Friday Night Lights – “Underdogs”

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“Underdogs”

January 7th, 2009

If you are a fan of Friday Night Lights, “Underdogs” is going to be mightly familiar: as the Dillon Panthers head off to the State High School Football championships, there’s a quarterback having trouble keeping his focus on the field, there’s a road trip to the big game, and there’s a scene where Tami and Eric Taylor find their way to a balcony overlooking the city and remind us how starkly real their relationship really is.

As the episode title suggests, there are things that are different this time around, but “Underdogs” remains partially caught up in its own nostalgic tendencies towards the first season and its unquestionable quality. It’s not that this is entirely unjustified: as our characters begin to move onto the rest of their lives, they are nostalgic for the safety net that the Dillon Panthers have in many way provided just as the show is nostalgic for the days when it was nearly critic proof. But there comes a point where that nostalgia needs to break away, and when the cloud of the Dillon Panthers will peel away leaving behind a collection of confused eighteen year olds and a show that is facing a tough challenge to stay alive.

The message of the penultimate episode of perhaps the entire series comes from Tami Taylor, who tells her husband that, win or lose, the sun is going to shine the morning after. Before the big game is even done, “Underdogs” is able to emerge from the clouds primarily because of that hope of sorts: while the episode may lean heavily on existing patterns the series has dealt with before, it eventually uses that nostalgia in a way that feels organic for most of the show’s storylines.

So while it doesn’t quite excuse the show’s near season-long reliance on recycled storylines, “Underdogs” is a more effective episode because of it.

There is no better example of the show’s emotional hook than in the journey of Matt Saracen, whose storyline remains at episode’s end an unanswered question that has the most consequence for the rest of the series. One of the things about the series, especially as it races into the playoffs, is that the off-field identities of these players are often boiled down to one or two basic qualities. In Matt’s case, he has essentially been boiled down to Boyfriend and Grandson, his two roles outside of football which in some way define him. What’s happening now, though, is that another one has emerged: his ability to draw hasn’t been pulled from thin air, but its importance in his life has always been secondary to the two people most dependent on him.

There is no scene in the episode which pulls at the heartstrings more than Lorraine Saracen talking to Julie and revealing that she doesn’t want to be the one to hold Matthew back. Her dementia has led her to hate any type of change, and the second she got wind of any plans for art school in Chicago (which Matt has been making with his mother and Mrs. Taylor) she did everything she could to discourage it in a way that could be deemed selfish but is more a survival instinct. But she is able to smother his enthusiasm within seconds: he doesn’t want to abandon her anymore than she wants to be abandoned, but Matt is also facing the reality of life without the Dillon Panthers and needing something to define himself.

Similarly, Julie spends the episode stealing glances and realizing that she may be saying goodbye to Saracen in much the same way. She is ultimately supportive: she defends his decision to his grandmother, emphasizing how good he is and how he doesn’t view Football as a career.But you can tell that she doesn’t want it to be true, wants there to be some kind of solution here. But the episode doesn’t even present conclusive evidence of his plans: despite subbing in at quarterback for the second half of the game, Saracen is absent from the end of episode events, and perhaps another run at QB1 will have him wanting something to do with football yet again. For now, we wait for next week, where Saracen’s storyline feels woefully incomplete and a cornerstone to our goodbye to the current lineup of the Dillon Panthers.

He’s really the only loose end: the episode gave some sense of security to the three other cast members who are walking off into the sunset. For Tim Riggins, the episode’s final scene of him placing his cleats on the field in Austin was his final goodbye to high school football. He leaves with a stable future, a stable girlfriend who was “fated” to be with him, and with his brother preparing to open up his own body shop (Riggins’ Rigs). I like that there isn’t anything glamorous about Tim’s future: his brother still pees in the sink at the beginning of the episode, a fact which only really fazes Lyla for storyline purposes, driving her back to her father’s apartment and reconciling in part their relationship. Riggins is settled: he said his goodbye, played his last game, will get his sunrise in the future. Lyla, too, has her future mapped out, and I would be surprised if they rattled that particular cage in the final episode of the season.

Similarly, Tyra Colette is going to college. No, she isn’t in a school yet, but her arc in this episode was the one that felt the most like the epiphany that is often necessary to wrap up something like this quickly. There’s nothing complicated about this storyline: Tyra struggles to write about her life while only focusing on the tangible qualities, but then realizes the emotional journey she’s been through and emphasizes its importance to create an emotionally powerful essay that sums up her life and her experiences. That her essay was placed over a montage isn’t without deeper meaning: she admits herself that it is the events of the pilot which most inspired her to change her way of life, to hope again if you will.

I still feel as if Tyra’s experience has been glossed over a bit, and I’m still on record as feeling that her and Landry’s relationship still doesn’t make sense to me, and I hate that their inevitable reconciliation proved a friend of mine right about them, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t also feel quite emotionally affected by that scene. Say what you will about Tyra, who has often been the show’s most frustrating character, but she truly has had a tough journey, and when she evoked the events of the pilot it was reflective of the side of her character that we’ve seen throughout. One of my favourite memories of Tyra is when she went into the hospital and got drunk with Jason Street – it was partially to get back at Tim, going after his best friend as she was, but it never turned into something romantic: it was a commiseration, something that by her own admission she might not have done beforehand.

