Reminder: Friday Night Lights Premieres On NBC Tonight!

If you haven’t already had a chance to check out Season Four of Friday Night Lights, either because you don’t have DirecTV or you have some weird ethical qualms about watching TV illegally , then do yourself a favor and watch or record it on NBC tonight at 8 PM. The show has already been picked up for a fifth season, so this isn’t even a “please help its ratings” post. I only ask because I care about you and want you to experience something great. Back in February I called this season the best of the show to date. Here is the review in full, though it does contain spoilers:

A few times before, I’ve used a season-ending review to claim that the most recent season of a great show has not been up to the standards of the show. While I stand by those claims, I do acknowledge that there is a natural tendency to romanticize the past and, as a result, unfairly denigrate the present.

Which is why it is so refreshing to watch a season of television like Season Four of Friday Night Lights, which took an already very good show and made it great. The most recent season (which concluded last week on DirecTV, and will begin airing on NBC tonight) of FNL was by far the best season of a show already considered by some to be a classic.

I’ve said before that my opinions of the first season of the show (and the first three seasons in general) were not as high as some others: FNL was a very good high school drama, innovative in that it actually focused on a small, economically struggling, town; but it got some undeserved credit for penetrating things like race, class, and other serious issues, when it really didn’t do those things all that well. This actually made it easier to accept some of the show’s more outlandish creative turns in Season Two.

But Season Four actually deserves most of the credit that Season One got—and it had some pretty heavy odds stacked against it. Ever since NBC reached its deal with DirecTV after Season Two—in which the satellite network picked up some of the show’s production costs and was able to air the show earlier in return—FNL has operated with a limited budget and only 13 episodes. In Season Three, the show had to get rid of two regular characters (Jason Street and Smash Williams), and this season the show had to lose an even more significant part of the show (Matt Saracen). In addition to this already sizable setback, the writers decided to end last season on a decidedly final note (probably due to the fact that it wasn’t clear whether the series would be renewed): Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, of Early Edition fame), the star and center of the entire series, was fired from his job as head coach of the Dillon Panthers, and given the unenviable job of resuscitating a dead football program over at the new East Dillon High School, in the—shall we say “undesirable”?—part of town (ironically, Taylor gets the job at the inferior school after gerrymandering the district so that all the best players stay at West Dillon).

As with most great shows, though, the creative “corners” the show found itself in actually made itexpand the scope of its story. The show retained the things that had made it so strong initially–the great relationship between Coach Taylor and his wife, the realistic dialogue and natural depiction of high school students, and the impressive visual elements of the show–but the show used the “limitations” of fewer episodes and a reduced to budget to add increasing layers to the show. For one, having to say goodbye to certain actors and characters allowed them to stop playing games with the characters’ ages and actually give the high school students on the show an appropriate send-off. The exits of Street and Smash in Season Three were handled well, but it was this season’s exit of Matt Saracen that was truly brilliant.

Matt (Zach Gilford) has always been the most relatable and easily likable player on the show, particularly for non-football fans. He is charming and smart; he takes care of his senile grandmother while his father is in Iraq; he likes football, but it is not the only good thing in his life. In the show’s pilot episode, it is Matt who is thrust into the spotlight after Street, the Panthers star quarterback, is injured (and Saracen promptly throws the ball into his lineman’s head).

So Matt’s exit is a lot harder to take than Street’s or Smash’s, since both of those characters had few connections to the rest of the cast by the time of their departures. And yet the show handled it almost perfectly. For one, it was faithful to Matt’s character in the motivations for him staying. Despite his scholarship to art school in Chicago at the end of Season Three, he stayed out of loyalty to his sick grandmother and his love for his girlfriend Julie (the only flaw in this story in Season Four was that the show kind of ignored Matt’s loyalty to Grandma Saracen, falsely implying that he only stayed for Julie). Of course, once this season opens, and Matt is confronted with the reality of life in Dillon after high school—where he spends his time delivering pizzas instead of engineering brilliant last-minute comebacks—it’s clear that he is stifled by Dillon.

