Friday Night Lights (S03E01): Washed in Gatorade

Grade: A

Friday Night Lights returned on DirecTV this week, after being saved from certain death by one of the biggest experiments in TV history, and brought back a leaner, better show that tries hard to forget the missteps from a shaky second season. The network move (although episodes will air on NBC at a date TBD) is a starting over point in many ways, where new storylines take center stage and old ones are hardly mentioned, if at all. Captured best by the great moments in Panther football history video near the end of the hour, this episode passes the torch: to new faces, new struggles, and new goals. And, somehow, the new ushers in a Friday Night Lights feeling very much like its old, wonderful self — cleansed by a bucket of ice cold Gatorade over the head.

It’s very clear after the lengthy recap, meant to hopefully rope in new viewers, that Jason Katims and his crew want to move on and distance their show from its mistakes. There is no mention of Tyra or the rapist and the fiasco that followed or Riggins and the meth man. In fact, the recap is composed mostly of season one footage. This move is good for a number of reasons, I think. Not only does it give FNL virgins a good jumping in point, but it also reaches out to long time fans that had drifted away over negative feelings from season two. This idea is a success on both counts, and while the premiere may not be FNL at it’s very best, it’s certainly a show on its way back to what it once was.

Let’s be honest: After a stellar birth into the TV world, that had critics and fans (even people like me who are hardly interested in the sport of football) raving, Friday Night Lights strayed from what made it great and gave all those supporters a follow-up season that was hard to love. It wasn’t all bad, though. Smash and his horrendous senior year of injury and scholarship losses, Tyra and Landry being brought closer (M-u-r-d-e-r aside), and Coach Taylor’s triumphant return to Dillon were some of the highlights, but there were plenty of other moments to love as well. Really, the mediocre second outing was still better than many shows at their best, but the problem cropped up when a handful of potentially great stories were mixed in with some truly outlandish ones.

On any other show, the convoluted and mellow dramatic stuff introduced would have maybe worked, but in FNL’s simple universe it was too much. That’s what season three has discovered, ditching the drugs, murder, and rape for the subject matters that work–the dynamics of family, the glory and struggles of football, and the relationships between friends and lovers, and every character’s journey this season looks to be taking them down one of those paths.

The episode starts at the beginning of the next school year, skipping ahead a long ways from where we left off. I’m sure it’s another mark of the writer’s strike, but that’s not to say it’s a bad thing. It feels like a lot has gone on since we last met these people, a whole un-aired half season in fact, but they do their best to get us up to speed. Mrs. Taylor has ditched her baby drama for the higher stakes troubles of the school system when she is promoted to principal of Dillon High, Smash is still hoping and praying he can recover fully from his knee injury and still have a chance at going pro, Lyla has dumped Jesus and is rebounding with Tim Riggins, Tyra has dumped Landry and is focusing on getting into college, and Matt Sarecen’s days as QB1 may be numbered as the reincarnation of Jason Street, J.D. McCoy, and his overzealous father invade the Panthers. It’s all pretty normal stuff you wouldn’t be surprised to find going on in your own circle of people, and that’s exactly what FNL does best. It takes very real situations and makes them compelling and dramatic, but knows its limits and how far to go.

The video played after the Panther’s first win of the season serves not only the purposes I already mentioned, but also as a goodbye to some of our favorite characters. To anyone who keeps up with entertainment news, it’s no surprise that Jason Street and Brian Smash Williams are being written off the show, and knowing this made the montage of their greatest football moments bittersweet. While Street doesn’t appear at all, except in past clips, Smash gets a good amount of screen time, leading him to the end of his journey on the show. I like the evolution we see in him, humbled by a series of terrible events, and when his future is looking grim in the premiere, Coach Taylor reaches out an almost fatherly hand to the boy with the offer to help make sure he gets to college if that’s what he wants. Even though the doctor has told him he may never be as fast as he was before the knee injury, you can see past the defeat in his eyes and tell he really does still want it. And after a round of Racquetball, the “whitest sport on earth”, with the coach, he doesn’t say he accepts the offer, but it’s pretty much a given. I think it was a wise decision to wrap up his story here rather than branch out to his college adventures, and I’m happy to see it shaping up to be a fond and satisfying farewell.

