Judge Jennifer Malkowski finds weekly glory under Tuesday night lights—benchwarming at her community softball game.
Our reviews of Friday Night Lights (published February 1st, 2005), Friday Night Lights (Blu-Ray) (published January 12th, 2009), Friday Night Lights: The Fifth Season (published April 5th, 2011), Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season (published August 17th, 2010), and Friday Night Lights: The Second Season (published May 7th, 2008) are also available.
Clear eyes, full heart—can't lose?
A lot of fans of Friday Night Lights probably have the same story as I do about how they fell in love with the series. A friend told me I had to watch it, and I shot back, "Isn't that the show about high school football in Texas???" Let me contextualize this scenario by telling you that I'm a left-wing, California lesbian who's never watched a whole game of football in her life. So like a sitcom odd couple, FNL and I started our courtship and, lo and behold, I really did fall hard for the series.
After two seasons, the honeymoon should be over. So with most of the main characters graduated or graduating, does Friday Night Lights: The Third Season still woo me like it once did?
Facts of the Case
***Spoiler Alert!*** I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Three.
With Season Two's ending amputated by the writers' strike, we've got a lot of catching up to do as Season Three dawns. We're quickly informed that star tailback "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles, Toe to Toe) hurt his knee badly during the previous football season's playoffs and the Dillon Panthers promptly fell apart. Returning without another state championship under his belt, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, King Kong) is feeling the pressure from the townsfolk of football-crazed Dillon, Texas. So is sheepish quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford, Dare), who's got all his usual problems—an absentee mother, a father fighting in Iraq, a grandmother with dementia he has to care for—and also has an upstart freshman quarterback, J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter, Peter Pan), gunning for his job. Bad boy Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), by contrast, is still sailing through life with a beer in one hand, a football in the other, and a pretty girl somewhere in between. This season, the pretty girl in question is his star-crossed lover of episodes past, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly, (500) Days of Summer), who has moved in with her wacky, scheming dad Buddy (Brad Leland, Texas Chainsaw Massacre). A few yards farther removed from the football field, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton, 24), the coach's wife, has been promoted to principal of the team's high school. And tough-but-vulnerable loudmouth Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki, Women in Trouble) has once again dumped her brainy, outsider boyfriend Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons, Observe and Report), who anticipates another season of benchwarming for the Panthers.
Friday Night Lights: The Third Season includes all 13 episodes, on four discs:
• "Tami Knows Best"
• "How the Other Half Lives"
• "Hello, Goodbye"
• "It Ain't Easy Being J.D. McCoy"
• "Keeping Up Appearances"
• "Game of the Week"
• "The Giving Tree"
• "Tomorrow Blues"
So what is it that makes Friday Night Lights so gosh-darn irresistible, despite subject matter that doesn't capture my interest? It's partly that the writers of the show are willing to interrogate the true benefits and costs of football to the characters and town of Dillon, rather than just accepting it as the shining sun around which all of life revolves. They demonstrated this willingness right from the beginning of the first season when they committed to a long-running storyline in which paralyzed quarterback Jason tries to find meaning in life after football. They continue this nuanced view in the third season, with plots about the school losing teachers while the football team gets expensive new equipment, a proposed redistricting that prioritizes keeping the team together over the needs of students, and a community power structure that rewards Mr. McCoy's wealth and threats rather than Coach Taylor's honor and hard work. The writers are also willing to frame football as a stepping stone, a way for low-income kids from West Texas to get to college rather than the be-all and end-all of their lives. And it's always refreshing to have characters like Tyra and Julie around, who couldn't care less about the game, and even to see Matt pursue art rather than sports in his college plans. Always keeping one eye off the game, the series can also acknowledge the positive influence the Panthers, and especially Coach Taylor, has had on the lives of these teens. Tami puts it best when she cheers the Coach up: "I know you're gonna say it's corny, but you are a molder of men. And I find that admirable. And I find that sexy." In short, FNL is about a town obsessed with football, but it doesn't fully surrender to the sport's seduction itself.
