They did it.
My visit to the set of Friday Night Lights (documented via a lengthy transcript of my conversation with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton that you’ll find here) left me with little reason to worry about the series becoming a different show when it returned for season two, but a nagging voice in my head kept making me fear that in the interest of newbie accesibility, the show would dumb itself down or ease up on the poetic, wordless moments responsible for some of the series’s greatest feats of characterization. True, the Landry-Tyra plot that has provoked much controversy does pose some potentially thorny issues, which I’ll come to in due time, but for the most part, “Last Days of Summer” is the best and most artful season premiere of a returning show since “Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office”, the episode that began season two of The Sopranos, aired in January 2000.
It’s very apt that “Summer” begins with an unidentified Panther player jumping into a swimming pool, since the episode throws us in the deep end from the word go. It’s not plot that the episode leads with, but character: the stalemate in Matt and Julie’s relationship and Julie’s new affection for “the Swede”, is all explained via economical edits, zooms and camera moves before anyone has opened his or her mouth. And the instant the characters start speaking and we get Landry’s brilliant “What Would Riggins Do?” line, the characters are speaking in their true authentic voices. Then we get the note perfect spat between Julie and Tami which leads into a breathtaking childbirth scene (set to Wilco’s “Muzzle of Bees”, which bookends the episode) and before you know it we’ve been completely enveloped by the universe of Dillon. There are a lot of reasons why I love Friday Night Lights, and its ability to draw you into a fully believably fictional reality with a genuine sense of life going on beyond the frame—a tricky task at which, besides FNL, only The Sopranos and The Wire have really succeeded at in recent years.
“Last Days of Summer” could not have been an easy episode to write: “State”, the April season finale, was clearly intended to provide maximum closure in case it turned out to be the last episode of the series. “State” is a darn fine episode, but the Panthers’ championship win felt a little too Hollywood—a loss might have offered a purer reflection of the “being a man means turning defeat into victory” speech that Coach Taylor delivers at halftime. On the other hand, of course, ending with a defeat would have been a real downer of a way to end the season (and, I’ll admit, while I wanted them to lose for reasons of narrative authenticity, I appreciated the victory a lot in context: FNL has provided me with a great deal of strength and inspiration ever since I began wrestling with some severe health problems not long before the series began, and “State” aired the night before I entered the hospital for surgery followed by what turned out to be an eleven-day stay during which Coach’s halftime speech played itself back in my head many times. And while the impasse between Coach and Tami about his college coaching job created a conflict that could carry the series into a second season, Tami’s pregnancy gave the Taylors a happy ending.
To be frank, I was extremely dubious about the Taylors having another kid: Unless an actress’ real-life pregnancy is being written into a show, which was not the case here, adding a kid is something that’s often done when writers have no idea what to do with a female character anymore and figure that motherhood would provide a convenient excuse to shove her aside. I couldn’t believe that the FNL writers could have painted themselves into that corner with a character as rich and vibrant as Tami, and I could not have been happier about getting proven wrong.
Tami’s nonchalance about letting her belly flop around in public while Julie cringes is a hilarious, perfectly-pitched moment that allows for a masterful transition to the birth scene and Coach’s scramble to get there on time. The sequence, in which the characters leave the talking to Jeff Tweedy, reminds us how deeply Coach and Tami love one another while subtly establishing the extent of Coach’s loneliness in Austin.
I was dreading the possibility of Tami having a son, which would have been the cliché thing to have happen. The kid’s gender wouldn’t really be a big deal either way, since if the show was to run for seven seasons, the kid would just be six at the end. But having a girl reinforces the dichotomy of Coach’s life, which is evenly divided between all-male and all-female environments. His protectiveness of Julie shows Coach could never neglect a daughter but having a son would undoubtedly weaken the paternal devotion to his players’ well-being that makes him so good at what he does (a point that receives major attention next week). The few scenes we see of Tami in hands-on mothering mode make it instantly evident that instead of being punted to the sidelines by motherhood, the presence of Gracie is going to create daily new challenges that will put her to one of the tests of personal strength that all FNL characters must face at some point.
If Coach has been in Austin for eight months, he must have left Dillon almost immediately after the events of “State”: The Texas high school football championship generally occurs during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and “Last Days of Summer” obviously takes place in August. One certainly assumes (and hopes!) the Taylors haven’t gone that long without seeing each other. If Coach had only come back to Dillon for quick weekend trips when he only saw the family (or if they’d all met up at family reunion-ish events in other locations with relatives we hadn’t met yet), it makes sense that he wouldn’t have seen Grandma Saracen, Buddy Garrity, etc., since leaving town. His reunions with them allowed for the smooth insertion of necessary exposition (about the new coach’s rejiggering of the offense and Buddy’s continuing run of ill fortune) as well as some beautiful emotional moments (the supermarket run-in with Matt and his grandma is just delightful).
