Greetings Friday Night Lights fans. A few words of explanation: Because of NBC's production arrangement with DirecTV, I wrote about this (pretty great) season of Friday Night Lights back in the fall. I'm now reposting last fall's pieces each week as it airs on NBC. So now you know. No spoilers, please, if you've already seen the season. Enjoy.)
Hello and welcome back to Dillon, TX. If you’re reading this, you’re probably as grateful for a chance to return as I am. For three seasons, being a Friday Night Lights fan meant watching the show in a state of anxiety over whether each season would be its last, whether the plots it put into play would reach dead ends, and if network “suggestions” would spoil what made the show work. Now we’re looking at two more seasons—though probably only two more seasons—thanks to the renewal of a DirecTV/NBC power-sharing agreement that apparently lets the show squeak into profitability without changing its DNA. Everybody wins. (Well, not everyone onscreen, but we’ll get to that.)
A few more words before we get to the fourth season premiere: As we did last year, we’ll be double-posting our TV Club coverage of FNL, once when an episode airs in the fall and again when it airs next summer (!) on NBC. Also, looking back over last year’s posts, I realize I underrated the show. Maybe it was my own anxiety creeping into the writing or something. Maybe it was the weird rhythm of the season, which had to squeeze in back-to-back going away arcs while also following the football season. But, on reflection, I feel like I was a bit too hard on a season that started well, got even better, and ended on a note that felt a little curious at the time but now seems like a canny way to open up the show to new possibilities.
And so, season four: “This town has been divided,” says Dillon’s ubiquitous sports radio voice over the image of Coach Taylor putting on an East Dillon cap as we ease into a graceful montage catching up with everyone as summer edges into fall. There aren’t any real surprises here. Coach faces an uphill battle at his new East Dillon home—including a raccoon. Buddy continues to be “helpful” to a Panthers team now ruled by the golf cart-riding Coach Aikman and Joe McCoy. Saracen has stuck around, and now delivers pizzas—Panther Pizza, specifically—while, we’ll learn later, taking art classes at Dillon Tech on the side. Landry’s on his way to East Dillon. And, though he’s not in the montage, Riggins has taken to academic life about as well as might be expected.
Onto the new. The fourth season premiere lays out several threads, most of them connected in one way or another to Coach Taylor’s new job at East Dillon. And what a job. Coach has been given a team where Landry shines as a beacon of competence. Of course there’s more going on here: A divided town rarely gets divided evenly. The privileged have stayed on the west side and the money and resources have remained with them. That means Coach has to lure an assistant coach away from his secure job and pick up Stan (played by an actor whose name I don’t yet know), a Sears employee with a Pop Warner background who worships Coach Taylor and can’t shut up about it. And because we already know the redistricting was done in such a way to keep the football talent on the west side, Coach is left with a bunch of guys whose desire to play football outstrips their skills, when it’s clear that they’re there out of desire at all.
Then there’s this: The gerrymandering hasn’t taken place cleanly along racial lines, but East Dillon has a lot more African-American students than its sister school. Race played a major role in the Buzz Bissinger book and it’s a subject the show has dealt with well in the past. Now it’s front and center, even if it’s not addressed directly. Coach Taylor treats this team as he would treat any time, but I wonder if it’s perceived that way by his new players. When he (rightly, if too forcefully) throws out a player for antagonizing Landry and refusing to apologize it makes sense that a lot of the black players would leave. The Coach Taylor mystique hasn’t carried over across town and who wants to stick around and be yelled at by a mean, know-it-all white guy?
Vince (the talented Michael B. Jordan, best known as Wallace from The Wire), a new character brought to Coach Taylor’s team by the Cops And Jocks program apparently has to stick around or face the consequences. We’ll no doubt be seeing more of him shortly. As efficient as this week’s episode is, much of it focuses figuring out where our old favorites are headed. And for some of them the phrase “hero’s journey” doesn’t quite apply. Studying The Odyssey early in his college career, Riggins uses the phrase has his cue to leave school for good, looking forward to life working at Riggins Rigs and living with Billy and his wife. They, however, have other plans leading to a tense dinner—priceless line: “Billy, tater me”—and a quarrel in the mustard-colored nursery. Then it’s on to the drinking and the bedding of a lonely single mom. (The usual Riggins routine, in other words.) (The daughter of Riggins’ conquest, a tart-tongued aspiring singer of limited talent played by Madison Burge, is another of the show’s new regulars.)
Watching Landry’s scuffle, Billy and Tim’s fight, and Saracen’s throwdown with J.D. McCoy I had some brief flashbacks to the first season of The O.C. But all three moments felt right. I liked J.D.’s lost boy characterization last season—yeah, I know he played Peter Pan, my apologies—but it makes sense that he would turn into the asshole he was seemingly destined to become now that his dad is calling the shots at Dillon High. So we get J.D. razzing Saracen the pizza boy then taking it further with a couple of drinks under his belt at the Panther Party she assured him would not be a Panther Party. (Also attending: Devin (Stephanie Hunt), one of my favorite minor characters from last season who looks likely to play a bigger role this year. Later her removal from Dillon High to East Dillon prompts Julie to defect to East Dillon, as if the Taylor’s marriage didn’t have enough possible sources for post-redistricting tension.)
Saracen seems tense even before the blow-up, however. He’s made the decision to stick around to stay with Julie and take care of his grandmother, but by the end of the episode it’s clear his grandmother’s faculties have continued to decline and Julie’s not speaking to him. And his dream of pursuing art isn’t going anywhere at Dillon Tech. I wasn’t quite sure how to read that scene with the art teacher. She’s offering an honest opinion of his art and while obviously, as Saracen suggests, Dillon Tech’s no Chicago Art Institute, she may not be wrong about his work thus far. But either way, she’s right about one thing: What is he doing there when he clearly needs to be somewhere else?
Zach Gilford’s time on the show is limited, answering that question, but what about when you’re stuck somewhere inhospitable. Coach Taylor is undeniably a great coach, but what can he do with the resources given him? If it wasn’t clear already, the episode’s stunning final scene shows just how tough a job he has ahead of him if he even just wants to prove J.D. wrong by racking up a single “W.” The halftime scene before he forfeits the game looks like the aftermath of crime scene. Will this team even be in shape to play a game in next week’s episode? We’re entering a season where that’s not even a given, and it’s an exciting place to be.
• Is Sears this season’s Applebee’s?
• For all the time spent establishing where everyone is and what they’ve been up to, there were some conspicuous absences: Tyra, Lyla, and Mrs. McCoy.
• Which is the better Coach line: “6 a.m. Sharp means quarter ‘til 6” or “Stan, I really wish you’d learn to filter your thoughts a little better.”
• NBC hasn’t updated the FNL area yet so I have no new photos. Sorry for the image above.