(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.)
A review of tonight’s “Friday Night Lights” coming up just as soon as I get real familiar with bleach…
“You think, though, maybe people change? You changed.” -Jess
Michael B. Jordan can act a little.
If we’re being honest, the storytelling on “Friday Night Lights” can be spotty at times. Even if we’re rightfully ignoring The Season That Didn’t Happen, there are storylines that abruptly spring up out of nowhere and/or just as abruptly disappear, character motivations that seem strange, speeches that feel very Afterschool Special-y (we got one of those in this week’s Tami storyline) and other things that would stick out a lot more if the writing, directing and acting didn’t also imbue the show with such a depth of feeling that it’s easy to overlook the silly stuff. The storytelling can be messy in a bad way, but also in that very good way that lets this cast of very talented performers dig down deep to find an emotional truth that can be devastating, or intoxicating, or both.
Case in point: this week’s scene in Coach’s office before the big Hastings game. Vince has been frustrated by the re-emergence of his father(*), and the pressure of Coach Taylor’s strict new code of conduct, and as he listens to Eric tell him about how they have to strive to be better, he explodes, “I don’t know how to be better, because he never taught me how! He never taught me how to be better!” It’s kind of a cornball line (and given the improvisational nature of the show, it’s unclear whether Patrick Massett and John Zinman wrote it, or if Jordan just said it in the moment), but holy hell does Jordan sell it. In that moment, that story transforms from a teen drama cliche into something very authentic about this specific kid, and all he’s had to carry over his short, tough life. Just a great piece of work, and watching it it’s easy to understand why the writers have treated Vince as the first among equals out of the newer characters. The other three are also really strong, and have gotten opportunities to show that over the last season-plus (and, in Jurnee Smollett’s case, in earlier films and shows), but Jordan as Vince always comes closest to the exposed nerve style of acting that typifies this show at its best. Though Luke has filled that Matt Saracen slot of the saintly character with incredibly bad luck, it feels like Vince has not only succeeded Matt as Coach’s trusted quarterback, but as the show’s vulnerable center.
(*) Played by Cress Williams, who already had a spot in the Teen Drama Athletics Hall of Fame for his performance as California University basketball star D’Shawn Hardell on the original “Beverly Hills 90210.” (And for further fake sports cred, he was also a fill-in anchor on “Sports Night.”)
And it’s a good thing we had that Vince moment, because other parts of “The Right Hand of the Father” were really frustrating and/or formulaic.
Take Tami’s attempt to get through to drunken puppet girl Maura. I appreciate what the storyline was trying to do, and also why Tami specifically would be so taken aback by these kids today and their wild parties and their YouTube and their complicated shoes. But it felt too easy for Maura to go from proudly oblivious to vulnerable and seeing the wisdom of Tami’s words. I’m not saying that Tami could never get through to this girl, but this quickly, and after the sort of thing Maura wasn’t thinking twice about? No. Obviously, Maura’s not a regular character, and the show barely has enough time to service its regulars as it is (I think Becky only appears briefly in the opening party scene, for instance), but I’d rather see the show pick a single project student for Tami and stick with that for a while, rather than show her get these quick and unconvincing little victories.
Or look at Julie hooking up with her sleazy, manipulative d-bag of a TA, which is where everyone and their mother (but not Julie’s mother) could see this going a week ago. It’s not an unrealstic storyline, nor an implausible one for Julie, who’s always been linked to older men (Matt, The Swede, her English teacher, the Habitat for Humanity guy), but it’s still so predictable, and still feels completely divorced from the show. In the stories from season three and four involving Dillon alums, the characters were at least still living in town and interacting with other people we know. (And when they were put with strangers, like Matt with the artist, the stories suffered.) Here, I fear they’re doing this to scare Julie into heading back home, which (if I’m right) would allow the writers to better use Aimee Teegarden, but would be a poor direction for one of the show’s most upwardly-mobile characters.
Then there’s Jess’ new equipment manager job, which is a step up from Tyra joining the volleyball team(**) but still seems to be fixing a problem that didn’t exist. When I complained about Jess no longer being a cheerleader the last two weeks, some of you suggested that it made sense because she had more responsibilities with her brothers while her dad was out of town. But that’s inferring something that the show should have told us (and could have, easily), and I can’t imagine being equipment manager would take up any less time for her. The Jess we see in this episode isn’t someone with a shortage of free time, but someone adrift and looking to connect with the football team, when she already was connected(***) and then the connection was abruptly severed.
(**) For a season that didn’t happen, I’m sure referencing a lot of its non-existent stories this week.
(***) And I also think there’s some merit to the idea that cheerleading wasn’t satisfying her football craving – that just because she’s a football-crazed girl doesn’t mean she’d feel fulfilled leading cheers. That’s an interesting story, but it’s not the one the show’s telling.
As for Buddy’s story, I’m always grateful for more Brad Leland screentime, and I can understand why Buddy might have felt disconnected from his son, from both a real world perspective (too many characters to service) and fictional world one (Pam and the kids are in California, and Buddy’s a bitter, petty man). But there was definitely a part of that subplot that smacked of the writers looking for one more tale of a child seeking parental guidance they weren’t getting at home, and someone saying, “Oh, hey, remember Buddy’s son and the daughter who wasn’t Lyla?”
The Vince stuff was good enough on its own to make “The Right Hand of the Father” the strongest episode of this young season, but I’m still waiting for the show to knock me out for a whole hour the way I know it can.
Some other thoughts:
• Did the Lions find a new kicker to replace Landry? Or did they just go for a touchdown when a field goal would have won the Hastings game because Vince is a better percentage player than whoever’s filling the role of Lance 2.0?
• Gracie speaks! “Think about it, Daddy.” The kid’s a natural-born comedienne.
• And one more The Season That Shall Not Be Named reference: when Buddy said of the decision to have Buddy Jr. move back to Dillon that he’d never been more sure of anything in his life, I thought, “Well, other than when he took in Santiago for a couple of weeks.”
What did everybody else think?