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Friday Night Lights Recap: Star Wars

Last season, Friday Night Lights earned kudos for its willingness to tear down its established structure and build something new in its place. The praise was deserved: Not many shows have the (foot)balls to attempt such a radical reinvention, least of all ones with such a sensitive and devoted fan base. Perhaps one of the reasons Peter Berg, Jason Katims, and Co. felt comfortable ripping up and starting again was because they had the luxury of knowing exactly how much time was left: With a guaranteed fifth (and final) season on the horizon, there would be plenty of time to credibly replace the Dillon Panthers with the East Dillon Lions, to make the new version of Friday Night Lights as comfortable as the version it replaced.

And, when the show returned in the fall, we thought our predictions had proved accurate: The Lions have (remarkably quickly!) become top cats in the state. Vince was reformed and a budding star, happily united with Jess and best brosephs with his onetime antagonist Luke. All was well and, let’s be honest, nothing makes us happier than seeing our hardscrabble FNL characters succeed. At one point this season, we even made the mistake of wondering if Coach Taylor would ever have any drama in his life again. Silly us! Because the same brave souls who flipped the script before the fourth season — and then lit it on fire — are still behind the wheel. And just when we started to get comfortable with life in East Dillon, they’re busy tearing it down again, piece by personal piece. It’s tough going, but it’s making for riveting television.

“Fracture” is so-named because of the hairline break poor Buddy Jr. suffers when the team indulges the increasingly out-of-control Billy Riggins by performing some kind of Samoan war dance in the middle of practice. (“Do they even play football in Samoa?” an incredulous Buddy Sr. asks as his son crutches his way out of the ER. Uh, Buddy? Yes they do!) But really, the title refers to all the subtly lethal cracks that are suddenly running through this show faster than Hastings Ruckle through the Panther secondary. The Lions, though still undefeated, are imploding thanks to the suddenly inflated egos of Vince (fiery not-Drunk Luke tackles him in practice and they nearly come to blows at a pep rally) and Billy (who is drawing the ire of normally mild-mannered Coach Crowley). Meanwhile onetime Habitat for Humanity poster girl Julie Taylor is crapped out at home, still suffering through a shame spiral brought on by the world’s least appropriate freshman romance. Even St. Tami is momentarily challenged by her brawling reclamation project, Epyckk (much as we’d like to snark on this particularly drifty bit of uplift we can’t — Tami’s kindness makes it awfully dusty in our apartment, even when it’s wasted on the sullen).

Thankfully, there’s at least one ray of sunshine peeking through this week and it comes from the unlikely yet welcome combination of beauty pageants and strippers. What’s that? An excellent plot for the maligned Becky? It’s true! A few episodes back we were bemoaning young Becks’s predicament: It seemed odd (if not downright icky) that she was being shoehorned back together with Luke just a few months after her painful decision to end a pregnancy that he helped cause with his love of car washes. And all of the time she was spending babysitting backstage at the Landing Strip suggested that she would soon be making career choices that would disappoint Chris Rock. But no! Instead, Becky flees a hot-and-handsy make-out sesh with Luke because a mooing cow keeps ruining the mood she, quite rightly, hasn’t gotten over what happened. (Also, why are they canoodling in his house? Where his fundamentalist fire-breather of a mother lives? Becky, your new mom is a stripper! She will be way more chill about this stuff!) All of this comes pouring out in a delightful circle of lap dancers, all of whom are supportive and many of whom, like Becky, lost their virginity in automobiles. Soon, it’s a margarita-fueled Mama Mindy Timeā„¢ road trip, with Becky and her newfound Sisterhood of the Traveling Hotpants: She only gets runner-up at the pageant, but, as Mindy and her friends boo and holler, she realizes she just might have found a family.

Speaking of families, all seems better at the Taylor manse, or at least more peaceful as they playfully jabber at each other and attempt to construct an interstellar escape pod a tricycle for Baby Grace. But ho! What douchebag at yonder door frame knocks? Why it’s nightmare T.A. Derek, who clearly is pursuing his doctorate in Sketchy Scumbaggery with a minor concentration in Icky Stalking. Really there was no reason for Derek to be in this episode — or in Dillon — except that we all wanted to see Coach go all Papa Grizzly on the poor bastard’s ass. Which he sort of does, if you count knocking out a taillight with a tricycle handlebar as tough. (Note: We do!) Anyway, for absolutely no good reason, Julie meets Derek at the Olive Garden where he mewls about how he quit his job and is getting a divorce and is hightailing it to his “cabin” in “Tennessee,” which is just about where he belongs. This bit of manipulative nonsense seems to have a happy ending: Julie announces that she’s going back to school and is no longer going to waste her life — and, bonus, she’s going to make breakfast for her grumpy dad! But then she drives away (again) and Bluetooths the inescapable prick who admits that he really wanted her back, not her going back to school. So she takes a sudden U-Turn! Where is she going? Not to a cabin in Tennessee, we hope? No — even better. It’s to Chicago! To the arms of dearly missed hand-painter Matt Saracen! This was a thrill and definitely proves one thing: Julie Taylor haaaates going to college!

You know who is psyched about going to college? Vince! Or at least Vince 3.0 because gone is the measured, responsible teen we’d grown used to. In his place is a swaggering, chattering, self-described “star” QB — and it’s no coincidence that this transformation occurred in sync with the transition from Coach-as-father-figure to actual-father-as-father-figure. In general, it’s hard to argue with Ornette’s point of view here: Vince is a living lottery ticket for himself, his family, and even, by extension, Coach Taylor. The problem, as we see in this episode, is that it’s one thing to play like a star, it’s another thing to act like one. What begins with hilarious mocking (Luke’s imitation, including the priceless line “I kicked the extra point with my gold-plated schlong”) devolves quickly into real anger and violence. The tipping point is Ornette and Vince’s secretly official unofficial recruiting trip to fictional Oklahoma Tech. While there, Vince is paraded through the campus’s bucolic rock-climbing wall and wave pool by two foxy co-eds who basically make Oklahoma look like too-hot-for-TV outtakes from MTV Spring Break: Lake Havasu (are there actually palm trees in the Sooner State? Apparently so!) The visit is capped off by a staged “conversation” with the school’s coach who can’t legally speak to Vince but can certainly fill his already swollen head with big dreams. What’s worse is afterwards: Jess is chafing at the immorality of it all and, worse, Vince lies to Coach about his absence and blames it on his mother relapsing. Beyond low.

Is Coach Taylor losing his team that never loses? We are getting the uncomfortable vibe that maybe he is. By the time he confronts Vince with a photo from the Oklahoma trip, Eric doesn’t even seem mad, just disgusted. And when he threatens to bench Vince for his absence Ornette throws the (not so secret) collegiate head-coaching offer back in Eric’s face. The woozy pep rally at the end of the episode is one of the most disturbing things we’ve seen on a show that’s never shied away from tough times. This time the rot seems deeper, more complicated. And much harder to get out.

Photo: DirectTV/NBC