Friday Night Lights is a show built on the back of football-as-metaphor, constantly reminding us that success comes from hard work and good intentions, that the individual can only thrive as part of a strong community, and that the only people worth paying attention to are those in the glamour positions. But Friday Night Lights’s relationship to football-as-football has always been tangential at best, shaky at worst. “Gut Check,“ while a definite dip in quality from the last few (excellent) episodes, is made considerably worse by sacrificing any shred of gridiron plausibility in pursuit of compelling story.
Look, we’re not sticklers here — we’d rather just accept that Luke plays offense and defense every game than waste precious seconds following around a half-formed, lesser character. And, no doubt, the rampaging ego monster that is Vince certainly deserved to be benched this week. But was Luke really the best choice to replace him? In a make-or-break game? We polled dozens of successful high-school coaches, all of whom said “no way!” (Note: We didn’t actually do this.) Even the most casual of pigskin fans — those that think “tight end” is just a pet name for Tim Riggins in spandex — know that quarterback is the most important position on the field. And it just doesn’t make sense to take a guy already gassed from playing running back and defensive back and ask him to direct the offense! At this point the only backs remaining for Luke to conquer are Lumber, Holla, and Sexy.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! The episode began in miserabilia res: The Lions' undefeated season is over, tossed away like so many Vince interceptions. “All the work of the last eight games is gone to hell,” declares radio man
Basil Exposition Slammin’ Sammy. And, just in case we weren’t clear that things are getting dark in East Dillon, the stadium cuts the lights, leaving Jess to pick up the mess left behind by flashlight. It falls to sage Coach Crowley (who we know is smart because of his efficient choice of eyewear) to declare the obvious: Vince is the problem. “He’s lost this team.” Man! Wasn’t it just yesterday we were hanging out on a balcony talking about pigs and porn? Hold onto the good times, kids. And definitely hold out on self-branding until the season is over.
If the Lions beat Fort Hood on Friday night, they’re in the playoffs. (If they don’t beat Fort Hood they also might be in the playoffs. But that’s not important right now. In order to teach Vince a lesson, Coach decides to let Luke take a few snaps at QB — and then asks his surly QB No. 1 to tutor his former friend on “the Wildcat Package” (you’re welcome for your new band name, annoying Silver Lake hipsters!). But Vince isn’t really in a giving mood, moaning to Jess “like I ain’t got nothing better to do. I’ve got a highlight reel to work on!” And now even Jess, who went from head cheerleader to washer of sweaty jock straps without so much as a peep of complaint, has had enough. “Maybe you’ve got your dad’s hand so far up your ass you can’t hear anything but your own damn ego!” Holy mixed puppet metaphor, Batman! Anyway, this is (a) true and (b) rough. Jess storms off: She and Vince are dunzo. And so is Vince’s time at the helm of the Lions: Coach suspends him, thus contradicting the (bad) advice Ornette had given his son the night before: that it was all a bluff, a power move.
All of this is rich stuff and deliciously complicated. Yes, Coach Taylor is being his usual stand-up self. But he is also being foolish and slightly unbelievable: Ornette is right when he says all coaches want to win. How does it benefit anyone to have Luke get murdered on the field on “senior night”? And to risk the entire team’s shot at the playoffs because of a grudge? Anyway, all of these (interesting!) questions are rendered moot when Luke, after 55 minutes of slipping, falling, and throwing the football to the other team, suddenly decides to start running the ball himself (a.k.a. USING THE WILDCAT PACKAGE!) and pulls off a patented FNL Miracle Moment™. Thus guaranteeing playoffs, saving Coach’s bacon, and making Ornette furious in the process. Even better: It fills young Luke with the confidence to take Becky out to dinner with his fundamentalist parents.
To which we say: bunk. Seriously: bunk. One of the things we’ve enjoyed the most about the way this season has developed is how there really are no villains: Ornette is snaky but also fundamentally right about the value of his son. Coach does have Vince’s best interests at heart — but is also thinking of taking that head-coaching gig down in Florida. Careers are on the line, money is right around the corner. Reducing this simmering scenario to a boring good-bad binary is the sort of storytelling shorthand FNL is usually so good about avoiding. And the fact that we got here by having Luke, a character who fundamentally can’t play quarterback playing quarterback, well ...
