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Friday Night Lights Recap: Adult Entertainment

Last week, on the heels of yet another example of Eric and Tami Taylor's strong, emotionally alive relationship, we declared them to be “the only living grown-ups on television.” After this week’s emotional gut punch of an episode — which featured mature, complicated, nuanced representations of incredibly difficult issues ranging from abortion to race — we’re ready to up the praise: Friday Night Lights doesn’t just feature grown-ups, it may in fact be the only show for grown-ups, at least on network TV. (By network TV we are referring to NBC — Hey! Quit laughing! — which finally scheduled an air date of April for this phenomenal fourth season of FNL. Thanks for something, Jay Leno!)

“I Can’t” was the second-strongest hour of the season thus far, trailing only “The Son,” the epic, Saracen-farewell ep. The focus here was parenting in its various forms: the need we all have for a shoulder to cry on, an arm to lean on, a brain to pick, a hand to hold. And, because this is Frtday Night Lights and not, I don’t know, Seventh Heaven, all of the parental types in Dillon occasionally seemed as scared, unsure, and overwhelmed as the kids they are expected to aid. There was some minor, annoying Julie stuff this week (her boyfriend’s been to Senegal and isn’t afraid of heights!) and some throat-clearing about the Riggins boys (Tim has had enough illegality and wants a full partnership with Billy! Billy is fine with that, but first would you mind finishing digging this suspiciously car-size hole?), but the focus was on the two youngest and most vulnerable members of the cast, Vince and Becky, who delivered some of their strongest work to date.

(Before we get into it, an aside: How much of an MVP is the show’s casting director? As we’ve discussed before, one of the most impressive aspects of this season is that it is doing so much in what is essentially a transition year: new school, new team, and many, many new characters. If the casting director had whiffed on a single one of the new hires, the whole mechanism would have collapsed before it had a chance to get going. So on weeks like this, when Madison Burge and Michael B. Jordan are acting and emoting and generally strutting around East Dillon like they own the place, it’s worth noting and appreciating.)

So! Vince begins this week sandwiched between his two stern, earnest (stearnest?) father figures: Coach and Big Mary. Coach is doing some actual coaching at a picnic table, running through offenses and other interesting blah, blah, blah. But seriously: It’s nice to be reminded that Eric Taylor is actually some sort of football genius and not just a dude that looks weird in red struggling to keep Glenn away from his Scotch. But Big Mary, after telling Vince to quit worrying about blitzes and instead focus on dishes, expresses some disapproval of Coach’s coach-y methods! Which leads us to another casting digression: Steve Harris is great in this role! Early in the season we wondered why a talented TV vet like Harris was being left in the background, and now we think we’ve figured it out: The slow establishing of Big Mary’s place in the social framework of East Dillon had to be done deliberately so that now, as he gets more and more screen time, he feels fully realized. Like he’s always been there.

And for a moment we start to think that maybe he won’t: His two dads are taking their relationship to the next level. No, they’re not moving in together (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Two_Dads)! They’re just having beers and talking about Vince’s natural athletic abilities or something, but it’s still plenty delightful, especially since Coach keeps going on and on about race while Big Mary stews (Steve Harris is excellent at stewing!) and finally says, “I don’t understand Vince because I’m black, I understand because he’s me!” After just three short beers, I am ready to greenlight a buddy picture starring these two as mismatched Father Figures with Joe Pantoliano as the short-tempered police chief head of the Big Brother program where they work! Oh, also, Coach gets so ripped he has to take a cab home, which we hope isn’t supposed to imply that there was any mouthraping going on.

And for a moment we start to think that maybe he won’t: His two dads are taking their relationship to the next level. No, they’re not moving in together (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Two_Dads)! They’re just having beers and talking about Vince’s natural athletic abilities or something, but it’s still plenty delightful, especially since Coach keeps going on and on about race while Big Mary stews (Steve Harris is excellent at stewing!) and finally says, “I don’t understand Vince because I’m black, I understand because he’s me!” After just three short beers, I am ready to greenlight a buddy picture starring these two as mismatched Father Figures with Joe Pantoliano as the short-tempered police chief head of the Big Brother program where they work! Oh, also, Coach gets so ripped he has to take a cab home, which we hope isn’t supposed to imply that there was any mouthraping going on.

