Everyone knows I have been a big fan of Friday Night Lights for a number of years. I started watching the series on Hulu around season two and immediately I was hooked.
After its proprietary stint on DirectTV (which you can already see and get recaps for), FNL returns to NBC for its fourth and penultimate season tonight. You should watch, even if you haven’t been following the show: season four is the best season yet.
Newcomers should be able to jump right into the narrative. Season four hits a reset button on most of the series’ narratives. In a bold move, last season saw Coach Eric Taylor fired from coaching the Dillon Panthers, the team fans have been rooting for since episode one when star quarterback Jason Street got paralyzed in the first game. Thanks to redistricting, the town of Dillon, Texas was split in two — East and West — and largely across racial and class lines. West Dillon kept the good neighborhoods and the resources. East Dillon, of which we’d seen very little up until then, remained underfunded, predominantly black and Latino.
The fourth season starts there, with Eric coaching the East Dillon Lions, and that’s really all you need to know. Some old characters, like Landry Clarke and Matt Saracen, are back — Landry is basically broken with an out-of-his-league series regular, Tara; Matt is done with high school and going to art school locally. Instead, the show dares to introduce a slate of new characters, including Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), who we see as he grows to accept leadership and ownership over his life; Jess Merriweather and her father as they try to deal with everyone’s mess; Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) who will have several important “choices” to make; and a handful of other side characters.
My love of FNL has also been the way it artfully connects individual stories with social narratives, which is the province of the best of television. We really get to see these people — be they 15 or 40 — mature and grapple with issues like racism, sexism, class and all that good stuff. In some ways, Friday Night Lights is like The Wire, but its much more sentimental and much less concerned with showing how power manifests as with showing how people live through it. Fun! Seriously, its powerful, emotive television.
This year, the series takes its thematic preoccupations and makes them quite explicit. Through Vince, a teen just one more arrest from prison, and hisproblems with his mother and friendships, the show gives a delicate, serialized narrative about race, class and urban life in America. We see through Becky an ambitious child of a single parent and what kinds of problems they must endure. Tim Riggins and his brother get into trouble with the law in order to pay for land and healthcare. Matt Saracen once again encounters the costs of the Iraq War.
FNL is a treatise on the “forgotten” America, and I mean this in the most nuanced way possible. It’s the part of America Sarah Palin would call “real,” but she wouldn’t watch this show. Because FNL acknowledges that right next to and within those middle class white neighborhoods Palin praises are predominantly minority districts with a very different politics and relationship to this country. It also acknowledges that, far from being religiously and morally pure, America is complicated. It isn’t the land of opportunity for everyone — though it should be said FNL isn’t afraid of giving us happy endings (see Tyra Collette and Smash Williams) — and everyday Americans need to make tough decisions about what kind of country they want to live in, what ideals need to be negotiated, and how to live in an economic and legal system that doesn’t always value them.
So what can you look forward to (and not look forward to) this season? (Spoilers!)
The Best Parts:
The Individual and the State: At least three times this season we get really clear examples of the problems with neoliberalism, where the individual is meant to take on responsibility without the help of the state: Vince needing state-sponsored rehab for his mother’s drug problem; Becky’s abortion; and Brother Riggins’ healthcare issues with his pregnant wife.
A Subtler Narrative on Race: I’m a big fan of Smash Williams’ narratives in season one and two. In season four, because the community is majority-minority, we get a more lived-in narrative on race. Prior to this, the series had to concoct comparably sensational stories about white racism, which was great, except in retrospect it falls closer to Crash than The Wire. Season four is not so much sensational as it is quotidian: the daily fact of inequality. Eric Taylor is out of his comfort zone and he has to learn how to speak across racial lines (he needs black friends, and surprisingly, Buddy Garrity!); Vince’s problems are indicative of larger structures without being heavy-handed.
Matt Saracen Goes AWOL: It was refreshing to see Matt lose control; the last time he did that he was sleeping with his grandmother’s nurse, which was not as endearing.
Tim Riggins Grows Up: Everybody likes Tim Riggins, though I’ve always found him just a touch exhausting. This season, having dropped out of college, he’s much more manageable. Taking on the role of father figure for Becky and, at the behest of his weaker brother, breaking the law so he can secure a future for himself.
Real Underdogs: Even without Jason Street, the Dillon Panthers were always the best; they had a solid, well-rehearsed team. The East Dillon Lions are a true-rag-tag bunch. They really are hopeless, in the beginning. Even scoring a point becomes a challenge. Sure, Coach Eric Taylor “turns it around,” but not in an unrealistic way. The finale is as stupendous and unbelievable as it is fitting. No, they won’t go to state, and they never were headed there to begin with.
The WTFs: I really only have two beefs with this season.
Another Angry Black Kid (For No Reason): Ernest James does his best with Calvin Brown, who, sadly, is a repeat of Ray ‘Voodoo’ Tatum (Aldis Hodge). Both of them are angry black kids who are angry for seemingly no reason. Calvin is cuter and slightly more affable, but at least Voodoo had the fact that he was a Katrina refugee to provide at least a veneer of justification for his surly attitude. Calvin is almost a stereotype of gangster, sidling up to Brother Riggins for an illicit proposition, cajoling Vince to get back into crime. What’s his deal? He has no backstory.
Another Forgotten Gay: This makes me mad. Why does Peter Berg do this??? Three — yes, three — times we’ve had a character come out and then vanish into thin air. First it was Dillon’s mayor, who invited Tami and Eric over to meet her lesbian lover: we never heard boo about that again. Then it was Landry’s love interest, Devin (Stephanie Hunt), who broke his heart after revealing her own sexuality. I was happy to see FNL give us a gay man this season, in the lovable assistant coach Stan (Russell DeGrazier, who has been working in theater and film writing/directing). Julie Taylor (who apparently will be a mistress in season five!) spots him in a local gay bar on episode and then…we never hear about it again! And we barely see him. What is going on???
All in all, this is a great season for a great show. Start watching it tonight! Season five will be its last, and you’ll want to be with it when it bows out.