‘Friday Night Lights’ – ‘Kingdom’: Road trip

Senior Television Writer
05.13.11 55 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.)

A review of tonight’s “Friday Night Lights” coming up just as soon as I grill meat in my office…

“Coach, are we there yet?” -Hastings
“Nope. We’re getting there. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there.” -Coach

Because the DirecTV cuts tend to be a bit longer than what NBC has room to air, I’m going to be curious to see how much – if any – of the episode’s best, most important scene winds up in the NBC version many months from now. It’s the scene where Luke joins Vince out on the balcony, and then they’re joined by Tinker and then Hastings, and the guys just tell jokes and swap stories and reminisce about shared moments, all with Coach sitting a few feet away on his own patio, obscured by the hotel’s architecture, just listening to what’s become the core of his growing team.

The scene runs a little over three minutes, which may not seem like much but is an eternity in TV storytelling time, particularly for something that doesn’t seem to move along any ongoing storylines of note, nor feature  any major character revelations. But those three minutes represent everything that the episode is about – which is how this odd group thrown together by circumstance is becoming a real team, one that’s a pleasant surprise to Coach and a pretty brutal surprise to the teams they’ve beat so far this year.

This isn’t the team Eric had to keep off the field for their own good in the previous game against these guys. Luke isn’t bitter about his forced transfer, Vince isn’t questioning his orders (not much, anyway), Tinker has turned out to be a stabilizing influence, etc. The team has become such a close, positive group that even Buddy Jr. has found himself a home there in short order, and has a night that’s both painful (the big hit in the game, getting branded like the others) and wonderful (having Hastings stand up for him on the field, getting to keep that girl’s lipstick as a memento).

Sometimes, “Friday Night Lights” gets so caught up in its big stories – Coach is taking another job! Becky needs an abortion! Lance is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list! – that it misses out on those small moments that can make the show so special. That’s been particularly true of these 13-episode DirecTV seasons, but “Kingdom” was just overflowing with wonderful small moments: not only the balcony scene, but the guys peeing by the roadside in a long line, or Eric letting crazy Stan do that thing he does with the whistle (and Stan thanking him), or Billy overdoing it with the walkthrough. With the team all on the road together, with Tami reduced to a couple of brief scenes, and with Becky absent for a week(*), we got an episode that was almost entirely about football culture in general and the culture of this team in particular, and it was just a pleasure to watch.

(*) And, yes, there was also a Julie subplot, of which the less said about it, the better. If the point of all that stuff with the sleazy TA was to send her home for a while so Aimee Teegarden wasn’t off in her own show, I’d have rather they just invented some wonderful school that’s only 20 minutes away from Dillon, ala how “Cougar Town” has dealt with Travis. (And Travis even has the actor who plays Tinker as his roommate.)

Though the series isn’t entirely about football, the team and the swirl around it is what makes everything else matter. It’s the foundation, and every now and then the show needs to work on that foundation, and “Kingdom” did that beautifully. Now when Vince’s father inevitably crosses a line in dealing with college recruiters, and/or Luke gets upset to realize he’s just a pawn TMU is using to get Vince(**), and/or Buddy Jr. has future struggles on the team and in the town, we’ll have a much stronger sense of where everyone stands in position to everyone else.

(**) When the last episode aired, a few of you suggested that it’s not uncommon for a school to recruit the less-talented teammate of the guy they really want as an easy way to entice him to come to their school. Eric’s reaction, though, suggests that TMU is going to use Luke and then not actually offer him a scholarship, and that doesn’t make sense to me. Why would Vince (who at this stage of high school can only give a verbal commitment) want to go to a school that screwed over his buddy in that way?

There wasn’t a powerhouse moment in this one akin to anything Zach Gilford did last year in “The Son,” but “Kingdom” may be my favorite episode of the show since that one.

What did everybody else think?

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