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Friday Night Lights Recap: Talkin’ ‘Bout the Car Wash

Deep breaths, FNL fans. The day you’ve been dreading has arrived. What’s that, you say — is Landry on another killing spree? Has Santiago been named QB1? Has Ferret Guy returned?! No, none of these ridiculous things has happened. But we’m sure many of you were experiencing Ferret Guy levels of freak-out when you read this report revealing that, inevitably, Taylor Kitsch’s burgeoning movie career will keep him away for most — if not all — of season five. Horrible news? Sure. But maybe good timing, because this week’s strong episode proves you don’t need Taylor’s abs acting to make Friday Night Lights sing.

Other than sounding like a lost seventies urban crime flick starring Gene Hackman and John Cazale, “The Lights in Carroll Park” is an extremely strong episode that — no doubt unintentionally — keeps Riggins in the background, allowing the other characters their shine. Furthermore, the writers haven’t just earned our confidence that the show can succeed without its brooding, leonine lead, but they now seem entirely comfortable playing with familiar melodramatic scenarios and almost gleefully upending our expectations. Case in point: This week’s return of Glenn, the doughy would-be cuckolder. Who among us didn’t groan, cover our eyes, punch the couch, etc. when Glenn, an established sufferer of Restless Tongue Syndrome, shows up at East Dillon to apologize to Coach for “practically mouth-raping” Tami — an event that Coach, blessedly, has no prior knowledge of! A crazy moment — and dig Coach’s wild eyes! This is followed up by an oddly contrite and (for the moment, anyway) non-jerky Joe McCoy revealing to Tami that his wife, ably played last season by Janine Turner, has returned to Alaska left him. “I guess it can happen to anybody,” he mutters. And Tami agrees! Oh no, we say!

BUT THEN, BLISS: When Coach finally brings up the whole Glenn, mouth-rape thing, there is no screaming, no fisticuffs, no drama. Instead, there is laughter. How mature! How unexpected! And, ultimately, how consistent. The Taylors remain the only living grown-ups on television: complicated, emotionally alive, intimate, and totally in love (as evidenced by their naughty visit to Make Out Point in the episode’s closing minutes).

So let’s examine this episode as we experienced it, as a series of surprising zigs where other shows would zag. And vice versa.

ZIG!
Becky is pregnant! Holy WTF! Guess “going to the car wash” means something different in Texas than it does in the rest of the country. But no Knocked Up–style “shushmortion” talk here. No, young Becky does not want to end up a single mother at 17 just like her Mom. She goes straight to the, uh, source and levels Luke with the news, telling him that she needs $150 for an abortion. This scene is beautifully played by Madison Burge (who nails the chaotic fear any 16-year-old would feel under the circumstances) and Matt Lauria. As Luke puts it, “I don’t want to be a dad. But there’s something about not being one.” Many questions, no easy solutions. And for much of the hour there’s also no saintly Tim Riggins around to bail everyone out — maybe he’s too busy illegally chopping up stolen cars? Or needing “a rinse” (loved that)? Still, by the end of the episode we are 100 percent dialed in with Becky’s situation and happy to see Tim collect her in a calming embrace. It will all be fine, Papa Bear tells her. But his panicked eyes say otherwise.

ZAG!
Julie — still pouty — is complaining about her new gig working for Habitat for Humanity (doesn’t anyone go to school anymore?), the sort of college application padding that her mom feels is important but Julie finds megaboring. (Quick aside: Maybe she should have started building houses for underprivileged people before she mailed off her applications? Just a thought.) Julie quickly warms to grouting, however, when she meets her boss, one of the dudes from schlocky emo dorks All Time Low. Flirty flirt flirt! Oh how these two flirt, despite the fact that Julie has installed granite countertops in a closet (or something) and how this guy is definitely in his 20s and should probably have better things to do than mack on future Boston College Eagles. After one hot afternoon of spackling, Julie announces that she can’t get a bite to eat with Blondie because, wait for it, she’s “still broken.” What’s up, Trent Reznor! Ease off on the literal pedal for awhile, huh? Anyway, just when you think it’s all gonna go super soapy, Julie suggests they just make out and get it over with. EXCELLENT IDEA. Hope you’re enjoying Chicago, Matt Saracen! Because Wade Robson just mouth-raped your girl!

