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Friday Night Lights Watch: Dreams Deferred (and Achieved) on Season Three of FNL

Last night, we finished watching Season Three of Friday Night Lights. I'm still recovering, emotionally, from the end of a season that brought the promise and potential back to this extraordinary series.

I had no doubts that the series would come back around and be able to find its true creative direction (one without murder conspiracy cover-up plots or capital-D Drama) after the uneven and truncated second season, which screamed of network interference and, no sooner did it finally begin to find its way again, the season was cut short due to the writers strike.

While I had extreme doubts about the second season, I knew that the writers--with Jason Katims at the helm--could bring back the emotional resonance and connection that the groundbreaking first season of Friday Night Lights had so effortlessly pulled off.

My belief wasn't mislaid: with Season Three, the writers not only brought back the very elements that had made the series a success but built upon them, continuing to observe life in this small Texas town through the prism of high school football and wrapping up the storylines of both Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) and Jason Street (Scott Porter), while taking us through yet another season of Dillon Panthers football to create a tremulous and taut final hour that brought a slew of changes for the characters we've come to know and love.

It's these changes that carry some of the most emotional complexity and weight, charting both the naturalistic rites of passage--high school graduation, job hunts, and marriage--as well as some intricate and deft plotting about the intricacies of high school administration.

No other series could pull off a masterful storyline--threaded throughout the entire season--about school budgets, redistricting, and the class war in Dillon, a storyline that culminates in Tami Taylor (Connie Britton, once again electric here) having to tell her husband, Coach Eric Taylor (touchstone Kyle Chandler), that he had been replaced as the head coach of the Dillon Panthers after a coup from wealthy booster and chief nemesis Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett). But rather than cast Eric into the four winds, the school board hatches a plan that both blatantly punitive and likely their very downfall: they make him the head football coach at the soon-to-be-reopened Dillon East.

The move creates a cascade of potential storylines, splitting a town in two and creating an atmosphere of tension and animosity in a community that was unified and motivated by their local football team. It also setting up the married Eric and Tami as possible rivals, with Tami still the principal of Dillon High proper and Eric having to move over to a school that makes Dillon H.S. look like an Ivy League institution. But Eric has always been motivated by adversity (just look at how he brought home a state ring even after Jason Street's paralysis in Season One) and putting him in charge of some underdogs will likely only push his desire to get even with McCoy and trounce the Panthers next season.

Additionally, Season Three ended on a series of intriguing notes, centering around the wedding of Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips) and Mindy Collette (Stacey Oristano), with the hard work and perseverance of both Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and Lyla (Minka Kelly) paying off for both of them, as Tyra makes it off of the waitlist and into UT and Lyla finally turns her life around and admits that she still does want to go to Vanderbilt (and Buddy comes through with the money, after having blown her college fund on a bad investment). But it's the fact that Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) actually makes it to college is one surprise that I didn't expect, despite his plans to live together with Lyla.

Riggins, upon seeing Billy purchase that auto repair shop, wanted the life that his brother was having: a wife, a kid on the way, a job that you could leave early from and drink some beer whilst doing, and some "me time" that meant not pushing himself and not leaving Dillon. But Billy, thankfully, doesn't want that life for his brother: he wants Tim to be a symbol of something better, of dreams achieved, of college degrees, and real potential.

It's a tender and emotional scene between the two brothers that reveals the truth depths of their feelings for one another and for the writers' belief that these characters can grow and change. They can reach for the stars, they can falter and even fall, but there is always the possibility of achieving one's potential.

This is also felt in the way that the storylines of Smash and Jason were wrapped up this season. With Smash's off-screen injury between the seasons and Jason's new fatherhood, the duo have been through quite a bit in the time since we had last seen them. While some series would have had them go off to school and disappear, Friday Night Lights would appear to be just as much in love with these characters as the audience and the writers wisely opted to give both Gaius Charles and Scott Porter a handful of episodes each in which to tie up their dangling plotlines and push them into a bright future.

I loved the way that Eric wouldn't give up on Smash until he had gotten him in school and back on the road to pro football, not allowing him to give up on himself and accept anything less than his dream. Through Eric constantly pushing him to get better and better and regain his confidence, there was apparent the real love that Eric has for these kids, even after they leave the Panthers. (Which makes his betrayal by the school board all the more gutting.) These kids are his family, his life, his passion. Tami said it best when she said that Eric was a "molder of men." He absolutely is and his care for both Smash and Jason proves that unconditionally. (It's the small things on Friday Night Lights: the paint in Eric's hair as he shows up late to the school dance, demonstrating that he helped Jason finish painting that house.)

