The concept of the “good jumping on point” episode means less and less in this age of downloads (legal and otherwise) and rapid-turnaround DVD releases, but “There Goes the Neighborhood” is nonetheless an episode that functions as such ideally. It’s not one of the finest FNL episodes ever, but it strikes a terrific balance between Taylor family drama, heartfelt high school soapiness and actual football (so what if it’s a bye week?). All told, it’s one of the best episodes of the second season yet because, in many ways, it feels so casual.
Which is not to say that nothing of note happens. Certainly, the tornado (FNL’s first big visual-effects shot, as far as I can recall) gave the NBC Promo Monkeys plenty to work with, and the resurrection of Mrs. Garrity’s post-Buddy relationship definitely seems like a story the writers will milk for awhile. What I enjoyed most about the episode was the exposure it gave Tim Riggins, and how Tim’s activities gave us a chance to see a new side of Coach Taylor. For the last few weeks, it’s often felt that we were seeing Coach more from the outside than before. If an actor less talented than Kyle Chandler was dealing with the exact same scripts (impossible, of course, since the creative team is writing for him specifically), he’d probably come off as too much of a cypher. There’s only one moment where it feels like we really get a look at the “inner” Eric Taylor here—when he tells Tami he likes how having Riggins around helps even the gender teams (with Gracie and Shelly around, he’s now outnumbered 4:1!)—but we see plenty of classic elements of his personality, most notably his emphasis on formality (when he greets the Laribee team) and his ferocious protectiveness (when he pulls Riggins off Julie, of course, but perhaps more notably when he pulls the Laribee coach off of Rig).
I have some mild reservations about where Riggins’ storyline is going (on the basis of next week’s episode, which I’ve already seen), but no matter what, I’m really looking forward to seeing Taylor Kitsch step up as an actor. In his scenes around the Taylor house this week—and in his interactions with Julie in particular—Kitsch seems more relaxed than usual, and spends a lot of time flashing an sincere, laid-back smile. The presence he emits is even more notable given his relative shortage of lines this week. He’s definitely graduated to the Zach Gilford/Gaius Charles level, leaving Scott Porter even further in the dust than before.
Some of the stuff involving the Laribee Lions confused me—it’s one thing to have thirty or forty-odd football players sharing a school’s athletic facilities, but having several dozen more students sitting in on classes and whatnot seems like an enormous burden on Dillon High’s infrastructure. In the real world, I’d expect the Laribee players might get bussed in after their last class; however, if they weren’t around all day, we wouldn’t have had the Dillon-Laribee melee, an enormously enjoyable scene made more so by how clear it is that the actors and extras involved all appear to be having the time of their lives.
The melee is motivated, of course, by Landry’s attempt to reheat things with Tyra now that everything with the killing has been laid to rest, and I was pretty impressed, at least at first, with how that was handled: Tyra totally seems like the kind of gal who’d be interested in a guy like Landry as long as she couldn’t have him but who would get cold feet as soon as the obstacles to a relationship disappeared. I don’t necessarily have a problem with her explanation—that her feelings for Landry are so strong that she doesn’t know how to process them—but it does seem like a bit of a stretch for her to have the self-awareness required to explain them to Landry so lucidly (and while she clearly doesn’t care much about having a bad rep at school at this point, she should have known that going out with the Laribee player would make her an instant pariah—in fact, I’m surprised she didn’t catch a hell of a lot more grief for it).
Although Lyla has had no shortage of scenes this season, very few have been at home, so the writers haven’t had many chances to bring us up to speed on the progress of her mother’s new relationship. Naturally, Pam Garrity’s impending marriage creates ample dramatic possibilities for Buddy—some of which are tapped into tonight—but the impact of Buddy’s desperation was muted for me by the continuity issues raised by his account of the relationship to Eric. Given the massive disparity in physical attractiveness (and the apparent disparity in age), I’d always assumed that Pam was a younger trophy wife who Buddy had picked up after he had already become a rich guy and local power broker. During Buddy’s drunken recollections of his glory days earlier this season, we learned he was a Panther star in the late ’70s, thirty years ago. That’d put him near 50 today, which seems reasonable, but there’s no way in hell she’s old enough to have gone to high school with him (Merrilee McCommas, who plays Pam, is 36 in real life, while Brad Leland is 53).
Julie continues to show her bitch side this week, which is no small achievement considering her lack of scenes with Matt and the MIA Adam. I liked the casual portrayal of a house party heavy on underage drinking, though if there was a scene explaining how she got there, I must have blinked and missed it. Riggins’ rescue of her gave us a nice look at his innate decency and shored up the surrogate-sibling bond between them that I’m really digging. Unfortunately, it also set up Coach’s misinterpretation of their relationship, a situation I found far too trite and predictable—or would have, at least, if Chandler’s anger wasn’t so convincing. Coach was, of course, all the more pissed because it wasn’t just any guy he “caught” Julie with, and his anger would have seemed painfully clichéd if not for Chandler (or at least if Coach hadn’t stuck up for Riggins just a few hours earlier). Then again, clichés exist for a reason—there isn’t a father alive who’d be happy to catch his daughter in such a situation. One of the signs of a really good TV show is when we’re reminded of the emotional truth that that created the whole catalog of narrative clichés in the first place, and on that count FNL succeeds here as always.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.