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'Friday Night Lights': Season 4, Episode 3: 'I'm not a Panther anymore'

November 12, 2009 |  7:21 am

Sometimes even the small victories aren't victories.

The fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" continues to explore a sense of desperation, throwing its characters into unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain. But it's doing so to great dramatic effect. Kyle Chandler's Eric Taylor has been tested before, but writers and producers are putting him through the wringer and adding a deeper dynamic to Eric's marriage to Connie Britton's Tami.

On opposite sides of a town redistricting, the drama related to Tami remaining the principal of Dillon High and Eric becoming the coach at East Dillon High continues to cause more tension. Smartly, however, writers and producers have a found a way to dig beneath the surface and create some focused, recession-timed subplots.

After being told by the principal of East Dillon that he wasn't supposed "to even be here," Eric has a new revelation. He was just removed from his position at Dillon High and offered a lesser gig; he's become the town joke, running a football team at a school that may or may not even care to have one. Having his team of ruffians burn their old East Dillon uniforms was a nice symbolic moment in Episode 2, but it inspires a financial crisis in Episode 3. 

New uniforms are going to run about $5,000, and with a football budget of zero, Eric cuts a personal check, later lying about it to Tami. Longtime viewers surely saw where this was heading, with another earth-shattering argument between the couple. They tough it out, but if their relationship is ultimately stable, nearly everything else remains unsettled in Dillon, as evidenced by the show ending with Eric staring up at the ceiling while lying in bed. 

There's an air of futility -- a general sort of frustration that comes from the rigors of daily life -- that "Friday Night Lights" has done a swell job of capturing in Season 4. Whether it's Aimee Teegarden's Julie questioning the point of going to church after witnessing the ugliness of Dillon's residents, or Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen wondering if turning into a tortured-artist cliche would actually benefit his trade, conflict this season doesn't have a clearly defined target.

Such strong storytelling makes it easy to overlook some curiosities, such as just where the residents of East Dillon came from, and why has no one ever met them before? It's easy to brush aside such a technicality when it's so much fun watching Taylor Kitsch's Tim Riggins try to avoid flirting with Madison Burge’s Becky Sproles (we've already pleaded to keep them apart).  

If Dillon does have one character deserved of pure anger, that would be D.W. Moffett’s Joe McCoy. Here's hoping he develops some shades of gray in coming episodes, as his smirk, while effective, has become a shortcut to symbolize the abuse of upper-class power. It's pure evil, and it causes Brad Leland's Buddy Garrity to lose it. "I'm not a Panther anymore," he yells, as the good ol' boys -- the Dillon High Panther boosters -- have transitioned from heavily obsessed fans with the ability to pull some strings to a top-down dictatorship run by McCoy.

He's talking about waging war on Principal Tami, and that becomes too much for Garrity to handle. He cops to tipping off Taylor about the illegal enrollment of Matt Lauria's Luke, a star football player in need of a little pampering, and has a grand explosion. Even Garrity, who has been spearheading unethical behavior in the name of the Dillon Panthers for more than a decade, can no longer stand what McCoy symbolizes.

Coach Taylor, meanwhile, is having a hard enough time fighting himself, as well as his team. Michael B. Jordan's Vince is a raw but talented player, yet his troubled upbringing has made him distrustful of everyone. Eric's speeches have zero effect on Vince, and when the coach calls on Luke to be a team leader, it's foretold that deeper racial divides among the team are in its cards.

So when the East Dillon Lions actually manage to finish a game, and score a touchdown to boot, Eric knows trouble is on the horizon. Vince lets Luke get smashed on the field, only to become the hero moments later, turning a mini-win -- the Lions still lost handily -- into a potential future disaster. Eric's wife is the target of the town bully, cash is strapped and now a race war is about to erupt on his team. A little insomnia seems a rather reasonable reaction.

-- Todd Martens



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