Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Friday Night Lights Recap: No Mercy

The sports pages were dominated this week by accounts of Auburn wunder-stud Cam Newton winning the Heisman trophy, the award given annually to the best athlete in college football. This was seen by the nation’s established ball-scribing elite as an opportunity to waggle their collective fingers and mourn the passing of the “good old days” when, presumably, two-way players with names like “Doc” and “Johnny” obeyed their coaches and brushed and flossed twice a day. Newton, you see, though historically great on nearly every level, has been “tarnished” owing to his father having the temerity to expect that his son — who generates a boatload of income for everyone involved in his life except for himself — get paid for his services. While some strong voices have pointed out the hypocrisy inherent in the way the NCAA does business (and make no mistake — it is a business), the general perception of the entire affair appears entrenched, and familiar: a super-talented African-American is perceived as “troubled” or “scandalous” for not cleaving to outdated, paternalistic (as opposed to Paterno-istic) norms, and is forced to choose between family and a hierarchical, outsider-run system. The same story is at the heart of this week’s episode of Friday Night Lights.

Now the plots of FNL have never been exactly ripped from the headlines — though Tinker’s love affair with Luke’s pig comes close — but they are occasionally gently torn from them. Jason Street, who returns this week for much more than a farewell wave, was inspired by the real-life David Edwards, and plenty of the character names have roots in reality, some subtly appropriate (Riggins) and others on the nose like reading glasses (evil coach Wade Aikman). But the arc of young Vince Howard — raw talent transformed from cautionary tale to local hero, seemingly overnight — mirrors almost exactly the backstory of real-life Titans quarterback (and Texas legend) Vince Young, though hopefully without the whole “driving around while suicidal” thing. “Perfect Record,” though written and filmed well before Cam Newton’s off-the-charts season even began, demonstrates that our Vince can serve as an ideal canvas for almost any relevant story regarding African-American players and the business of football. Between the twisty recruiting plot and the show’s sudden willingness to address gridiron violence, the episode resonated with reality in a new way for a series that is now barreling toward its finale faster than Buddy Garrity toward an all-you-can-eat brisket buffet.

Last season Friday Night Lights flirted with a The Wire&38211;esque quasi-realism that won points for earnestness even when it sometimes came off as simplistic. East Dillon was a rough, untameable part of town. The kids were ignored, dismissed, and occasionally violent. Somehow, through hard work, moral goodness, and the power of television, Coach was able to forge a team out of these outsiders. This season, the Lions aren’t scary newbies — they’re our guys, our team. A lesser show would have whitewashed the past — everything works out in the end! — but FNL has always excelled when it allows complication to leak into the frame. Tinker is a laugh-generating teddy bear this season, but there’s no reason this should always have been the case. Sports fandom in America leans heavily on redemption: We hate players who disappoint us, but love them more than ever if we accept their apologies, their changed demeanor — all while many of us secretly wait for a second slip-up (see: Vick, Michael). The Lions come from bad homes and have done bad things. They are also capable of great acts of kindness and quiet conversations on balconies. Both can be true. They are, after all, just kids.

Anyway, Buddy’s vigil, while tons of fun, is a misdirect. The Panthers wreck havoc with a cyber-attack instead, somehow leaking the (supposedly sealed) juvenile criminal records of various Lions and throwing them all online at www.lionhater.com (which leads nowhere — major marketing op missed, DirecTV!). All of the ugly details are there for the world to see and comment on — which they quickly do, on Slammin’ Sammy’s pervasive radio show &38212; from Vince’s infractions that got him in Coach’s office in the first place to Tinker’s breaking and entering. To which we say: fantastic. This is a bold and brave move by a show that has often been both.

