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'Friday Night Lights': Smash's last stand

October 22, 2008 |  9:39 pm


And just like that, Smash is gone. It was no secret that Gaius Charles' Brian "Smash" Williams would be leaving "Friday Night Lights" four episodes into Season 3. The writing team even weaned viewers off him, announcing two episodes ago that Smash had a walk-on tryout at Texas A&M this very week .

And that tryout was grand, a tension-filled scene loaded with respect and fear. When "Friday Night Lights" began two years ago, Smash strutted around like high school was nothing but an annoyance, a necessity standing between him and his "Cribs"-worthy mansion. His transformation has been a joy to watch, as Smash has been dealt numerous blows over the past 40 or so episodes.

He survived a bevy of attacks from the racist, mostly white, fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and its surroundings. He lost the respect of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) by experimenting with steroids, and gradually won it back with a strong work ethic, good ol' family values and the slow realization that the coach is right far more often than the Smash is wrong.

Smash thought about doubting Taylor in this episode. With the help of Landry's (Jesse Plemons) Wi-Fi, he discovered the coach had arranged a tryout at Texas A&M not with the head coach or an offensive coordinator, but with the "director of group sales."

But getting Smash on the field was all  Taylor really had in mind. The brief showdown between Taylor and the head coach of Texas A&M was a delight. Kept waiting an hour, Taylor and Smash were told to come back next week. Instead, Taylor marched to the 50-yard line. The coach knew that making sure the boy stood up straight and ran his plays would be enough to get him out of fast food joint the Alamo Freeze for good, and it was. 

And here's the beauty of "Friday Night Lights," and what makes it so hard to criticize a slightly flawed episode (and this one had it flaws). The character who made the biggest impact on the tryout scene was neither the coach nor Smash, but the coach's wife, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton).

Just moments earlier, we saw Eric drinking hard liquor and fumbling over which quarterback to start in the next game. But Tami knocked his confidence back into him. "You are a molder of men, and I find that admirable," she said to him (added props for admitting the line would be corny). That pep talk hung over the scene, and the rest of the episode, for it seemed to fuel the spark that inspired Eric to disrupt the Texas A&M practice.

Smash's departure, which Charles discussed in an earlier post, presents some distinct challenges for "Friday Night Lights" going forward. It was through Smash that the series delved into issues of racism with a delicacy and a nuance rarely seen on television, or anywhere in mainstream pop culture for that matter (the Season 1 protest against coach Mac Macgill for a dim-witted comment, or Smash's more-than-justifiable lashing-out last season at a racist moron in a movie theater).

Let's hope Smash's departure  means such like-minded story lines won't also disappear from "Friday Night Lights." Time will tell, but for now, it's safe to say that it was the right time for Charles to graduate off the show.

Dillon is overcrowded with aging characters who have failed to live up to the glory days of their high school years. If the final, almost slow-motion shot of Smash hanging out on a football field with his Panther pals was a bit cheesy, it was better than having to watch Smash stick around Dillon in a two-bit fast-food restaurant.

Perhaps that's why this episode of "Friday Night Lights" felt a bit like a mini season finale. The JumboTron story line that had occupied much of the first four episodes was wrapped up, perhaps a bit too quickly. But as a trade, Coach Taylor's dealings with freshman phenom J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter) is just starting to get good, and Matt Saracen's earlier visit with his estranged mother is gradually starting to pay off.

Notes from this week's episode:

The good with the bad: I was skeptical of Tami being named principal. The career leap didn't seem immediately plausible, and the conflict of interest, with her husband being the head coach in a town where football is king, seemed too great. But "Friday Night Lights" won me over with the JumboTron saga, and the debate between athletics and academics was a welcome one for the series to tackle, and one that had it roots in H.G. Bissinger's book.

A shame, then, that it seemed so readily wrapped up. Tami lost, but we didn't even get to see her make the argument that money donated for athletics should be re-allocated to academics. Maybe it would have been too nitty-gritty, but I looked forward to the public town hall, Tami's speech and the subsequent compromise. Couldn't the added revenue from electronic advertisements be immediately diverted to academics? We never got to the see that discussion, only the announcement that a JumboTron would soon be installed.

Now, all that being said, the conversations between Tami and Eric leading up to the JumboTron finale worked well. "You can at least make them feel guilty about their big ol' stupid JumboTron," says Eric, after his wife finally realizes that she can't go up against Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) and the football boosters.

It's a small consolation, but a smart one. It would have been easy for "Friday Night Lights" to play the principal/coach positions for marital strife. Instead, writers let Tami fight her battles outside the home, even when they were conflicts that could have readily put her up against her husband.

And Buddy Garrity: He's getting slimier with every episode, and there's no complaints here. When Tami is readying her case to the superintendent, Buddy fiendishly lets it slip that he and the superintendent were playing golf the other day. And suddenly the town of Dillon didn't seem so small, but Tami's role in it sure did.

Landry + Tyra: About time this couple is done. I never bought their relationship, and I never felt the writers did, either. After all, they had to stage a murder for it to make it even remotely plausible that the most popular bad girl in town would be dating a nerd over a jock. Sorry, no, impossible. It makes much more sense that Tyra would be dating a boob of a cowboy named Cash Waller. But two things: One, when Tyra calls Landry her "best friend," it rightly come off as the most evil put-down known to man, and two, it's nice to see a glimpse of a Crucifictorious poster.

The J.D. McCoy saga: Last week, Coach Taylor erred in not giving the ball to the more talented quarterback, no matter how close he is to  Saracen (Zach Gilford). The coach doesn't seem to be making that mistake again. Though he admits that J.D.'s  dad is a "freakshow of a father," Taylor  knows he can't let that prevent him from putting the  kid in the game.

And the kid, after all, seems like a reasonable fellow. J.D. even seems a little ashamed of his father (last week's comment about his diaper being bronzed), and it'll be a nice challenge for the show to make J.D. a likable kid with an insufferable dad.

And finally: This was a pretty packed episode. College essays could be written about Katie McCoy's (Janine Turner) JumboTron-prep comments to Tami that nobody likes an angry woman (not here, not now). We also see the return of Saracen's mother, played by Kim Dickens. It's delightfully awkward when she shows up with baby pictures, but a bit inplausible. She still seems out of place. It also seems a bit far-fetched that Matt would allow his mother to drive his grandmother (Louanne Stephens) to the hospital, knowing his grandmother can't stand her.

But when his grandmother hints that she didn't always treat Matt's mom with respect, it foreshadows some deeper, more complex drama up ahead. But as Grandma Saracen says, "Let's not have a big soap opera about it."

--Todd Martens

Photo: NBC/DirecTV