Sunday, April 17, 2011
Texas Forever: Some Thoughts on the Final Season of Friday Night Lights
The fifth season featured many fits and starts, a couple of totally out-of-nowhere character de-evolutions, and the inescapable truth that the East Dillon Lions would have never went from a scrappy team of barely capable losers to contenders for the state title in one season.
And it will probably rank as my favorite television drama of 2011.
[Massive spoilers below, obviously.]
Because Kase and I burned through the 13-episode season of FNL in roughly 48 hours, there won't be individual recaps of the episodes here. (I've become increasingly of the mindset that recapping television shows on a weekly basis is a fool's errand that doesn't really reward the reader or the show.) Suffice it to say, if there were individual recaps, you would have probably seen me complain about some or all of the following:
· The aforementioned fact that the East Dillon Lions went from a 2-8 team that didn't know which way to run on the field to state champions in one season.
· The fact that Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria, excellent as a more wholesome version of Tim Riggins) was considered one of the best players in all of Dillon at the start of season four, and yet couldn't get one sniff from a college recruiter in season five.
· The fact that the Dillon Panthers went from being coached by J.D. McCoy's handpicked caddy to the stupid Mack, without any mention of what happened to J.D. or his handpicked caddy.
· The fact that Vince Howard went from street thug to respectful student of Coach Taylor to Smash Williams-like showboat to respectful student of Coach Taylor is less than three episodes. I don't argue with that arc — or the performance of Michael B. Jordan, who should really receive Emmy consideration this year for his work — but it just happened entirely too fast.
· The introduction of Buddy Garrity Jr., child delinquent, which was followed soon after by the introduction of Buddy Garrity Jr., model student. That happened in the span of about 30 episode minutes.
· The lack of stakes in the first six episodes, followed by the increasingly ridiculous stakes and outs in the final seven episodes. Such as...
· The deus ex machina final twist of the East Dillon Lions being contracted into the Dillon Panthers, giving Coach Taylor an obvious out, and removing any conflict over the fact that he really didn't want to leave his team and go to Philadelphia with Tami.
And so on. If I wanted to be a cynical bastard — or an Internet writer, since those terms are interchangeable — I could pick apart many of the twists and turns during the final season. It felt rushed, it felt truncated and, worst of all, at times it felt like fanfic. But I'm not cynical about Friday Night Lights, and the fifth season amounted to more than just some erroneous plot turns; it amounted to a fully realized cast of characters growing up and moving on with dignity and respect. Few shows deliver the kind of consistent emotional impact that Friday Night Lights did, and during the final season — and especially the final seven episodes — those impact moments were turned up to 11.
To put it another way: there were tears. Tons of them. Anytime Coach Taylor told Vince that he was proud, there were tears; when Matt Saracen came back to Dillon to see his grandmother, and she didn't know him and asked about his dead father, there were tears; when an ecstatic Julie showed Tami her engagement ring, there were tears; when Billy, Coach Taylor and Buddy spoke at Tim's parole board hearing, there were many tears; when the final FNL montage happened and they showed the "J. Street #6" scrawled on the wall in the locker room, there were so many tears that it was kind of embarrassing.
(There were laughs, too; like when Matt told Coach that he wanted permission to marry Julie. Kyle Chandler was out-of-bounds funny in that scene, something he carried over into the moment Coach told Tami about the news. "Your daughter...")
That kind of emotional investment comes from the previous four seasons, and how the makers and cast of FNL were able to ingratiate this town and these people to the audience. Jason Katims and his Friday Night Lights team were better than any television writers and producers at introducing a character and immediately making us care about them. It was an uncanny trait really; with graduations and departures, this series had more turnover than an NFL team in the era of free agency. What started as the story of Jason Street, Tim Riggins and Smash Williams ended up being about Vince Howard, Matt Saracen and a totally new Tim Riggins — that this souffle was able to withstand that kind of jostling is a testament to the writers' room and the performances.
About that New Tim Riggins: Of all the "Old Dillon" faces, Riggins had the biggest season-five development. We only got a glimpse of New Tyra — Adrianne Palicki with her Lone Star hair color instead of Tyra's signature dark-rooted dye-job — and she was a lot like the Tyra we saw leave for college: determined, intelligent and finally free from the troubled times of her youth. Julie matured erratically, which seemed like a natural progression for a teenage girl away from home for the first time (Aimee Teegarden was actually really affecting in a lot of this season, even as Julie was doing colossally stupid things like sleeping with the teacher's assistant). Meanwhile, Matt continued on his rise from rock-bottom — something that was hinted at during season four. He got out of Dillon, worked on his art and made a life for himself away from the demons of his hometown, but he still loved Julie; it felt real, and not just because Zach Gilford is an effortless performer.
Yet Riggins had to wholesale change his personality.
The happy-go-lucky Golden Retriever that loved booze, girls and Texas went to prison and was replaced by a sullen malcontent prone to violent outbursts; his signature long-hair acted like bars on a prison cell instead of evidence of a dude who just didn't give a crap about anything. Taylor Kitsch nailed these early post-release moments with the ease of an expert performer — the growth Kitsch made over five seasons would make Coach Taylor proud — and Tim's anger at Billy was both earned and believable. As was Tim's ultimate maturation: As Kase pointed out, when the series began Tim was talking about living off Jason Street's millions on some Texas property; by the end, he was building his own house on his own property. The boy had become a man. Tim Riggins wound up being a microcosm of sum worth of Friday Night Lights.
Which brings us back to Coach Taylor. After all, he is a molder of men, and throughout the series he turned almost every person he interacted with into a better man (or woman). While he was doing that, Tami, in turn, made Coach into a better man; it was the circle of life as high school football. There is no FNL without Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, and both excelled in season five. They are why we watched Friday Night Lights; why we laughed and cried and applauded for 71 episodes. And though it was a neat bow, the idea that Eric would bring his kind heart, patience and experience to the East Coast to support Tami for once, was perfect. For a show about so much disappointment, it was nice to see them rewarded with a legitimate happy ending. As it turns out, Texas actually wasn't forever; the Taylors were. By the time the lights were finally turned out on Friday Night Lights, clear eyes were not an option.