The most emotionally intense scenes of all, though, are those between Coach and Julie. My friend Jared Sapolin has compared the tensions in their relationships to the occasional feuds that break out between Rory and Lorelai Gilmore, which in his book is the highest of praise. But except for Luke, Amy Sherman-Palladino isn’t very good at writing characters who aren’t good at saying what they really thing, so the most explosive and heart-rending Lorelai scenes, sort of like those on the Marshall Herskovitz-Edward Zwick relationship dramas that I love just as dearly, are prone to occasionally coming across as overly pat and writerly, without the rough edges that makes the parent-child showdowns so believable (last year, I contemplated pitching a House Next Door piece about FNL that would have borrowed a title from Van Morrison, “Inarticulate Speech of the Heart”, but I never got around to it). The escalating tension that culminates in Coach tempering is gruff side and telling her that no one will love her less for leaving Matt produces a scene that’s intensely real, and the prospect of Coach being torn between his devotion to Julie and his paternal interest in Matt is full of terrific dramatic potential.
The big scene between Riggins and Lyta felt as scripted as the Coach/Julie scenes felt real, but not in a bad way—here, we did get a dash of Gilmore Girls esque wit, which Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly put a nicely organic spin on. I like the idea of bringing these two back together—at a certain level, it seems like a matter of necessity: With Tyra now preoccupied with Landry, Rig need some kind of love interest. But Lyta’s embrace of Jesus—a move that feels really right—could have some very interesting effects on Riggins’ struggle with his self-destructive impulses (If Rig and Lyta don’t become an official couple, it’d be interesting to see what would happen if Lyta hooked up with Smash, the most committed Christian among the principal characters).
And finally we come to the Landry/Tyra situation. I agree with those who feel it’s a potential bad sign for the series’s creative direction, but if there’s any show like this that could make such a story work, it’s FNL. I was a lot more convinced by Jason Katims that Alan Sepinwall was about the potential it offers for a really intmate and interesting story about Landry’s family, but the potental for a melodramatic meldtown is impossible to deny. It didn’t help matters that Landry’s attack on the stalker was reshot and the version that wound up on the air was different and more brutal than that on the critics’ screener. The survival of the stalker (what I’d initially been betting on) or a dismissal of charges via self-defense now seem a lot less likely. Alan’s arguments against the scene are so compelling that I kind of feel like a pussy for not letting it turn me off the show…but when the attack is followed by something like the second “Muzzle of Bees” sequence, with the unbelievably moving shot of Coach contemplating his newborn daughter and cradling her in his hands (and the rueful final shot of the Panthers’ field from the air), I’m just helpless. Long story short: For now, I reserve judgment.
Some quick hits:
The world of Dillon is so convincing that it’s always jarring when actors one recognizes from elsewhere show up. This was the case tonight when Chris Mulkey turned up as the new coach. He has a million and one credits to his name, but to me (and, I suspect, to many who read this site) he’ll always be Hank Jennings, Norma Jenning’s ex-con ex-husband on Twin Peaks. Hank was one of Peaks’ least developed characters, but Mulkey always made it seem seem as if we knew more about him than we did. I doubt he’ll be sticking around for very long on FNL, but it certainly seems as if he’s going to do the same with his character here. And if a recognizable actor was going to be cast as Landry’s father, they could have done much, much worse than Glenn Morshower. A Texan by birth, he’s an extremely well-traveled character actor with a resume packed with several dozen generic military and police officer roles over the last two decades. He became a major fan favorite on 24 as Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce, a man whose sense of decency and devotion to the constitution saved President David Palmer from getting tossed overboard by his cabinet in season two in addition to making him a key player in the fall of President Charles Logan. Both story arcs—in particular the latter, in which Pierce had an intense but chaste flirtation with First Lady Martha Logan (Jean Smart, in a guest run that has already become legendary)—proved him to be an actor of great subtlety and sensitivity, and his few scenes in the next two episodes make me incredibly eager to see how his talents are tapped by the series. He can be seen ever so briefly in “Last Days of Summer”, having his photo taken with another Panther player before we cut to a nanosecond shot of a wincing Landry.
I’m a little divided about the new credits sequence, which adds a more explicitly jubilant note (by acknowledging the championship win) but also seems just a little too energetic. The flow of the original credits created a tremendously effective mood and captured the heart of the series in a way that the new credits just don’t quite match. They only fall short by a tiny bit, but the effect just isn’t the same. Optimist that I am, I’m going to assume I’ll get used to them rather than reading them as a metaphor for how the flavor of the series might change.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.