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Of Lions and Lambs: Thoughts on the Season Premiere of Friday Night Lights

"I'm going to miss this." - Eric Taylor

Those words, spoken by Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor in the season premiere of Friday Night Lights ("Expectations"), written by David Hudgins and directed by Michael Waxman, are said as he looks over at the minor squabble developing between wife Tami (Connie Britton) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). But that simple sentence, offered in a sweet and rather sad tone, might as well encapsulate the overall feeling of the audience: we're going to miss this too.

Even though the "this" in question might be yet flare-up of adolescence angst from Julie Taylor. But it's the fact that the Taylors are together, engaged in the regular rigors of daily life, that the entire declarative statement takes on bigger meaning. Change is coming for the Taylors, with Julie heading off the school. Their family is once again being split up and those breakfasts, those arguments, those stolen moments are soon to be a thing of the past.

The arrival of the fifth season marks the beginning of the end, as it were, of Friday Night Lights and the installment plays up this sensation by offering a series of farewells, most notably from Julie and Landry (Jesse Plemons), each heading off to a new life at university. At its heart, Friday Night Lights has echoed the rhythms and patterns of quotidian life: seasons pass, people come and go, lovers come together. Life goes on as it always does, with friends returning, children growing older, parents realizing just how quickly time has passed.

I'm tempted to speed through this final season but I also want to savor it, knowing that it's the very end of our stay in Dillon, a town that's largely changed from when we first encountered it in the pilot episode. But, hold on though we might want to, just like Eric, we too can't stop the passing of time.

You read my advance review of the first two episodes of Friday Night Lights's fifth season, but now that the episode has aired, you'll find my more specific (and spoilery) thoughts about the season premiere. (Though I've watched the next episode, I've kept my comments limited to just the season opener.)

"Expectations" did a marvelous job of showing the audience just where we are and where we're going this season, dropping us once again at the end of summer and the edge of the new school year, as Julie leaves for college and Tami settles into her new job as the guidance counselor at East Dillon, a professional change that reunites her with Eric.

But as Julie clashes with her parents about everything from buying supplies to driving herself, it's just one of many family issues developing. Tami and Eric's attempt to hold on just a little bit longer to their daughter results in some hurt feelings as Julie brushes off Tami's homemade fruit cobbler to see Landry's band perform on his last night in Dillon.

And what a last night it is, as Crucivictorious plays what might just be their final show, Julie and Landry have a tete-a-tete outside the Alamo Freeze, and Julie treats Landry to some fun at The Landing Strip, offering him something that approximates the "epic" final night in town that he desired. (I loved that he made a specific trip to say goodbye to Lorraine Saracen, a scene that paid homage both to the friendship between Landry and Matt but also between Landry and Lorraine.) The best bit? Landry's "You stay golden, Julie." Classic.

(While Landry heads off to Rice University in Houston, I thought it interesting that no mention was made of just what college Julie was attending. Odd, no?)

But Julie's squabbles are minor compared to the weighty issues at play in other households. Becky (Madison Burge) has been living with her father and his new wife while her mom is working on a casino boat. It's an arrangement that's not really working out for any of the parties involved and it's just a matter of time before things implode there... or at least until Becky seeks out new accommodations.

Naturally, her desire for some stability at home leads her towards the closest thing she recognizes as family: the Rigginses. Despite the fact that Tim (Taylor Kitsch) is still in prison--he has another three months left on his sentence after good behavior--she heads over to Billy (Derek Phillips) and Mindy (Stacey Oristano) to see if they'll let her move in.

After all, Tim did take the fall for Billy and is serving time so that Billy can be with his family... and Billy did promise to look after Becky. It's only natural then that Becky should turn to these two for help. The only problem being that these two haven't ever raised a teenager and they have a new baby to care for. Whether Becky will be able to find a place in the Riggins' household remains to be seen, but I'm curious to see just where the writers intend to take this storyline.

