Judge Brendan Babish sleeps with a night light every night.
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 Second Season (published May 7th, 2008), and Friday Night Lights: The Third Season (published May 19th, 2009) are also available.
Every day counts. One night matters.
Friday Night Lights' fourth season should never have happened. Shows that struggle in the ratings don't get renewed for a fourth year—especially shows whose ratings diminish each successive year, such as FNL's. When you factor in that a majority of the show's cast from the first three seasons would be leaving or phased out for the fourth year, canceling it seemed like a no-brainer. Somehow, though, in a move that's about as rare as a double rainbow, a show was renewed almost entirely on account of its quality. (Well, that and a creative financing deal with DirecTV.) Still, everyone involved in the making of FNL must have realized how miraculous receiving a fourth year was. So, in a season that serves as a practical reboot of the series, would producers make the most of their new lease on life?
Facts of the Case
Friday Night Lights is a mosaic of life in Dillon, a middle-sized, unremarkable Texas town. There are rich and poor people, educated and uneducated people, and good and bad people. What unites them is football. High school football, in particular.
The show is anchored by Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, Early Edition) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton, who played the same role in the Friday Night Lights movie). When Coach Taylor was pushed out of the head coaching position of the more affluent West Dillon High the previous season, he took the job of head coach at the run-down East Dillon High, a school on the wrong side of the tracks. What makes that move all the more difficult is that Tami is the principal of West Dillon.
The Taylors also have a teenage daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden, For Sale By Owner), who is dealing with the dual anxieties of applying for college and dating former West Dillon quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). Matt's got his own problems: he wants to be an artist, and a provincial Texas town is not the best place to launch his career, his grandmother is suffering from early onset dementia, and his father is a soldier embedded in Iraq.
One of Coach Taylor's ex-star players, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is also struggling with life after high school. He started an auto repair shop with his brother, Billy (Derek Phillips), but with business struggling, they may need to think outside the law to make ends meet.
To help defray the cost of rent, Tim is living in the trailer in the back yard of Becky (Madison Burge), a precocious East Dillon student just beginning to explore her sexuality. Becky is one of the early fans of East Dillon's struggling football team, which is largely populated by Dillon's poor and urban residents, most of which have no experience playing organized sports. For the team's quarterback, Vince (Michael B. Jordan, The Wire), the team is both necessary for staying out of juvenile detention and staying away from his ne'er-do-well friends. The team's star running back, Luke (Matt Lauria), is one of the few white players on the team, and he experiences culture clash with several teammates. Another white player is their kicker, Landry (Jesse Plemons, Observe and Report), who transferred from West Dillon and embarks upon an unlikely romance with East Dillon's head cheerleader, Jess (Jurnee Smollett), who also happens to be Vince's ex-girlfriend.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Friday Night Lights is that it's about football. While football is a unifying force for many of the otherwise disconnected characters, the game itself has relatively little bearing on the drama. This is important because people who don't care for football tend to stay away from shows they think are about football. I was once at a dinner party and a friend's wife told me her favorite show was Friday Night Lights—and that she hates football. Out of boredom she had watched an episode on an airplane's in-flight entertainment programming and found herself brought to tears.
As much as the show is not, and never has been, about football, the game probably has the least amount of relevance on the fourth season than on any other. This is a good thing. There is only so much drama you can wring out of a football game, but the off-the-field options are limitless. In FNL's fourth season, Coach Taylor's team stinks, his players are undisciplined, and most characters are more concerned with putting their lives together than actually winning a game.
While none of the characters of the first three seasons of FNL were rich, this is the first time the show has depicted the poor, urban teenagers who turn to football for an escape. It ends up being both a canny reinvention of the show, but also providing the dramatic heft that makes this the only network show to rival cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, combining with these two to make up the holy trinity of great dramas.
While the series continues to revolve around Coach Taylor and Tami, their stories are largely in support of other, nominally supporting characters, and they are the ones who make the stories so wrenching and powerful.
While it's tempting to name an MVP of the season, the truth is that characters tend to own episodes. Matt Saracen took some minor missteps early in the season when he apprentices with a local artist, but when he is beset by a family tragedy it makes for some of the most affecting drama on television. Gilford is so good you almost feel guilty for spying on someone going through the most painful moments of their life in front of you. This is acting you aren't used to seeing on television; this is the kind of intimacy you usually only get in the theater.
Tim Riggins is another supporting character who's been around for the entire four seasons, but really comes into his own this year. Watching him struggle with life outside of football pads can be amusing (as when he sleeps with a bartender who has a daughter in high school), but there are also great amounts of pathos in this character we've gotten to know over so many years. In the beginning of the series, Riggins could be dismissed as quiet and dumb, but this season he is probably the strongest character. His highs and lows are blissful and heartbreaking, but over the course of the year there is probably no one who grows more.
Tim spends most of FNL's fourth season living in a trailer behind the house of Becky, who is probably the most immature character on the show, but has one of the soberest subplots when she gets pregnant. Teen pregnancy is a brave—though not unheard of—subject for a show to tackle, but this is probably the most mature handling of it I've ever seen.
Ultimately, one could write a book (kind of like Buzz Bissinger's, which this show was inspired by) on FNL's fourth season. With a truncated schedule of thirteen episodes, producers crammed each with enough story and subtext for a movie. One of the few criticisms of the season is things sometimes seem a little rushed (especially the football-centric subplots), but what is presented is so well written, acted, and directed, there is no appropriate response other than standing up and cheering.
Friday Night Lights is a gritty show, often shot with a handheld (read: shaky) camera in natural light, and the picture quality is not meant to be pristine. It's a little difficult then to give the video a rating; the screen can be grainy and the contrasts of the night scenes can get murky, but this seems to be nearly always intentional, and adds to the intimacy of the drama. This is not a show that glorifies its setting or your television screen, but it certainly is far from distracting. In fact, the cinematography is a great asset, and the DVD picture shows this off to great effect.
Another unheralded strength of the show is its soundtrack. Not necessarily the roar of the crowds or the sounds of in-game action (both of which are fair, but hardly pulse-pounding), but the music. Just about every episode features two or three musical cues from contemporary musicians (most of which you've probably never heard of) to pitch-perfect effect. Any music lover is going to be scanning the credits of every episode to see who the featured musical artists are. One of the most transcendent moments of the season—probably of the series—occurs at the end of episode twelve, "Laboring," with a montage of the characters over Dan Auerbach's song "When the Night Comes." I immediately downloaded the track off iTunes and listening to it now still gives me chills. So while the soundtrack is not as dynamic or bombastic as a Hollywood blockbuster, it is effective in augmenting the story without ever getting in the way.
The DVDs also come with a nice slew of extras. Each episode comes with deleted scenes (which are surprisingly substantial). There are also three behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentary, and intros from the show's creator (and director of the feature film Friday Night Lights) Peter Berg.
It is unfortunate that one of the best shows on television—and perhaps one of the best dramas ever made—has such a small audience. I understand the commitment of four seasons of FNL might be daunting for a newbie, but if you just want to begin with this season you won't be lost. The fourth season is a reboot for the show and its characters, and can be a great launch point for anyone who hasn't yet tuned in. Even better, if you start watching in the next few months you can be caught up in time for the fifth (and final) season's premier this October.
This one sails right through the uprights. It's good!
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