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Series Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

“Always”

February 9th, 2011

“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”

Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.

In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.

He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.

They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.

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Friday Night Lights – “Texas Whatever”

“Texas Whatever”

February 2nd, 2011

Friday Night Light has never really been interested in the challenge of coming home. The vast majority of its story arcs are about the idea of moving beyond Dillon, Texas, of taking that next step towards the rest of your life. Despite the fact that the series opened with Jason Street and Tim Riggins sitting over a fire swearing that they were ‘Texas Forever,’ the show has to some degree indicated that one must leave before they truly find themselves.

Tim Riggins would be the one exception, really. While Jason Street has returned to Dillon, it was only as a successful sports agent who could comfortably connect with his former hometown from a privileged position. By comparison, Tim Riggins has twice returned to Dillon with no sense of direction, and considering that the last time resulted in an illegal chop shop resulting in an extended jail sentence there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it’s not easy to try to reintegrate into society.

“Texas Whatever” brings the notion of coming home to the forefront more than perhaps ever before, pulling together two people who are having to deal with the question of what being from Dillon, Texas, means to the rest of their lives. And while the conclusion of the series is obviously concerned with the idea of saying goodbye to Dillon, understanding what it means to “go home again” seems just as important to closing off this particular chapter in the life of a small Texas town.

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Friday Night Lights – “Injury List”

“Injury List”

January 27th, 2010

Friday Night Lights is a show about convergence.

Really, all ensemble dramas end up driving towards climaxes which tend to bring various story elements together, so this may not seem overly remarkable. However, as the show heads towards the conclusion of its fourth season, the show is doing a lot to bring together stories, simplifying in some instances and complicating in others.

And while some of the tension created by this convergence is engaging, what I tend to enjoy more is the sort of indirect effects: this is the first time in a while where the show actively demonstrated the show’s central dilemma of ignoring the football in order to service the characters on a personal, non-football level, and that tension (when used, as opposed to simply created and elided) is part of the show’s tragedy.

“Injury List” is about capturing the tragedy of stories converging at the worst possible time, although the show manages to keep (most of) that convergence from seeming too convenient in the show’s late season push.

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Friday Night Lights – “Stay”

“Stay”

December 9th, 2009

“What else do you want?”

Last season, when Friday Night Lights said goodbye to Jason Street and Smash Williams, they were leaving to be able to follow their dreams. Jason left Dillon so that he could be with his baby mama, while Smash left so that he could fulfill his dream of playing college football despite his recent injury. In both cases, what kept them in Dillon was out of their control: Street’s injury kept him from taking the path he had always imagined for himself, while Smash’s injury delayed what was supposed to be his triumphant moment. They did not so much stay in Dillon as they were forced to remain in Dillon, and as such we were able to view their eventual departures as an overcoming of unique circumstances.

However, if we root for Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen to leave Dillon, Texas, we are effectively arguing against staying rather than arguing for their departure. Dillon is holding these two characters back more than it is helping them move onto the next stage of their journey, and while both Jason and Smash found support and opportunity in Dillon that could give them the boost they needed it has become inherently clear that living in a trailer and delivering pizzas is not going to be a stepping stone to a prosperous future for either 7 or 33.

Accordingly, “Stay” is about those characters (and quite a few others) dealing with the separation anxiety that people have with the town of Dillon, the people who live in it, and the connections they made that cannot be overwritten so easily by things like common sense or opportunity. You may want to stay, but if you ask yourself what else you might want out of life you might find that staying isn’t going to achieve those goals. While not quite the emotional powerhouse of last week, it’s an almost too consistently themed hour that connects well with the last we’ll see of Matt Saracen for at least a little while.

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Friday Night Lights – “After the Fall”

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“After the Fall”

November 4th, 2009

“What exactly does that mean, start over?”

Going into the show’s fourth season, the narrative was drawn as clearly as the zig-zagging border line: with two football teams in town, one led by our fearless hero and the other by the villainous interlopers, this season was going to be about the fight between the Lions and the Panthers. And the season finale drew out this narrative, pitting the respective opening games of the two teams against each other as Coach Taylor put together a group of scrappy underdogs and Wade Aikman looked to continue the Panthers’ momentum from last year’s state championship appearance.

But what the season premiere demonstrated, as we abandoned the Panthers narrative to witness the bludgeoning of the East Dillon Lions to the point of Eric Taylor forfeiting the game, is that the show can’t sustain that narrative. The East Dillon Lions are not ready to become rivals with their crosstown brethren, for as we learn here they are not actually a team at all. After the humiliation of their loss, the players are either disillusioned by the less than glorious nature of the team or angry at Coach’s hypocrisy to warn them against quitting when he did the very same thing on Friday night.

What Coach Taylor needs to do is start over not so much in terms of abandoning these players, but rather shifting his own narrative perspective to one of building a team more than building a competitive one. They’re not unconnected ideas, of course, but the show has to essentially take a step back from the season’s central premise to get the Lions (independent of the Panthers, unless when entirely necessary) up to fighting shape.

The result is another strong episode, but one which is somewhat trapped by the need to rewind the clock and yet also advance ongoing storylines that don’t necessarily relate to the team.

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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.

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Season (Series?) Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Tomorrow Blues”

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“Tomorrow Blues”

Season Three, Episode 13

Leaping forward about six months at the beginning of the show’s second season nearly killed Friday Night Lights – there was a sense that all the time we missed had been eventful for these characters, and their motivations had changed in ways that were not something that should happen off screen. We found a Dillon, Texas that, in many ways, we didn’t know anymore.

What we find in the show’s third season finale, perhaps its last, is a show that has recaptured that time lost, given us a sense of who these people are again. We found a group of people we care about, a group whose futures are uncertain and will be our final goodbye to many of these characters. With the team’s State championship lost last week in the penultimate episode, the finale takes the risk of flashing forward five months to the moment when their present collides with their future.

The result is a finale that defines the ways in which this show is most successful, giving us those moments and emotional highs (and lows, to an extent) that the show is known for. But what is most strange about the finale is that it was less resolute than I imagined: characters we expected to ride off into the sunset (which the episode even ends with) ended up in their own sort of holding pattern. It’s as if, almost, we’re not saying goodbye after all, but to be honest I was so expecting definitive final moments that I almost feel sad about the fate of some of these characters.

I guess it makes sense, really: in what could be a bittersweet experience balancing the joy of getting a third season and the reality of a fourth being quite skeptical, it makes sense that as the show lays groundwork for a fourth season the balance of things would feel at least somewhat out of whack. It’s natural that we get the “Tomorrow Blues” as we transition from one moment to the next, but at least the tradition brings us another fine episode in a strong season.

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