“Friday Night Lights” is about high school football, and much though NBC wished otherwise (because scripted sports dramas tend to attract niche audiences), people tend to think of the football before they think of the high school. But “FNL” is very much a show about high schoolers (and their parents, teachers, and, yes, coaches), and as such faced a dilemma most teen dramas deal with sooner or later: what do you do once your original characters are ready to graduate?
Most series try to follow the kids to college. This rarely works, not just because it’s awkward when all the characters somehow wind up at the same school again, but because the challenges of college life are both more nuanced and less emotionally charged than those of high school. Many shows, both good (“Buffy,” “Veronica Mars”) and less good (“Beverly Hills 90210”) tried that, and could never quite recapture the pre-graduation magic.
But because the town and the team (or a team) are as much characters on “FNL” as the kids, the series’ producers very wisely decided to stay within the confines of Dillon, TX, even after graduating most of the original crew by the end of season 3. And the very strong fourth season – which aired in its entirety on DirecTV in the fall, and debuts on NBC tomorrow night at 8 – is proof that they made the right call.
(My very mildly spoiler-y thoughts on the fourth season, along with an explanation for how I’ll cover each episode, coming up after the jump…)
That third season closed not only with a bunch of graduations, but with Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler, still so combative and funny and honest and charming, and so brilliant at saying so much without saying anything at all) fired from his job as coach of the mighty West Dillon Panthers due to a grudge with wealthy booster Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffatt). As the new season opens, he’s taken a job trying to resurrect the football program at East Dillon High, a school that had laid dormant for decades and which has become home to the poorest – and, for the most part, blackest – kids in town.
The set-up cleverly accomplishes several things at once. First, it turns Eric Taylor into an underdog (and effectively turns the Panthers, for whom we rooted for three years, into the villains) by placing him in charge of a team with no facilities, no real prospects, and no hope, while leaving wife Tami (Connie Britton, every bit Chandler’s equal, and every bit the TV Academy’s shame for never getting an Emmy nomination) fighting in enemy territory as the principal of West Dillon.
Second, it gives the show easy license to introduce a quartet of new characters at once without it feeling forced, and without them feeling like intruders or unwanted replacements. The best of these is Michael B. Jordan as Vince, a budding delinquent who agrees to join the pathetic East Dillon Lions to avoid criminal charges. Not only is Jordan a tremendous actor (which anyone who watched him as Wallace on “The Wire” knows), but Vince – and the underprivileged community he comes from – allows the writers to finally address head-on some of the race and class issues that were part of the original “Friday Night Lights” book and movie, but were only occasionally dealt with in the TV show’s earlier seasons.
The other newcomers – Jurnee Smollett as Jess, a cheerleader whose father (Steve Harris) starred for East Dillon in the school’s glory years; Madison Burge as Becky, an aspiring beauty queen whose mother rents out the family trailer to former Panthers star Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) when his college stint doesn’t work out; and Matt Lauria as Luke, a running back desperate to escape a life working his family’s farm – also fit in well, and soon begin to feel like they’ve been on the show for a long time.
The only problem with the newbies, really, is that in the show’s attempt to introduce them, and set up Coach’s new work situation, and give a coda to the story of former Panthers quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford, who gives one of the most remarkable performances in the show’s history in the fifth episode), and service returning characters like Riggins, Eric and Tami’s daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and Matt’s best friend Landry (Jesse Plemons), things start to feel crowded after a while. Some promising story arcs are introduced and ultimately given less than full treatment because they’re competing with so many other stories.
But the major story – Coach trying to restore the pride of the Lions, and stick it to Joe McCoy – is among the most compelling season-long arcs this great, great drama has had, and all the other elements – the terrific acting, the cinematography and sense of place, the improvised quality that makes the lighter moments funnier and the darker moments more heartbreaking – are all still in place, no matter what side of town Eric Taylor works.
NBC’s deal with DirecTV runs one more season after this one, and everyone’s assuming the show will end after that. Five seasons is an entirely respectable run for a show that verged on cancellation after its first, and perhaps the DirecTV deal can point the way towards other strong but niche-appeal series lasting longer than their ratings might otherwise suggest. Fans without DirecTV have to wait longer for each season, but having seen all 13 episodes already, I can assure you that the wait will be worth it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, as many of you know, the plan with season 4 was supposed to be the same with season 3: I wrote reviews of each episode and posted them after they aired on DirecTV, and I was going to either republish or duplicate them as each episode aired on NBC. That plan, of course, was conceived before I knew I’d be leaving the old blog and coming to this one. I can’t bring the old material with me here, and since it seems silly to try to write all-new reviews of each episode – particularly since they’d be written with knowledge of everything to come in the season, when the original versions were done with me watching a week at a time – there is a new plan:
Every Friday night, I’m going to put up a brief post here linking to the old Blogspot review for that episode, so you can read what I and the DirecTV viewers had to say back in the fall, then comment here. Make sense?