Friday Night Lights: "Pantherama"
B

Friday Night Lights: "Pantherama"

Hey, who knew Smash’s real name was Brian?

I did, but I had to search somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain to recall it, which is an indictor of just how long Smash—and more importantly, Mama Smash—has been out of the picture. Save for that unfortunate business last season about his bipolar girlfriend, which was really more of a running B-plot anyway, we haven’t seen a Smash-centered episode since his ill-advised flirtation with performance-enhancing drugs. And just as putting Smash on the juice is cookie-cutter athlete-under-pressure material, so were tonight’s recruiting issues, which have him choosing between a football-crazy university that could put him on the fast track to the pros or an academically minded all-black school that went 2-9 last year.

For me, it doesn’t matter if the situation is a bit expected; what matters is how well it’s dramatized. And for the most part, the Smash thread was pretty satisfactory, partly because our boy doesn’t quite fit the mold of an egomaniacal, me-first recruit. Granted, he seems that way on the surface—as would any athlete that refers to himself in the third person (and by his trumped-up nickname, no less)—but Smash cares about doing right by his family, too, and going pro is their ticket to prosperity. It’s a young man’s naïve dream to think such a longshot possibility is more or less in the bag, so it was great to see Mama Smash offer a contingency plan to her bull-headed son. (And really, the more Mama Smash we can get on this show, the better. Liz Mikel is an absolute force in the role—very funny in her Mother Hen lordship over the family and equally strong when called upon to emote, too.) Talk of gift-giving to recruits, in the wake of the ongoing Reggie Bush situation, seemed pretty relevant and credible to me, too; I hope the show’s not one-and-done with the Smash recruitment situation, because there are some more places this story could go.

Overall, “Pantherama” didn’t have any big overriding theme to it, settling instead for opening up a few fresh plot threads and spending more time with the new Hispanic characters. On the plus side, I’m warming a bit (though just a bit) to the Santiago situation. This week, having proven a quick study at tight end, he now has to deal with the question marks in his home life. After much cajoling from Tami—who really is the best high-school guidance counselor anyone could dream of having—Santiago confesses that his parents are gone and his would-be caretaker uncle has skipped town, too, leaving him alone in squalor. Once again, Coach and Mrs. Coach are at odds over a player: Eric wants to do whatever it takes to get a talented kid on the field and Tami wants to do what’s right by him off the field first.

Hilariously enough, it’s the nakedly opportunistic Buddy Garrity who swoops in to save the day. When Buddy uses the phrase “moment of scintillating clarity,” it’s pretty obvious that he’s experienced Oliver-Stone-on-peyote-like visions of another piece in Dillon’s championship run. (How Eric thought bringing Buddy into his wife’s office would convince her to circumvent social services is beyond me.) Then the show surprised me, in a touching way, by having Buddy really care for the kid, even if he doesn’t realize just how great a responsibility he’s accepted by taking him in. To her surprise, Tami recognizes Buddy’s sincerity, which is a tribute to Brad Leland’s always superb work in the role. I’m not convinced yet that Santiago himself is all that interesting, but I like what his situation is bringing out in the other characters and hope he’ll grow on me.

As for Carlotta, our magical Latina nurse, I still haven’t come around. After Matt tested the QB1 waters with a Rally Girl last week—and after that same Rally Girl helped him get a good price on a used car—Carlotta is back in the picture romantically. The old Matt Saracen wouldn’t have had the nerve to kiss a woman he wasn’t absolutely certain would kiss back, but the new, more confident QB1 plants a good one on her. There’s a scrap of potential in this relationship—perhaps if the show deals with the awkward reality of Carlotta being in the Saracens’ employ—but she hasn’t flowered much for me. That said, I liked that reassuring touch on the shoulder at breakfast: It was sexy in its illicit way and a sweet acknowledgement that Matt doesn’t have to fret over whether she welcomed the kiss or not.

Meanwhile, Julie hasn’t moved on quite so quickly from Matt and she appears in danger of falling for another older and inappropriate guy—much and much more inappropriate than the Swede, in fact. Introducing a new student newspaper adviser on the faculty seems a little contrived and hasty, but I’m tentatively intrigued by Mr. Barnett (or “Noah,” as the kids call him), because it doesn’t seem like a clear-cut situation yet. Yes, the smile from Julie as she leaves his office at the end was of the “uh-oh” variety, but there’s no real indication that her hip young teacher wants to do anything more than counsel an interested student in the finer points of journalism. In any case, I like her scoop on the dubious Pantherama fund-raising event, especially the story behind her father’s refusal to comment (“She asked me through the bathroom door! I was busy!”).

Last but not exactly least, there’s Tyra, who enjoys a pretty active role in this episode, but for almost nothing involving Landry, which to my mind is the elephant in the room any time she appears. Yes, she listens to Landry tell her about the car-burning, but I was disappointed that there was no follow-through on the ice-cold way she ended their relationship. As for the stuff involving Riggins, who moves in briefly before she kicks him off the couch, and her alliance with Lyla on the Pantherama strip-o-rama…. Meh.

Let’s hope for some more fireworks in the coming weeks. This one felt a bit like a place-holder to me.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

• Does Tim return to subject himself to his brother and ex-MILF’s canoodling or does he move in with the shirtless guy and two ferrets named Roscoe and Coltrane? Maybe Buddy can adopt him, too.

• More Coach and Mrs. Coach goodness: “Please don’t whisper-yell at me.”

• So Tami’s sister shows up out of the blue last week, lights a fire, and now she’s gone?! Where’s the follow-through?

• Anyone else annoyed at the spoiler-y previews for the next episode two weeks from tonight? I didn’t expect we were entirely through with the Landry situation, but at least let us discover on our own how it plays out. I’d hate to have to side with those cynics who felt the VBM was some sort of network-dictated ratings booster.

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