Friday Night Lights: "Underdogs"
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Friday Night Lights: "Underdogs"

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Friday Night Lights

"Underdogs"

Season 3, Episode 12

[For those just tuning in: I first covered Friday Night Lights here at TV Club when it ran on DirecTV back in the fall. I'm rerunning those posts as it runs on NBC to a much larger audience. I'll be checking the comments regularly, as will FNL fans Scott Tobias and Noel Murray. A further wrinkle: My satellite crapped out on me shortly before the season finale so I'll be covering that as it airs on NBC. -- Keith]

Need I say huge spoilers for storylines concerning the whole season are ahead? Well, I'll say it anyway. Huge spoilers ahead.

The first season of Friday Night Lights was about struggling and winning, but not in the usual scrappy-underdogs-buck-the-odds way. It was about winning in the shadow of the knowledge that tragedy can wait just under the surface of things. And about winning after spending time questioning the importance of the game in the first place. And for some characters, especially Jason Street, about redefining what winning means in the first place. Whatever happened within the story after the show went black, the writers strike made FNL's second season about unsatisfying conclusions. It didn't end in a tie, but the truncated nature gives that run of episodes a distinct kissing-your-sister vibe. Not that the season shouldn't count. There are episodes from season two I consider some of the show's best. (Though it's been interesting to watch how little this third season has chosen to comment on some pretty major events from last year.)

So, maybe inevitably, this third season turns out to be about that other possible outcome. The Panthers go into the State Championship game overmatched and with a quivering mess of a quarterback at their center. (Even the South Texas uniforms are scary.) They leave, after an against-all-odds comeback in the second half, losers, thanks to a last-minute field goal. And though they couldn't ask for a more eloquent, inspiring benediction than the one given by Coach Taylor-there-s no doubt he means it when he says "I have never been more proud of a team than I am right now"-they now have to live with the loss.

But that's next week. This week is about getting to that loss and if there's one thing all the characters have in common this episode it's the shared realization that life is much bigger than the game, and filled with just as many tough choices and far fewer certain outcomes.

For Eric and Tami, the tough choice comes early in the episode, and it's not really a choice at all. After witnessing Joe McCoy rough up his son J.D., they have an obligation, a "mandate," to call Child Protective Services. This, of course, destroys the fragile piece between coach and Jo, smashes the friendship between Tami and Katie, and leaves J.D. shaken and, for now at least, more under his dad's thrall than ever. He's too young, and too at the center of the situation, not to assign a good guy and a bad guy and Coach inevitably becomes the bad guy. And so does everyone else. His playing in the championship game shows why experience trumps raw talent. Saracen plays through as much stress and conflicted emotions with almost every game.

Speaking of Saracen, it looks like he might be headed to the School Of The Art Institute. Apart from the early episodes of the first season, Saracen's gift for art has been very much in the background, so this chance seems a little abrupt. But it's beautifully played, with Julie and Matt's grandmother both working through conflicted feelings about Saracen seeking out what they must know is best for him, albeit one a little more vocally than the other. I loved the scene of those two in the stands.

Everyone has the future on their mind this week. Billy has his body shop, very much a work in progress. Tim and Lyla have San Antonio State in mind, although that seems like a big maybe for both. Is it just me, or do they both seem to be waiting on the other to call their bluff? Apart from Saracen, the most explicit talk of the future comes from Tyra, who has a series of great scenes with Landry-whose name Coach will probably remember after this episode's game-working on her essay. It's hard not to groan at the Applebee's plug, but Tyra's first attempt sounded exactly like the kind of callow essay seniors writing what they think colleges want to hear compose. (Or, in Landry's word, "a five-page needlepoint pillow.") What she ended up with, and that she got there by way of thinking of Jason Street, doubled as a nice summary of what the show's all about. It's fitting that it should accompany a cast-spanning montage.

Then there was the game, as fine a piece of improbably, but heart-stoppingly, staged action as the show has had yet. And, as usual, there was a lot more than just the game going on. Much of it concerned J.D. The show's been careful about keeping him from becoming a villain, particularly since, as his home life has shown, he hasn't had a chance to become anything but what he is. Here's a kid with a world of expectations on his shoulders-from the team, the community, and most heavily from his dad-and he can't hack it. And he behaves like what he is, what Coach has seen him as all along: a kid who's not ready. And one who deserves a chance to get ready that, barring some drastic change, he'll never get.

It would be easy to blame him for the loss, but that doesn't seem to be on anyone's mind. In fact, everyone seems to be focused on the gravity of the loss more than the source. And they don't really seem to be dwelling on the disappointment of it. When Tim has his final reverie on the field, what's on his mind? Is he thinking of Jason and the dreams they shared? About the fact that, whatever happens next, he'll probably never find anything that gives him the focus and direction of Panther football?

And what will be next? For the show, who knows? With NBC in complete chaos and losing interest in scripted programming, its chances seem slimmer than ever. (It's hard to resist drawing some meta parallels between Coach's speech about losing honorably and the situation the show has found itself in. But that's a matter for later. (Though if you're reading this as the show's proper run on NBC winds down in the spring, maybe you know already.)

What's next for the characters? Be it epilogue or transition, we've got one more episode this season to find out. Let's hope it's as good as this week's.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

- I barely got in a word about Lyla and Tim and Buddy. I have a feeling that's going to be a big part of next week. This week: Billy pissing in the sink = hilarity.