An odd confession: As big a supporter of “Friday Night Lights” as I’ve always been, this may have been the first time I was really eager to have the show return for a new season.
Allow me to explain.
The first season of “Friday Night Lights” was 22 episodes of near-prefection and although I didn’t necessarily think the writers chose the correct result for Dillon Panthers’ trip to State, the season ended with such a feeling of closure that I didn’t need anything more. With ratings what they were, I didn’t expect a second season and I was satisfied.
The second season of “Friday Night Lights” was a mess, riddled with poorly integrated characters, newly injected narrative cliches and a key storyarc so bad it caused one of my favorite shows to literally make me sad. Although “FNL” rebounded a bit toward the end, I was concerned enough by what happened in the second season that part of me wanted the show to be put out of its semi-misery before Landry had the opportunity to kill again.
The third season of “Friday Night Lights” began erratically, with stunning episodes like “Hello, Goodbye” running up against ridiculous storylines like Tyra’s relationship with the rodeo pretty-boy. But the third season closed with a half-dozen episodes as good as anything in the show’s past and the writers generated a finale, “Tomorrow Blues,” that offered something resembling closure, but simultaneously seemed to push the story in a direction I wanted to follow.
“Friday Night Lights” returns for its fourth season on Wednesday (Oct. 28), but that’s only if you happen to have DirecTV. The partnership was odd enough last season when NBC viewers had to wait for January, three months after the show’s DirecTV window, but this year is even tougher, since NBC isn’t expected to air “Friday Night Lights” until next summer. But hey, at least it got fans a fourth and fifth season of Texa
And that feels like a long wait for a the sports drama that immediately returns to its position as one of the small screen’s finest hours.
[Review of the season’s first two “Friday Night Lights” episodes, with only minor spoilers, after the break…]
The enticing premiere that launches the fourth season of “Friday Night Lights” is one of a town divided. In the end of the last finale, Kyle Chandler’s Coach Taylor was unceremoniously shuffled off to a gig coaching the newly redistricted East Dillon Lions. While Tami (Connie Britton) continues to hold tenuous control over the increasingly booster-run Panther Country, Coach is facing poor resources, inexperienced players and the kind of adversity he never really dealt with at a well-funded perennial powerhouse.
Coach Taylor may have been a victim of a coup last season, but he was also the victim of his own stubbornness and refusal to bend on principles. As the price for his nobility, he finds himself playing on a dust bowl field with a group of unorganized athletes who all want to be quarterback and don’t have much interest in learning to play the game properly, a far cry from the perfectly manicured Panther turf and the feeder system that filtered players up from Pop Warner through JV through the Panthers. It’s hard work. Also, he has to wear a new red hat and it just looks funny.
With Coach at East Dillon, Mrs. Coach trying to hold onto her position as principal at West Dillon and Julie (Aimee Teegarden) stuck in the middle, the show benefits from its new dynamics and power relationships, not that throwing these characters into different circumstances is even necessary. Putting Britton and Chandler in a room together is a recipe instant drama and comedy and it takes no time to be reminded that the Taylors are TV’s most realistic family. The lamentation that Emmy voters have now spent three years ignoring these two stars is oft-repeated, but still valid. Is the problem that the “Friday Night Lights” writers haven’t made Coach Taylor a recovering alcoholic? Or that Tami Taylor’s brush with postpartum depression was only a Season Two speedbump? Chandler and Britton just play real people and do it with a relatable naturalism that’s unparalleled.
It also takes no time to be reintroduced to many of our favorite characters, with a roster somewhat shaken up by last season’s graduation. Only Julie and Jesse Plemons’ Landry remain in school, but with Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) choosing to watch over his grandmother (and girlfriend) rather than going to art school in Chicago, he’s still a regular presence, albeit an increasingly frustrated presence. And it should come as little surprise that the combination of higher education and Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) wouldn’t prove to be a perfect match, which means viewers don’t lack for The Man Who Would Be Gambit.
“Friday Night Lights” has successfully weathered the departure of many co-stars over the years and I don’t miss Scott Porter and Gaius Charles and Kevin Rankin nearly as much as I feared. We’re going to see Minka Kelly and Adrianne Palicki again at some point, but not in the season’s first two episodes and they leave a gaping hole, at least on some levels. On other levels, the initially reduced time for Brad Leland’s Buddy Garrity and Louanne Stephens’ Grandma Saracen is a disappointment, but we’ll get more of them when the stories are right.
There just aren’t enough stories to go around, since the loss of favorite characters and the expanded milieu mean that “Friday Night Lights” will be welcoming an assortment of fresh faces. And guess what? They’re all attractive. Funny that!
Michael B. Jordan’s Vince Howard, a raw athlete who may be down to his last chance, and Madison Burge’s Becky Sproles, an aspiring singer with a teasing glint in her eye, are introduced in the premiere. Stick around another week for Matt Lauria’s superstar running back Luke Cafferty and Jurnee Smollett’s Jess Merriweather. It’s hard for me to say if any of the new actors are all that interesting, since their exposure has been limited, but I’ve liked Jordan (“The Wire”) and Smollett (“Eve’s Bayou”) in the past, so I’m ready to give them a chance.
Sport-phobic fans of “Friday Night Lights” have often tried making the claim that the show isn’t really about football at all. Personally, I’ve always liked “Friday Night Lights” more when it actually was about football and the early episodes of Season Four are, indeed, slightly more gridiron-centric than early episodes of previous seasons when, say, we were treated to Killer Landry.
But if “Friday Night Lights” is transitioning back onto sports turf, it may simultaneously be becoming a more conventional and inviting sports drama. While certain subplots within the show have had underdog elements, “FNL” has never been a prototypical underdog sports narrative, mostly because the Dillon Panthers (like the Permian Panthers in Buzz Bissinger’s book) were always had a lucrative infrastructure despite the conditions of their community at large. Coach Taylor always had polished players ready to take leadership roles. He just had to inspire them and make sure that the actors with speaking parts got their touches in key moments.
At East Dillon, Coach Taylor has problems that can’t be fixed with a rain-soaked chant of “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” and the early episodes are already moving into “Coach Carter”/”Dangerous Minds”/”Bad News Bears”/”White Shadow”/”The Blind Side” territory and not just because East Dillon was intentionally gerrymandered into a dumping ground for all of the region’s poor minorities. And “Friday Night Lights” is a bit unsteady about handling minority characters, since the Panthers were at times the whitest football squad in the history of Texas public school football. East Dillon won’t have that problem, though I’m already a bit wary of the number of African-American characters sporting dreads and prison-yard tats or saddled with addict parents. If “Friday Night Lights” shows the tact and touch of the first and third seasons, the emerging storylines will play out with a minimum of cliches. If it shows the heavy hand of Season Two, the push toward maudlin inspirational uplift stolen from better underdog sports dramas may be unavoidable.
Through the early going? More than so-far-so-good. Viewers have two more weeks of AMC’s “Mad Men,” but when that Emmy-winning series completes its third season, the best show on TV will be “Friday Night Lights.” Unless you have to wait for it to be the best show on TV when NBC gets around to airing it next summer.
“Friday Night Lights” returns on Friday, Oct. 28 at 9 p.m. on DirecTV’s 101 Network.