"Friday Night Lights" launched its second season this month with a shocker: Smart, funny, geeky teenager Landry Clarke killed a man threatening to attack Tyra Collette, Landry's crush. Then, rather than face up to the crime, the pair dumped the body.
There was just one problem. The show's relatively small, extremely intense fan base didn't buy it.
"I hated, hated, hated the murder scene," wrote a poster named Tom on the website of Alan Sepinwall, the critic for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. " 'FNL' has always struck me as a production that shows the drama in a real town. . . . The murder scene felt, well, desperate."
Some television critics who have championed the NBC show were equally upset.
"Absurdly melodramatic and unbelievable," wrote the New Yorker's Nancy Franklin. "The plot thread could easily overwhelm the show and kill it."
"Friday Night Lights," which is set in a small Texas town and shot in a documentary style, has earned a cult following and need-to-improve ratings. Most fans were drawn less by the football scenes than by the realistic nature of the multifaceted characters: the Panthers' coach, his high school counselor wife, their daughter, the paralyzed quarterback, his two-timing girlfriend, the new quarterback, and so on.
Although viewers might relate to characters who cheated, drank too much or fought, they didn't know any 16-year-olds who had killed someone.
Some suspected the plot was a network ploy to gain ratings, a notion buoyed by the release of the first episode to Yahoo and the appearance of actors in Allstate commercials.
Executive producer Jason Katims said the Web release and the commercials -- some of which contained upcoming air dates of the season premiere -- were attempts to attract viewers. "It would be good to have new viewers; I won't deny that," he said.
But he contended the murder plot twist was organic and based on Landry's and Tyra's characters -- particularly how the actors portrayed them in a Season 1 episode when the same attacker tried to rape Tyra. "The way Jesse [Plemons] played those scenes, he was bringing so much to the table," Katims said. "We realized we had this actor who was capable of doing so much more."
"It wasn't like we thought this would be the thing that would draw more audience. On the other hand, we did want to come out in the first episode with a story line that would be surprising and have urgency to it," he said.
This story line will play out over nine episodes and will allow a new focus on the relationship between Landry and his father, a policeman, he said. (Mini-spoiler alert: He said the season will not turn into a courtroom drama.)
But fans not only complained that murder was out of character for Landry -- a comic relief sidekick to star football player Matt Saracen last season -- they also picked nits over the details: Why did Tyra's once-failed rapist become a stalker would-be rapist? Why after Landry fended him off, did he walk away saying, "I'll get back to you later"? Why did Landry deal the fatal blow after that? Why did he use a lead pipe? How would this affect his defense?
Further clouding the issue was that the rough cut version of the episode released on the Internet showed a different scene of the murder in which Landry was clearly defending himself and killed the attacker with a bottle. "We reshot the scene with a pipe," Plemons said. "They wanted no question whether it was possible to kill someone with a bottle. And it makes more sense why they would cover it up with him walking away."
At first, Plemons said, he was as shocked as the fans at the shift in his character, which he said requires much more effort as an actor. But then he figured Landry and Tyra had become close in the intervening eight months. "If someone is harming someone you love, who knows how you would react in a situation like that?" he said.
"I guarantee you there is someone out there who can relate to this," said Plemons, 19, who grew up and went to school in Mart, a Texas town near Waco. In upcoming episodes, he said, Landry is consumed with guilt over letting his emotions get away from him.
He said he found it equally hard to believe that Landry would end up in bed with Tyra, a beautiful girl with a reputation (played by Adrianne Palicki). "The scene was really emotional," he said. "It just clicked that these two people, they're all that they have right now. . . .
"I don't even look at it as whether or not it's real love. It's first love. You don't know what you're doing."
Katims said he was moved by the concerned outpouring from viewers. "It's people wanting to be protective of the show and what it is. . . . Once you start to see how the story line unfolds, you see it doesn't change the fabric of the show in any way."
The network, at least so far, has supported the new story. "They've been extremely positive about the episodes," Katims said.
"If you loved the show last year and loved it for its realism and the writing and the acting, it's still the same show," Plemons said. "This is something different, and change is always scary. I've just said -- and all the actors and writers agree with me -- give it a chance."