I said the focus of this season is back in the right places, and one of those is in the school. Whatever led Mrs. Taylor to becoming the new school principal is still unknown, but the new challenges it gives her and those she interacts with are endless. She’s dealing with massive budget issues and a still rebellious Julie, who isn’t near as bratty as last season, but still not fully cured. That and she has Tyra blaming her for feeding her false hopes after the new douche bag guidance counselor pretty much tells her she has a snowball’s chance in hell at getting into a good college with her GPA. It’s all overwhelming for the usually on-top of everything Tami Taylor and she feels all the great ideas she came with in are being smothered beneath the stress of money, money, money. The comes what I think is the most interesting side to her story: The general school budget versus the football department’s budget. Buddy, being his usual lovable, bumbling self, has been given a check by J.D. McCoy’s father to install a Jumbo Tron on the field, Her husband has another new computer in his office, and his air conditioning is kept at about 68 degrees while the rest of the school is stifling hot. Here again FNL demonstrates how it can take a very common issue (I’ve seen this exact thing happen in my own high school and university, and I bet you have, too) and turn it into compelling TV. She ends up denying Old Buddy Garrity his big screen and allocating the funds to other areas, using her new found powers for the good of the many rather than the few. The decision doesn’t go over well with some, but she has the balls to not back down, and that’s why she remains one of my favorite characters on the show, if not the best period.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual with her husband, Coach Taylor, who assures reporters this isn’t a year of change and restructuring, which speaks beyond the roster of his football team to the show itself and its shared custody by two networks and the many changes that inevitably came along with that move. So as much as he says it isn’t, it clearly is, and there are forces at work to assure that; the main one being Mr. McCoy. He’s buying the team smoothies and bringing by high grade scotch and Cuban cigars for Coach Taylor, all in an attempt to butter him up and get his son as QB1. Eric loves his boys though and doesn’t want to boot Matt from the position, but when McCoy points out that Matt is an average talent with great coaching and his boy is an exceptional talent, no one can really argue with him, even if we want to. As J.D. shows in Friday’s game, he is better than Matt, and he and his father know it. Which, to me, wants me to see him go and Matt stay, even if it means them losing every single game. But we know that won’t happen, and Coach Taylor is put in a very tough spot of choosing between loyalty or winning. But, c’mon, after seeing the way Matt’s Grandma was looking at him all bummed out after the game, I don’t want to have to see him crying in a tub again. Matt as QB1 4EVR!

Over in Tyra’s world, she’s broken up with Landry or, if you ask him, they’re taking a break. Either way, they’re still close friends and cuter than ever together. Landry is trying to help Tyra figure out her future, looking dark after her advising meeting, but she’s getting discouraged all around. She’s upset at her grades, which seem impossible to pull up high enough, and worried she’ll stay in Dillon forever and end up like her stripper sister, whose engagement to Tim’s brother sends her off the deep end. It’s not that she isn’t happy for her sister, but she figures they’ll have a few kids and get divorced, and worse, she can see herself ending up like that. In tears, she shows up the Taylors wanting to do whatever it takes not to take that same path. With some motherly advice from Tami, she plops down her application to some of those colleges she’d “never” get in and a submission to run as student council president, and lets the old fart know to never, ever tell her what she can’t do again.

Last Season, Lyla found Jesus and Tim found himself more interested in her then ever. Skip forward, past a series of unknown events, and Jesus is nowhere to be found. But Riggins is in Lyla’s bed and she’s not kneeling down for very different reasons. With her religious quest and that boring fling out of the picture and Riggins no longer hanging out with drug addict psychopaths, they’re both seeming pretty normal these days. After the summer, though, they find it hard to reveal their relationship to others. Tim has girls throwing themselves at him, which grosses her out, but finally Tim takes some of her advice and tries to grow up a little. She gets so hot and bothered by this she kisses him in the middle of the post-game party for all to see, including dear old daddy, who looks either shocked, happy, scared or all of the above. Because both Lyla and Tim’s drama has been scaled back, they’re both much more enjoyable in this episode than much of last season, but I still have a hard time seeing them together as a genuine couple. I just see Tim always being the playboy that never settles down, until maybe somewhere in his 40s.

By changing its style of storytelling, FNL messed up. However, learning quickly from those mistakes and being given a second chance to correct them, the show is feeling like its old self once more, and fans of the show can breathe easy knowing it’s on track to delivering another wonderful year of stories. Friday Night Lights is back to feeling real again and because of that, it’s real, real good.

P.S.: What happened to Buddy’s live-in “son”, Santiago? He wasn’t mentioned at all? I guess they really are pretending season 2 didn’t even happen. I didn’t care much for him anyway, so no big deal. Just forgot he wasn’t there until just now…so I obviously didn’t miss his presence.

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