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'Friday Night Lights': College and broken hearts, but first the playoffs

December 3, 2008 |  8:00 pm

So begins the Jason Street-less era of "Friday Night Lights." And the first episode without Scott Porter's character opened with a bang -- or, more precisely, a crash.

Back from New York, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) arrives in the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, to find his car banged up and resting in a tree. The fairy-tale buzz provided by the magic Street touch didn't last too long. As one relationship took off, another, apparently, came to an end. Tim arrives home to find that this brother, Billy (Derek Phillips), is no longer engaged to a stripper.

Meanwhile, we learn that Tyra's (Adrianne Palicki) rodeo boy, Cash Waller (Zach Roerig), may have more weaknesses than infidelity. But can life's daily dramas get in the way of a good playoff run?

As the post-season begins for the Dillon Panthers, "Friday Night Lights" gives us perhaps its most meta episode of the series to date. "Friday Night Lights," a fictional series based on a film that was inspired by a nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger, becomes a bit of a show within a show as it's learned from Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) that the upcoming game will be shown on national television (apparently as part of NBC's high school football offerings).

When Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) breaks the news to her students, the Dillon High lunchroom suddenly turns into spring break, with boys taking off their shirts for the camera crews. As Garrity says, "Are you ready for some football?"   

If the episode started as one that was going to focus on more personal concerns, that's not how it ended. Episode No. 9 (sadly, only four more to go) had the football game as its centerpiece, and, like earlier chapters this season, showed how the sporting life can break and mend hearts, wreck havoc and build a community -- all within 44 or so minutes.

The rundown

And about college: In one of its more subtle plots this season, "Friday Night Lights" looked at college from two very different -- and telling -- points of view. In one corner, there was Riggins, the lovable screw-up of Dillon. In another, there was Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the hard-working, bang-up student who obediently follows every whim of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and also takes care of his grandmother.

Tim, who often ditches class for some pre-happy-hour drinks, has colleges knocking down his door, essentially begging to give him football scholarships. Saracen, however, has a month left to apply and is considering skipping it altogether so he can continue to take care of his grandmother.

Tim can't even be bothered to meet with college recruiters. When Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) offers to drive the boy to his recruiting meeting, Tim is, as expected, drunk and more flippant than usual. On the way to the sales pitch, Riggins is ready to blow it off. "I'm excited for my free steak," he says, and Lyla kicks him out of her car (about time).

But just as "Friday Night Lights" earlier showed us a divide between the rich and the middle class, the dueling college plots brought the third season back around to the academics-versus-athletics debate that Season 3 opened with. Fans of the series are undoubtedly rooting for both characters. There's no reason not to.

For, as often as Tim messes up, his heart is in the right place, even if he lacks ambition. And for 2.5 seasons, Saracen has been the series' evidence that nice guys don't always finish last --or don't always get stuck on the bench.

So although Tim received good news, there was something slightly unsettling about it. He blows off a recruitment meeting, and he's skipped most of his classes, yet he's given a ticket to college because the entire starting backfield at San Antonio State is graduating.

Meanwhile, one of Dillon's most honorable students has a series of roadblocks stacked in front of him. Although his formerly estranged mother (Kim Dickens) has offered to take care of grandma Saracen (Louanne Stephens), the latter can hardly stand the former. Although, in a nice touch, they start to bond, ever so slightly, over a Dillon Panther football game.

And then there's the issue of money. Matt's mom seems to be serious about making amends, and Matt desperately wants -- needs -- to go to college so that he's willing to put aside any doubts. And though he's finally persuaded coach to let him play wide receiver, he lacks the God-given football talents of Tim and is instead betting on scholarships.

It was a nice contrast and one that this Show Tracker post is probably playing up more than the episode itself did. For Tim, football still can be an opportunity. For Matt, even with all the time he's devoted to the sport, it will likely turn out to have been little more than an after-school diversion.

Missed opportunity? Were the all-too brief scenes with the national television crew a bit of a missed opportunity? We get teased that Jesse Plemons' Landry Clarke is going to sit down for a full interview with the film crews, but all we see is the pre-interview, which runs down all of Landry's academic stats. And once the game started, the big television crews were kind of an afterthought. Granted, the Panthers were off their game for the first half, which could be attributed, perhaps, to jitters with dealing with the pressure, but the introduction of the film crew quickly went from clever to nonexistent.

Best line: Buddy Garrity, basking in a post-win glow, hears a ring at his door. Regrettably, knowing it's Tim Riggins, who has once again come to apologize to his daughter, Buddy says, after the first ring, "It's not your mother. I don't have any friends. Who can that be?"

A coach's -- and a principal's -- job never ends: But thankfully Trya's relationship with Cash does. In a striking and sudden turn, Cash went all abusive -- desperate for dough and obsessed with gambling. Having ran away to Dallas with the rodeo boy, Trya has neglected her duties to pick a theme for the school dance, and ends up being she's scared back to Dillon.

Needing a ride, she has to break up a romantic evening between Tami and Eric Taylor in the process. "I don't like that look," says Eric, offering a nervous glare while Tame and Trya talk on the phone. Tami shushes him, but Eric's darting, doubting eyes say all there is to say.

Apologies: It's been a couple weeks since I've Show Tracked, as there was no episode last week, and I had a major goof in the previous recap that I wanted to apologize for. I noted that when Street and Riggins went to New York it was the first time "Friday Night Lights" brought its characters out of Dillon. Of course it wasn't, as I've written about the trip to Texas A&M and Mexico in the past. I had meant to say something to the effect that it was the first time the characters went to a major American city outside of the South, and then discuss the fish-out-of-water aspects of the episode, but that's not how the sentence was written. I thank the readers who corrected me and apologize for such a boneheaded oversight.

--Todd Martens

Photo: Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor. Credit: DirecTV / NBC