Last season Friday Night Lights flirted with a The Wire&38211;esque quasi-realism that won points for earnestness even when it sometimes came off as simplistic. East Dillon was a rough, untameable part of town. The kids were ignored, dismissed, and occasionally violent. Somehow, through hard work, moral goodness, and the power of television, Coach was able to forge a team out of these outsiders. This season, the Lions aren’t scary newbies — they’re our guys, our team. A lesser show would have whitewashed the past — everything works out in the end! — but FNL has always excelled when it allows complication to leak into the frame. Tinker is a laugh-generating teddy bear this season, but there’s no reason this should always have been the case. Sports fandom in America leans heavily on redemption: We hate players who disappoint us, but love them more than ever if we accept their apologies, their changed demeanor — all while many of us secretly wait for a second slip-up (see: Vick, Michael). The Lions come from bad homes and have done bad things. They are also capable of great acts of kindness and quiet conversations on balconies. Both can be true. They are, after all, just kids.

And it’s because they’re just kids that Coach reacts the way he does, storming into the Panther Booster meeting/Super Villain Society Bagel Brunch and Coffee Klatch to deliver a message: “Shut it down ... You want to go after someone, go after me, don’t go after my players.” And it’s because they’re just kids that they react the way they do on game night, humiliating and shellacking the once mighty Panthers with an almost nauseating level of glee. (Frankly, Coach Billy Riggins’s Karate Kid-on-Human-Growth-Hormone workout regimen for Luke isn’t helping either!) This is the flipside to the “harmless” high jinks the Lions pulled on their road trip to “Kingdom” — only this time they’re the only ones laughing. On the final play, Vince ignores Coach’s command to take a knee and instead throws a very unsportsmanlike (and very pretty) 65-yard TD pass to ice the blowout. The team stays undefeated — but maybe only in the standings. Coach Crowley is appalled: “That’s not who we are, Eric,” he seethes. But Coach Taylor seems paralyzed: caught up in the bloodlust of his players yet simultaneously scared of the monster he’s created.

Behind the scenes, things aren’t any prettier. (Except, maybe, in the weird Luke-Becky romance; they dutifully, and, okay, quite charmingly, act out the B-plot from a middling 1987 episode of Family Ties in which a guy is advised to woo a girl by ignoring her. Paging Archie Andrews! Or Mystery.) Ornette, back in Vince’s good graces and back in his apartment as well, comes clean to his son about the continued relationship with TMU. And while Vince is leery of accepting freebies, he goes all in with his dad’s Coach Taylor–less vision for his future after a touching shared memory about climbing a tree and Ornette refusing to let his son fall. Is Ornette playing Vince here? Or does he have a point? As with Cam Newton’s father — who wasn’t allowed to watch his son accept the Heisman in person — the truth is murky. At the Taylors’ morale-boosting, Julie-employing backyard barbecue, Coach confronts Ornette about all the major recruiters who suddenly want tickets for the Panther game. And Cress Williams, at his slinky best, lets loose: “You go ahead, be the coach. Be the big man. Boss all these little bitch-ass parents around. But that ain’t gonna fly with me. You feel me? We got plans in the future. Can’t let you get in the way of that.” And, smiling, he lopes off in search of more pie.

Coach is livid and we are concerned. But the wonderful wrinkle is: We’re also not sure Ornette is wrong here. It’s foolish and naive to reduce Vince’s success to a parable of noble redemption: There is money to be made here, and is it wrong for the Howards to want to take advantage of that? And what of Coach “Kingmaker”? He claims to be happy where he is in Dillon, but will that always be the case? Where does his own ego fit into it all — especially now that his longest-term construction project, the Good Girl that is Julie Taylor, might have proven to be slightly defective? (Kudos to the show, by the way, for allowing Julie’s monumental humiliation and collapse to linger. Kudos also for the searing restraint shown by Tami in her confrontation with Derek, the doctoral candidate in Modern Scumbaggery. Her anger isn’t going to fix things and neither is Julie taking Gracie Bell to the Devils Tower National Monument school and then grocery shopping for 100 hungry kids. The question remains: Will anything?)

Football isn’t just man-molding and backslaps. It’s a brutal, violent game in which the lives of young, often-underprivileged boys are put at risk by the maniacal machismo of adults seeking glory, money or both. With Kenard off the board (for now), there might not be any out-and-out villains in East Dillon. But, for one night at least, there aren’t many heroes to be found either.

Photo: DirectTv/NBC