Season Premiere: Friday Night Lights – “East of Dillon”

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“East of Dillon”

October 28th, 2009

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts…”

In the very first episode of Friday Night Lights, a “can’t lose” football team became a longshot. When Jason Street went down on the field, ending up paralyzed, the Panther football program went from being a contender for State to being a rudderless ship with a rookie quarterback at the helm. The arc of the show’s first season was watching Matt Saracen become a leader in his own right, someone who would eventually deliver a State championship to the people of Dillon, Texas even when nobody really gave him a chance.

What allowed that team to come together as it did was that surrounding Matt Saracen was not only a collection of great players (Riggins, Smash, for all of their faults) but also a football culture that bred success. Panther Football was not only just the players involved, or even the inspired coaching from Eric Taylor, but a community that rallied behind its team because there was nothing else they wanted to do on a Friday night. That culture, that once seemed so far away for Saracen while throwing footballs through a tire in his driveway, has given the football program substantial financial support, and bureaucratic power in the form of lobbyists like Buddy Garrity. While some of the elements of Panther football were political and thus avoided by Eric Taylor (and, as a result of our appreciation for his character, maligned by the audience), they were parts of the team that provided a solid foundation. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” is as much a construct of years of success as it is about the players or the words themselves, a fact which becomes increasingly clear in “East of Dillon.”

What becomes clear in this fourth season premiere is that the first season wasn’t an underdog story at all, but rather a story of a team recapturing glory that never really left them but for those brief moments when all seemed lost. The story of the East Dillon Lions, handicapped by a biased redistricting that we were once on the other side of, is a true underdog story because this team has nothing. Not only are they handicapped by the inexperienced nature of its players, but they are also crippled by their lack of that community surrounding them – they don’t have lobbyists, they don’t have an experienced coaching staff, and they only have a few storefront signs to bring them together.

All they have is Eric Taylor, a true underdog whose only weapons are his coaching ability and the words (and the emotions behind them) that inspired the Panthers to victory for three years. With them, he needs to build not only a football team but a community around it, the equivalent to Noah’s Ark more than a texas high school football team. “East of Dillon” establishes this challenge, and tells us two things: Eric Taylor is going to make this work, and the people who are going to help him are slowly lining up to be a part of it.

And I’m already in the stands to enjoy the result.

As the new East Dillon Lions are crowding around Coach Eric Taylor, one of the players notes to Landry that the Coach sure can talk, “like some dude from an infomercial.” This is not, of course, our opinion of Eric Taylor: we know him as a skillful orator, one who can turn around a game at halftime with the sheer power of his words, so to equate him with someone selling something for three easy payments of 19.95 plus shipping and handling feels wrong. However, it isn’t entirely wrong, as at this point he really is someone who’s putting his heart into selling something that there isn’t an audience to receive. East Dillon football will have a following because it is a high school football team in Texas, but it is a team that hasn’t existed for quite some time and, more importantly, is a team that will pale in comparison to the town’s shining hope, a faster and more talented team by default in the Dillon Panthers.

Much of “East of Dillon” is spent establishing just how different life on the two sides is, and sort of preparing us for the fact that we, like Coach Taylor and like Landry, are likely going to be spending more time East than we are West. With Tami as Principal, it’s not as if we’ll be abandoning the Panthers entirely, but our interest lies in the Lions, and much of the interest we currently have in the Panthers is likely to shift with time. When we meet a decent human being who plays for the Panthers, Luke, who tries to stop J.D. from bothering Julie at a party, my immediate reaction is that he’ll eventually become part of the Lions. When Julie going to West Dillon becomes a point of contention for parents, her decision to follow her friends to East Dillon is all but inevitable. The show’s epicenter has always been Panther Football, but that is about to change, and this episode is about convincing us that this is the right thing to do – J.D. becomes awkwardly inappropriate when sober and pathetically petty when drunk (which actually fits with his previous experience with drinking), his father has become more annoying that Buddy Garrity ever was (his satisfied smile during the parents’ meeting riot was disgusting), and Wade Aikman becomes a golf-cart riding power freak who we love seeing played with by Tami at the coin toss (designed to keep her away from the Lions game). I don’t think there’s any viewer who feels as if there’s any reason, dramatically, to stick with the Panthers.