That being said, it also manages to make watching football compelling to those of us who aren't sports fans. When the Panthers win, I get excited, and when they lose, I feel just as heartbroken as their biggest fan, Buddy Garrity. It's not because I'm backing the team, as one would a hometown pro sports team, but because the writers always manage to create something personal at stake for characters we truly care about in the outcome of each game. Take the game in "How the Other Half Lives," for example. It's Friday night and QB Matt Saracen has to prove that he deserves his job, has to win the game to fend off the ambitious J.D. who is trying to replace him. If you've watched Matt for the previous two seasons, you've seen this sweet kid take care of his grandmother all alone, get his heart broken, and slowly become convinced that he's a worthwhile person because he can throw a nice pass, can lead a team to victory. The game progresses and Matt takes a pounding for the team, getting tackled hard time and again, but completing his passes and putting points on the board. Everything comes down to the final play when the Panthers need a touchdown to win. Matt runs the ball down the field, pushing past several defenders and finally lunging for the endzone to muscle through the last opposing player. A cheer goes up from the Panther fans as he makes it, but then they see that Matt has let the ball slip from his hands. No touchdown, Panthers lose. In the stands, we see J.D.'s parents smirk in barely-supressed glee as Matt fails, and Matt himself sits crumpled in the endzone, lacking the will to get up and leave the field.
Take away our unwavering investment in this character, the achingly earnest performance of actor Zach Gilford, and the way FNL's crew crafts sequences like these into audiovisual gems, and you'd have just another familiar sports narrative. But it's these pitch-perfect successes with character and style that elevate the series' sports stories above the clichés we've seen in so many other films and TV shows.
What sells the Matt-in-the-endzone moment is all the character development that's led up to it, and FNL is a series that pursues solid character development as resolutely as the Panthers pursue their championship. What we see in Matt's case is the effective, surprising fragility of these tough Texan football players. Despite appearances and endless reservoirs of determination, everyone here is vulnerable—even breakable—which keeps us on the edges of our seats as we watch their personal lives unfold. I did a lot of gasping this season—when Matt shows up at his mom's door, when Mr. McCoy erupts at his son, or when threatening citizens post "For Sale" signs on Coach Taylor's lawn after he loses a game—and also a lot of tearing up, I'll admit. Unlike the disappointingly alienated second season, the warmth and human connection we felt among these characters in Season One is definitely present in this set. Truly heartwarming moments sprinkle these thirteen episodes: Smash finally gets his ticket to college and stops by to give the coach a sincere thanks, Billy and Jason put together a highlight reel for Tim in which all the people in his life give him heartfelt affirmation, Matt reconnects with Julie and the show's most endearing couple is restored, Tyra finds a future outside of Dillon's rut, and tough Tim Riggins gets tears in his eyes as he watches Jason find his happy ending on his girlfriend's doorstep in New Jersey.
Fans should also be excited to watch another couple reunited: Tim and Lyla. Fewer sparks fly than expected, and it turns out that Tim is a pretty good boyfriend. In addition to amping up the comedy this season (watch for not one, but two hilarious instances in which Tim utters the phrase "I'm pregnant") Taylor Kitsch proves his range with his genuine sweetness toward Lyla, who thankfully is back among the fallen after her born-again plot last season. When she gets mad at him about shirking off college opportunities, he redeems himself by following up with the college recruiter and then delivering a charming apology to Lyla: "1. I'm sorry. 2. I mean it. I'm really sorry. 3. Thank you. 4. I wanna go celebrate, and I only wanna celebrate with you because I wouldn't be here without you. 5. Say yes." Also in the character department, though we don't have many new characters this season, those added serve the storyline well, with the McCoys becoming useful antagonists and bringing class issues more to the forefront of the show.
