'Friday Night Lights' Season 5, Episode 3: 'The Right Hand of the Father'
There's a moment in a "Friday Night Lights" season when everything -- almost everything, at least -- seems to click. The point last season, for instance, when Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) came back to Dillon, Texas, and illustrated the maturity gap between those who stayed in the small town and those who bolted.
This season, the last for NBC/DirecTV's "Friday Night Lights," the stride was hit early in Episode 3. After two solid episodes laying the groundwork for the drama to unfold over the course of the next few months, the series was ready to get its hands dirty. No more setting up was needed, and the show's trademark intimate camera angles were ready to pop in and out of all the various action happening in and around Dillon, paying no heed to hitting every detail.
An example: The East Dillon Lions are now 2-0. Viewers didn't see that game unfold, and there was no need. While some may miss the choreographed football scenes, "Friday Night Lights" has a way of making one feel as if life isn't slowing down when the cameras are off.
The focus, however, can deftly change from week to week. New faces introduced in Episodes 1 and 2 had little or no role in Episode 3. It looked as if Connie Britton's Tami Taylor was going to have her hands full with a burnout named Epyck, but that was before Denise Williamson's Maura emerged as Dillon's very own little Ke$ha. She's a girl with a sarcastic tongue who thinks getting drunk and naked is all a hoot, even if it appears on YouTube and garners -- gasp -- 2,000 hits. Small towns, as Miranda Lambert has noted, have a way of making everyone feel like they're a celebrity.
This week's episode was a showcase for the two most stable figures in the series' five seasons, the husband and wife team of Tami and Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor. The two delivered numerous knock-out speeches, ones that slyly lecture their pupils but leave them with a choice rather than a punishment.
When Tami caught Maura getting frisky in the closet, she gave her a talking to, yes, but also handed her the gift of seeing herself as others did. Said Tami: "Let me give you a little perspective on something. You were in a supply closet. That's where they keep mops and brooms and computer paper and there's some rats in there. Isn't that romantic? This is going to get around now, too. And before you know it you're going to have yourself quite a reputation."
Already, Maura had laughed off a YouTube video, one that captured her passed out and being used as a puppet by a fellow classmate. Tami tried to admonish her, and it led to a class on alcohol abuse, one that led Tami into a lesson in self-respect. "It's disturbing to see a girl being passed around at a party like a rag doll."
"Friday Night Lights" has had its share of strong female characters, including Jurnee Smollett's Jess, who's invading the boys' world by taking on the role of equipment manager for the Lions. Yet the football groupie culture is another matter, sending the football-obsessed girls on a dead-end path.
Coach Taylor is aiming smaller, tackling one student at a time rather than a culture. Michael B. Jordan deserves a proper shout-out as Vince, transforming his character from a delinquent to a leader, but one that hasn't gotten comfortable with his new responsibilities. Viewers saw just how far Vince still has to go, and could be just one trip-up from losing it all.
With his father out of prison, and Coach Taylor leaning on Vince to be a model character for his Lions' new-found "high standards," Vince has a near mental breakdown. "I don't know how to be better," Vince shouts before slamming the coach's desk. Eric doesn't flinch. "I didn't say you needed to be better than everyone else," Coach Taylor says. "But you've got to try. That's what character is."
Oh, and the Lions are now 3-0, but this is a show about character rather than football.
On the subject of Coach Taylor's respect: With last week's episode dealing heavily with Taylor realizing that he's on the outside of Dillon's elite, a reader named Tony wrote in with the following comment: "I'm a little mystified by the lack of respect Coach Taylor gets. This guy DID take the Panthers to 2 State Championships, and winning once. That's a pretty good track record for being a full-time coach for only, what, 5 seasons."
Tony, I shared the same reaction while watching the second episode of this season. By now it should be pretty clear to everyone that he's good with teenage football players. But as I thought about the episode over the week, my viewpoint changed. Eric, as anyone involved in running or coaching high school football in Dillon, is likely always going to be an outsider.
It's not a role for heroes so much as it is one for a puppet, and Eric, as wise and talented as he is, is not one to let someone else pull his strings. That might be a slightly lazy metaphor, but a football leader in Dillon is part coach and part politician, and a person who is there to mold to popular opinion. Legacies in sports are constantly shifting, as evidenced by the Detroit Tiger fans who cursed out Alan Trammell as manager and the Chicago Cubs followers who turned their back on first baseman Derek Lee. The Panthers are Dillon royalty, and Taylor is seen as blowing a chance for a second championship. Later, he spoiled the Panthers' season with a bunch of no-good hooligans who, in the minds of much of the town, didn't deserve to win.
So on the topic of Julie's boyfriend: OK, so this isn't a Swede-like disaster (the Swede: never forget), but Gil McKinney's Derek Bishop is Season 5's weak link, at least thus far. It's not necessarily the fault of McKinney, as no amount of acting heroics were going to rescue the suddenly manufactured drama of the teacher's assistant who has a crush on a freshman -- a TA who also happens to be married, but doesn't wear his ring because he's been away from his wife for six months and there are some issues. Sigh. Bored. Though Derek did his best to strut an I'm-really-a-good-dude-pout, any sympathy for his character hasn't been earned, and, quite frankly, Julie is smarter than to spend the night with a married TA, no matter how much she likes older boring guys who no doubt have half-read every Saul Bellow book.
Finally, he's a terrible teacher. Julie should have went straight to her teacher to complain about being stamped with a C minus simply because Derek, who was unable to say anything was wrong with her paper, thinks she should be doing a better job of impressing him.
So far, this plot has felt like little more than a set-up. "Friday Night Lights" does have a knack for digging itself out of holes (See last year's plot with Becky and Riggins), so fingers are crossed. Also, let's keep this in perspective, as Episode 3 was largely a full-on winner, and it's easy to poke shots at a lesser storyline. Nevertheless, word will inevitably get out about the one night stand, so here's hoping the drama lies with Julie and her schoolmates rather than Derek's existential marriage crisis.
Best moment: Coach Taylor saying "We didn't do any of this crap when we were kids," and his wife silently looking away with a quizzical "yeah."
"Friday Night Lights" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on DirecTV's 101 Network.
Photo: Denise Williamson as Maura. Credit: Bill Holden / DirecTV /NBC