As usual with Friday Night Lights, this is all handled pretty delicately, with Matt quietly persevering out of obligation to his loved ones, until he finds out that his father has died. The episode dealing with the death of Matt’s father, “The Son,” was simply outstanding. Nobody on the show (and few people on television) has given a better performance than Zach Gilford gave in that episode. From the opening shots of him alone in his bedroom, watching old tapes of his father, to the shot of his face when he sees his dad’s body, to the final images of Matt’s bloody hands while he buries his father’s casket, everything about that episode was so beautiful and poignant that it made it much easier to say goodbye to the character.

It’s also easier to say goodbye to Matt since the show introduced such a rich cast of newer characters. Adding a slate of new characters to a high school show is both necessary (since older character graduate) and hard to do well (I’m looking at you, Season Two of The O.C.), but FNL did it well in pretty much all four cases. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of actors added was Michael B. Jordan, best known as Wallace from The Wire (link contains spoilers); it’s more or less proven that adding actors from The Wire is going to make your show better.* Jordan’s character, Vince, became both the breakout player on the new East Dillon Lions and the entry point for the show to explore East Dillon.

*Although how the show could add Jordan and then include Larry Gilliard, Jr. (D’Angelo Barksdale) as a guest star WITHOUT giving the two screen time together is beyond me. Is it too much to have Gilliard’s character, whatever his role is, scream “Where the fuck is Wallace?!” in ONE scene? This is almost as bad as Juno putting Michael Cera and Jason Bateman in the same movie but not putting them together in a single scene.

East Dillon, the heavily black, crime-ridden, part of Dillon, was essentially invented this season. Unless I’m mistaken, there was no mention of this side of Dillon until the end of Season Three. Smash was black, and he went to a different church than the other players, but there were few hints of his life being enmeshed in crime and drugs, and no real evidence that he was any worse off economically than most of the white players. East Dillon, however, might as well be West Baltimore.

This may seem like a flaw, but it actually allowed the show to approach more interesting topics directly. The subject of race and football was always one the show had dealt with implicitly, andwhen it did so explicitly, it usually failed. The tension between Tim Riggins and Smash that was mentioned in the series’ opening episodes, and which certainly had a racial subtext, was quickly dropped without much mention. The whole “racist coach” story from Season One was handled more or less like an after-school special. Even the “Smash dates a white girl” story in Season Two didn’t go anywhere that interesting.

But Vince was a character that allowed the show to be more direct. As soon as he is introduced, we know that Vince has had trouble with the law, and we soon learn that his mother is a drug addict. He is also incredibly athletic and, as we eventually learn, a good kid. But the show earns these layers—it doesn’t just give a few heartwarming scenes of Vince being a nice guy. Vince struggles with how to deal with his mother, doesn’t ever fully trust Coach Taylor, and is uncertain about how to react to his ex-girlfriend, Jess (played by former Full House guest star, Jurnee Smollett), dating a white teammate (the continually dating-out-of-his-league Landry). The conclusion of his storyline this season, in which his attempts to get his mother into rehab threaten his progress with the team show that, as usual, FNL is not afraid to be heartbreakingly realistic at the same time it is unwaveringly sympathetic to its characters.

Vince’s feud with fellow teammate Luke (Matt Lauria, another new addition) also allowed the show to do what it should have done with the Smash/Tim feud. The show didn’t dwell on it for too long—it was basically given one episode—but it was clear that the two players didn’t like or trust one another, and that race had a lot to do with it. The story was simple—Luke’s wallet is missing; he assumes Vince took it; Vince denies it; fighting ensues—but effective. The scene in which Vince casually hands Luke his wallet after Coach Taylor has forced both of them to walk home in the middle of the night was a great example of the show using no dialogue at all to illustrate its point: These two haven’t healed all wounds and they aren’t going to magically become friends (as Smash and Tim did), but they can stop hassling each other and accept being teammates.

