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Friday Night Lights Recap: Budget Crisis

Like Vince into Arnett Mead’s ill-fated goal line stand we too may have jumped a bit prematurely last week when we declared that the Taylors were staying put in Dillon. Of course, Vince eventually course-corrected and, in typically miraculous fashion, won the game (thus sending the Lions to state). But we’re suddenly a lot less optimistic about Gracie Bell’s chances of attending East Dillon High — and it’s not because she will trigger her genetic doomsday code well before reaching the meaningless Earth-year designation of “teenager.” Last week, Coach Taylor announced that he planned on staying “home” in Dillon. And Coach Taylor is not a liar! But, as “The March,” made clear, the decision might not be his to make at all.

But before we go micro, let’s talk macro. There were a lot of moments to like in “The March.” But there were far too many moments! We don’t envy the producers in this situation: It’s nigh-on impossible to wrap up every loose plot, give respectful screen time to every beloved character and still tell whatever story this season has been building to in the first place. But there were literally four football games crammed into this one hour! It was some artful and evocative fast-forwarding, to be sure — loved the pregame prayer into the beautiful, otherworldly shot of the Lions being pelted with bubblegum, ditto Luke’s game-winning pick-six and the graceful intimacy of seeing every player palm the Sharpie before it crosses off the magic number. But, yeah, besides Vince’s far-fetched clock-killing drive in the semifinal, the Lions’ inevitable march to state was treated like a Whole Foods shopping expedition on Top Chef: a perfunctory appetizer before the essential main course.

So while the team was coming together and soaring — all Vince-ly divisions healed by that magic tonic known as “winning,” all Maori-war-chanting, un-Taylor-like savagery dismissed by that reality known as “only three episodes left” — everything off the field was breaking apart. Including the East Dillon football program itself. Chalk this up as another casualty of cramming too much story into too few episodes, but this budget business came out of nowhere. Do we believe that in 2011 a poor school district like East Dillon would have to make tough choices? Absolutely! (Although maybe principal Levi could consider some cuts in his doughnut budget, amirite?) But the idea that after two years the Dillon schools would have to merge football teams again seems like an easy way to allow Coach to get out of dodge without dodge (or, in this case, “East Dodge”) hating him forever. (We actually thought the only cut Levi was going to demand was Eric’s salary — thus allowing him to go out a self-sacrificing hero and pass the coaching mantle onto the suddenly prominent Coach Crowley — who should do fine assuming he’s willing to accept fewer fancy eyeglasses.)

One thing we were right about last week was the late-inning curve ball thrown by the appearance of Bougie Nancy Pelosi (otherwise known as “Nancy Pelosi”) at Tami’s education conference. It seems Tami’s noble (but not all that noteworthy) criticism of generalized test scores made an impact with ol’ Nance, because quicker than you can say “No Child Left Behind” Tami is flying to Philadelphia for an interview at fictional Braemore University. Braemore (filmed at Temple, based on Bryn Mawr) is described as “one of those schools that’s like an Ivy but not an Ivy.” And it’s bully for Tami that she’s even being considered as a potential assistant dean of admissions — too bad Coach doesn’t seem to share in the good times. Actually, it’s worth noting that Coach’s reaction to all of this was the only part of it that wasn’t indisputably ridiculous: Kyle Chandler’s sour, silent face said volumes about his opinion on just which member Taylor should be getting wined and dined by colleges, thank you very much, and the frosty ride to the airport — Tami had to miss the semifinal for her flight — was another in FNL’s long line of delightfully perfect spousal interactions. (“Did you get the window seat?” “You’re kicking my ass here.” “Well, your ass needs kicking!” Pause. “Who’s going to cook dinner for me?!?”)

But then Tami lands in the City of Brotherly Love and everything turns to hooey. The scenes that follow — Tami repeating her (again, totally conventional!) opinions about test scores to the crusty, villainous dean; her chilled bottle of Sauv Blanc with Nancy, the appearance of the Professional Good Guy (who is what? president? trustee?) who 86’s his no doubt qualified Bad Dean and offers Tami a job she is (and let’s be clear here) in no way qualified for — are as tone deaf as The Sopranos used to be whenever it would linger at one of Dr. Melfi’s yuppie dinner parties (“You know, Trevor, I heard on NPR that there are still Italian Mafia criminals running wild right here in New Jersey! Can you believe it? Pass the sea bass!”) Yes, St. Tami is wonderful. Yes, she is undervalued in East Dillon and maybe deserved having a folder of her own pushed across a dinner table at her. (What’s up with all these money-promising folders, anyway? Is this season being underwritten by Mead?) And, yes, having Tami offered a job that has no evident ties to football is an excellent spanner in the proverbial works. But this was problematic for reasons greater than its utter lack of believability.