Tim, meanwhile, is far different than the charmer we first met way back when in Season One. Sullen, depressed, and defeated, he pushes both Billy and Becky away, telling his brother that neither of them need to visit him as much as they do. His isolation, his loneliness, are all the more keenly felt, despite his insistence that he be left alone. (In fact, isolation seems to be the underlying theme in both of the first two installments of the season.)

In an effort to "give something back," Billy pushes Coach Taylor for a football coaching position at East Dillon, saying that Eric is a "molder of men," a callback to a compliment that Tami once paid Eric back in the day. According to Billy, "It would be a good idea for me to be around someone like you right now."

For her part, Tami is finding it difficult to integrate herself into the infrastructure--or the crumbling infrastructure--at East Dillon, as she encounters ennui and resistance from her fellow teachers. Once again, the at-risk students are falling through the cracks and the teachers would rather not deal with them, period. It's interesting to see Tami struggle in this way. Her sunny disposition is clearly at odds with the sort of larger problems facing this school, her office tucked out of the way, her phone not even connected. If Tami has any hopes of reaching these kids, it's going to be a Sisyphean endeavor.

Elsewhere, we got a chance to see that Jess (Jurnee Smollett) and Vince (Michael B. Jordan) are still together and still happy in couplehood, even though Jess has her hands full at home, with her dad's recent franchising extravaganza. But there is some potential tension brewing between Jess and the team's newest recruit, Hastings Ruckle (True Blood's Grey Damon), best seen during their free spirit/coward scene during the party thrown by Luke (Matt Lauria) specifically to recruit basketball player Hastings to the Lions. Whether Hastings will prove to be the wedge that drives Jess and Vince apart remains to be seen, but there were definitely sparks there between Jess and Hastings, hippy or no. (I also loved Hastings' contention that football rewarded the basest elements of American society, something that Eric took umbrage with immediately.)

As for Luke, he has issues of his own, namely a key tackle during a game in which the Lions beat one of the state's best teams, an unexpected victory that makes the team roar. The fact that the player involved, Cody Pearl, didn't immediately get up gave me flashbacks to Jason Street (Scott Porter) in the FNL pilot. While everything seems to be fine, the moment is played for tension... which means that it's likely to carry over into the next episode. While the team won, there's an underlying menace to the moment that has me wondering what new obstacle will spring up in front of this pride of lions.

The most emotional moment by far in this episode had to be the final ping pong game between Julie and Eric. I wondered whether Eric would be cross with Julie for coming home so late or if his conspiratorial tone would lead to a discussion about being nicer to Tami but instead he takes Julie out to the garage where they search for the paddles and take a trip down memory lane. It's an intimate moment in a series overflowing with them, one that pays testament to the relationship between these two characters in a realistic and grounded way. There are no big speeches, no melodramatic goodbyes, just a late-night ping pong game and an understated parting as Julie drives off. In true fatherly fashion, Eric shoves an envelope into Julie's hands before she leaves. "For emergencies," he says.

And then there were three.

It's not an easy thing to dramatize that leaving of the nest nor to make both sides of the equation immediately sympathetic. Her car overstuffed with the detritus of college life, Julie is bound for bigger and better things. While her parents are sad, they're also proud of their daughter. And they should be. Eric might be a "molder of men," but he and Tami are molders of everyone around them, pushing them towards being better people, better versions of themselves.

And television--and perhaps our own world--might be all the better for it.

What did you think of the season premiere? Did it live up to your own expectations? Head to the comments section to discuss.

Next week on Friday Night Lights ("On the Outside Looking In"), Coach finds out not everyone is pleased by the Lions strong showing in the season opener; Vince's newfound football stardom comes with perks; Luke faces consequences for his aggressive play.


Anonymous said…
I was a little disappointed in the season opener. The casting of the Hastings Ruckle character threw me and I never recovered. That guy is a top notch athlete? Super basketball player? Even with editing he looked like a guy who just picked up a basketball for the first time. FNL has always done a good job of filling roles realistically but they missed big time on this one.

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