“I Knew You When”
October 1st, 2008
There is something very intoxicating about Friday Night Lights. I knew this before, I guess, but this is the ultimate test. Although a mere check of my ‘About’ page would tell readers of this post that there’s something amiss with my doing this review, I just can’t help it. Even with too many shows by half already on my schedule, and numerous real life commitments, it is not within my level of will power to wait until whenever NBC decides that they’re going to run the third season of Friday Night Lights.
The DirecTV exclusivity deal is designed to save the series, to give it one last chance to prove itself within a more financially viable model, and I hate to be “part of the problem” when it comes to the effectiveness of this model. But, I want to live in a world where that deal doesn’t exist, or doesn’t need to: the show itself was in enough of a creative rut last season that seeing whether Jason Katims can prove himself is more than enough to drive me to dig into the show’s third season premiere.
What I found in “I Knew You When” was vintage FNL, a show that seems to have returned to a less convoluted and ultimately more effective structure. While many of the season’s clear trajectories are left mostly untouched in the premiere (Saracen, in particular, gets short-shifted something fierce), what we see is a very common theme: much as with the show’s chances for a fourth season (or an extension of the existing order), there are those who think that it can’t be done, and those who hold out hope for something better. To put it into football terms, something the show smartly does this season, there’s a lot of people thinking about calling a Hail Mary, and that has created an environment rife with an excitement about the future – and even if the show never gets to see it, watching the characters move towards the end of the tunnel seems like it will be worth it.
[If you are amongst those waiting until the show airs on NBC, first off I admire your willpower. Second, I will be discussing the episode in detail, so feel free to view this all-too tempting opening as your sign that the show is on the right track to start off.]
When Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) stands in front of a group of reporters on the day of the big pep rally, taking their questions about the state of the team, we find ourselves going through a great deal of exposition. We learn that Smash Williams injured his knee in the playoffs, and that the team imploded thereafter. We find out that there’s a new freshman quarterback, J.D. McCoy, who set state records when he was in Middle School, but that Saracen is still QB1. More importantly, though, Taylor is adamant when a reporter claims that this is a rebuilding year: in his eyes, it is anything but.
It’s likely that Mad Men has been doing it all summer, but this is certainly meta-commentary on the show itself: after a second season that opened with one of the worst storylines on a good show in quite some time, there’s a definite sense that the job Jason Katims has ahead of him this season is to pick up on the late-season momentum and deliver a season that returns to the show’s roots. Friday Night Lights is not a show where fans are divisive on what the show’s best quality is: capturing the small town atmosphere and politics of high school football while focusing on the people most affected by it is the show’s calling card, and what Katims has done is take those principles and put them front and center.
The opening scenes of the episode capture this perfectly: we open on the Taylor family dynamic, and then transition into the aforementioned scene with Taylor and reporters. As he talks, we see quick snapshots of the various players: Riggins and his brother enjoying a summer of boozing, the team failing to step it up in practice, and (in my favourite moment) Saracen struggling to get a knot out of his boot after Taylor claimed to a reporter that Saracen can handle everything you throw at him. It’s a cute little sequence, serving to refresh us on the team dynamic, but it does more than that: it frames these characters first and foremost as football players. While the episode doesn’t spend much time on the football game itself, emphasizing the relationship between the game and their lives (or the general atmosphere of Dillon and their lives) is a definite focus.
There isn’t a single piece of drama this season that is unrelated to these qualities: with Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) making the leap from guidance counsellor to Principal of Dillon High School, and Lyla (Minka Kelly) back in a relationship with Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), there isn’t a single character who isn’t either involved in high school football or caught up in the world of Dillon, Texas, to be found. The season appears to be on the trajectory of our characters facing challenges, and the big one is the most important: whether, without Smash Williams, Eric Taylor can put together a winning Dillon Panthers. Of course, that question isn’t so much difficult to answer, considering the events of the episode, but rather conducive to some very interesting pieces of drama as it relates to QB1.
But the episode spends a lot more time with the characters who are in a point of transition between one stage in their lives and another, and who are finding both resistance and support in different ways. There is a lot of power behind the word “Can’t” when it comes to high school. We see it in multiple cases in the premiere – it causes Smash Williams (a now recurring Gaius Charles) to give up his dream of playing football, it makes Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) throw the idea of college out the window as nothing but a pipe dream, and it makes Riggins throw all of his emotional energy into putting together one hell of a game at Tailback after Lyla claims he can’t take life seriously.
This is a natural transition for the series, considering that all three characters feel like they’re a bit old for this world, and a little bit big for their old behaviour. Whether it was Smash and his arrogance, Riggins and his drunkenness, or Tyra and her bitchiness, all three of them have come a long way over these seasons…or, more accurately, they should have. While Smash got to have some decent storylines last season with his quest to get into college (And it was great to see Liz Mikel back as Mrs. Smash for a scene in the premiere), Tyra and Riggins got saddled with murder and a meth dealer respectively. So to see Tyra freaking out over Billy and Mindy getting engaged, and realizing that she can’t afford to take “Can’t” as her fate if she ever wants to get out of Dillon, and Riggins realizing that (as much of a judgmental human being Lyla is) he does have a reason to apply himself in life, is refreshing: they’re going back to being the type of story this show is good at telling.
