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'Friday Night Lights': "New principal vows to shake up establishment"

October 8, 2008 | 11:48 pm

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When the characters of "Friday Night Lights" fight, the tension isn't just in the argument between two people. Underscoring nearly every battle in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, is the struggle against some seemingly unmovable force. Whether the threats are real or not, politics, class and race have a way of interfering.

A decision from a principal to divert some money from academics to athletics ends up in the mayor's office, a fancy dinner becomes a statement of power from the ruling class, and a boy's need to take care of his grandmother could set him up for the same fate as his father, who's off to war without a return date.

The second episode of "Friday Night Light's" third season succeeds in putting the personal in a larger context. Though some plot points are stronger than others -- Matt Saracen's (Zach Gilford) road trip to find his estranged mother seems to lack some emotional heft -- the episode does what the first season did at its finest, which is to illustrate how Dillon's seemingly innocent love of football has a way of seeping into every sun-stroked crevice of the community.

Gifted, as always, with the ability to see through all of this are the coach and his wife. But is Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), who is settling into her second episode as principal of Dillon High, starting to feel a bit helpless at changing Dillon for the better?

As many issues as "Friday Night Lights" has tried to tackle, one it has always nailed was the never-ending difficulty of maintaining and managing adult relationships. However outlandish some of the drama gets, the everyday stress on a couple is very real, whether the coach is griping about trash in his car or scolding his wife not to "whisper-yell" at him.

The first episode this season ended with some potential marital strife. Tami informed her husband that she was taking money raised by Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) and the football boosters for a Jumbotron and investing it in academics (Dillon High, as we're reminded at the start of the show, lost four teachers to budget cuts).

Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) said nothing to his newly appointed principal wife about her decision in the season opener. And when she confronts him on it in the second episode -- in a crowded restaurant -- he tries to avoid the subject by talking about the menu. But Tami persists, and the mini-fight that follows is certainly the highlight of the episode.

He backs into his opinion, with some carefully chosen language. Eric: "I don't want to tell my wife, who I love and who I believe in 100%, that the first major decision she made at the school could be construed by some as questionable."

It's not that he cares about the Jumbotron. He doesn't, as he makes clear, but the coach seems ready to let Dillon be Dillon and informs his wife that picking a fight with Buddy Garrity, the car salesman who represents Dillon's upper-crust society, is not one that's likely to be won. As he eloquently offers as an argument ender: "People in Dillon love their football, and you're not going to change that."

But it seems that Tami, who spent much of the second season persuading the young Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) that there's a life beyond marrying a former high school football star and becoming a stripper, is going to spend the next 11 episodes doing her darnedest to try. "This is the way change is made," she says, "and I felt like I needed to make that statement right from the beginning."   

And Buddy can manipulate with the best of 'em. A hearing is set for two weeks, Buddy later informs Tami. When the mayor is on the attack in Tami's office, it's Buddy who sits in the back, with an aw-shucks look on his face, and though he's the puppet master in all this, he knows when to let others become the bad guy.

So when he tells Tami about the meetings he's been having behind her back, and the upcoming hearing with the mayor and the superintendent, he pulls out all the pandering, passive-aggressive tricks in his play book. Really, Tami, says the look on his face, this is just grown-up stuff you don't understand.  "It's open to the public," says Buddy. "You can be there, of course."

When all is said and done, I have a feeling Tami will make her case. But even the media seems to be on Buddy's side (a headline in the local paper reads, "New Principal Vows to Shake Up Establishment: Tensions Run High in Marriage Between Head Coach and High School Principal"). It seems that giving the teenagers at Dillon High a chance, rather than a football championship, is going to take quite the upset, and here's hoping "Friday Night Lights" doesn't skimp on any part of the battle.

Notes from "Friday Night Light's" second episode of the third season:

Proof that Buddy Garrity is evil: Though he's not above taking in a troubled teen, as long as he can play ball, Buddy often plays the villain in Dillon. This season is no different, and it's not because of his run-in with Tami over the needless Jumbotron, nor is it the way he so bluntly speaks of his disgust that Lyla is dating Tim. In one of the more awkward father-daughter scenes I can recall, Buddy prepares some New York strip steaks for himself and his daughter ("pan-fried and buttered, the way God intended") and then goes on to lecture Lyla that Tim is "white trash." He doesn't stop there: "The last thing we need is for you to get pregnant and for us to have to raise Tim Riggins' kid."

But his most serious offense comes at dinner with Lyla and Tim. Buddy orders the porterhouse, despite the waiter telling him it's not on the menu. "That's what I want, I want that big porterhouse," says  Garrity, ignoring him. It's a nice detail and one that cuts right through his good-ol'-boy guise and lands squarely on his arrogance.

Will Smash soon be leaving us?
Gaius Charles' Brian "Smash" Williams has been the beneficiary of some of "Friday Night Lights' " strongest storylines. The cocky, do-no-wrong kid has been humbled by a knee injury, this coming after he already had one scholarship stripped from him, and he was the centerpiece of my favorite Season 2 subplot (the college recruitment dance). This week, when Smash regains his confidence after coach Taylor puts him on the field with his own teammates, it's a brief but heartwarming moment, and Taylor practically has to force back a smile. So it's no wonder writers and producers would want to keep Smash around after he graduates but for how long? When the coach gets him a walk-on for Texas A&M in two weeks, is that the countdown for Smash as a regular on "Friday Night Lights"?

The silent lurker: That would be Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett), the upper-class father of freshman football stud J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter). J.D. is considered the resurrection of Jason Street (Scott Porter), the quarterback whose career came to a tragic end in the series premiere. He's a definite upgrade over Matt Saracen, and the parents and coaches know this, but this potentially tantalizing plot has lacked some tension up to this point. Matt's the senior, and, as far as anyone can tell, is doing a pretty decent job on the field this year. While the town is second-guessing the coach for sticking with Matt, Matt's going to need to start screwing up on the field before this sub-plot can take off. Also, with Buddy getting cozy with Joe, is this whole Jumbotron biz little more than a chance for Joe to have his prized son on the big screen?

Speaking of Matt: The mid-level talent had a busy week. His grandmother is descending into dementia -- and moaning the loss of "Cagney and Lacey" -- forcing Matt to seek emancipation to ensure that she takes her meds. With his father in Iraq, this provided a chance for "Friday Night Lights" to send Matt to seek out his estranged mother for a signature, but this scene seemed a little hurried. Nevertheless, the plot has provided an opportunity for Matt to reconnect with Julie (Aimee Teegarden), the coach's daughter, which is welcome.

--Todd Martens

Photo credit: NBC / DirecTV

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