TV: Friday Night Lights (Season 4)

A show I didn’t mention in yesterday’s round-up is Friday Night Lights; I finished season four a couple weeks ago. This is a fantastic show, so I figured I’d give it its own post.

One of the problems with television shows set in high school is that the characters usually graduate after a few seasons, forcing the writers to either reboot the show or contrive reasons to keep them around. Friday Night Lights handles this dilemma skillfully by doing a little of both in its fourth year, and while it doesn’t quite match the show’s best seasons, it’s still pretty damn good.

The series makes a gutsy move at the end of season three: political issues with the boosters make Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) the odd man out for the Dillon Panthers, and thanks to redistricting he finds himself in charge of the new, financially strapped East Dillon football program. In previous seasons, the coach faced the pressure of leading one of the best football programs in the state, and everything that meant to the community; now he barely has a team, and has to build that community from the ground up. It’s a gutsy move for the show, and it proves to be a smart reinvention, paying off particularly well in the season’s early episodes. Suddenly this isn’t a show about winning under pressure; it’s about finding meaning in teamwork and competing, even when there isn’t much hope of success. Adding to the pressure is that Eric’s wife Tami (Connie Britton) is still the principal at West Dillon, which leads to some controversial situations.

With a brand new team and many of the old players gone, the show introduces some new characters. The football stars for the Lions turn out to be Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) and Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria), the two most promising players from the wrong side of the tracks. Vince struggles against the criminal friendships of his youth, and taking care of his drug-addled mother, while Luke sees football as a way out of his dead-end farm life.

Meanwhile, a couple of former Panthers haven’t quite made it out of Dillon: Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) sticks around to be with his girlfriend Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) and take care of his grandmother, while Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) can’t keep it together at college and returns to go into business with his brother Billy and befriend a troubled young latch-key kid named Becky (Madison Burge). Landry Clark (Jesse Plemons) is also still on hand for his senior year, mainly for comic relief, and also enters into an odd relationship with Jess (Jurnee Smollett), whose father is a lapsed football fanatic.

The new characters, the cross-town rivalry, and the shift in focus away from wealthy winners to financially strapped losers help freshen the show’s formula, even as it maintains its trademark sense of humor, realistic relationships, and compelling story-telling. Matt’s story arc this season provides Zach Gilford with his finest moments on the show, and Connie Britton also shines throughout, particularly in the later episodes. The football action and team-building is as compelling as ever, with Coach Taylor’s inspirational mentoring of Vince and Luke standing out. (And with Jordan and Lauria, the show hits it out of the park with its new football stars.)

On the other hand, the show does rather blatantly drift into issues-driven storylines — the perils and challenges of drugs, abortion, interracial relationships — that, while not quite as sensationalistic as some of season two’s business, still felt a little over-calculated at times. Dillon’s east-side “criminal underground” business feels a little like watered-down The Wire. I didn’t find the Landry-Jess relationship all that convincing, and Becky’s crush on Tim — while well executed — gets a little long in the tooth.

For the most part these aren’t debilitating issues, though, and probably just a matter of an older show searching around for material. On the whole they manage to build it all into the framework of the Friday Night Lights I’ve grown to love, and if this was a bleaker season than some of the earlier ones, it’s still powerful and addictive TV, which generally delivers at least one hugely inspirational moment per episode; pretty impressive for a show this late in the game. Can’t wait for season five!

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