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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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Friday Night Lights: Alive and Well
2008-10-01 18:00
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Nobody died.

Really, that's the main difference between the season-three premiere of Friday Night Lights and that of season two. Well, that and the fact that the show's no longer on NBC, but Dillon, Texas looks and feels just as pastorally resplendent on DirecTV's 101 channel — assuming you have access to it — as it did bouncing around NBC's primetime lineup.

In fact, Lights might be better off in its post-Peacock life, because it kicks off its third batch of episodes without the sensational plot twist of Landry's sorta-kinda accidental killing of Tyra's attacker 12 months ago. Showrunner Jason Katims said in the past that the plotline wasn't an attempt to goose up ratings – and the fact is, Lights still handled the story better than almost any other series would have. But the dumping of the body in the creek was a metaphor for how shortsidedly Lights tossed off its delicately crafted balance. Like Landry, the show can only be relieved it got away with it.

Back on track, Lights still offers some minor points for us quibblers to note, but let me emphasize that once again, having a new season arrive was like Christmas (or its equivalent) coming early. Beginning its third season with a new school year rather than finishing off the previous one, Lights gives us is some exposition to cut through, but it almost all works.

So here's where we are now:

Eric: Freed from his TMU dislocation/relocation dilemma of last year, Coach Taylor isn't facing any kind of existential crisis, but still has his fair share of burdens. Last year's team finished its season in disappointing fashion, and already wagons are circling. While a win in the 2008 season's first game offers more evidence that Eric will make things okay, Lights certainly convinces you that if he doesn't, he could go from major college assistant to unemployed high school coach in the space of a year.

Meanwhile, he and Tami still are struggling to integrate taking care of baby Gracie in their daily routine, and Julie is still being Julie. It's sort of amazing how grittily calm Eric remains through all this.

Tami: Presumably as a result of her dedication, well-earned righteousness and sheer force of personality, Tami has shot straight from Dillon High guidance counselor to Dillon High principal. I'm pretty sure this is unrealistic, even in a small town, but I'm willing to let that go on the premise that in Dillon, sometimes things just get done – as evidenced perhaps by the great scene at the end of Act 1 in which Buddy presents Tami with a huge check to buy a video scoreboard for the football field.

Less acceptable from my perspective is the notion that Tami is shocked, shocked to find out that the school has budget problems – and that, for example, teachers even pay for their own supplies. Not only is this common nationwide, it's not as if Tami hasn't been working alongside these teachers for years now. This contrivance takes us out of the show – and unnecessarily so. Tami could feel the pressure of being a principal without having to seem oblivious.

Ultimately, Tami brings us back by bucking Buddy and the rest of the town's very powerful football mafia, taking their scoreboard money and using it for actual education-related matters. This is why you make Tami Taylor your show's high school principal. She's a feisty, vulnerable dreamboat – who often gets herself in too deep, but usually finds her to win out in the end.

(Tami and Eric's relationship remains brilliant. When she apologizes to him for overreacting on a Julie matter, he replies, "I could never be mad at my wife – just that damn principal.")

Smash: Not only was Smash dumped by TMU following a small out-of-school altercation (a twist that was almost as annoying as Landry's, given how minor his infraction was and how liberal bigtime college football is about the behavior of its recruits), not only was he suspended by the local school district, but when he did return to the field (in between seasons two and three), we learn that he suffered a serious knee injury – and lost the Whitmore scholarship that was his consolation prize.

But as with Landry's 2007-08 roller coaster, the pile-on plotting can't sink the fine acting on Lights. When Smash learns that his knee has healed, but at the cost of the extra dose of speed that made him special, Gaius Charles' disappointment as Smash is piercing. This is only augmented by an understated but meaningful scene with Riggins, who stays in character by encouraging Smash to give up – the opposite of the way these scenes typically go in TV drama.

Lights doesn't escape pattern completely: Eric can't let Smash throw his future away on serving shakes, and convinces him to give it his all via a game of (I'm still doing a double-take thinking about this) racquetball. If it's inspiring in a way that's almost all-too traditional, well, this time, the means justifies the end.

Matt: QB1 is looking over his shoulder. Despite overcoming a poor set of summer practices to lead his team to a season-opening victory, Matt sees the second coming of Jason Street coming up behind him. J.D., a freshman with all the physical talent – not to mention the very, very involved father — that Matt lacks, will be all but impossible to keep at bay.

Though Lights will no doubt extol the virtues of Saracen's Juan Pierre-like scrappiness, it would seemingly take another tragedy to keep J.D. on the bench all season. And as far as I'm concerned, more power to forcing Matt to face that reality. Watching these kids deal with adversity is one of the show's greatest rewards.

