Monday, June 14, 2010

Friday Night Lights 4.01: "East of Dillon"

“You know there’s a raccoon in here?”


I watch an episode of Friday Night Lights, and I’m suddenly reminded what good television truly is. FNL is, simply put, beautiful week in and week out (with the small exception of that ill-advised murder plot in season 2, but I forgive them for that after all the other good stuff that has come since). All it took was hearing that theme music again to bring tears to my eyes- the show is just that good in every sense. I think it’s the visual style that I especially love. The show is shot in such an intimate, visceral way that it’s easy for the viewer to feel like an eavesdropper right in the middle of the action. And, of course, there are always outstanding performances from Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach Eric and Principal Tami Taylor. To this day, I still think they are the healthiest portrayal of a married couple on television.

Normally I criticize shows when they try to juggle too many stories in one episode, but in “East of Dillon,” it worked for me. All of the characters are in tough, unfamiliar situations and are trying to do their best to regain a sense of normalcy. We see early on in the episode that nobody is in a good place. East Dillon High School, Coach Taylor’s new assignment, is a wreck. Landry has been zoned to East Dillon. Matt is now a pizza delivery boy instead of an art student. My favorite example of how low everyone has fallen is Coach visiting his “new” football field. He tries to break into the locked fieldhouse, but the maintenance man, who primarily speaks Spanish, stops him. Coach is finally able to communicate who he is and why he’s there, and the maintenance man is only too happy to unlock the door for him. The locker room is in shambles. Some of the lockers have fallen, there’s graffiti everywhere, and to add insult to injury, a raccoon has decided to make a nice home out of an open locker.

Tim Riggins feels out of place in college, as well, and what he does about it results in yet another one of my favorite scenes of the episode. Tim is in class, not at all caring about what the professor is saying, and he decides to just walk out. Next we see him, he’s driving his truck back towards Dillon, and he’s throwing his college textbooks out the window. It’s an especially beautiful visual. He’s literally throwing away everything Billy and Lila pushed him to do. He just wants to go back to what’s familiar and safe. He figures he’ll move back in with Billy and Mindy and work at Riggins Rigs. Of course, since this is television, it won’t be that simple. Not by a long shot. Mindy is not at all amused at the prospect of Tim moving in with her new family. She and Billy have a baby on the way, after all. Tim ends up sleeping with a woman whose teenage daughter, Becky, turns out to be a student at East Dillon. She sings the national anthem at their first football game.

This episode also introduces another new character who is being phased in to replace most of our old favorites who haven’t left the show already. This new character is Vince, played by Michael B. Jordan, who also played the character of Wallace on the first season of “The Wire.” I think what I’ll always remember most about Wallace, other than his death, is his confused, lonely phone call to his Baltimore friends while he’s staying with his grandmother out on the Shore. He hears bugs chirping at night in the summer for the first time in his life, and he doesn’t even know what it is. Anyway, Vince is a somewhat different character from Wallace in that he seems harder somehow. He’s similar in the sense that he’s a kid with a criminal history who also has a bit of a moral center. Wallace informed the police about a murder committed by his drug gang, and Vince agrees to play for the East Dillon football team as a chance to turn his life around.

Coach and Tami are working at different schools now (Tami is still principal at West Dillon), and neither is having an easy time of it. At East Dillon, Coach’s new football recruits are very green, to say the least, and things get so out of hand that his assistant coach quits. After asking two of his old West Dillon assistant coaches to transfer over (both refuse), Coach ends up finding his new assistant at Sears (gotta love product placement). The guy’s an idiot, and kind of creepy, really, but he’s all coach has until the end of the episode when one of the West Dillon coaches (not Mac, the only West Dillon assistant coach we actually got to know) changes his mind and jumps ship to the East. Coach also loses a bunch of his players when, following a big fight between Landry and a rather obnoxious teammate, Coach throws a huge rant and many of the players quit. There are some racial undertones to this whole situation, and I’m anxious to see how the show handles that. Because “Friday Night Lights” is such a high quality show, I’m confident it won’t be ignored.

West Dillon may have more money and better athletics, but as I already mentioned, it’s not smooth sailing for Tami, either. It starts with the football coaches smarmily asking her to do the coin toss to kick off Friday’s football game when they know darn well that she’ll probably want to see her husband coach over at East Dillon. She also has to enforce the redistricting, pulling students like Landry’s friend Devin, who showed up at West Dillon even though they were told to go to East, out of class. Worst of all, Tami has to preside over a very, very angry meeting with parents about the redistricting. The meeting just completely descends into screaming chaos, and Tami can’t control the parents.

The final bit of fish-out-of-water story concerns Matt and Julie. Even though Matt feels like he needs to stay in Dillon for now, that doesn’t mean he’s content being a pizza delivery boy. He tries getting into the art program at Dillon Tech, but the professor criticizes his work. She says it’s more drawing than art. When Matt says it was good enough for the Art Institute of Chicago, the professor basically wonders why the heck he isn’t there instead of trying to get into Dillon Tech. To add insult to injury, Matt has to deliver pizza to J.D., the pretentious jerk who is his replacement as quarterback of the Panthers. J.D. is obnoxious during this exchange, but he’s even more obnoxious at a party Matt and Julie attend. J.D. seems to be after Julie, I guess he feels like he deserves everything of Matt’s, and Matt and J.D. get in a knock-down-drag-out fight. It’s hard to see Matt going through yet more pain- he’s a decent guy at heart- but the thow-back-to-the pilot football toss between Matt and Landry where they discuss the situation is truly beautiful and made it all worth it. Meanwhile, Julie says she wants to transfer to East Dillon because her friends are there and West Dillon kids are jerks, and needless to say, Coach and Tami aren’t thrilled.

For the first time on “Friday Night Lights” we see bits of two football games on Friday night, although we see a lot more of the East Dillon Lions than the West Dillon Panthers. Over in Panthers country, Tami rebels against the football coaches. They ask her to call heads and ask to go on defense if she wins. Tami calls tails and asks to go on offense. The victory is short-lived though. She takes off to East Dillon and is met with the worst defeat we’ve seen on the show. The Lions just weren’t ready for the game, even though Coach got them to play with heart. At half time, most of them were at least somewhat injured, yet they wanted to keep playing. The score at that point was a blowout in favor of the other team, and Tami sees her husband do something we’ve never seen him do before. Forfeit the game. I was wary of the show switching focus to the Lions this season, since we’ve all cheered so heartily for the Panthers for the past three years, but after this scene, I was totally on their side.

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