But yet we can still empathize with those who are not so quick to make that decision. Based on the condition of the school, we can’t entirely blame Tami for being a hypocrite in hoping her daughter will stay at West Dillon, as she wants what is best for her daughter’s education. And considering that the Panthers have a substantial stadium and a real chance of winning, can we blame anyone for feeling like that is the better use of their friday night, especially when it’s been part of their fall for the past number of years? The parents’ resentment, and the town’s shunning of the Lions, is not entirely surprising, but it creates an ideal underdog scenario where, with Taylor at the helm and the entire town against them, we want them to succeed for more reasons than just the tendency for people to support sports teams down on their luck.

The episode spends more time on those broad elements than it does on individual players, as the Lions are still largely an assortment of random characters we’ve yet to really meet. We got our introduction to Vince early on, running from the Cops and thus running right into a “Cops and Jocks” program as a running back; it was a rote introduction, but considering what else the episode had to accomplish I was impressively attached to the kid by the time the episode came to an end. And we, of course, know Landry, and can use his starting position as a sign of just how bad the team around him is (as funny as that scene with Matt was, it was also kind of true to how the show was using Landry’s character in the football setting). But at this point, we still haven’t met the Quarterback, Olsen, which tells us one of two things: either he’s going to get replaced by someone with more personality in time (perhaps the backup from the Panthers?), or else the show is simply waiting until next week to tell us more about him. I’ve stayed low on spoilers this season, so I’m sure there’s been something in casting, but it definitely raises some questions about how this team will come together.

And, just so we’re clear, it will come together, although the show is taking it at a very smart pace. There is nothing more difficult for a coach than effectively quitting, but Taylor’s decision to end the absolute rout when his players are bruised and beaten to the point of being unable to stand is the right choice for the show’s arc. To rush the characters to some sort of miraculous victory would have felt false: it made sense for Saracen to save the day in the pilot because it set expectations he couldn’t meet, therefore creating considerable conflict in the weeks ahead, but here the Lions are entirely without expectation and rightfully so. They are not good at the game of football, and their problems go beyond nervous jitters to fundamental inexperience. But you can see in them, in that moment as they sit telling Coach Taylor that they’re all good to go even when they’re clearly not, that this game has made them Lions in a way that the Panthers are Panthers. This doesn’t make them a good football team, but it has made them a team, and one that can begin to grow from the ground up in the weeks ahead.

The other major threads of the episode were the false swan song of one character and the actual swan song of another. For Tim Riggins, going off to college was supposed to be his dream, but with Lyla Garrity gone off to Vanderbilt and his ability to sit through Homer non-existent, he abandons college in order to return home to Dillon. What he finds when he comes home, of course, is that the old Tim Riggins has died: his brother has moved on with a wife and his baby on the way, he no longer has football to stabilize his life, and outside of picking up cougars in bars he really has no more purpose in Dillon than anyone else. However, Tim returns to Dillon not because anything in particular drew him there but because that is his home, the place where he wants to be. It was all he wanted, to be able to come home, and yet he finds that it’s not the same place he left only a month previous and that he’s going to need to adjust to its changes.