Here’s the thing: For many years Friday Night Lights has successfully navigated a storytelling tightrope. The main character of the show is Dillon, a hard-luck town. We root for characters who, by dint of their decency, ethics, values, and bedroom eyes, deserve better than the lot they’ve been given. The nature of television is for us to want to see these heroes rewarded for their struggles. But in many cases, their “reward” is to leave town, a tough proposition for a show that traffics in reality, or at least something close to it. And yet, one by one, golden parachutes have been issued. Jason Street miraculously made it as a two-wheeled sports agent in New York City. Smash is a star running back for the Aggies. Matt Saracen lives in a loft and has unlimited access to Midwestern hand models. Lyla goes to college. Landry’s homicides go unpunished. Those are an awful lot of happy endings for a town that’s supposedly short of them!

And so now the good news police have come for the Taylors and it leaves us ambivalent on a lot of levels. (1) Sure the show is ending, but the fates of the Riggins boys and Buddy Garrity and even the implied futures of Luke and Becky have proved that those who have nowhere else to go after the stadium lights are turned off are ultimately more interesting than those who magically “make it.” (2) After selling us for five years on the nobility of the Taylors’ task — lifting and molding young people who might otherwise be forgotten — are we now being asked to become invested in the idea that they deserve better? That the quotidian frustrations of being a small town guidance counselor really aren’t worth it, no matter how many homework clubs are founded or how many concussions sustained? Can Tami really affect greater change at a fancy East Coast college than she can down in the trenches? (And if it’s really just about making education more available to all, aren’t there openings in the admissions office down in Shane State?) Maybe it’s just us, but we preferred a vision of the show where Coach and Tami are exceptional but within the confines of their community, not the country at large. It seems more inspiring to imagine all the real-life Taylors out there in the USA, doing their best without the promise of a Division I program or a Society Hill townhouse being handed to them in a bulging folder. We are approaching the Uncanny Valley of good intentions here folks. And we don’t love it.

Of course, Tami’s trip wasn’t the only rupture in Dillon this week and while the other two were equally rushed they at least felt a little more earned. First was the continued reign of Angry Tim. After a few too many beers at the Landing Strip, it all comes roaring out of him: He’s furious that Billy lets his pregnant wife pole dance and lets his 17-year-old charge pocket dirty twenties in her jean shorts. Tim’s tantrum costs Becky her job and, with a savage punch, probably costs his brother some teeth as well. Ultimately, he’s furious that Billy did exactly what Tim asked: Get your life together while I sacrifice mine. All of the acting in this pocket of the show is uniformly excellent: poor little Billy, traveling from the highs of seeing his team war-chanting on his front lawn to the lows of weeping in a strip club parking lot, rejected by the brother he loves so much; Becky, caught between the stranger she used to crush on and her suddenly jealous boyfriend, Luke; and dear Mindy, who cries real tears as Tim walks out on the family and retreats, trusty 24-pack in his hands, to his lonely old trailer. And while we bemoan the fact that Tim remains the Job of Friday Night Lights — the only one who suffers, the only one who doesn’t get to escape — we welcome the darkness of his story line as it feels justified and all too real.

And then there’s poor Ornette. It feels like just a week or two ago he was turning out to be a pretty good guy. (Wait a second: It was!) Sure he had his differences with Coach but they felt honest: He was looking out for his son and, besides, he really loves pie! But, man, walk out on one ill-advised recruiting dinner at a barbecue spot and the guy just falls apart. Literally. First, he’s drinking beer around his twelve-stepping wife. The next thing you know he’s Hasslehoff-drunk, angrily foisting stolen leather jackets on his family and dropping WMDs on the pavement like you or I might toss breadcrumbs to pigeons. It’s sudden and it’s ugly how quickly Ornette tumbled back into the Life. (This guy knows what he’s talking about.) We knew this story line would end badly, but we were still shocked how fast it all went to hell. Poor Vince, always so cautious, had just let his father in. And now, in a wrenching scene, he had to use his body to keep him out. Well-played by Michael B. Jordan (as always), but the finest moment, for us, was again the quietest: As the team boards the bus for the semifinal, Regina — off to a much-needed meeting instead of the game — seeks out Coach’s eyes. There’s a nod. And it’s enough.

A rushed episode, then, and a problematic one, but the decks have been cleared for the last two weeks. We’ve got state (of course) and we’ve got questions: Where will the Taylors end up? What will become of Tim? Will Jess become the new coach of the combined Dillon PanthLions? (And will her dad ever return from his endless Trail of Barbecue Sauce Tears?) How upset will we be if Tyra never resurfaces? And just how in the hell did the Lions get an entire whiteboard on a school bus, anyhow?

Our eyes are clear, our hearts are full. Let’s see what happens.

Photo: DirecTV