(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 Lightsback 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.)
This weekend I watched The Blind Side. For those not familiar, it’s a new movie about Michael Oher, currently an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, once a poor kid from Memphis. Except it’s not really about Oher. It’s about Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw), a well-to-do Memphis couple who take Oher in and give him a chance. Which is, I will not dispute, a wonderful thing to do. But where the movie could have been about the racial and economic divides that would have kept Oher from achieving without the Tuohys, or the way Oher began to excel in school with a lot of hands-on attention, or—even briefly—an examination of whether the Tuohys would have cared so much about a kid in abject circumstances who couldn’t be a benefit to their football team, it’s not. What it is: one long pat on the back for a good deed done in isolation with little concern for context. The poor will always be with us. And sometimes they can be amazing left tackles.
I thought about The Blind Side a lot during this week’s episode, especially in the scene when Coach visits Vince at his home and gets an earful. “Am I just another player who can throw the ball and run fast?” Vince says. “If I break my ankle and can’t play no more, you still going to come around here?” With that last line, Coach visibly reacts. Is he thinking about Jason Street? Coach was there for Street, but he was also busy with the team. He cared, he followed up, but his focus was necessarily elsewhere. And he doesn’t answer the question.
Coach is a good guy. One of the best, really. But he’s also a man with many responsibilities and only so much time and in his heart he has to know the answer is, “No.” Or, more accurately, “If I can.” So instead of trying to spin his concern with Vince into a chance to congratulate himself, he tells the truth: Football is Vince’s last chance. Without it, he goes away and his mother has to fend for herself. With it, he stays free and makes sure his mother gets fed. He promises nothing more and, as much as he believes in football, he’s seen too many kids get no further than high school to create a fairy tale of a brighter future, particularly for someone in Vince’s circumstances. But it is a chance for Vince to keep his head above water for now. And it’s a chance for Coach to keep his team, and his career, alive. And, whatever bonds of respect and affection might develop between Coach and his players, that’s, at the base of thing, the way it is. And it takes that level of trust and honesty for Vince to surrender his gun.
Friday Night Lights is a show that loves football and high school sports, but it also repeatedly questions them, too, from the library vs. Jumbotron debate to its portrayal of a town whose football enthusiasm borders on monomania. It does care about academics. At least a little, though after Tami wins the school a Blue Ribbon award for academic excellence, it’s up to her co-worker Glenn to throw her a party. But Glenn, maybe just subconsciously, has an ulterior motive and after a tequila-and-karaoke soaked night, plants one on Tami’s lips. Tami responds as if it’s happened elsewhere before, and it likely has. She coolly and effectively ends the moment and the next day helps him assuage his guilt for “mouth-raping” her. “That last part can’t ever happen again. That’s all,” she replies, and it’s the kindest possible shutdown she could offer.
Her daughter, on the other hand, isn’t doing as great a job of controlling her emotions following Matt’s departure. She cries in her room. She’s jealous of his mother and grandmother for talking to him when she hasn’t after three weeks. And, finally, she acts out in the most Julie way possible: By throwing herself into every extracurricular activity she can find. This includes the wonderfully named Academic Smackdown, a Quiz Bowl-like school competition into which she also ropes Landry. After taking the smackdown part a little too seriously, she has a meltdown when asked about Thomas Wolfe’s novels. I knew she was in trouble when I heard the question, which would have to end with her saying “you can’t go home again.” I think she did, too.
At least Tami’s there for her. Over at Tim’s palace-on-wheels we get a glimpse of why Becky is such a needy brat all the time upon meeting her father, a trucker with another family about which she doesn’t know. Riggins sees through him right away and refuses to honor a man-to-man request that he not tell Becky what he knows about her father. Eventually, a mud fight results. That would look ridiculous on any other show, but here it works.
Here, at the end of the decade, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on my favorite movies of the last 10 years. That’s not particularly relevant here beyond my thoughts on two of them: Michael Mann’s Ali and Steven Soderbergh’s Che, both of which take potentially hot subjects and cool them down with immediate, you-are-there filmmaking and a refusal to treat conflict with an apparent rooting interest. That’s not to say they’re objective. Though Che is pretty much the most evenhanded Che Guevara biopic I can imagine and Mann clearly loves Muhammed Ali, both films benefit from a certain remove. So it is with Friday Night Lights, where the sight of two men fighting in the mud never sounds the melodramatic tones it would on, say, One Tree Hill.
Of course, the actors help. Jesse Plemons, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is a superstar. He has his big moment talking into his cell phone, of course, but he’s also just as able when questioning Julie’s interest in Twilight—no way someone we first met reading Melville is going to fall for Stephenie Meyer—and trying to bring her down after she flies off the handle at a teammate for being one year off about the battle of Stalingrad. But let’s not forget the one-way phone conversation either. I wasn’t entirely clear what was going on, actually. Had Landry and Tyra been meeting there regularly? Was this the first time? At any rate, she didn’t show and Landry, for the first time this season seems ready to move on.
Then, there’s Billy and Mindy’s situation, which leads to one of FNL’s patented clothes-on stripper scenes at Riggins’ Rigs. I think the show has nicely conveyed the direness of Billy and Mindy’s situation as one of the uninsured, a timely and appropriate problem for the couple to have that’s, I suspect, going nowhere good. Also not boding well: the arrival, like a vulture, Vince’s car thief, who senses a situation he can exploit.
“It’s been a strange week.” True enough. I haven’t even gotten to Luke’s travails building fences, a task important enough for his dad to keep him home from school and, consequently, practice. (Does anyone else sense the ol’ McCoy Gang might be the rustlers stirring up trouble from Dillon to Tarnation?) Or Tinker’s offer of friendship and the way it surprises Luke’s dad. Or Luke’s terrifying injury and its possible ramifications in the weeks to come. Or that we didn’t even have a game this week. Or, for that matter, Skeeter. I will say that I would happily watch a spin-off in which Tim and Skeeter travel the country in Tim’s pick-up. But from the looks of things in that final shot, Riggins doesn’t seem too interested in traveling on.
• Okay, Julie’s not a Twilight fan. But would she be a Liars fan?
• While we’re talking books, can we do without Stephen Crane?
• I hope the DVD of this has an extended karaoke scene.
• “Get the food!”