Sunday, April 5, 2009

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts...

Friday Night Lights: Underdogs
Season 3, Episode 12

If anything could immediately improve my week, it was the news of DirecTV and NBC renewing their commitment for another TWO years for Friday Night Lights. All is right in the world. But we'll save the conversation about next season's expectations for the finale airing this coming Friday night. For now, there's a state title on the line for Dillon and a lot to live up to comparing it to season one's finale, "State." There's spoilers below the jump, where we'll see how the episode stacks up on the believability scale with the original lateral that was literally beyond belief.

"Last game, Seven." - Riggins

Man, 13 episodes just isn't that much time. The hurried trip through the playoffs ends here with the Dillon Panthers playing for their second state title in three years against the heavily favored South Texas. And much like last time, the first half is defined by a struggle between Coach and his QB1. It was more than a little jarring to see JD go from never wanting to see the father that was smacking him around five minutes ago to not understanding why Child Protective Services was called in. How is this even a surprise? He freaking smacked you, repeatedly, into the side of a truck!

I suppose you can write it off to the limited amount of time this year and the rather confusing ways of adolescents. But still... Tim or Matt could have played it much better. But as JD, Jeremy Sumpter falls short, since his reaction to Coach (who along with Tami reported the incident as they were legally obligated to do) and blowing up throughout the first half seems so wildly out of character. It just doesn't come off effectively, it's too grating and under-explained. But it does set up the return of the real QB1 for our improbably second half comeback.

Saracen and Tim are the stars of the hour both on and off the field. Coach and Tami bring their A-game like they do every week, but the enormity of the last three seasons bearing down on them, the departing seniors bring their best on the field and on camera. Taylor Kitsch and Zach Gilford know this is their last chance to shine on the field and they sell the hell out of it. Without a doubt the best scene in the episode is the two of them up late the night before the game, playing Frisbee on the lawn in front of the capital building in Austin. Kitsch has evolved to the point where he can make a scene with a smirk.

The two of them combined are such opposite ends of the spectrum with Matt having so many opportunities, but his perspectives so limited by always thinking about the future and Riggins having far less chances, but everything rolling off him never caring about more than the six inches in front of his face (to borrow a line from Pacino). And they are the only two remaining players from episode one giving the scene even more weight that the actors use wonderfully. And as a fan of The Wire, I love when all the pieces fit together like that.

Jeffrey Reiner, the most significant director of the series (first two episodes after the pilot, "State," the first couple of this year, "New York, New York" and next week's finale), knows how to make the football scenes crisp and exciting like nobody else. They do manage to finally make JD seem like the inexperienced freshman he really is, as opposed to the golden boy, throwing two picks and getting sacked en route to a 27-0 halftime score.

The only problem is from the writers... not knowing anyone on defense makes the second half comeback a bit less believable. Obviously the substitution of a calm and collected Matt for the volatile JD changes things on the offense, but when did Ray Lewis join at linebacker? Given how absolutely critical the defense is on the final series, its just awful we don't know any of the characters. It separates the final result (losing at the last second) from the team, almost like they watched it happen to someone else.

Regardless, I like this ending better than "State" because they fail when all is said and done. We have one more episode for them to tie up the characters as something beyond pieces caught up in the machine of Dillon football, so here its all about the game at the end. The agony of the first half, Matt's gritty comeback effort that makes us believe again and the terror of that nameless defense giving up a last second field goal... that really got to me. And how about Riggins staying behind the rest, arm in a sling, just to leave his cleats on the field - the guy who always left everything he had out on the field. Who defined themselves by being a Dillon Panther as much as he did?

"You played great football tonight. This is the game that people are going to talk about for years to come. This is the game you are going to talk about.... You be proud of yourself. Because, gentlemen, you are champions." - Coach Taylor

Matt's continued family troubles and desire for college is once again a ever-shifting subplot with Lorraine's dementia pushing her opinion back and forth on the subject. It's one of the stories I'm anxious to see come to final conclusion next week. Honestly, for a guy playing in a state championship game and with a chance to go to a prestigious art institute in Chicago, his life would be pretty shitty without Julie and his mom in his life. Both developments have really been blessings for him and an audience not anxious to see his life devolve into a Darren Aronofsky movie.

Back in the swing of things, Tyra manages to nail the most dramatic non-game related moment of the show. Her efforts early on to prepare an essay for college admittance with an assist to Landry go from a cliche filled Applebee's metaphor to unbelieving puff piece to something that sells us on the entire concept of the show leading into the big game. It's poetic that in the end it ties everything back to Street being paralyzed. As I mentioned earlier in the year, this inciting incident changed the lives of pretty much every character on this show.

Of course, no Landry moment is as funny as Coach once again calling him "Lance." That little running joke will never get old. Maybe he'll get it right next season when Landry is the only returning senior we've met thus far. And after he nails a heck of a block coming out of the half.

And if it was fun seeing Lila playing video games at the Riggins Mansion, this week the ante is upped to the point that I actually like her scenes. The hilarity of her using coffee filters on the toilet seat is nice, but the star of the sequence is Billy, walking in on her then taking his business to the kitchen sink. Good times.

I do hope that Billy's latest plan to open Riggins' Rigs isn't used as an excuse to derail Tim's plans for college. Even if the show will miss him, more than anyone else, he's grown the last few years and I've become attached enough to want good things for his life. And yes, I realize it is a fictional one, but when it's well done, you still care.

Final score: B+

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