Tyra never quite knew how to fit into the world she was suddenly on the inside of, and I think that her inside/outside statement somewhat explains why she has been a bit difficult to watch sometimes with her inconsistency. But at episode’s end she emphasizes that College is for her a place of opportunity, giving her a chance to be something. Ultimately, she and Matt are both underdogs in this episode: they are both struggling to overcome a definition as being someone who can’t “dream big” and do something with their lives. Adrianne Palicki continues to do some great work with Tyra, and I really think she deserves credit for most viewers not having given up on her as a lost cause already. She was really effective here, and I feel secure that she at the very least will get someone to take a chance on her.

The episode was much less final when discussing the newest cast member, as J.D. McCoy went through a bit of a cookie cutter emotional journey in this one. It was natural that he would be upset with the question of Child Services, but one of my favourite moments of the episode is when both Tami and Eric take responsibility for calling child services (with Mrs. McCoy and J.D., respectively). Neither of them pass the buck, reflecting just how upstanding they are and how they don’t really deserve the shunning their receive despite its justification in the situation. They are both hurt, emotionally affected both by the event itself and the fact that it isn’t just going to go away anytime soon. It’s hard to watch, really, and at first you might even think that Jeremy Sumpter botches his scenes considering how confused he looks the entire time.

But that, of course, is the point of J.D. McCoy: he is a fifteen year old who has no idea that he’s doing, who isn’t ready to play in the big game with this kind of weight on his shoulders, and whose inner struggle between his forced maturity and the childhood he never got to have is coming to the surface as an emotional overflow. I thought that, especially the moment where he spoke to Taylor about calling CPS, Sumpter nailed the sheer innocence of this kid: ultimately, this is a boy who has no idea how to handle this kind of emotional output, and this was a fine example of how he really isn’t ready for a game of this caliber.

If they are angling, as we presume, for the show to follow J.D. through to next season should the show be so lucky, I think they have nicely brought this stage of J.D.’s career to a close while acknowledging that he has a future ahead of him. He’s a gifted quarterback, a decent kid, and in many ways needed to be benched and needed to get this out of his system if he is ever going to truly achieve his goals. The episode is smart not to play out his entire storyline here: J.D. and his father still have to have a serious discussion here, and that’s going to have to wait until next week’s finale.

That finale, meanwhile, is going to definitely be different than the first season finale: not only did the Panthers end up not winning the big game, but the season gets a denouement in order to wrap up these various storylines. I had somewhat presumed that the Panthers wouldn’t win the State championship, especially when it became clear that the game was going to be played in this week’s episode. It would change up too many of the series dynamics: they had built up too much drama surrounding the complicated future for many of the show’s characters that a victory would seem almost too bittersweet. Plus, saying goodbye to success is very different than saying goodbye in an atmosphere of disappointment and realism; it will be simultaneously easier and harder for them in the wake of this loss, a reflection of the complex problem facing many of our characters.

I thought that the game was, if a very simple presentation of the underdog story emphasized in the episode’s title, still the most interesting of the entire season. I do wish that we could have met the coach of the Titans, if only because then it would have felt a bit more personalized. The Titans were portrayed as a tough-hitting team who were favoured to beat the Panthers, so I thought it might have been nice to see this personified a bit more clearly. Nonetheless, I enjoyed that we saw a lot of the game, and while the halftime surge was a bit cliche and choreographed (Landry was put on Special Teams for a reason, obviously) I thought that its conclusion was excellent: give us the high of them taking the lead, and then have the Titans do what any logical team would do: get some yardage, get into field goal range, and easily win the game.

It was a smart way of demonstrating the heroism of the Panthers that, sometimes, just can’t beat your basic, strategic football. The better team ultimately won that game, and while I think that “You are all Champions” end of game speech wasn’t given enough time to be really inspiring, and having all of the friends and family there felt more like an excuse to get the cast all in the same room for pretty well the first time ever than it did a logical decision for a coach to make, I nonetheless feel like it proves the best launching point for next week’s finale. This is a show that isn’t just about football, and the idea that its likely series finale will be entirely devoid of it, in a Dillon without football, is definitely the best decision.

Overally, “Underdogs” did lean a bit too much on past events: J.D. being angry with Taylor as Matt was last year over Taylor’s impending departure was the most repetitive, while the others felt new enough to be more of an homage. The only real downside to the episode is that, compared to season one where the Taylors had their own drama to deal with, here they are very much spectators. If the show continues, we will see more of Eric and Tami Taylor, and I think that the writers were forced to sidetrack them a bit. I just hope that, next week, they are acknowledged, in case this is the end, as one of the best TV relationships on record.

Cultural Observations

  • I know she has dementia, but does Grandma Saracen not remember Matthew before he played football at all? I know that she always thought the best of him, but surely she knew Matthew well before he actually started playing. If she believed that a benchwarmer had a career in football, she’s the most kind grandmother ever.
  • Great direction from Jeffrey Reiner in this one: starting the game in the daylight gave it a really unique feeling for the show, and I always love when directors use the reflection in someone’s sunglasses (Here, Joe McCoy’s) in shots. I do it all the time in pictures, and it’s a lot of fun.
  • You can see the budget difference in terms of locations: Season One goes to the home of the Dallas Cowboys, able to do so because the show could afford to travel. This year, the State Championships are in Austin, where the show is filmed. It did make for that REALLY neat scene where they were able to focus from Eric’s face on the balcony right to the stadium behind him: compared to the nondescript hotel scene in Season One, it was a nice touch.
  • I know that Buddy said that he would land on his feet, but I want him to have made some inroads by the end of next week’s finale. I demand a happy, but morally corrupt, ending for Buddy Garrity.

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