In passing, we must mention Matt's grandmother, Lorraine (Louanne Stephens). She isn't on screen for more than a couple of seconds in two lineless scenes, each shot from a distance, but in those small moments, she conveys a world of worry over the fate of her grandson. So few shows can master the presentation of these kinds of details.

Tim and Lyla: Taylor Kitsch is back with vintage drinking, class-skipping Riggins, but there's a twist. Lyla has fallen back into a clandestine relationship with him, although at first she seems to share our not understanding why. "How am I supposed to take you seriously if you don't take yourself seriously?" she asks in frustration. Tim's older brother has similar doubts, pointing out that Tim "is a rebound from Jesus."

Aside from that great line, there's no new ground really being broken here; in a scene echoing the first public kiss of Frank Furillo and Joyce Davenport on Hill Street Blues, Lyla (who can't stand seeing the other girls flirt with Tim any more) brings their relationship out of the heterosexual closet with a kiss. The answer to Lyla's question, as we all know, is that she can't shake the potential that Tim really is someone special. And so we're left with the same question that Riggins has offered in previous seasons – can he achieve that potential, or will he be defeated? Even if it's not fresh, it remains compelling.

Intermission

It's time to address the elephant in the room – namely, what are some of these people still doing at Dillon? The show is asking us to believe that Riggins, Lyla and Tyra (upcoming) were no older than sophomores when the series began (even though they were all best friends with the star quarterback in his senior year), and that Saracen was either a freshman in 2006 or the same age as Riggins. It's hard not to wish this aspect of the show's continuity were better, but living in constant fear of cancellation probably has something to do with it. As with Tami's promotion to principal, the best choice is probably just to not sweat this stuff.

Tyra and Landry: Her story echoes Smash's story – wants to get out of Dillon, becomes convinced she'll be stuck in Dillon, becomes inspired anew to try harder to get out of Dillon. The sorry engagement of her sister with Riggins' brother gives her the push she needs to go back to Tami for help, which seemed like the obvious path in the first place. (Tami is so invested in Tyra, I honestly don't think it would have been out of character for her to tackle Tyra rather then let Tyra ditch class right in front of her.) Again, the performances are so beguiling that they convince you there's real doubt, even when there shouldn't be.

More disappointing is the news that Tyra has broken up with Landry again. I'll never understand why Katims & Co. are so hell-bent on denying these two more than a few moments of happiness together. Yes, they're an unlikely pair. That's what makes them great. They have incredible chemistry, and once (make that twice) Tyra got over her doubts about Landry, even if ultimately they aren't meant to be together forever, why can't we just enjoy them as a couple for more than an instant? We've earned the right.

For his part (which was small in the season premiere), Landry seems relatively unfazed by Tyra's dumping of him. They're still hanging out together; he's still helping her with her homework. When he learns that Tyra's clueless sister is marrying Riggins' clueless brother, he'll probably realize that his chances with Tyra have only improved. (Whether the show gives him a third shot is another matter.)

Julie: She's fussing about not wanting to take the A.P. English class her mom wants her to take. It's always something, huh.

It's incredible, isn't it, that such a remarkable show could be orphaned by the TV networks. It just doesn't make any sense. Next week's episode can't come soon enough.

Comments
2008-10-01 21:55:46
1.   tjdub
My wife and I just finished watching and as with almost every other episode we were sad to see it come to an end. I agree with most of the points made above with one exception; I enjoy watching Landry in pursuit mode. One of the best parts of the episode was when Tyra chastised Landry for calling her "Baby." I wouldn't mind seeing the two make another go of it but the current dynamic has its merit as well. We too will look past the inconsistencies and just be grateful this show is still going.
2008-10-02 09:01:27
2.   Bob Timmermann
Tami did become the volleyball coach with one day's notice and she made Tyra into an effective player with two days practice.

So having her promoted to principal isn't that hard to believe. She did get promoted faster than Emily Hartley.

2008-10-02 14:31:52
3.   JoeyP
It's incredible, isn't it, that such a remarkable show could be orphaned by the TV networks.

Not many people think its remarkable I suppose.
It could be a case of being over-exposed (The book was fine, the movie was fine, but a TV series too...????), as well as I dont think a sports based theme works well in TV drama.

I think most viewers that want to be entertained by sports either watch actual sports, or documentaries.

I thought the NBA-based series with the Dad from Wonder Years was pretty good like 10 years ago, but it didnt last either.

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