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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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The 2008 Television Time Capsule: Friday Night Lights – “New York, New York”

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“New York, New York”

Season Three, Episode Eight

Airdate: November 19th, 2008

Entering into its third season, which a majority of you probably haven’t seen yet thanks to the strange DirecTV exclusivity, Friday Night Lights had two main goals: to say goodbye to its graduating players who no longer felt organically tied to the Dillon Panthers, and to recapture that sense of magic that made the first season so special. With 11 of its 13 episodes finished airing, the season has managed the second goal quite well, and is on its way to achieving the first.

[To respect the fact that most of you haven’t seen these episodes (they start airing on January 16th on NBC), I’ll put the rest below the fold – Myles]

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Friday Night Lights – “Game of the Week”

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“Game of the Week”

December 3rd, 2008

“It would be good to get the ball rollin’, you know?”

It’s “Beer-Thirty” in the afternoon in Dillon, Texas, and Buddy Garrity sits in his recliner with a beer and a football game. A knock at the door sends him a reminder: it can’t be his ex-wife, who hates him, or one of his friends, because he doesn’t have any of them. For Buddy Garrity, his life is football.

But while the show has always used football as a point of dramatic tension in the lives of these players, and this episode featured some of the most football-oriented plotting since the show’s first season, this episode was about the show’s continued reminder that their lives go beyond the gridiron. While our two “goodbyes” pre-planned before the season may be over, this doesn’t mean that the theme won’t continue: they have a lot of characters to send off into some form of television sunset, and we’re starting to see the plot, well, get the ball rolling.

While the stories don’t quite have the same resonance as did the emotional exits for Smash and Street yet, what they do have is football. If this week’s game is any indication, the stakes are higher than ever and we’re back to having the big games as the backdrop for our action. What resulted here was a reminder that, as the stakes for the Panthers grow higher by the week, so too do the characters’ drive to go to college, to solve their interpersonal crises, and to (in some cases) get over significant hurdles to their future.

And if things are this captivating now, I’m fairly certain the State Championship will be happening in my living room, live in person.

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Friday Night Lights – “New York, New York”

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“New York, New York”

November 19th, 2008

[NOTE: I go into what might be considered spoiler territory before the fold (it just worked out that way), so if you’re waiting until Spring and don’t want to know anything scroll away now! Hope this warning works – MM]

When Smash Williams received his swan song on Friday Night Lights, we ended that episode on an image of Smash’s face, smiling of pride (and his justifiably reinflated ego). It was a moment where you couldn’t help but feel like there was pride in his success, hope for his future, and that small tinge of disappointment that he was exiting our narrative and entering into another part of his life that doesn’t involve Dillon, Texas.

But for what will be Scott Porter’s last episode portraying Jason Street, we do not end on a shot of an admittedly fantastic Porter after pouring his heart out to Erin. Rather, we end on a shot of Tim Riggins, one that (for me) was far more emotionally affective. What is so amazing about Porter’s performance, and the character of Street as a whole, is that what could have been a hokey period after that pilot developed into someone who can serve as emotional and inspirational anchors for this series. While watching Smash succeed was satisfying, watching Jason grow into a man and a provider (even when the means were highly suspect) feels like the kind of story this show was born to tell: a story about a kid who was supposed to be on the path to greatness proving that, even when the terms changed, he never left that path.

And when we cut to Tim Riggins, of all people, overcome by emotion at the sight of Jason Street’s final moment, we realize that within both the show’s universe and our own, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Friday Night Lights – “Keeping Up Appearances”

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“Keeping Up Appearances”

November 12th, 2008

One of the concerns I’ve had with the most recent set of episodes in Friday Night Lights’ third season is that the behind-the-scenes planning is becoming fairly transparent: it feels like things are happening that are in fact predictable, and in some cases feel less like organic character development and more like pieces being moved on a chess board. Last week, though, everything moved in the right direction: even if it was predictable, it felt totally in character, and like the proper culmination to the storylines set up over this season and last season, for that matter.

What doesn’t work in “Keeping Up Appearances,” however, is that none of it felt natural: every storyline had an element to it that felt artificial. Whether it was in order to rush Jason Street to a happy ending, or introduce a potential character for a reboot-driven fourth season, or push Tim Riggins into college, everything felt dialed in on that purpose. And in an episode all about selling (house, people, football, etc.), I feel like the show was all too willing to show us, their audience, that they had a (somewhat) shameless agenda on the table.

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Friday Night Lights – “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

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“It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy”

November 5th, 2008

In our new era of highly serialized television, we have vilified predictability. We want to be shocked, surprised, knocked off our feet by revelations and swept up in complex storylines that twist and turn every which way. However, evidence shows that execution becomes a much larger concern when one gets caught up in walking off the beaten path: look at what has happened to a show like Heroes, one that is so obsessed with being unpredictable that a lack of logic has become, well, predictable.

So when I say that Friday Night Lights’ third season has been preditable, I don’t want you to look at it as something with negative connotations, at least not entirely. See, I won’t argue that predictable can be bad: last week’s episode of Friday Night Lights, even, was predictable to a fault, retreading old storylines that were not all that interesting to begin with. I speak more of the fact that, now almost halfway through the shortened 13-episode season, I don’t feel as if anything has snuck up and surprised me yet.

But do we really need to be surprised when a show is operating at such a high level? While the various events of this week’s episode have been long foreshadowed by the show’s trajectory, the payoff was exactly what we were looking for; the fact that I “called” the character of J.D. McCoy during his silence of early episodes does not mean I didn’t enjoy seeing it, and the sheer inevitability of the episode’s romantic climax was handled with such grace that it’s yet another powerful emotional moment for a season that’s had more than a few.

The real surprise for Friday Night Lights these days is that it isn’t trying to surprise us, and yet here I am sucked in more than ever; I just hope that, considering the show’s past attempts to surprise us with homicide, they’re content with dramatically satisfying predictability and don’t feel the need to shake the boat too much.

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