One of television’s finest series returns to NBC tonight, as the network begins airing the 4th season of Friday Night Lights. The 13 episodes that make up this season already aired last fall on Direct TV (as a part of a financial deal between the two media giants), however, this particular season is so splendid, I will be DVR’ing it all over again and re-watching what may be their best season.
When FNL left off last year, Coach Eric Taylor (the exceptional Kyle Chandler) was fired from coaching his championship West Dillon Panthers. He was given a consolation prize: revive the football team at the run down, East Dillon High. Coach Taylor accepted the challenge and this season, he embarks on creating something from nothing. This major story shift not only reboots the series in a wonderful new direction, but also revives the drama and spirit of the show that we’ve all come to love.
While Coach Taylor struggles to piece together a group of players and get them to act as a team, his lovely wife, Tami (the stunning and fierce Connie Britton), remains the principal at West Dillon. The wealthy citizens of West Dillon, whose deep pockets fund the football program, are constantly testing her loyalties throughout the course of the season.
Zach Gilford’s soulful Matt Saracen is featured in the first half of the season, struggling to come to terms with the decision he made to not attend college in Chicago and stay behind in Dillon. The young man discovers that having a high school girlfriend and trying to find a legitimate art school in small town Texas is harder than he thought. Matt continually second-guesses himself, in particular his relationship with Julie, the Taylor’s lovely daughter (played by Aimee Teegarden).
Speaking of Julie, she transfers to East Dillon as the city lines are redefined. As she prepares to head to college, the girl finds herself torn between her first love, Matt, and her future, which could take her far away from Texas.
FNL Fan favorites Landry Clarke (an excellent Jesse Plemons) and Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) are back. Landry becomes involved with Jess (Jurnee Smollett) one of his classmates at East Dillon High. Jess’ father is an alum of East Dillon; he’s played by Steve Harris (The Practice). Buddy finds himself torn between his loaylty to his alma mater, West Dillon High, and his friendship to Coach Taylor. His decision will please all FNL fans. Taylor Kitsch also returns as Tim Riggins. Most of Riggins’ story this season is on the periphery. But Riggins story may be the most heartbreaking out of any of the ones we see this season. Kitsch’s performance is one of the best of TV this year.
By shifting the focus of the series to the new school the producers were able to organically introduce new characters to replace several of the actors who did not return as full time players this year.
Vince Howard is an inner city kid who lives with his single mom, a drug addict. Football is his way out to avoid a life of crime, but the drug dealers he grew up with keep trying to lure him back into the game. Vince is played by Michael B. Jordan, who some of you may recognize from tragic turn as Wallace on the first season of The Wire. Jordan is exceptional as a boy trying to do the right thing but constantly faced with trouble.
Matt Lauria is impressive as Luke Cafferty. A talented young running back, Luke was penciled to be an integral component of the West Dillon offense. With the city lines redrawn, he finds himself at East Dillon. However, Luke doesn’t complain; he accepts his fate and decides that he will make the best of his new situation. Luke gradually becomes the heart of the East Dillon football team and Lauria is excellent in the role.
Finally, Madison Burge is the young ingénue, Becky, a smart, pretty girl who becomes involved with Luke, but falls in love with the older Riggins, who moves into a trailer outside her house. To Riggins credit, he won’t allow anything to happen with Becky because of her age. This doesn’t make her pain any easier to watch. I had never heard of Burge before this season of FNL but she provides the right combination of naïveté and spunk to replace the maturing Julie, who has become wise beyond her years since the show began.
The main reason to watch this show remains the interaction between Chandler and Britton as the married Taylors. It’s rare to see a real portrayal of a working marriage on television these days. Chandler and Britton, have been together for four seasons, are so comfortable and work so beautifully together that you sometimes forget that they’re actors. When this series winds down for good next year, I will sorely miss them on television. Thank God for Netflix streaming every episode of this show!
As always, everything about FNL is pitch perfect. All aspects of the production, the writing, direction, W.G. Snuffy’s haunting score, the Americana music selections that play on the soundtrack and the casting, are all right up there with those award winning series you hear all about like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Grey’s Anatomy. Sadly, FNL doesn’t get the love it deserves from the industry. Part of the reason for the cold shoulder may be that FNL doesn’t garner huge ratings. It’s still hard to believe that a realistic series about America and families can’t find an audience. The latest ads from NBC seem to be pushing the emotional aspect of the show; perhaps this is the year Friday Night Lights finally breaks through. Let’s hope so!