'Friday Night Lights' Season 5, Episode 1 recap: Expectations
Season premieres of "Friday Night Lights" feel a bit like the first day of school. There's a nervous tentativeness that hangs over the show. New characters are introduced, and one gets the sense that everyone is by and large on their best behavior. The drama is there, but it's on the periphery, having been tidied up only to have the residents of the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, muck it all up over the course of the season.
In terms of introductions, there's a bad girl named Epyck, who in Episode 1 is only alluded to, and there's the worn-out, happy-hour-organizing teacher, Laurel, who may or may not give our guidance counselor hero Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) some trouble. Then there's a basketball-playing newbie in Hastings Ruckle, a sharp young lad who has some tough words about those who play the sport that makes the world of "Friday Night Lights" go round.
They're all a bunch of "toolbags," says Ruckle. Played by Grey Damon, who comes off as a cross between Robert Pattinson and "Friday Night Lights" mainstay Taylor Kitsch, Ruckle is the intelligent outsider, the one who declares that football "celebrates the worst insincts of American culture."
Naw, replies Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor. Football celebrates "teamwork and character." Coach Taylor, as "FNL" fans know, is ever the optimist, as for four seasons, first on NBC and now on DirecTV, football has been the center of plenty of turmoil. The ol' game of pigskin has inspired looks at race relations, class warfare, academic funding and sexual politics. And here Ruckle thought it was just a bunch of X's and O's knocking the daylights out of each other.
Ruckle doesn't know the half of it. "Friday Night Lights" has become adept at introducing new faces to its richly drawn, working-class world, and the show's intimately framed camera angles lend an eavesdropping feel. Life hasn't slowed in Dillon, and "Friday Night Lights" has enough respect for its audience to not need to hold the viewer's hand in introducing changes to familiar faces.
Aimee Teegarden's Julie Taylor is spending her final days in Dillon before heading off to college, a fictional university in Texas rather than the far-off locales she mentioned in the past, and Jesse Plemons' Landry is making his way to Houston's Rice University. Kitsch's Tim Riggins is out of commission, in jail for at least another three months, and the teenager who lusts after him, Madison Burge's Beckly Sproles, is struggling with her stepmom after it's noted Becky's mother is off working on a "casino boat."
An early and brief concert from Crucifictorious is a treat, and the concert allows for Stephanie Hunt's Devin to sing a few bars of a sludgy, classic-rock-like song. Sadly, it's too late to start a campaign for writers to give Devin the major story line she deserves, but Landry will make another appearance, and Julie gives him an awkwardly charming send-off by dropping him off at a strip club on his final night in town.
Most promising, however, is Lynn Blackburn's Laurel, a teacher at East Dillon who seems a bit weary of Tami's do-gooder nature. Though Blackburn's screentime is minimal in Episode 1, her every line and expression are laced with a dose of stress, capturing a character whose well-intentioned ambitions have gradually turned into cynicism.
The interactions between Tami and he new co-workers at East Dillon are among the episode's sharpest, as for the past four seasons viewers have seen Tami as a doggedly determined idealist. Through Laurel, viewers see another angle of Tami -- a woman who demands equal amounts respect and eye-rolling, as Tami's suggestion that the teachers put in more time isn't so much heard as ignored.
Niceties and pleasantries between Tami and her co-workers are exchanged, but one gets the sense the principal-turned-counselor, who, like her husband, was more or less banished from the plush Dillon High, will have plenty more hurdles than just dealing with a difficult student in Epyck. There will, of course, be football too, but the wins and losses of the East Dillon Lions are not the center of the drama. The game, instead, is a largely a relief from it -- an almost comforting reminder that Coach Taylor's dream of "teamwork" does have a place in this world, if only between two goal posts.
Other notes from the "Friday Night Lights" season premiere:
- "Just turn on the girl charm." It's nice to see a grown-up Vince, and Michael B. Jordan's character has matured into a team leader. When he taps Jess (Jurnee Smollett) to recruit Hastings for the football team, his suggestion that she "turn on the girl charm" is a sly moment of comic relief, but one can't help but wonder if Hastings turned on a bit of his own charm. He's a "free spirit," he tells her, and if anyone can wreck havoc on a relationship, it's the jock who thinks he's a poet. This is written not from viewing numerous television dramas, but simply having gone through high school.
- A win too soon? Viewers got a major payoff at the end of Season 4, with Coach Taylor's Lions defeating the rich and evil Dillon High Panthers. Though such sloppy underdogs likely could have never won that game in real life, viewers had no doubt earned the relief. But how far can the Lions go in Season 5? Putting them from misfits to the state championship seems a bit too far-fetched, but a .500 record isn't going to bring the requisite drama.
The team, perhaps, won its big game too soon. There's a sense, at least, that the writers recognize this, and the Lions pull off a win in Episode 1 only by taking out the other team's quarterback. The hit from Matt Lauria's Luke Cafferty looked clean, and puts Coach Taylor on the opposite end of a quarterback injury, albeit one much less severe than the Jason Street disabling in the series premiere. The Lions surely will be punished heavily for Luke's hit, and that's at least one dramatic device to send the team back to Square One, sending the Lions back to their underdog status.
-- Todd Martens
"Friday Night Lights" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on DirecTV's 101 Network.
Images, from top: Jesse Plemons as Landry Clarke and Aimee Teegarden as Julie Taylor; Matt Lauria as Luke Cafferty and Grey Damon as Hastings Ruckle (Credits: Bill Records / NBC/DirecTV)