I remember well watching the pilot episode of “Friday Night Lights” three years ago (in fact, I watched it three times; it’s one of the best pilot episodes of any television show I’ve ever seen) and wondering to myself how the “FNL” writers could possibly extend the series over the course of an entire season, much less four. But a huge credit must go to creator Peter Berg and the showrunners of “FNL.” Discounting the lousy strike-shortened second season, they’ve ended each season on a bittersweet high note, perfectly setting up the subsequent season. At the end of season one, for instance, though the Dillon Panthers won the state championship, we were left with a cliffhanger: Would Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) abandon the Panthers for a college position (he did) or give up his career ambitions to stay at home with his players and his pregnant wife (he did not)?
Likewise, Season Three, in most every regard, gave many of the show’s non-returning characters big happy goose-bump endings: Tyra got accepted to the University of Austin; Jason Street went off to NYC to become an agent (“Texas Forever” *tear*); and Lyla appropriately went off to Vanderbilt. Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) also got a happy ending, at least temporarily: he was accepted to college on a football scholarship, breaking his family’s cycle of bad luck and perpetual white-trashery. And though the Dillon Panthers came within inches of winning the state championship, the victory was a moral one, and nearly as sweet as an actual championship.
However, there was a lot of bitter-sweetness in that flawless season finale: Matt Saracen (Zack Gilford) gave up his dreams of college to stay behind with his ailing grandma and his girlfriend, the coach’s daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), and because of a redistricting plan spearheaded by Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), Dillon High was split into two, and the real heart-breaker here was that that evil motherfucker, Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett) pushed Coach Taylor out in favor of Wade Aikman (Drew Waters), mostly because Joe was a child-abusing douchebag, and Coach called him on it.
And just as the writers have successfully done before, they’ve taken the puzzle of high emotions and plot strands that they so meticulously and perfectly pieced together last season and smashed it — along with our hearts — to fucking bits. They’ve turned our heroes into massive underdogs once again.
(Spoilers ahead: If you don’t have DirectTV and are awaiting the return of “FNL” on NBC this spring, I strongly recommend not reading on, as I will be divulging many of the details of the Season Four premiere).
As expected (once NBC picked up the “FNL” for a fourth and fifth season), Coach Taylor does take over the East Dillon team, and it’s a mighty huge fall for what is perhaps the best high-school coach in Texas. He has to build the East Dillon team from nothing — a crappy facility, no coaching staff, and none of the returning stars that Dillon High still has (including Joe McCoy’s son, their starting QB, who has suddenly turned into his father). Coach Taylor can barely field a team. Half his players walk out on him, in fact, when Taylor pushes them too hard in practice and what he’s left with could barely be considered a football team — perpetual bench-warmer, Landry (Jesse Plemons), is a starter this year, which is about all you need to know about the quality of the team.
Just how bad is it? During the first game of the season, after his team plays their goddamn guts out and still goes down 45-0 at the half, Coach Taylor walks out, swallows his pride, and forfeits the game to save his team from further injury, both physical and emotional. This from a coach was has lost only four or five games over the last three seasons combined and once held a college-level coaching position.
In fact, by the episode’s conclusion, there’s not a silver lining in sight, although scenes from upcoming weeks suggests that rock-bottom hasn’t yet been hit.
It’s soul crushing.
Meanwhile, Matty Saracen — after being accepted to the University of Chicago art school — is being turned away from the community college arts program in Dillon (they think his art is too high-fallutin’ and abstrack) and spending his days delivering pizzas, caring for his grandmother — who is now fully co-co bananas — and trying to keep his relationship with Julie intact, though she’s being hit on by Dillon’s QB, J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), who has given up the naive, innocent pretense and turned into an arrogant little prick.
Then there’s Tim Riggins, the guy you can’t help but root for no matter how much he continues to fuck up. Well, he fucked up again. No more than a few days into his freshman year at college, he abandons ship and returns to Dillon and immediately shacks up with an older waitress (whose daughter is attending East Dillon). Once again, Riggins has thrown it all away. At some point, we’re going to stop rooting for the guy. (Probably not this season, though.)
Meanwhile, Tami Taylor has problems of her own at Dillon High — parents of kids who were redistricted into the poor East Dillon school are up in arms, and she’s still got to contend with the men who pushed her husband out of a job. The Dillon High football team, suddenly, is the enemy (along with a very guilty-looking Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), who chose Dillon over his friend, Coach Taylor). Tami is reluctantly a part of the evil, to boot (though, she does try, in her own small and meaningless way, to contravene the Dillon football team during the opening coin toss).
There is, however, a possible savior for the East Dillon team: A troubled running back with incredible raw talent, but a police record. He’s the Smash of the future, but he’s going to take a lot of molding.
It’s not too hard to see where the storylines are heading this season, but it hasn’t been in past years, either. It’s the journey that keeps us engaged and the promise that some things may come out the way we hope, but that we’re still guaranteed to have our hearts crushed again. Of course, we’re all being set up (deftly, I might add) for a Favre-like return to Green Bay. At some point this season, Coach Taylor is going to have to return to Dillon High to take on their far superior team, but unlike Favre, Coach Taylor doesn’t have Adrian Peterson to rely on. He has Landry Clarke and a team of misfits and nobodies. At some point in the season, it looks like Goliath is going to gobble up David and smugly defecate his remains.
In either respect, after only one episode, I’m once again fully invested. I cannot wait for that grudge match. I can’t wait to see that smug fucking smirk erased from Joe McCoy’s face, though if the showrunners decide not to go that route, I’ll probably respect them even more.
“Friday Night Lights” is back, y’all (at least if you have DirectTV), and if the Season Four opener is any indicator, it’s as good as ever.