However, both because of his situation and because he’s still listed in the show’s main credits, one senses that he will be able to do so. Tim has trouble motivating himself more than he has trouble fitting in, and as we saw when he was bunking with the Taylors he is capable of assimilating so long as his actions are not misinterpreted. He’s a slick kid, and you feel as if his struggle with Billy is not that Tim has no place in his life (Riggins’ Rigs feels like something Tim could easily be a part of) but rather that Tim needs a life of his own so as to separate their two paths. Billy is right to be frustrated with Tim’s refusal to stick with College, just as Tim is right that he in some way never wanted any of it. We can say all we want that he should head off to college because many of us have university educations, but the reality of a town like Dillon is that not everyone leaves, and that not everyone can be like Smash Williams or Jason Street in finding lives outside of its borders. The episode uses Tim smartly, depicting his struggle with both Homer and Billy and helping introduce a new character (the cougar’s daughter, who turns out to be the anthem singer for East Dillon) who perhaps too omnisciently raises questions of the character’s identity – Taylor Kitsch is great in this role, so having him back full time is great.

But we don’t have Zack Gilford back full time as Matt Saracen, and the show isn’t hiding that fact. Matt has stayed in Dillon for Julie and his grandmother, but we see in this episode that both are in some way starting to fall away from him. He is still a Panther, but only as the delivery boy for Panther Pizza (a particularly demoralizing point from the writers there), and while he is still Julie’s boyfriend he is no longer part of her world. His grandmother’s dementia has yet to cripple her entirely, but here it’s a sad reminder of how far Matt has fallen: she can’t imagine a world where Eric Taylor isn’t coaching the Dillon Panthers, and where her grandson isn’t taking the field as quarterback. While Riggins left behind what he found wasn’t fulfilling in order to return to a life he knows, Matt has resigned himself to remaining in Dillon and is paying the price for it. He goes to a Panther football party and becomes that awkward older boyfriend who gets into a fight with the young jock over a girl, and he’s told at Dillon Tech that he lacks a point of view with his art, something that Chicago never told him.

Perhaps he, like Riggins, would have come back from Chicago after a time, as they too might have felt he had no perspective with his work, but it seems unlikely. His art is a reflection of his world view, and right now his world view is caring for his sick grandmother, losing a connection with his girlfriend, and delivering pizzas to his former teammates. It’s no surprise that his art was better and more meaningful when he was drawing to escape this town, drawing to make something of himself: when he draws now, he is drawing to make the best of a bad situation, one he chose himself at the end of last season against the wishes of many viewers (myself included), and that is not going to result in the most inspirational work possible. If the East Dillon Lions are struggling because they have no community around them, Matt Saracen is struggling because the community around him is not the one he could have had, and that regret deep down is being suppressed by his love for Julie and his grandmother in order to avoid the guilt of having left them both behind had he gone to Chicago. But that’s going to tear him apart with time, and what we see here is someone who is anything but happy, and who for all of his love of both Julie and his grandmother cannot stay in Dillon forever.

The show has always been a complex mediation of sadness and personal triumph, and you can sense the writers want to avoid emphasizing the former point too heavily. The episode features plenty of humour to break up the tragedy of it all, the ramshackle East Dillon Field House (first looking like a depressing relic of a previous era) being turned into a joke by the raccoon in the locker or Matt getting some nice comic scenes with Julie (“I think we can acquiesce that this is a Panther party”) and Landry (cheering him up by reminding him that he might suck less than the Lions). But what works about this show is that they never use this humour to hide darker moments, pretending as if one joke or one triumph could hide just how long this road is going to be. They also know, however, when those moments wouldn’t even be possible, which is why the East Dillon Lions only make it to half time as opposed to getting their first W of the season.

I knew coming from last season that this was a near perfect setup. When the show was finishing its third season, I and many others wondered where it could go from there: they had already been to State twice, and they had said goodbye to many of the existing characters, and the show was heading towards saying goodbye to Riggins and Saracen as well. However, when the redistricting scenario emerged, and Eric Taylor was assigned to coach the team, and we got that final shot of Tami and Eric on the dilapidated East Dillon field, it all felt legitimately perfect. Here is a chance to return to the roots of the show, starting a football team from the ground up, while having a built-in rivalry and several clear loglines (the first game between the two teams, the chance to meet new players, etc.) ready to go. So when they confirmed that a fourth season was really happening, it was the most I’ve been excited about a season of the show ever (since the second season was tainted in advance by Landrygate).