The show is writing out Smash in the near future, so they’re smart to focus on him here. And while I like Gaius Charles, and feel that the storyline is a great example of Kyle Chandler nailing his role to the ground every single time, I don’t think I could have handled an entire season of it. Yes, he fits into the broad category discussed about in regards to these characters, but he’s graduated, he’s moving on, and the sooner that happens the better an ending I feel Smash gets. To stretch out for an entire season, even a shortened one, his rehabilitation and efforts to return to school just feels like a distraction, much as Jason Street (Scott Porter, also bumped to recurring) occasionally became last season. Here, it feels like a necessary footnote to a meaningful career, one that Taylor is willing to work towards fulfilling in order to give Smash the life he deserves.
What’s interesting about the premiere is that the three characters given the most to do at the start of last season (Landry (Jesse Plemons), Saracen (Zach Gilford) and Julie (Aimee Teegarden)) are given almost nothing to do here. We learn that, despite fixing Tyra’s family toilet and hanging out with her, Landry and Tyra are officially “taking a break” (His words, she chose “broken up”), so he’s not playing much of a role in the grand scheme of things. Julie, meanwhile, is only worried about getting a car, getting a job, and reorganizing her schedule to allow for those two things together. Now, in both cases, these are improvements: we shall never speak of Landry’s storyline from last season ever again, and while it made for some great moments for Connie Britton I don’t think that Julie’s teenage angst period did the show any favours.
For Saracen, though, it’s a bit odd to ignore his narrative. However, the episode spends a lot of time (Smartly) talking about him. The press seem skeptical about whether Saracen is going to remain at QB1, but Taylor has put a lot into the kid. But when J.D. McCoy’s father comes into Eric’s office with cuban cigars and a bottle of scotch, he says something very cruel, at least to our ears: that Taylor’s coaching prowess is no more obvious at his ability to take an average quarterback with a mediocre arm to the State Championship. Now, this can’t help but be offensive to us as viewers: we’ve seen Saracen’s heart, we’ve seen his determination, and no one can claim that he isn’t the heart of this team.
But when the football game comes, it becomes clear that Saracen is going to have a rough year. Even though he struggled in practice, on the field he was fine: the Panthers steamrolled the faceless opposition to the point where Taylor called in the backups to finish off the victory. What happened was a showcase: like when Voodoo was brought in during the first season, all of a sudden a player with a lot of heart doesn’t seem as flashy as a new, shiny quarterback. As J.D. and the team celebrate a particularly beautiful pass for a touchdown, everyone files away except Saracen, who stares blankly seeing his past two seasons flash before his eyes. Cut to: Grandma Saracen, standing sadly in the crowd, even with her struggles with memory and orientation aware that she is watching her grandson potentially lose his future.
We don’t get to see much of Matt’s internal dialogue on the issue, but the episode-ending scene where we see the montage of former Panthers favourites, he was trying to figure out if he might be there one day. Street and Smash represent the past of Dillon Panthers football, but Saracen (unlike them) isn’t this College-bound player, this all-state scouting recruitment. And whether or not that’s fair, it’s the fact: that J.D. McCoy is being pegged as the next Jason Street has Saracen worrying about being leapfrogged in Panthers history, just “that guy who filled in between the two legends.” This entire storyline makes me very excited for the season ahead, simply because it feels like the right kind of story to tell: the writing might be on the wall for Matt Saracen, and how he reacts to that (and how Taylor manages the pressure of a Football Dad with a Smoothie Truck at his beck and call, not to mention Buddy Garrity) seems like the kind of storyline I wanted them to tell last season.
And to an extent, that’s what we’re getting here: outside of a mention of TMU and the existence of young Gracie Taylor, we really don’t get much of a sense at all that the second season even took place. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but the show has smartly eased into its new identity and focused on setting a course. While the new fifty-minute runtime is helpful in giving us moments for every character to shine, we’re still missing more of the Taylor family dynamic (with only one tense scene between them), and we didn’t get nearly enough Saracen/Landry discussion for my liking. But the point is that the show feels like one where these things can happen again: where not every character is living so far off in their little world that they don’t interact with each other, or worse yet, interact with each other only when the storyline allows for it.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about Friday Night Lights’ third season, and I say this in relation to the storylines and not to the show itself. But the questions are not, as they were last season, about how Katims can make this setup work without dragging the entire show down; instead, it’s an actual honest to goodness interest in seeing these characters take on new challenges. Watching this premiere totally wipes away any sense of a smaller budget, of a reduced cast, or any other such nonsense: it’s just good to be back in Dillon, Texas.
- I don’t have much to say about Tami’s new job as the Principal from a school perspective(other than that, unless you’ve got a season of The Wire to talk about it, tackling the public school funding crisis isn’t exactly compelling television), but as soon as it became clear that the new job was going to give Connie Britton plenty of opportunity to make hilarious facial expressions as Buddy Garrity (An always fantastic Brad Leland) says ridiculous things, I was totally on board.
- There were a lot of great little lines, but it’s Billy Riggins who takes the cake with, while explaining to Tim why Lyla was ignoring him, “You’re a rebound…from Jesus.“
- Say what you will about Lyla, usually the show’s most frustrating character, but her living with Buddy and sneaking around with Riggins is probably as easy to take as she’s been in a while. I hope the show is smart enough to avoid love triangles this season, as it’s in no one’s best interest.