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Friday Night Lights Recap: Butt Strength

As its final season begins to stretch out and take shape, Friday Night Lights reminds us that it is about many things beyond football, including the challenges and quotidian inspiration of small-town life, preposterous affairs between pouty freshmen and the skeavy TAs who love them, and the top-secret invasion of central Texas by bug-eyed aliens disguised as tow-headed babies. But more than any of this, FNL is about a team and it was nice to have a solid, self-contained episode like “Kingdom” to remind us of this simple fact.

“Kingdom” found the confident Lions testing their “butt strength” by enduring a five-hour road trip to Kingdom, Texas — a stereotypically tiny Texas town that’s all about religion, football, and weird, hippie bonfire parties in the woods (more on that later). Kingdom is also the team that beat the Lions — by infamous forfeit — in their first-ever game last season. What a difference a year makes! Despite the refs being against them (yet again) and the Kingdom squad being full of super-racists who call Vince “Gorilla Boy,” the Lions turn on the afterburners in the second-half, producing yet another Miraculously Easy Comeback™. This particular comeback was tied to Coach finally letting “the leash” off of Vince, as suggested by Vince and the soon-to-be-sketchy recruiter from TMU. But whatever: This was a fun victory to see because the other team was so loathsome and because nobody messes with the East Dillon Lions — nobody!

Besides, football was, as is often the case, the least interesting part of the hour. What was wonderful were all the little details strewn around it: Coach Spivey and Luke battle-rapping in the school bus, Coach Stan’s vicarious (creepy?) thrill at blowing his whistle, the melee at the hotel pool. Actually, everything at the hotel was great — even Coach’s bizarre ignorance regarding keycards and macadamia nuts. The credit for all this delightful detail goes to Rolin Jones, the brilliant writer responsible for last season’s Matt Saracen tour de force “The Son.” Jones’s assignment is lighter this time out, but his writing is no less remarkable. “Kingdom” is as littered with hilarious one-liners as Caroll Park is with actual litter: Billy Riggins’s “Triple A is for women,” the harried concierge stammering “I’m glad you won the soccer game, I need you to tone it down,” and, best of all, drunk Coach’s post-game drunk dial to equally drunk (four bottles of Chard!) Tami (“So what y’all wearing?” “I gotta go now!” — KLASSIC KOACH!).

And then there was the balcony scene. Pre-game, post–Billy Riggins exhorting them to carry “hate” in their hearts, the key Lions — Vince, Luke, Tinker, Hastings — gathered on their adjoining balconies to chat about normal, quiet things: how Tinker could use more vegetables in his diet (“okra cooked in ham juice doesn’t count”) and how he misses the “cop cars and crack heads” he can hear from his window back home. Hastings admits he lived in Kingdom for a time while his dad worked on “rigs,” Luke presses Tinker on how he can reconcile his love for bacon with his love for Maybelline, the sow Luke gave him in exchange for Becky as his Rally Girl (“pork and pig is two different things,” Tinker insists, sagely). The fun ends when Tinker learns that all the candy and porn in his room aren’t free (bummer!). All of this exchange is heard by Eric who is reclining on his own balcony, a level below. What’s so extraordinary about this scene is how ordinary it is: It’s just young men being young. United by their team but with a connection that has little to do with football, it’s a perfect reminder of what Friday Night Lights does best and what we’ll miss the most when the season ends.

Of course, there’s more boy-bonding after the improbable victory at the aforementioned mini–Burning Man on the outskirts of Kingdom. There, anything is possible, including Buddy Jr. getting some action (using our favorite pickup line: comparing women to commercials), Vince downing moonshine out of a jam jar, Tinker getting emotional (yet again!) over his prize pig, and Drunk Luke (who really is a character unto himself this season) doing a spot-on imitation of Hastings’s hair. Of course, all the dudes also make the rash decision to brand themselves on the forearms with giant Ls but, hey, at least Buddy Jr. is happy. (That’s how powerful the Lions are — one week on the team and he’s cured!) We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention how the players’ debauchery was nicely cross-cut with the coaching staff’s revelry, which included bottles of whiskey, Buddy accusing Cranky Coach of never having any fun, and Coach himself admitting that he can’t even beat (the suddenly prominent) Coach Spivey in cards when cheating.

Of course, it can’t all be impromptu tattoos and laughs on FNL. It also has to be about the plight of Julie Taylor, stuck in a subplot so terrible it makes us remember Ferret Guy and Santiago in entirely different lights. (Blacklights, if you must know. But still.) This week, Julie’s crappy TA amour yanks her out of a (bad!) poetry reading and drives her to the best fry bread in Texas. He also takes her to a remote food stand. (Hey-o!) Terrible sex metaphors aside, the guy is a total creep who actually extols the deep spiritual value of “learning to get lost” and expects to be taken seriously for it. Of course, as often happens in one’s first month of college, Julie’s overage idyll is interrupted in study hall by Alison, the TA’s wife, who slaps Julie across her Habitat for Humanity–loving face and, in front of everyone, declares DONNA MARTIN GRADUATES JULIE TAYLOR IS A SLUT! Now, we are admitted fans of Julie Taylor. And maybe our own college experience isn’t representative (our first month was spent learning to use “I” statements to be less confrontational and exploring how many types of cereal it was possible to mix in one bowl in the dining hall) — it’s possible that this sort of student-douchebag canoodling happens all the time. But the thing is: Alison is kind of right! Julie acted terribly here and the worst part is, we don’t see a reason for it. She ends the episode by returning to Dillon, ostensibly to do laundry — yeah, EMOTIONAL LAUNDRY — so if all of this was just a quick fix to return her to the main cast, then we are hugely disappointed. There are all sorts of interesting things a complex young woman like Julie could get involved with in her first year of college and exactly zero of them involve yet another bad relationship with an authority figure. Oh, and Julie: Matt Saracen is certainly not “just this guy in Chicago.” How dare you!

But that little detour to Soapville can’t knock the luster off of an excellent episode. Sure there are storm clouds on the horizon: Luke was too drunk to realize exactly what Vince was telling him about TMU, and as much as we’d like to believe that Ornette Howard is a changed man, the advances of the shady college scout can’t lead to anything good. And most worrisome of all was seeing Alien Baby Grace beginning to master the principles of human life — witness her “standing up” one doll on another and thus opening a window into the sort of genetic-modification experiments that the upcoming invasion will bring. Did everyone else clock the guilty expression on her angelic face when Tami announced that “Daddy” was home? But all of that quickly slipped out of our minds as easily as the Kingdom cheerleader’s phone number slipped out of Hastings’s hands. “We’re getting there,” Coach declared on the hung-over bus ride back to East Dillon. And we can’t help but agree.

Photo: Bill Records/NBC/Direct TV