And right now, it’s living up to its potential by taking things slowly: while we get some sense of the rivalry between the two teams it is largely assumed rather than demonstrated, as the East Dillon team has too many problems of its own to really be concerned about what’s going on across town (note that we never learn how the Panthers did in their first game, leaving it behind as soon as Tami rigs the coin toss). The show knows how much this premise reinvigorates the show, giving it a chance to introduce new characters and return to these key themes of community and the “team” dynamic, but it isn’t rushing into either, and is coupling it with the post-football stories that worked so well last season. It makes for the kind of show that you can’t help but love, one with a clear sense of its own identity but rife with characters who are struggling to say the same – it’s the setup for what might just be the show’s best season yet.

Cultural Observations

  • There’s been no question in my mind that Buddy Garrity would end up in East Dillon before long, but the show is smart not to have him rush over. Ever since he began getting pushed out of the way by Joe McCoy last year, it was clear that Buddy’s place at the ear of the Head Coach of the Panthers had been overtaken, but it makes perfect sense that he wouldn’t be willing to admit that. Sitting in that meeting as Tami is manipulated into abandoning her husband’s first game, avoiding her gaze and looking mighty unhappy, or running after Wade’s ridiculous golf cart, Buddy Garrity is no longer a Panther, but he’s still a resident of Dillon and a lover of football, and his skills would be most useful over at East Dillon High.
  • Last season, the show dropped a number of characters without much notice, but that was okay since the second season wasn’t nearly as impressive as the first. This year, though, to not have a single mention of Tyra rings false, although it makes sense considering Landry was otherwise occupied being our one familiar faces on the Lions. I know Palicki won’t be back this season (I think, at least not except to appear once or twice) due to scheduling issues, but I don’t want the show to ignore her presence as they did Santiago’s.
  • And while I don’t like her character that much, I do want them to bring back Minka Kelly’s Lyla at Christmas or Thanksgiving, both to comment on Tim’s position as well as to offer an excuse for more Buddy – we got a mention of her here, but not much more than that.
  • The anthem singer (whose I believe was Becky, played by Madison Burge, although I could be wrong) both looks a little bit like Adrianne Palicki from certain angles (as she was walking away from Riggins’ car it hit me) and had the perfect singing voice for East Dillon: good, but not great, reflecting the school’s second-hand status. I loved how Riggins’ walk of shame from her mother’s bedroom was soundtracked by her practice for the anthem, as it made for a bizarre sequence especially when you realized she was really singing it.
  • I’m not entirely sure what to make of Stan Straub, but it’s hard not to appreciate the humour in the role (or, more accurately, the humour in Coach Taylor’s unwillingness to see the humour in the man’s behaviour). He idolizes Taylor in a way that’s more endearing than annoying, and it helped bring some levity to the team’s struggles early on.
  • Jeremy Sumpter got a lot of mileage out of playing an immature kid with all of the pressure of the world on him, but he’s now perhaps even better at playing an immature kid with less pressure but just as much insecurity – he still holds a grudge for being pulled from State for Saracen in their emotional loss, a sign that being the definitive QB1 for the Panthers has not removed some of his deeper issues. I don’t know how often Sumpter will be around this year, but I think there’s more to see in this character.
  • The scene of the Lions sitting in the locker room before the game, their limbs shaking and one of them singing eerily, was like the football equivalent of Death Row, and was brilliantly shot (much like the entire episode) by Peter Berg.
  • Edit: I cannot believe I didn’t recognize Vince as (WHERE’S) Wallace from The Wire, Michael B. Jordan – I feel so ashamed.
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1 Comment

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One response to “Season Premiere: Friday Night Lights – “East of Dillon”

  1. Pingback: Season Four of Friday Night Lights debuts on NBC « Cultural Learnings

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