ZIG!
The love triangle no one asked for (or quite believes) continues apace this week! First Jess and Landry (Landry!) engage in some totally preposterous necking and then Jess invites her big-headed beau to come by her dad’s BBQ spot after closing to help her “clean up” (which, we imagine, means something similar to “going to the car wash”). But what of Vince, you ask, possessor of bulging jaw muscles and a still-unrevealed history with Jess (maybe it involves washing cars)? Well, he’s on his best behavior this week, asking for Coach’s help in finding an employer that will overlook his arrest record. Great reaction by Michael B. Jordan when Coach offers the help Vince has been conditioned not to expect: watch how effortlessly he switches his trademark glower into a glow. Of course, the job Coach gets Vince is at Ray’s BBQ, where Vince has to endure stern talks from Jess’s dad, Big Mary, and scrub the toilet in front of his once (and future?) love. Worst of all, he’s locked out of Jess’s heart the restaurant while Landry — Landry! — is let in.

Things seem to come to a head when … hold up, time for a mea culpa. Last week someone in the comments called us out for always referring to Vince’s ne’er-do-well friend as Crazy Eyes, insisting that this fellow (who really does have crazy eyes!) is actually named “Calvin Brown” despite no one on the show ever calling him this. Well, this week someone did call Calvin Calvin. Who was it? Why, it was Calvin himself! So, apologies: From now on Crazy Eyes is Calvin. (Heck, he’s even on Twitter!) Anyway, things come to a head when Calvin and some other toughs show up at Ray’s BBQ demanding food and demeaning Vince’s attempts at respectability. Luckily, Big Mary is there to defuse a tough situation. Which is in itself a tough situation, considering his name is “Big Mary.”

But where’s the zig? It comes later when Landry pulls a Glenn and basically dares Vince to punch him just to deal with the awkward situation. And what does Vince do? He pounds him on the chest with a chuckle. Laughter! The cure for all romantic ills!

ZAG!
Football! Well, actually, more like civic activism! Coach turns his attention to his new East Dillon community this week after a failed attempt to locate an AWOL player in super-sketchy Carroll Park leads to him witnessing the shooting of a 12-year-old. With a re-energized Buddy Garrity (the best kind!) in tow, Coach finally cracks the ice around Big Mary, who leads them to a man who he promises can help him deal with the gang problem head-on: A former gangbanger turned community leader, recently released from prison. That’s right, it’s Great Gatsby fan D’Angelo Barksdale! Really it’s just the great Larry Gilliard Jr. playing an all-new character, but holy casting coup, Peter Berg! Maybe you could throw Bubs a little work next? United by a love of kids and pigskin (“everybody loves football,” huffs Buddy Garrity, at once totally full of it and totally right), the foursome gin up a game between local roustabouts and the Lions at Carroll Park — this time with the lights turned on. And of course the game is a huge success and everyone smiles and we, uh, just needed those Kleenex because we have a cold, okay?

Anyway, we are totally loving this new David Simon–inspired version of Friday Night Lights. The characters still come first — and these characters are great — but high-school sports is proving to be a remarkably durable scrim through which to sift capital-I issues like race and masculinity and urban decay, all without watching it devolve into a turgid, preachy mess. This is a show that has successfully reinvented itself on the fly into something more urgent, more compelling than before. But it’s also reinvented itself into a show that can — and we believe will — thrive even without the heavy-lidded Canadian presence of Tim Riggins next year. Agree? Disagree? Too busy at the car wash? Let us know in the comments, people!

More Recaps:
Alan Sepinwall has some typically insightful thoughts on the show's balance of old characters vs. new.
At the AV Club, Keith Phipps muses on the "pleasures and consequences of kissing."
Allison Waldman at TV Squad likens Coach's visit to Carroll Park to The Blind Side.

Photo: Courtesy of DirecTV