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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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Sons of Anarchy – “Gilead”

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“Gilead”

October 20th, 2009

When critics have copies of episodes in advance (and, as a result, I don’t have them in advance), it means two things. The first is that they all have reviews ready to post the second the episode ends, meaning that I’m roughly 24 hours behind on posting my thoughts about the episode (considering that I’m not able to watch Sons when it airs). The second, though, is that I kind of already knew what this episode was like: the critics have been talking it up for a few days, and Kurt Sutter even posted last week that the episode was one of the best the show had other done.

As such, this review won’t be particularly long (I lied, it was that good): I, like other critics, really loved this hour of television, and I’ll agree with Sutter that it’s amongst the show’s best. What makes “Gilead” so interesting is that it takes an episode featuring a lengthy homage to HBO’s Oz and a very welcome return of guest star Ally Walker, and yet ultimately delivers an episode that draws out less sensationalist event television and more powerful pre-existing emotional arcs. It manages to both relish in the situation, putting SAMCRO behind bars and playing with prison tropes ranging from the sex trade to the jailyard shivving, and turn that storyline into something meaningful and powerful considered in the long-term.

It’s the kind of short term/long term combination that SAMCRO is painfully unable to accomplish in its current state, and results in a damn fine episode.

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