‘Friday Night Lights’ – ‘Gut Check’: The substitute

Senior Television Writer
06.17.11 59 Comments


(I originally posted this review back when “Friday Night Lights” was doing its exclusive DirecTV run. The comments from that period have been preserved. For the sake of people who are watching the episodes as they air on NBC, I will ask anyone commenting from this point forward to only discuss plot events up to the episode in question. Do not discuss, or even allude to, anything that has yet to air on NBC. Thank you.)

The final season of “Friday Night Lights” still has a few weeks to go. (Sigh…) A review of tonight’s episode coming up just as soon as I draw a starfish princess…

“Look, we all know the problem: It’s Vince. He’s lost this team.” -Coach Crowley

You build these things up in your head, and if you’re lucky, the reality comes close to the fantasy. More often than not, though, the reality falls far short: the girl you have a crush on doesn’t like you, the big speech to the jerk you hate doesn’t sound as impressive when you actually say it, the vacation doesn’t solve all the problems you’re going through, etc.

“Gut Check” is all about reality beating the holy hell out of fantasy, as almost nothing turns out the way our characters have planned it. The Lions’ undefeated season is spoiled, and then Vince gets benched for the game that could put the team into the playoffs. Jess realizes her boyfriend has become a spoiled, paranoid jerk, and kicks him to the curb. Mindy discovers she’s pregnant, just as she was starting to get back into the swing of her pre-baby life. Matt realizes Julie came to him as a port in her stormy life. Tami’s mentorship of Epyck falls apart after a violent scene in her office. Luke’s parents, thrilled that their son was the big hero on Senior Night, discover that he’s again dating the girl who aborted their potential grandchild.

And Eric, who has rarely wanted anything more than to coach a team of boys and mold them into fine men, is so sick of every damn thing to do with Lions football that he’s seriously contemplating the idea of getting out of this devil town and taking the college job in Florida.

Unsurprisingly, the most raw, potent material remains the Coach/Vince beef, which continues to bring out some of the best acting Kyle Chandler has ever gotten to do on this show. (And given his track record, that’s pretty amazing.) Just check out his cold, calm demeanor when he orders the team out of the field house after their first loss: no raised voice, no overt signs of anger, but done in a way that makes it clear the players would be wise to get away from him, rapidly.

The idea that Eric might leave the town, and high school football, behind to take a dream job in college might have once seemed like a happy ending: a reward for our hero, who would never have much job security in this ridiculous business in this ridiculous culture. Now, though, it would just seem like him running away from a messy situation. While I couldn’t blame him for doing so, I do wonder if the writers are willing to go that dark at the end of the series, or if there may be some healing of the tensions over the final four episodes.

It does feel like Vince has turned a corner, in a way, thanks to his mother. It’s one thing for him to be scolded by his coach, or even Jess, but when Regina – the woman who all but begged him to let Ornette back into their lives – is the one saying that his daddy loves him but isn’t necessarily the best person to take advice from, well, then Vince is going to listen. You can see at the end of the Senior Night game that he recognizes he’s taken things too far – and that the team is, indeed, capable of winning without him – and gets a further glimpse of how reckless Ornette is when he has to literally beg his father not to go take a swing at Coach.

But man, were the first few acts of this episode ugly for Vince. He drives away his teammates, drives away Jess, and has long since driven away Coach. Even if he starts getting his head on straight, is it too late for him to heal things?

The episode’s other truly ugly moment involves Epyck leaving Tami’s office in handcuffs. Though this story hasn’t captivated me the way some other of this season’s subplots have, it really started to click in the scene where Epyck came over to the house for dinner and proved to be a natural big sister type to Gracie. (More natural, frankly, than we’ve ever seen from Julie.) In that moment, you see the sweet kid that Tami believes is in there, that her foster mom talked about last week. But as much as Tami wants to have that version of Epyck around all the time, she’s still guarded and prone to outbursts, and whether she stole the 20 bucks or not, and whether or not the teacher was right to go through her purse, Epyck loses control of herself in a setting when she simply can’t afford to do so, and Tami gets a knock on the head for her trouble. For all of Epyck’s good qualities, and for all of Tami’s good intentions, sometimes a mess is just going to stay a mess.

As for Tami’s actual daughter, rather than her surrogate one, I liked that her trip to Chicago wasn’t quite as sweet and wonderful as it seemed from that shot of QB1 smiling at the end of last week’s episode. Yes, these two crazy kids were made for each other, and the episode’s bittersweet ending – they kiss and pledge their love, but Julie still drives back to Texas – suggests they’ll wind up together in the end, but it would be much too easy for their reunion to solve all of her many, many problems. Julie needs to face the music, even if that means just going back to Burleson for a little while until she can find a way to transfer to a school in Chicago.

Matt’s often had a problem speaking up for himself, and in an episode where things were pretty dire for everyone else, I was awfully pleased to hear him tell Julie, “I don’t want to be your safety net.”

Four episodes left. Wow. I’m not ready.

Some other thoughts:

• The opening sequence – set after the loss, with flashbacks to the game intercut with the players arguing over what went wrong – was a bit of a stylistic departure for the show. We’ve opened before in the aftermath of a game (wins and losses both), but unless I’m blanking, I don’t recall them doing flashbacks like that before.

• Well, I was close on my prediction a few weeks ago after the scene where Becky was staring at Mindy’s tips. She doesn’t start dancing at the Landing Strip, but she does spend a shift waiting tables in a skimpy outfit. If I didn’t know that this episode was likely to air in the summer on NBC, I would wonder if that subplot was planned as a sweeps stunt.

• I get the idea that perhaps Luke’s mom is the much more religious one of his parents, but still: Mr. Cafferty seemed to get over the shock of Becky awfully quickly.

• Been a while since I had a blatant “Wire” flashback in a Michael B. Jordan scene, but as soon as Vince began ranting about his hatred of snitches, all I could think of was poor, poor Wallace. Where’s the boy, String?

• Also, poor, poor Mindy. She doesn’t want another baby (especially not so close to the first, which can become a logistical nightmare, particularly when Billy is the other parent), they can’t really afford it, but another little Rigglet is on the way. I was, however, amused by her description of sex with Billy, including the fact that “he smelled like nachos the whole time.”

• Luke and Jess get a scene together – the first time I think those two have interacted without Vince around – and Jess also has a nice moment where she gets to talk to Eric the father of two girls rather than Eric the coach of an unruly group of teenage boys.

What did everybody else think?

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