Season four of Friday Night Lights was its most ambitious yet, with a near-total reboot and significant cast turnover. This could have seen the show crash and burn. Instead, FNL soared higher than ever before, smoothly settling into its new skin and producing 13 episodes of consistently high quality, culminating in its most emotionally satisfying season finale ever.
How the other half live
It’s all change in Dillon at the start of the season. With the town redistricted to spin off East Dillon High from the renamed West Dillon, Coach Taylor swaps Panther blue for Lions red and has to start over and build a new team. Several students find themselves transferred to East. Some old stalwarts say goodbye to Dillon altogether, while others face up to the mundanity of everyday life after school. We say hello to a swathe of new characters.
A new school and new characters bring new issues too. It’s immediately clear that West and East Dillon could not be more different. West’s catchment area remains the more affluent part of town, while East is beset with poverty, drugs and gang problems. This season pulls no punches in touching on issues of gang culture, teenage pregnancy and abortion, and how young men cope with being a football star one day and becoming anonymous the next. Ultimately we end up with a bittersweet finale which surpasses any of the previous three seasons, as the Lions find strength in pride, passion and perseverance thanks to a surprising hero, and a major character takes a fall to protect another.
Something for everyone
One of the most glaring weaknesses of season three was that it ignored a number of characters – most notably Lyla and Julie – for long stretches. That’s not the case here, with every character featuring regularly and several storylines intersecting pleasingly.
It’s a tough year for the Taylors. Tami‘s (Connie Britton) dedication to doing the right thing lands her in hot water and threatens her career. Meanwhile Eric (Kyle Chandler) faces a long struggle to build a competitive team at East Dillon. When we first met him he had just taken over as head coach of the Panthers, a talented, well-funded team with playoff expectations. Now he is stuck on the wrong side of the tracks with ramshackle facilities, a skeleton staff, a rag-tag team with no real hope or purpose and so little money that he has to dig into his own pocket to pay for new uniforms. It’s an opportunity for him to really show what he can do as a coach, and despite some early missteps he passes the test with flying colours.
Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is learning to deal with life after football, but gets drawn into his brother’s illegal chop-shop scheme to fund both his own land purchase and the arrival of Billy and Mindy’s baby, a move which ultimately sees him accepting jail-time to keep his brother a free man. Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) faces twin struggles to adapt to life as a townie while attempting to determine his own future, eventually coming to a decision which leaves a heartbroken Julie (Aimee Teegarden) looking for her own purpose.
Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) discovers his role on the team as the kicker/punter, only to find the outcome of the season-ending game against the Panthers rests on his right boot – a defining moment nicely foreshadowed in earlier episodes which gives the departing senior a rousing send-off. He also finally manages to put down the torch he has always carried for Tyra and becomes involved in a tug-of-love for the affections of Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) with the Lions’ new quarterback, Vince Howard (Michael B Jordan).
Vince is one of a quartet of new characters who are successfully integrated into the cast. A talented athlete with a mother suffering from drug addiction, he has become mixed up with local gangs and football represents his last chance to avoid jail. He finds purpose in football but finds it difficult to extricate himself from his old life.
Running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) serves as a proxy for the viewer throughout the season. Like us, he starts out as a Panther, is forcibly transferred to East Dillon and gradually cuts his ties with his friends at West Dillon. By the end of the season there is no question where his loyalties lie, as he pumps himself full of painkillers to counter a serious injury.
Tyra and Lyla are replaced by Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) and Jess. Despite her obvious affections for Tim, Becky brings out the big brother in Riggins, and her one-night stand with Luke has far-reaching consequences. On the surface, Jess feels like a retread of Lyla: a cheerleader with a father who is influential in the local community, torn between two boys. However, she’s much more than that, helping Landry improve technically as a player and prodding Vince’s conscience to save him from himself.
It’s really only Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) who has comparatively little to do this season, and even then he has a satisfying little arc of his own. With Lyla departed for college and finiding himself squeezed out of the boosters’ inner circle by Joe McCoy, he throws his hand in with East Dillon. It’s a huge step for a character whose single-minded devotion to the Panthers has previously seen him frequently at odds with the Taylors.
Perhaps most importantly, the series gets one final new ‘character’ which it has always lacked: a proper ‘big bad’ in the shape of the Panthers themselves. The previous three seasons had lacked a consistent foe to butt heads against. Instead we were given a series of ‘opponents of the week’ who tended to be faceless foes, like an army of stormtroopers without Darth Vader. Only Arnett Mead – the team the Panthers could supposedly never beat – ever really established themselves.
But with the Joe and JD McCoy-led Panthers now firmly adopting the role of bitter cross-town rivals with their hubris and inflated sense of superiority, their presence hangs over the entire season, finally coming to the fore in the last two episodes. The Panthers aren’t a team Coach Taylor and his team want to beat just to register a mark in the win column – there is genuine bad feeling between the two sides. That final game means so much more than any other – even State – because we have a reason to hate the Panthers. It works brilliantly, bringing the main storylines of the season into sharp focus.
One thing FNL does extremely well is to give departing characters a fitting send-off. ‘Smash’ Williams fulfilled his dreams of playing at a major college and Jason Street grafted his way to a job that allowed him to be with his child. This season the show manages to say goodbye to three major characters in different and appropriate ways.
Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), now at college, returns briefly to make her peace with Tim, giving both characters closure and allowing them to move on with their lives. Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) does not make an appearance but says her goodbyes in a very Tyra way, by not turning up to an arranged rendezvous with Landry, a no-show which finally allows him to move on from their on/off relationship.
But the grandest send-off is reserved for Matt Saracen. Already wrestling with how to pursue his dreams as an artist, his world is turned upside down by the death of his absentee soldier father. The episode The Son unflinchingly follows Matt as he moves through the stages of grief before finally realising that, with his grandmother now taken care of, it is time for him to leave Dillon to build his own future. It was a resolution in keeping with Matt’s good-guy nature, giving him the opportunity to finally do something for the good of himself rather than others – the final step in his path to growth. It’s a magnificent piece of television, the high point of a strong season and arguably FNL‘s finest hour.
I did have a couple of quibbles. The Landry/Jess/Vince love triangle fell a bit flat. And Tim raises the money to buy his land with remarkable speed – he was running a chop-shop, not a money-printing press, after all – but these were relatively minor complaints in the context of a season which otherwise fired on all cylinders.
How good a season was this? Well, how many shows can claim to have hit their peak in their fourth season, while at the same time overhauling both its setting and its cast? That’s exactly what the producers and writers of Friday Night Lights achieved with season four. Kudos.
Season five of Friday Night Lights begins on Sky Atlantic next Tuesday (May 14th) at 8pm.