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Full Hearts: 'Friday Night Lights' Returns for Its Final Season

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 27th 2010 5:20PM
It's easy to be overtaken by nostalgia when watching the final season of 'Friday Night Lights,' which begins 9PM ET Wednesday on DirecTV's 101 Network (the final season will air on NBC some time next year).

Loyal viewers been through a lot with these people; we have stuck with the show through so many ups and downs. And just as many of its characters this season and last have said their farewells, soon we'll have to say goodbye to Dillon, Texas.

'Friday Night Lights' has made many of us cry over the years, and it's hard not to get a lump in your throat just thinking about the fact that the show will be over for good soon. Below are some thoughts on the first few episodes of the show's fifth season. (You may wish to wait until Season 5 airs on NBC to read what's below, but this review shouldn't spoil any major plot developments, for either NBC or DirecTV viewers.)

Five years: That's one year more than the amount of time it takes to get through high school (or exactly the amount of time it takes to get through high school, if we choose to forget the Year of Landry and That Thing We Don't Talk About). In that time frame, it almost feels as though America has caught up to 'Friday Night Lights.' It's not as if life was carefree and easy four years ago, but boom has given way to bust and financial setbacks and reduced expectations are the norm.

As other critics (especially Time's James Poniewozik) have astutely pointed out, the residents of Dillon have always had limited options and modest dreams. The goal, if there was one, was merely to get out and, with any luck, get an education.

Far from glorifying Texas football culture, 'Friday Night Lights' has always shown how hard it has been to get that athletic scholarship or score any kind of ticket out of town. Next fall, when a couple dozen glossy dramas about lawyers and doctors in fancy offices premiere, I'll long to visit Dillon, one of the few shows in TV history that actually shows how hard it is to raise a good, productive and happy kid -- one who didn't necessarily assume that becoming a lawyer or doctor was a realistic goal.

But it's too soon to write about 'FNL' as if it's already gone. Who knows when NBC will show it -- it may still be airing on that network a year from now. And in its fifth season, the show still has new stories to tell about new students, even if the general paradigms are the ones we've seen during the past four years: Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) take troubled or essentially unparented kids under their generous wings and try to guide them toward better choices. Sometimes they're simply there for the kids, in ways that their own families are not.

Much of which transpires in the first few episodes seems familiar, if not a little predictable, and what saves the Taylors from being impossibly virtuous are the flaws the writers give them and the consistently great performances that Chandler and Britton give. Coach can be arrogant and stubborn, and Tami's well-intentioned exhortations can, as one character tells her, come off as lecturing. The Taylors aren't perfect, but even other adults recognize that they're able to reach kids in ways that most people don't.

Their new challenges include a chronic truant named Epic whom Tami sizes up instantly (Tami knows to show consideration to the girl, but she also makes it clear that, unlike the other adults in Epic's life, Tami's not going to take any crap from her). The East Dillon Lions, on the other hand, have a new player who is really good but who seems as disconnected as Epic is, for different reasons (he's a laid-back dude who thinks that football is violent and lame).

A story concerning Luke's football career feels somewhat contrived and the East Dillon Lions' improved fortunes seem a little convenient. It's not that the gridiron action on 'FNL' is irrelevant -- far from it -- but some of the best episodes (like season 4's 'The Son') have almost nothing to do with the game.

The new characters aren't especially compelling in the early going, but a season of 'Friday Night Lights' is like a season of 'In Treatment': You never know what performances or stories are going to hook you until halfway through. Who knew that Michael B. Jordan's arc would become so compelling over the course of season 4? But now that young actor is a standout member of the 'FNL' ensemble as hardworking quarterback Vince, and likewise Madison Burge, who plays Becky, more than proved herself last year.

From the younger cohort of show's original cast, only Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarten), Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) are still around, and they're all getting deserved farewell arcs (Scott Porter, Adrianne Palicki and Zach Gilford will also return to the show before it ends for good). Like the rest of the actors who have "graduated" from 'FNL,' these young actors are deserving of continued career success, but I hope they never forget the lessons they learned about subtlety and truth. Taylor Kitsch, in particular, has shown enormous growth as an actor. Tim's body language in a prison scene tells you all you need to know about where the former Dillon Panther's mind is at. It's exceptional work.

Nostalgia is a tricky thing; it can make things seem rosier than they really were. And 'Friday Night Lights' isn't perfect; this season, there are a few instances in which the storytelling doesn't feel as fluid and as graceful as it could be. And while there's a worthwhile attempt to tell stories for the show's young female characters, there's also a hair-pulling catfight that seems to have been borrowed from '90210.'

Yet those are minor issues, all things considered. Whatever else it has accomplished -- and that's a lot -- 'Friday Night Lights' has always had respect for the confusion, anger and worry that people of all ages feel in their quests for emotional connection. This show went to places that most shows aren't brave enough to go. For that reason, it'll forever be in the 'win' column.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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JC

lump in throat is right Mo, this show is top notch and is MUST WATCH

October 29 2010 at 6:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Payal

I'm waiting for the NBC airing, but in the meantime, Ithink my fellow FNL fans would be totally into this site:

http://whatwouldcoachtaylorsay.com/

October 28 2010 at 10:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Irene

Loved this show from the very begining. Two favorite lines of tonights episode: coach to the new kid "you're in Texas now, you love the game of football, you just don't know it yet" and Landry
drunk at the strip club"stay golden Julie Taylor"

October 27 2010 at 10:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Aberdeen

I'm so bummed that it's been canceled, and grateful that I got to watch and can recommend it to others.

October 27 2010 at 8:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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