Maybe the most surprising development of the new season, though, was how well it handled the last of its four new additions, Madison Burge as Becky. Becky’s introduction, as the daughter of Tim’s latest one-night stand, was the least auspicious of all the new characters. It seemed as if she was merely there to be jailbait for Tim as he tried to get over the departure of Lyla (who left him for Derek Jeter). Becky also had virtually no connection to the football team*, which is often ominous on this show. Nevertheless, by the time Matt left the show, I ended up finding the Tim/Becky relationship to be FNL‘s strongest plotline. Burge played Becky as ebullient and innocent; like few actresses playing a 16-year-old, she actually made Becky seem 16.

*Vince and Luke played for East Dillon; Jess dated Landry and tried to get her dad, a star for East Dillon before the school was closed in the 1980s, to support the renewed team despite his lost love of football. There weren’t any problems with Jess’ story or character, and her love triangle was done rather well, but this was probably the weakest story of the season. Still, it’s a pretty strong weak link.

Also, the show never seriously implied that Tim was romantically interested in her, treating her more like the young girl with a crush that she really was. This did an excellent job of showing Tim’s maturation process.

The crux of this plot was the pregnancy storyline over the last few episodes. Most reviews that I have read have praised this story while trying to remain neutral on the political issue, but I don’t think it really does the show justice. What the show did so adeptly was treat the issue of abortion like theserious complicated issue it is. When Tim takes Becky to see Tami Taylor, his former principal, for advice, Becky asks her, “What if I don’t want to have the baby?” Based on where the story went, I don’t know if it was intentional, but I thought Connie Britton did an excellent job of conveying Taylor as conflicted: She clearly doesn’t want this girl to have an abortion, but she knows she has to look out for Becky. It makes sense that Taylor, a religious woman from Texas, would at least be ambivalent on the subject of abortion.

Becky ultimately does get the abortion, in a decision that most pregnant teenagers make, even if almost no pregnant teenaged television characters make it (according to Tim, they wouldn’t even air the abortion episode of DeGrassi in the US). The show, however, handles it with nuance and care. While remaining sympathetic to Becky, the show follows every agonizing part of the decision, andillustrates the ramifications. Based on how the show depicts the fallout, in which the potential grandmother of Becky’s baby tries to get Tami Taylor fired for “counseling a student to have an abortion,” you could reasonably argue that FNL had a pro-choice agenda, but I think it was clear that the show was primarily loyal to the story. It was actually enough to get me, as a viewer with no strong opinions on the issue, to think hard about the stakes of the decision.

Throughout Becky’s whole ordeal, though, Tim is there for her. This season, probably the last season for Tim on the show (since Taylor Kitsch’s movie career is flourishing), may have cemented his status as my favorite dramatic television character ever, not including The Wire. Whether Riggins was talking Matt through life in Dillon in “A Sort of Homecoming,” brooding over Lyla in “Stay,” counseling Becky in “I Can’t,” or talking his brother Billy through the birth of his son in “Laboring,” Kitsch played Riggins with charm, depth, and maturity. That last quality is important, because Tim’s maturity this season was what made the character so great. Tim has always been a funny, charming character, but too often his stories involved drinking too much or trying to have sex with someone. This season more or less stayed away from both of those things, but still found compelling stories for his character. His final story saw the chop shop that his brother started and got him involved in uncovered by the cops. Tim’s decision to take the fall for his brother so Billy could raise his new son was tragic, poignant, and totally consistent with his character. After all, Tim Riggins is Batman (“I can do those things, because I’m not a hero.”).

The next season of FNL will now officially be the show’s last. Viewers can probably tell where the show is going to go: East Dillon will be better, and the show will revolve around Vince’s continued attempts to stay clean and go to college. Meanwhile, the show will probably see less of Landry, Julie, and Tim. Whatever happens in Season Five, though, Friday Night Lights has finally lived up to its potential in Season Four.

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