Friday, January 16, 2009

Appointment Television - FNL and BSG

Tonight marks the premieres of two of the best shows on TV: Friday Night Lights and Battlestar Galactica.

Friday Night Lights IS the best show on television. Yes, its second season fell off the wagon a bit, but that first glorious season is as near to perfect television as it gets. The continuing story of the Texas-based Dillon Panthers high school football team and the lives that revolve around it is so much more than just about football. Anchored by the mesmerizing and as yet cruelly unawarded performances by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tammy Taylor (otherwise known as Coach and Mrs. Coach), it is an entrancing, enriching, funny, and at times achingly heartbreaking show about small town life and big time dreams.

FNLs third season debuts
tonight at 9 pm on NBC (channel 4) after completing its full and exclusive run this week on DirecTV's channel 101. I wasn't fazed when it was announced that DirecTV would have exclusive fall rights to FNL in return for sharing production costs as I had DirecTV in my Weehawken apartment. I became slightly less sanguine about it when the trees sheltering my new apartment prohibited the installation of DirecTV, but it was this arrangement or no FNL at all, so I sucked it up and waited the delay out.

The news from the DirecTV front is that FNL is fully back in the awesome saddle. Do yourself a favor. Make your peace with the jumpy camera work, dive into the rare and phenomenally executed organic filming process (multiple cameras floating around the scene so the actors have to be fully "on" all the time.
Such. Good. Work.), and discover the glory of Friday Night Lights.

Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can't Lose.

A world away in content and yet neck in neck for quality is Battlestar Galactica. I adored the original version of this program that ran from 1978-1979 and for awhile (and to my mother's horror) insisted that any girl children my future might hold would be named Cassiopeia Athena. I remember Jane Seymour's short-lived role as Apollo's wife Serina before I ever knew who she was. When she was killed off, my mother commented that it was probably because she cost too much.

That lovingly time-capsuled show is highly outclassed by the reincarnated masterpiece that showrunner Ron Moore has created in today's BSG.

At its core are the career performances of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell who are mind-blowingly fantastic as the admiral of the ragtag fleet and the president of the surviving colonists respectively. It's a master class of acting every week surrounded by a show that is never simply science fiction. The Star-Ledger's television critic Alan Sepinwall puts it thus:

"What I've always admired about "Galactica" is the way that it goes back to the roots of science-fiction. We've grown accustomed to the "Star Wars" model of sci-fi, where we want adventure stories with space battles, and robots and aliens, and time travel. "Galactica" has all of that - the outerspace dogfights, when they still do them, are as thrilling as you'll find, especially given the modest basic cable budget - but at its heart, it's using all the familiar sci-fi tropes to tell stories about people, who we are now and how we might react to a fantastic situation.

The series began as an allegory for 9/11, and over the years, it's been able to tell stories about Iraq, and religious fundamentalism, and abuse of power - all dressed up in sci-fi drag, to make the subjects more palatable, and to remove enough present-day context that it might make you question your own beliefs. It's one thing to be horrified by insurgent suicide bombers, but what if you're watching a show where the characters you root for have been placed in a situation (as they were a few seasons ago) where they're the insurgency?

And regardless of politics, what makes "Galactica" so gripping is its emphasis on character over hardware. The explosions and the killer robots are cool, but they don't stack up to seeing fully-drawn people - brought to life by a great writing staff led by producer Ron Moore and an astonishing cast led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell - grapple with these life-or-death, genocide-level decisions." (See Alan's complete review here.)

Sure there have been missteps along the way, episodes not as up to par as others and characters that I happily would have thrown out of the airlock. And while I was horrified when it was announced that the producers had made Starbuck a woman (in the classic version of the series, Dirk Benedict played Starbuck pre-A-team), I wound up really liking what they did with that dynamic even as I increasingly hated the character (Shut UP Starbuck!)

On a whole, this show cannot be beat and has only grown more apropos and eerily allegorical to the world around us with each passing week.

Over this past summer as the first half of season 4 rolled out, my moving madness prohibited me from working my way through the DVRs saved episodes. Plus I was fed up with Starbuck's whining and screaming (i cheered when she blew up in the fighter and then they had to bring her back. Pooh.) I always figured I'd get settled in the new place and have myself a BSG marathon, but that was before the above mentioned DirecTV installation disappointment when my saved episodes went the way of the dodo with an assist from the UPS guy. Thankfully, the SciFi Channel is running a marathon today of all season 4 part 1 episodes and my new DVR is memory cleansed and ready to go (frankly, it's the first time I've seen the DVR memory at under 50% since I moved in.)

Tonight's season 4 part 2 premiere at 10 pm on the SciFi Channel (check local listings) is the final one for this series as the saga winds its way through the final 10 episodes to a conclusion that will no doubt showcase some of the best drama and performances ever.

I Can't Wait.

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