A stockbroker maintains an affair with his Irish chauffeur, blithely unaware of how his class privilege and power plays out in their East Hampton relationship. Men face computers (and the audience) and flirt with each other in chat rooms, making up fantasy identities and exaggerating their physical (and sexual) attributes. An encounter group trades pop psychology aphorisms and affirmations, skimming the surface of complex emotions.

Some of these scenes are bogged down with dogmatic, didactic writing, in which McNally tells rather than shows the politically correct and incorrect consequences of his characters’ actions. A moral judgment underlies each scene, which too easily categories the characters as “heroes” or “villains,” as prescient or deluded. Some men in the early years want to be out and proud; others suggest that “’gay is good’ is crap; gay sucks,” and insist on staying in their marriages and remaining closeted. Patrons at a piano bar circa 1969 ostracize a drag queen who arrives looking for companionship, refusing to serve men who won’t abide by gender-appropriate rules of dress and comportment.

As they congratulate themselves on their conservative complacency, sounds of a riot can be heard from a bar across the way that’s clearly the Stonewall Inn, since this is the night of Judy Garland’s death. One of the more radical men leaves his friends to join the riot, while the straight-acting gay men agree that laws are fucked up but find activism too “strident.” They remain by their piano, singing wistfully to “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” in a moment that at once points out the apathy and sadness of preppy gay men pre-Stonewall, but at the same time reminds us that gay history wasn’t written only by those who rebelled. McNally’s portrait underlines how history happens in ways that affect us whether or not we participate in its making. As they hum along to Garland’s signature song, one of the two show queens asks the other, “Would you marry me if you could?” establishing what seems then like an impossible wish as a way to measure current progress.

For, at the end of Some Men, the wedding does indeed take place, the once-unthinkable joining in matrimony that’s now, in some places in the US and abroad, legal for gay men and lesbians. “Will you marry me?” is answered with an emphatic “I do,” as if there were any doubt that this might be the right answer, regardless of which men form the couple. Even though McNally has fun presenting scenes in the notorious gay baths—where the older men want to see the performers and the younger men only want to have sex—and, for the more contemporary “some men,” in anonymous chat rooms that promise potential live assignations, like any many conventional “tramedies,” the play moves inexorably toward marriage as its final, most meaningful, right, true act of faith. Those years of raided bars and sex in bathhouses, McNally suggests, are safely in the past, now that gay men can assimilate into these hallowed heterosexual practices.

Perhaps to McNally’s credit, it’s the young gay men in Some Men who rush to marry, not the older ones, who seem content with their relationships in the outlaw form they’ve always taken (and in most places still take). When two “gender studies” majors from Vassar arrange to interview “older” gay men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, McNally uses the occasion to insist that gay men were happy before Stonewall, even if they weren’t “out and proud” and weren’t able to marry or commit in public civil unions. His genealogy is in some ways nostalgic for a moment before conventionality set in, although his memories of the baths are about finding partners with whom to couple, rather than a more licentious, happily promiscuous and anonymous expression of sexual practice.

The one black man in the cast plays a variety of characters, from a show queen in a long-term committed couple to the therapist in a group encounter scene that’s rife with pat “truth or dare” situations and moments of uninspired twenty or more questions. But his salient tokenism here begs at least a casting question. None of the characters are specifically raced one way or another. Why not cast more people of color, so that Some Men won’t look so inexorably white? Why not write more characters of color, so that when the play is picked up by the regionals, they’ll be encouraged to cast a more multiracial group of actors? Why not use the highly public forum that a popular playwright like McNally commands to make a point about diversity in the gay male population, even if these characters are more moneyed and privileged than most (and in that way conform to the most insistent stereotype of gay men, which is their command of huge amounts of disposable income, which is true really of only some men)?

Likewise, no women characters flesh out this community. Why aren’t gay men ever accused of separatism, when so many of their rituals and places of entertainment and their theatre and performance are in fact sex-segregated? Women rarely get even a mention in Some Men and none live on stage. Again, it’s McNally’s choice to create whatever his imagination (and conscience) dictates. But what kind of gay male world is represented when no women at all even orbit around their planet?

Era-appropriate music introduces and plays under each scene, from “Crimson and Clover” to other touchstone melodies for people of a certain age. In fact, Some Men aims its wistfulness squarely at an older generation of gay men, which is meant to shake its collective heads at the foibles of the young queers who flaunt their radicality as they don their wedding rings. His project means to gently remind us of recent history, while we ride blithely into a sanctioned future with empty soup cans and streamers flying from the backs of our (family) cars. His wants to be wry and rueful about how history has changed the social position of gay men, but Some Men isn’t sure whether to celebrate this assimilation or to be nostalgic for days rife with the excitement, mystery, and even the danger of their underground status.

Finally, McNally brings us full circle, back to the wedding scene that writes these particular middle- to upper-middle class into a traditional family scenario (in the second East Hampton beach scene, two couples even bring their new babies along and trade stories about formula and feedings). Some Men wants to teach queer youngsters something about the old days, but ultimately, in his affectionate, slight portrait, the old days don’t look much different from the new.

A woman among some men,
The Feminist Spectator