Also strangely underbaked? Julie Taylor’s lost week in Chicago. Real talk: Why was any of this included? Did the crew want to take a field trip to Ukrainian Village? Did the show have a sudden increase in its ladies' trench coat budget? Or was it as we fear it was, because the ending of the series demands that “true love” be given its due? About this: An unavoidable poison inherent in the soap operatics of weekly television is that teenage relationships that the audience becomes invested in must be celebrated as “pure” and allowed to last forever. Even though, y’know, these characters are teenagers! If you are really forever soul mates with the person you boned by the lake that one crazy summer, well, color us impressed. (Or color you fictional.) Friday Night Lights more than maybe any other teen-centric show in history has managed to avoid this pitfall: Riggins and Lyla loved each other, but college (and prison!) beckoned. Landry and Tyra were important to one another, but each had a lot more living, letter-writing, and Christian-rocking to do. And last year Matt Saracen was allowed to gracefully exit, stage-Chicago. We understood that he and Julie cared for each other and that this particular chapter had reached a satisfactory end.
But no, because Julie’s mid-teenage crisis continues apace, we now have her making spaghetti, hitting museums, and playing house with an even-more-mute-than-usual Matt. Aside from a brief moment of being the best guy ever (forgive us if we heard this song playing when Matt calmly defused Julie’s T&A T.A. confessions with talk of bagels), our former QB is undercooked and odd in this episode, making us think that he was hiding a steady girl on the side (maybe a sexy hand model?). But no, nothing that interesting: It’s just that he knows Julie is still running away (and undoing all of the goodwill we, the audience, had built up for her in the process), and he doesn’t really want to be her safety school. (That should have been Tufts!) So she drives away AGAIN, desperate to beat that infamous Chicagoland-Texas traffic. But, yeah, he runs after her and they stop and smooch and a truck honks and then she really leaves after some torrid, whispered “I love you”s. (And then the truck just turns in a different direction! Make up your mind, Chicago Tribune delivery guy!) Bottom line: Matt Saracen is a wonderful, alive character. Whether we saw him again or not we’d know he was okay. Using him as a background prop for the Julie Taylor Self-Empowerment and Boning Tour felt silly and wasteful. If Zach Gilford comes back again he’d better be either burying somebody or saving lives in South America, okay?
Phew! We are grumpy guses today, Lions fans! It wasn’t all undercooked. There was a trio of rather spectacular moments that we’ll run through in double-time:
St. Tami’s intervention with Epyckck (sp?) takes a perhaps fatal hit this week. After the troubled teen finally takes the big step of asking for Tami’s help — and gets a home-cooked dinner in which she reveals herself to be an expert
alien tamer babysitter, playing with (an, okay, extremely cute) Gracie Bell and her “Starfish Princess” in the process — she gets accused of lifting $20 from “Homework Club” co-conspirator Laurel’s wallet. The two of them then tussle in a completely absurd manner, bashing Tami’s head into a glass window in the process. Epoch (sp?) is then carted away in handcuffs. We’re not sure where this is going — is Tami going to be humbled? Is she going to adopt this surly girl? Or is this exactly the sort of man-made event that will spur Gracie Bell out of her sleeper status and cause her to take revenge on all of humankind? But the look on Connie Britton’s face as Epiich (sp?) is taken away was heart-wrenching and astounding — again and again she proves herself to be the best actor in a show full of great ones.
Mindy is pregnant again thanks to Billy climbing on top of her, drunk and “smelling like nachos.” Romance! She’s bummed — leading us initially to suspect another abortion plot in the offing — but she comes around because, really, who can resist a happy Riggins? Especially one who puts a pee-stained pregnancy test between his teeth. (Unfortunately, the threat of baby No. 2 seems to have distracted Mindy from her responsibilities to baby 1.5, a.k.a. Becky, who is now waitressing at the Landing Strip, letting gross leches shove Andrew Jacksons down her underage hot pants. Paging rewrite! And Chris Hansen!)
But for our money, the best moment of the whole episode might have been the smallest. Jess, crying alone in the locker room. Coach approaches. She apologizes, embarrassed. Coach: “You don’t need to say you’re sorry.” There’s a pause: Will it get maudlin? Will there be hugs? And then, classic Friday Night Lights. When there could be slop there is instead beautiful restraint:
Coach: “You know I’ve got two daughters, don’t you?”
Coach: “You take all the time you need.”
And just like that, Jess isn’t the only one crying in the locker room — we mean our living room.