Even ardent Friday Night Lights fans like myself can agree that the show has its peaks and occasional valleys—though based on the VBM, we can’t always agree on what those are—but if there’s one reliable thing about the show, it’s that you can never go wrong by keeping the focus on Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Now, there have been plenty of opportunities this season, particularly early on, to appreciate the wonders Britton offers up on a weekly basis. (Is there a better lead actress on television? I can’t think of anyone close, let alone an equal.) Tonight might have been a solid, boilerplate FNL episode overall, but it the best chance we’ve had this season to see what Chandler can do.
Right off the top, it should be said that Coach Taylor is smartly conceived: To coach Texas high-school football, you don’t necessarily have to be a bullying dictator, but you can’t be sheepish, either, and it’s not easy to know when to yell and when to pull back the reins a little bit. Having the Larabie coach around over the last couple of weeks has helped throw Eric’s stronger qualities into sharper relief. He’s fiercely competitive but not a win-at-all-costs guy, and he does embrace, however reluctantly, his secondary role as a father-figure to his young charges. But the job does require a certainty about things that can bleed over in unhealthy ways, too, and as the title of tonight’s hour (“Jumping The Gun”) suggests, he sometimes lets that authoritative voice get the best of him.
Chandler does a lot of things well as an actor, but he’s got annoyance down cold. Tonight, he had plenty of cause: He was annoyed at his sister-in-law for asking about a second phone line and taping over his game; he was annoyed with his wife for requesting him to intervene in the Smash recruiting situation, he was annoyed at Smash’s opportunistic adviser Noelle (that little “duh” look he gives her when she agrees with his assessment of Alabama was especially priceless), he was annoyed at Larabie’s noxious coach, and finally at Julie for making him look like a fool in the Riggins situation. His constant exasperation gives the show all the humor and tension it needs, but there’s more to him than that. He tries to be honorable and we know he’s fundamentally decent, but just as the show has challenged Tami’s self-righteousness on occasion this season, Eric’s alpha-male assertiveness gets him into some jams, too.
Lots of you complained last week about the Three’s Company-esque mix-up that led to Riggins get booted from the Taylor household. I thought it was a bit pat, too, but this has been the Season Of Riggins and moving him around like a nomad shuffles the deck dramatically every time. For one, he has no real choice by to reconcile with his older brother, which is much easier for him to do now that Billy has broken up with the MILF next door. (Am I seeing things or was she played by an actress other than Brooke Langton, who played the role last year?) With regard to the Taylor mix-up, I think in the cold light of day that everyone’s actions make sense: Coach would be alarmed to see Riggins in his daughter’s bedroom late at night, especially since the women of the house had been ogling him heavily; Julie would be reluctant to tell the truth about what happened; and Riggins’ instinct would be to absorb the blow rather than get Julie into trouble. I was happy with the way that little drama resolved itself.
However, I definitely wasn’t happy about the Riggins boys stealing the Ferret Guy’s drug money to pay the mortgage. After the VBM, I think the show has had more than its fill of criminality and danger this season, and I don’t believe for a second that Riggins would take the cash, no matter how desperate he was. The guy runs a meth lab, clearly loves his guns, and isn’t particularly stable; when he notices that Riggins has picked up his stuff and the money is gone, even a ferret-crazy hillbilly like him will be able to put two and two together. My hope is that it doesn’t become a huge distraction, but I don’t see it ending well and I worry that Coach Taylor may get dragged into it somehow. (Or maybe Billy will get shot.)
Speaking of fruitless subplots, the Shelley arc finally comes to an end for the time being, and I’m a little underwhelmed about it. There were some nice moments to be sure, like the way Shelley’s immaturity figured into Julie’s development or how her presence in the house undermined Tami’s sense of control and self-worth, and amped up the tension between Eric and Tami on occasion. Maybe the problem is that she was always relegated to the background; truth be told, when she announced that she had passed the real estate exam, I couldn’t recall her that was doing anything like that to begin with. I suppose I’m grateful that Shelley wasn’t involved in bad subplots—like an age-inappropriate hookup with Riggins, say, or some weirdness with Eric—but the writers couldn’t find much use for her. Too bad, too, because I liked Jessalyn Gilsig in the role (and she looks like a rowdier Tami as well), and that nice last scene between she and Britton suggests what might have been.
The other big subplot involved Smash’s college recruiting adventures. Smash stories are generally as down-the-middle conventional as Friday Night Lights gets, but there’s always Mama Smash there to keep things interesting. The conflict here was the same it’s been between mother and son all season: He wants to go to Party To The NFL University and she wants him to consider Middling Program With Guaranteed Scholarship As An Injury Fallback University. Turns out they’re both dreaming of TMU, which is Local School That Will Keep Smash On The Show University. Nice to see them both get what they want, but there’s got to be more to the Smash than that, right?
• Forgot to mention the big moment spoiled by the promo last week: Larabie’s coach having his Woody Hayes meltdown by showing his players what an open-field tackle looks like. That downcast look he got after a telephone call earlier in the episode was supposed to signal us that something else was afoot, but the my-wife-has-three-months-to-live revelation was a bit out of the blue for my taste.
• Loved how the Georgia recruiter tried to lure Smash with a bag of boiled peanuts: “They’re so good, they make you want to slap your grandma.” (Speaking as a Midwestern transplant who lived in Georgia for a sad decade, I can assure you that a bag of hot, soggy, smelly peanuts is not worth slapping anybody but yourself over.)
• Where’s Matt? Where’s Landry? Where’s Tyra? Where’s Street? Where’s Lila? (Okay, I guess Lila’s back in the picture next week, but Matt could use a little more play and Street’s future on the show seems up in the air.)
• Two Wilco songs and one Sonic Youth (or was it Thurston solo?). Nice.
• Line of the night for me, for strictly personal reasons: “That’s not our burden. That’s our gift.”