Change was the prevailing theme of the opening episode of season four of Friday Night Lights – for both the people of Dillon and viewers alike – as everyone adjusted to the impact of school redistricting, upheaval to some characters’ personal lives and the absence of other familiar faces.
Last season left us with Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Tyra Collette and Lyla Garrity facing graduation and futures of varying uncertainty. Tyra and Lyla are gone (to Texas and Vanderbilt respectively). Matt is still in Dillon and Tim quickly returns after deciding college isn’t for him, but soon discovers that he can’t just step back into the home that brother Billy and his now-pregnant wife Mindy have made for themselves.
Saracen has problems of his own too. Having abandoned plans to attend art college in Chicago to look after his grandmother, he is now delivering pizzas and attending art classes at Dillon Tech while being taunted by the now undisputed Panthers quarterback JD McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter). Over the summer JD has become an obnoxious brat, with personal coach Wade Aikman now installed as head coach and father Joe pulling the strings in the background. This leaves former head booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) pushed out to the periphery, and principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) caught up between McCoy and Aikman’s power-plays and a group of hostile parents angry at the effect of the school redistricting.
The bulk of the episode, however, focusses on husband Eric‘s (Kyle Chandler) struggles to create a football programme from scratch with the East Dillon Lions, with a ramshackle field, under-equipped facilities and a team of misfits and ‘unfits’ including Matt’s friend and former Panthers bench-warmer Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons). Taylor catches a break when a friendly cop offers up the athletic Vince Howard (Michael B Jordan) to the team as a last chance to keep him out of trouble. But another team member, Calvin Brown, proves an unruly, disruptive influence, costing Taylor his assistant coach and then half the team after a bust-up with Landry.
While Tami thumbs her nose at Aikman and McCoy by making her own call on the coin toss at the Panthers’ season opener, Eric’s raw, undermanned team find themselves on the wrong end of a 45-0 scoreline. With half his players barely able to continue he opts to forfeit the game, but in doing so discovers a team which is bloodied but unbowed and ready to knuckle down and fight for their pride, no matter how unequal the battles ahead of them. It’s a small start, but a start nonetheless.
This episode rattles through all the ripple effects that last season’s finale’s massive reset have had on the townsfolk of Dillon. The impact of life after football on both Tim and Matt is sensitively examined. The former is once again an aimless wanderer, having lost the focus and sense of direction that football and Lyla brought him. As new character Beckly Sproles (Madison Burge) astutely asks:
What’s it like to be the guy who used to be Tim Riggins?
No doubt Tim’s arc for this season will centre on him rediscovering his purpose. Meanwhile Matt, who had found his purpose, finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life beyond football and dealing with a small-minded teacher in his small-town college. As much as Tyra needed to leave Dillon to extend her own wings, so too does Matt and his relationship with Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) – one of the bedrocks of the series – will undoubtedly be put to the test again.
It’s all change at Dillon High, though. Having pushed Eric Taylor out to install his own man Aikman, Joe McCoy is very much in control, leaving an unhappy Buddy sidelined. And the personality of the Panthers team has altered too, from the honest and true endeavour that mirrored Coach Taylor’s character to a sense of smug superiority and entitlement with JD at its centre.
Meanwhile Eric has a team which is hopeless and yet full of hope, character and spirit. They will no doubt take time to mould and grow but in defeat revealed themselves to have the stomach for the long fight ahead. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where we’re heading to in the season finale. I think we can guess who they will be playing …
Having lacked a proper ongoing rivalry with other teams while coaching the Dillon Panthers, we also now finally have an adversary worthy of Taylor’s talents: the Panthers themselves. In previous seasons the writers tried to set up teams like Arnett Mead as some kind of indomitable nemesis, but it was always hard to invest in a Big Bad you only see once or twice a season and that consists of faceless, nameless opponents in uniform. It was like Star Wars would have been without Darth Vader, pitting Luke Skywalker against an army of carbon-copy stormtroopers. Now we have a McCoy/Aikman-led Panthers team full of undeserved pride. And we all know what pride comes before, right?
Overall this was a cracking opener which injected a healthy dose of fresh energy into the series by moving Coach Taylor from the top of the ladder right back to the bottom. When we first joined FNL in season one, he inherited a State contender. Now we will get to see him shine as he builds his new house from the ground up. Splitting the Taylor family – and indeed the entire cast – between Dillon and East Dillon has also created interesting new dynamics and tensions, although Tami’s days as principal at Dillon High are surely numbered after her coin toss stunt and the opposition she faces from parents.
Interesting. In one taut hour, Friday Night Lights has successfully set several intriguing storylines in motion and gently introduced a number of new characters (although I could live without the parroting assistant coach Stan Traub). Go Lions!
Season four of Friday Night Lights is on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 8pm.
Link: Season 3 review