Friday Night Lights, “East of Dillon”

So far I’ve only been linking to my recaps for WEEKEND Watchers, but Friday Night Lights‘ season four debut on NBC is the perfect place to start posting Surveillance-only thoughts.

With “East of Dillon,” a lot of things have changed for the Taylors, the football team(s) and really for all Dillon residents. But a lot of things haven’t changed at all.It has been nearly year since the series aired on NBC, so if you forgot: Coach Taylor was pushed out of the coaching position at Dillon after coming up just short at state and moved over to the re-opened East Dillon High, a tattered, dirty mess of a school. Riggins and Lyla went off to separate colleges, while Matt decided to stay in Dillon so he could care for his grandmother and stick with Julie. So a change was a comin’.

A few months later, some of those changes came to pass, while others didn’t last as long. But for just about everyone in Dillon, the new 2009-10 school year is one of transition. For Coach Taylor, the transition is a rocky one. In the episode’s fantastic pre-title sequence and following few scenes, Coach tries to pull the East Dillon Lions together, despite the fact that they’re all out of shape and just want to be quarterback. And that’s not even counting the raccoons in the nasty locker room or the beer bottles on the browning field.

Interestingly, we had been made to believe or at least feel as if the Dillon Panthers were underdogs at certain points over the past three seasons, but even the 08-09 Panthers squad had a hell of a lot more talent than the Lions. They’re a talentless batch of misfits, most with chips on their shoulder or a general distaste for authority. If Coach thought Riggins was a hassle, he’s got a lot of work to do with most of the Lions. Though the rag-tag group of idiots is a sports storytelling cliche, I’m not too worried about how the writers execute it moving forward because we all know that the sports stories are not the most important or propelling part of episodes.

Although, with this story, the games themselves do seem more crucial to the story itself, especially considering “East of Dillon” ends with Coach Taylor forefitting the game after looking at his bruised, bloody and broken boys who did want to stay on as Lions. Thanks to fantastic music, Peter Berg’s direction and Kyle Chandler’s fantastic acting, that scene might have been my favorite of the premiere. Watching Coach bounce around from player to player, sometimes smiling sometimes looking legitimately concerned, was lovely — and made his subsequent decision to end it that much more effective.

I remember when this episode originally on DirecTV in the fall (full disclosure: I’ve already seen the first six episodes once, but decided to start over because I didn’t keep up with recaps then) there was some concern over whether or not a “real” football coach would ever quit in any circumstance. Although I can see that point, I think that Coach’s move here was the right one, both in the moment and obviously for the story moving forward. Having the team make some sort of a comeback would be absolutely ridiculous and perhaps even more unbelievable than the forefit. And having them getting blown out would only further beats the episode already hit. So the forefit puts the team in a weird place, and Coach in an even weirder one, which is where the story plays best.

For other former Panthers, things aren’t going any better. After only a few weeks of college, Riggins has had enough and heads back to Dillon. The bad news for #33 is that Billy and Mindy are enjoying domesticated life with a child on the way, so Riggins and Riggins Rigs doesn’t quite fit into the life plan for the newly wed Mr. and Mrs. Riggins. One messy hook-up and one sassy lecture from the daughter of the messy hook-up later, and Riggins has no direction in life.

This is another story convenience just to get the uber-popular Taylor Kitsch back in the picture, but it’s also completely realistic for the character. Though it was nice character progression to see Rig head to college, it was really something that everyone else wanted for him, as he says in “East of Dillon.” If there is one character that probably operates best within the Dillon bubble, it’s #33, so we should be glad to have him back.

Finally, for Matt, it’s never easy is it? After making the noble choice of staying in Dillon instead of going to art school in the Windy City, he’s left delivering pizza to people who probably still blame him for losing the state title the season before. Perhaps it’s only fitting that the one person who has always wanted to leave Dillon the most is still stuck there because he can’t not be the gentlemen that he is. His frustrations manifest here via a few thrown punches at the now-douchey J.D. McCoy, but that’s surely just the start of Matt’s “get me the hell out of here” rage this season.

The move to East Dillon also brings the opportunity for new characters, and that starts here with Vince, played by Michael B. Jordan, aka Wallace from The Wire. Jordan has a steely intensity that makes him a perfect match for Kyle Chandler in those emotional practice/game scenes. His appearance — along with a few other new characters later — allows the series to tell some more of the racially charged stories from the original book that haven’t made it into the first three seasons. Hopefully the writers handle it with more finesse than they did Santiago from S2. Though, I’ll admit they didn’t handle it overwhelmingly well here, with most of the “attitude” players quitting early on being black.

Nevertheless, “East of Dillon” serves almost as a pilot for a new series, one that’s just as sharply written and emotionally charged as the one that proceeded it.

Ed note: I’m still working on some kinks here on the blog and struggling over whether or not I should give each episode a “grade,” an exercise I think is partially helpful and partially useless. So until I figure that all out, let’s give “East of Dillon” an “A-.”

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