Anyway, things seem to improve for a moment: Coach takes Big Mary’s advice and lets Vince be Vince, resulting in an epic TD pass and a rare, sunburst smile from Steve Harris. Also, Vince comes to Big Mary and asks him directly for a loan of $4000 in order to check his mother into a rehab clinic (all the public clinics are full through the end of the year). It’s a strong, heartfelt scene. Vince is humbled and embarrassed, and Big Mary lifts him up as he sets him down gently: “I’m saying no to the money but yes to you.” He tells him he’s proud of him — words Vince seems like he hasn’t heard in a long time. Even better, though, was what came after: Jess has overheard this talk and instead of being impressed by Vince or sweet towards her father, she’s betrayed. It seems Big Mary isn’t just ornery to Coach: He ignores his kids’ football practice and his daughter’s dance recitals (and academic smackdowns!). The big man is rocked back on his heels.

Last week we talked about the rising tide of David Simon–ism on Friday Night Lights, and if Simon’s gloomy worldview taught us anything, it’s not to expect the best possible outcomes (i.e., “TV endings”). And so right after seeing Vince (the man) give a tender farewell to his mother as he checks her into a rehab clinic, our last glimpse of him this episode is of Vince (the boy), paying for said rehab with a suspect packet of cash and then accepting a handgun from his old hood-rat friends as he sinks into the backseat of a criminal Caddy. Oh, Vince!

Becky is also in a bad spot this week: 15, pregnant, and totally torn up about what to do. She insists she can’t go to her mom, so instead Tim Riggins takes her to Everymom: Tami Taylor who is (shock!) totally kind and patient and perfect, but ends up recommending that Becky try talking to her own mother after all. Which goes about as well as expected: Alicia Witt (another good actor who has been slow-burning all season in the service of explosive moments like this one) first laughs and then screams as she realizes that her own life is repeating itself in front of her eyes. Mom says there’s no way Becky is having this baby. But Luke — at a distance — seems uneasy at the idea of not being “responsible” about the whole thing. He tells his religious parents, who liken the whole thing to the Bible and tell Luke he has to bring Becky into the family now and own up to what he’s done. “Becky and me aren’t Mary and Joseph, Mom,” he says. Understatement of the year!

What follows is the best and most honest portrayal of the heartrending decision to end a teenage pregnancy that we’ve ever seen. Other than Becky’s mom railing at the state-mandated pro-life speech that the doctor has to deliver, there’s not a single reference to the cultural war that still rages over this intensely personal issue. Instead, there is just Becky’s intensely personal journey: her sadness over her situation, her shame as she realizes that her mother once viewed her as a similar “mistake,” her overwhelming desire to be an adult, someone with responsibilities and love in her life, and, then, ultimately, her realization that she is not ready to be a parent.

Tami (whose coffee mug can be viewed here) is there for this last realization and it’s a beautiful scene, well played by actresses who until this week had never shared the screen. See, generations of hacky TV viewing had prepared us to believe that the episode’s title, “I Can’t,” would inevitably be uttered by Becky as she turns away from the abortion clinic. But this isn’t hacky TV! So the words are merely Becky’s honest, age-appropriate response to her predicament. And so the pregnancy is ended and later that day Luke calls, sweetly pledging his support in raising what he calls “our child.” Becky, who has been desperate for this sort of male love and attention her entire lonely life, chokes out that she “took care of it.” Luke is stunned. “Thanks for calling me,” she says, fighting off tears. “I’ll see you at school” — and the words “at school,” have never sounded so sad.

Kids needing grown-ups. Kids acting like grown-ups. And in the case of the larcenous, hole-digging Riggins boys, (nominal) grown-ups acting like kids. In small doses we were shown some healthy parent-child relationships this week: Big Mary, shamed into showing up to Pop Warner practice, telling his impossibly little son to “have fun out there,” and in the casual, familiar warmth of the Taylor kitchen. But not everyone gets the parents they want or deserve. Most of the people in East Dillon have to try their best with the hand they’re dealt, even when the results are painful or worse. A powerful hour.

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Photo: Courtesy of DirecTV