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Plot twist will ruin ‘Friday Night Lights’

How long does it take for the sophomore slump to kick in? For most series, it’s a gradual process, but “Friday Night Lights” apparently has no time to waste. The second season premiere offered a plot development so wildly off-pitch that it could conceivably cast a pall over the series for the rest of its run.

The twist, as anybody who watches NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” undoubtedly knows, is the accidental beating death of a man who attempted to rape Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) last season. After her would-be suitor Landry (Jesse Plemons) killed the man, they decided to dump the body in a river instead of notifying the authorities. For a show that constantly tried to make an end run around the audience’s resistance by insisting that it was about its small-town Texas characters and not football, the killing added a level of sensationalism that wasn’t helped by the fact that Tyra and Landry are both high school students.

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It’s a horrible twist. And, despite the fact that television viewers are often too eager to accuse their favorite shows of jumping the shark, the Tyra/Landry “River’s Edge” plotline is precisely the type of big, bold, show-changing move that the expression was coined to describe. By making them murderers, it takes two previously complicated characters and reduces them both to a single act. It turns a nearly flawless show into “Friday Night Lights: Criminal Intent.”

A nearly perfect first seasonAnd make no mistake about it: the first season of “Friday Night Lights” was about as perfect as any debut season can possibly be. The pilot laid it out fairly clearly, subverting the sports-movie formulas. When star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) was injured on the field and confidence-lacking second-stringer Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) was sent into action in his place, it could have simply been another example of the underdog that nobody ever saw coming winning the big game in front of the entire town.

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But the very fact that that all happened in the show’s first episode subverted the clichés through the recognition of one simple fact: victory in light of overwhelming odds was the beginning of the story, not the end of it. The rest of the season chronicled the fallout from every angle. Rookie coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), already feeling pressure from the football-crazy town to deliver a state championship, found the season much more difficult with an untested quarterback anchoring the squad. Saracen had to deal with a sudden celebrity that he wasn’t prepared to assume and expectations that he wasn’t sure he could meet.

Street, meanwhile, had to adjust to his new life in a wheelchair, which had ripple effects in the lives of his girlfriend, ever-optimistic cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), and his best friend, monosyllabic fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who ended up in each others’ arms. And so on, and so forth, as the reverberations from the events of the pilot echoed through the lives of the people of Dillon. The show explored issues of racism, performance-enhancing drugs, mental illness, team loyalty and first love with intelligence and heart.

The rest of the otherwise fine season two premiere continued down much the same path, but the small-town setting and the connections between characters give the murder the potential to poison every other plotline. It’s hard to imagine how the show could rebound from this storyline, especially considering the near-universal disapproval expressed by fans of the show.

And that bad buzz had plenty of time to build, ever since the full episode was made available on Yahoo! TV weeks before the broadcast premiere. But the Web sneak peek also gave the writers and producers an opportunity to make changes before the episode officially premiered. And they did, adjusting the details of the killing so that Landry no longer acted in self-defense, explaining why he and Tyra were reluctant to go to the police.

A small but wrong changeIt was a small change, and the wrong one. In fact, it would only have required one tiny fix to keep the show on track and prevent it from becoming a small-town mystery, and that’s for the attack to be brutal but non-fatal. With that one small but crucial difference, a number of dramatic possibilities would have opened up, and those would have been far more interesting than Tyra and Landry living in fear that their terrible secret will be revealed.

Letting the victim survive would have allowed him to press charges, creating a situation where everyone has dirt on Tyra and Landry (and better dirt than blood). Considering Tyra’s reputation as the town slut — a reputation that, with the help of guidance counselor (and coach’s wife) Tami (Connie Britton), she had been trying to lay to rest — the accidental outing of the fact that she was almost raped would have had consequences.

What was a charming (and possibly one-sided) courtship plotline would have expanded to address her public humiliation in a small town, even though Landry tried to protect her.

But while some of that may still be on the horizon, that’s not ultimately the direction in which the show is currently headed. Instead of being a complicated situation, it’s a simple one complicated only by the viewers’ affection for the characters.

It’s the type of move that smacks of network interference, trying to sex up a ratings-challenged show that barely made it to a second season, but “Friday Night Lights” writer/producer Jason Katims denied that theory in an interview with New Jersey Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall.In a way, the plot twist coming not from outside pressure but from the show’s creative team makes it worse. But even if it’s only an aberration, the damage is done. Landry and Tyra will either be torn apart (a realistic possibility) or brought closer together (cliché), unless they’re simply unaffected by it (preposterous) or the show removes them entirely (a terrible solution to an avoidable problem).Whatever happens, the killing will send out ripples into the rest of “Friday Night Lights.” And that could be enough to ruin a terrific show for good.

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