While Smash found a way to reclaim his passion and confidence and find himself again, Jason needed to find a new context for his life, a new identity that had nothing to do with being the injured star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers. With his girlfriend and baby son having left for New Jersey, he launched an ambitious plan that included flipping Buddy Garrity's old house and landing him (along with the Riggins Brothers and Herc) some cash and then set out to Manhattan with Riggins to land a position as a sports agent. While that was not without serious setbacks, Jason proved that he could not only do what he needed to do in order to land the job, but he made good on his promise to be a good father to Noah and to help take care of his young family. (And the look of profound pride and loss that swirl over Riggins' face as he says goodbye to his best friend was like an emotional sucker punch.)

I'm pleased too that Julie (Aimee Teegarden) and Saracen (Zach Gilford) found their way back to each other, even as Matt faced increased pressure on the team from freshman quarterback J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter) and lost his starting position... though quickly proved himself to Eric in a new role even as his relationship to Julie took a turn towards the sexual. And Matt was also able to come to terms with his abandonment as a child by his mother Shelby (Kim Dickens) and forge a new and adult relationship with his mom.

But it was Matt's relationship with grandmother Lorraine (Louanne Stephens) that proved to be the most fraught with heartbreak. Very few series--particularly those that on the surface appear to be about a high school football team--would dare to offer a gripping and realistic portrayal of dementia. Over three seasons, Lorraine's struggles with dementia has been at the heart of the series but Matt's acceptance into a prestigious art school in Chicago meant that major decisions had to be made as Lorraine's condition worsened. This storyline was handled with such care and reverence that it brought tears to my eyes, particularly in the final episode of the season.

Lorraine finally realized that she couldn't hold Matt back or stand in the way of his dreams and relented about being placed in an assisted care living facility, believing that he should go to Chicago. But for Matt, Billy and Mindy's wedding brings up a lot of unresolved and complex feelings. He dashes off from the wedding to get Lorraine and bring her there, telling her that he's going to take her back home afterwards and that he'll stay in Dillon.

On the one hand, it's a heartrending decision that Matt would put aside college to look after his grandmother. On the other, he's right when he said that she's the only one who never walked out on him. His decision to stay is a sacrifice forged in love. One can only hope that he deferred his admission rather than just abandoned it. After all, Lorraine's condition is deteriorating. But she might only have another year of semi-lucidity before her disease eats away at her mind to the point where Matt can't care for her anymore. Why shouldn't she spend that year surrounded by who she loves? What price is a single year if it means not abandoning his grandmother when she needs him the most?

Meanwhile, the season also offered a storyline that plumbed the intense pressure that parents can put on their athlete children, something that we hadn't seen to date on Friday Night Lights. While J.D. may have a fantastic arm, he lacks the maturity to lead the team and inspire them, particularly as he takes his cues from his overbearing father Joe, a man so determined to brainwash his child and live vicariously through him that he denies him socialization, fraternization, and any free will of his own, separating him so mercilessly from the team to the point where he is made a laughingstock. The storyline culminates in a shocking showdown in the parking lot of Applebee's, where Joe physically assaults his son in view of Eric and Tami, who have no choice but to report the matter to child protective services.

It's a rain-slicked scene that not only rends the already tenuous relationship between the McCoys and the Taylors but also seals Eric's fate at the end of the season, creating a nemesis in Joe who is unrelenting in his determination to make his son a star and make Eric pay for what he did. With one punch, everything in Dillon changed... and not necessarily for the better.

I'm already anxious to watch Season Four of Friday Night Lights (I very luckily have a screener set from NBC of the entire season), but it will have to wait until after Comic-Con as I don't want to rush through the fourth season... and I still want to turn the brilliant, engaging, and emotionally layered third season over in my mind a little more.

Ultimately, this season stands up to the perfection of the freshman season, offering just as many tears, smiles, and laughs as the original did as well as some genuine emotional stakes that don't require stalkers, teen murderers, or student-teacher affairs in order to make it compelling. Sometimes the very best drama not only comes from the heart but from the everyday reality we all live. Thanks for the memories, Dillon.


Harleypeyton said…
A really great season. But don't kid yourself. Eric and Tami could never be rivals. They may struggle from time to time. But 'rivals' is not in the vocabulary of their marriage.
Dolphin said…
Glad to see you loved Season 3 as much as I did.

Now, hold onto your hat. IMO, Season 4 is on par with Season 1. It's just that good.
Rambling said…
First of all, I want to thank you for your reviews of this amazing show. I feel like you get every nuanced, lovely part of it. And I can't wait to see what you think of Season 4. Aren't screener sets the greatest thing?
Hannah said…
Season three was such a relief after season two (which had its ups and downs). It's a shame that, due to the strike, we didn't get to find out how season two was supposed to end but I think the writers did an excellent job of pushing ahead while not forgetting old storylines, such as Smash's and Jason's.

I'm excited to hear what you think of season four. Reading your wonderful reviews is making me very nostalgic!!

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