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'Friday Night Lights': Ten reasons why Season 4 is the series' best

February 10, 2010 |  4:32 pm

Note: This post contains spoilers. 

FNL_SEASON_4
 
It isn't all that difficult to dream up sports-related metaphors for life. There are plenty of situations in which one can strike out, fumble or go for the end zone. "Friday Night Lights," traditionally, avoids such cliches in its dialogue. 

Yet in tonight's Season 4 finale, which airs on DirecTV's 101 Network (the fourth season will air beginning in April on NBC), there is one scene on the football field that can quickly and aptly summarize the mindset of the small-town drama. Jesse Plemons' Landry Clarke, an academic stud and a football misfit, is called upon to attempt a 46-yard field goal. Daunted by the possibility, Clarke tells Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor that he's not the man for the job.

"It could be worse, son," Taylor tells him. "It could be 47 yards." 

Backs were against the wall, jobs were in jeopardy, crimes were covered up, and young love came of age. The fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" had its share of obstacles and captured an often desperate, recession-stricken town divided by race and class, and still clinging to its religious morals. There's high drama, as jail time was faced and guns were stared down, and it was all presented with a sort of hardscrabble, roll-up-your sleeves, fight-or-die mentality. 

Things, after all, could always be worse. Coach Taylor, always at the center of the show, started Season 4 at rock bottom. No longer heading the hot-shot Dillon High Panthers, Taylor was coaching at East Dillon, a rundown school on the wrong side of the tracks. His wife remained principal of Dillon High but starts the season finale as the center of a town abortion debate. With a mob of angry parents demanding she step down, she's sliding toward the end of the rope herself. 

"You're gonna get through this," Eric tells her. "Am I? Should I?" she retorts.

All the tension, as it has always been, is loosely connected via the fictional town's obsession with high school football. Perhaps more so than ever, "Friday Night Lights" in its fourth season captured the scope, diversity and challenges of small-town life. Even at its most personal, issues were shaped by the community, and the mission the show started with its pilot -- to realistically portray a down-on-its-luck town -- was fully realized.

Here are 10 reasons why the fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" was its best.

"Friday Night Lights": Year zero. By sending Coach Taylor to a new school, writers and producers were better able to essentially restart the series. Though longtime fans may have wondered just where East Dillon and its inhabitants materialized from, creating a rival high school made it easier to highlight the benefits and the side effects of high school football. For some, such as Michael B. Jordan's Vince Howard and Matt Lauria's Luke Cafferty, it's a way out. For Jeremey Sumpter's J.D. McCoy, it's simply an obstacle on the way to NFL riches and the cheerleaders of his choice. For Connie Britton's Tami Taylor, it's become, in her professional life, a necessary evil. But it's never, as one character in the season finale suggests, "just a game." As Coach Taylor snaps, "Don't patronize us and tell us it's just a damn game."

Meet Michael B. Jordan. Heading into Season 4, "Friday Night Lights" lost a number of its favorites, as a number of the characters were graduating high school. Jordan's Vince, however, soon become a standout, and the strength of his character and his performance eased the pain for anyone who was missing show staples such as Adrianne Palicki's Tyra, Gaius Charles' Brian "Smash" Williams or Scott Porter's Jason Street. In the first few episodes, Vince was little more than anger, but there were multiple dimensions to his rage, as well as a slight romantic edge. Through his relationship with Coach Taylor and football, each layer was gradually and slowly revealed. 

"Wire" fans, pay attention. In addition to casting a pair of "Wire" vets -- Jordan and Larry Gilliard -- "Friday Night Lights" in its fourth season more directly delved into how each aspect of a community is touched by high school football and the political decisions that surround it. By showing Dillon's grittier, more gang-infested side of town, "Friday Night Lights" forced its main characters -- and viewers -- to confront their own prejudices. A simple desire to turn on the lights at a shady park became an exploration of class issues. 

You can't go home again. The series lost one of its more famous faces in Minka Kelly's Lyla Garrity, but her brief return in Season 4 forced Taylor Kitsch's Tim Riggins to start to wonder what he's doing with his life, and it illustrated the instant divide that materializes between those who leave a small town for college and those who forever stay in one place. While the show never passes judgement on Riggins' decision, Garrity comes back far more mature than when she left, and Riggins realizes that sooner or later he's going to have to put his high school glories behind him. 

Everyone needs to find their own Chicago. Before opting for art school in Chicago, Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen made his exit from "Friday Night Lights" in stunningly powerful fashion. The everyman hero of the show was thrown a number of acting challenges when his character has to confront the death of a father he never knew. He aced it, delivering a funeral eulogy that captured his character's growth while also paying tribute to servicemen everywhere.

The birds and the bees. When Gilford was interviewed by Show Tracker, he spoke of how cast and crew discuss the show's more overly dramatic plots. "We have this expression on the show, where we say, 'We’ll ‘FNL’ it.' We take stories that have the potential to be very cheesy and melodramatic and we play them not that way," Gilford said. That's exactly what "Friday Night Lights" did with a teen pregnancy story in Season 4, turning a personal drama into a community debate when a crazed parent alleged that Tami Taylor encouraged the teen to have an abortion.

A little restraint. When young Becky (Madison Burge) started flirting with Tim Riggins, there was the instant fear that Riggins would get intimate with the daughter of his recent one-night stand. But writers and producers strayed from the obvious and kept the promiscuous Riggins at bay. If only that kind of restraint had been shown in Season 2 (remember Saracen and the nurse? Ugh.). 

And some comic relief. The addition of Russell DeGrazier's coach Stan provided some levity early in the season, and when Aimee Teegarden's Julie found herself a Habitat for Humanity boy, the ensuing dinner with her parents stood as one of the most awkwardly charming moments in the series' history. His failed attempt at small talk with Coach Taylor, in which he wondered how weird it was to play football in the rain, was cringe-inducing hilarity. 

The season finale's payoff is well-earned. Though in real life it's hard to imagine the East Dillon Lions, who only 12 weeks ago were struggling to complete a pass, could ever beat the Dillon Panthers, the brief happy ending is a welcome sigh of relief. After a shooting, an abortion and an arrest, the least writers could do was ease the tension with a field goal. 

There's still more to come. For the first time ever, "Friday Night Lights" fans can relax, knowing the series will be back for at least one more season. With 13 more episodes to come, there's plenty that's left open-ended tonight. What happens to Landry's college plans? What will happen when Stan's homosexuality inevitably gets out in the open? At what point will Vince's gang past catch up to him? How will Tami adjust to working at East Dillon? 

Are there reasons we missed? Probably. Please share them below. 

-- Todd Martens

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

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