But the best characters on Friday Night Lights are the parents, Eric and Tami. Pretty shocking for a teen drama, huh? Though Eric can be stubborn and even chauvinistic at times (see his attitude toward hosting the team's party in "How the Other Half Lives"), he is ultimately a stand-up guy who will never let the people he cares about down. A man of few words, he's always ready with a gruff, passionate little pep talk for his players—even in their non-football pursuits. It's amusing, for example, to watch Coach Taylor transform into Life Coach Taylor when he tries to motivate Jason in his house-flipping endeavor. At home, too, he manages to comfort his family with just a phrase or two. When Tami is despairing about her feud with the Booster Club, he supports her decision without question, even though it would deprive his team of a Jumbo-Tron: "You're right, they're wrong," he says. Plus, you've got to love (what I can only describe as) Coach Taylor's angry muppet face, which shows up just about every episode:
Even better than Eric is Tami, who captures the same strength and dependability with a touch more warmth and humor. She plays parent to all the kids on the show when they need it most, as in a touching scene she shares with a dejected Landry. She tells him kindly, "Here's the thing, and I know it's probably not easy to see this here in Dillon, but you are at the beginning of your life. A lot of these football heroes around here, they're not gonna get much further than this. But you are gonna go to some great college, you're gonna have a career that you love, and I'm telling you right now: women are gonna flock to you…You are a good person and this is just the beginning. I'm right 100 percent of the time—you can ask my husband." Despite their occasional feuds, Eric and Tami share a rock-solid bond that forms the core of the show, and that Chandler and Britton convey beautifully. Other than their vaguely puritanical ideas about sex, Eric and Tami are the parents every kid wants to have—or maybe the parents every kid realizes they really wanted once they grow up and figure out what's important in life.
Rounding out the list of things that are great about Friday Night Lights is the show's audiovisual presentation, which is nicely rendered on this DVD set from Universal. FNL goes for a gritty, documentary look, so you will see some grain in the visuals here, but it's well-used. The bright blue Panther uniforms and the green of the field under those Friday night lights come through vividly, too—though most of Dillon appropriately features a more muted color palette. The audio track satisfies, as well, with the wonderful theme by W.G. Snuffy Walden (the mastermind of My So-Called Life's equally exciting credits music) surging over the opening credits. My only complaints in the A/V department are that the shaky, handheld camera style is way overused in this series (what does it add when people are having a calm, sit-down conversation anyway?) and that there are a few too many inspirational music cues.
As for extras, we get a substantial set of deleted scenes from 11 of the 13 episodes. Though most of these are not integral to the plots, they are surprisingly good, and feature some great lines that one wishes could have made it into the episodes. As Lyla and Billy fight about the ridiculous copper wire heist, for example, they shout:
Lyla: "That is not how you fix things, Billy!" Billy: "How do you fix things, Lyla? Through prayer?…Sometimes maybe the answer to prayer is some spools of copper wire!"
Coach Mac gets a nice line, too, when he gives Eric some unwelcome advice about the ladies: "Let me tell you somethin' about women, Eric. I've been watchin' a lotta Oprah lately and the only time no means no is when it's about sex." Toward the end of the season, especially, as the episodes get crowded, we're treated to some great scenes from the cutting room floor, like Matt sharing a loving moment with his mom. There's also one commentary track in which two executive producers talk us through the season finale. Their conversation is animated and interesting, with lots of tidbits about the narrative construction of the episode (like the choice to structure the finale around a wedding instead of a football game) and praise for the actors. I had hoped for a few more special features—maybe some interviews or a making-of featurette—and indeed this set decreases the extras since last season, when we also got a few commentary tracks with the cast.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are far fewer exceptions to Friday Night Lights's overall quality this season than last season, but a few weak points get on my nerves. "New York, New York," despite its great ending, is a mostly wasted episode with Jason's silly scheme being rewarded and a lot of "who cares" emotional scenes between him and a former teammate or him and a sports agent he admires. Though her college storyline is pretty good, Tyra again draws the short straw on plots with her multi-episode dalliance with the cowboy. And one wonders what on earth happened to Santiago, the hard-luck ex-con player introduced last season. With him (the Latino character) gone and only brief appearances from Smash (the African-American character) and Jason (the disabled character), FNL also seemed to lose all of its diversity—which it had occasionally built interesting stories around.
Drama on the football field in FNL's third season was almost surpassed by the drama of whether there would be a fourth. But the creators' clear eyes and full hearts brought this series another "W"—two actually! Coach Taylor and (some of) the gang will be back for another two seasons of this enthralling show, at least.
Guilty of making me care about football—at least the fictional kind that gets supplemented with lots of drama and romance.
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