“Pantherama!” is a perfectly servicable episode of Friday Night Lights, accompanied though it may be by a faint whiff of filler. On DVD, it’ll probably seamlessly bridge the episodes fore, and feel kind of like a transitional segment in a long novel, with the pace slowed a bit to let the audience exhale after Chad Clarke’s ominous torching of the car last week. And while it’s now clear that the saga of Landry/his dad/the killing/etc is going to cover two more episodes, those tired of it can take comfort in the emergence tonight of what I think has the potential to be one of FNL’s best-ever story arcs. I’ll get to that in due course; for now, lets’s go to the videotape.
Given Smash’s elevation to captain, his vital role in the MacGregorization of the Panther offense and his head-butting with Matt, he’s received surprisingly little screen time this season, so tonight’s focus on the running back was very much overdue. Certainly, we saw signs of the “old” Smash—the was he instinctively slides into horndog mode when the cheerlader shows up as he’s talking to the recruiter—but he’s obviously grown up a lot. He has a much better idea of what it means to provide for his family via football now—if he doesn’t want to go to the historically black school on an academic scholarship, it’s not because he covets the material perks of a big school or winces at the prospect of playing for a 2-9 team.
Smash is smart enough to know he’s not that smart: He’d have to bust his ass pretty hard to keep his grades high enough to hold onto that academic scholarship, and once he was done with school, his moneymaking opportunities wouldn’t be that hot—sure, he could still make it to the NFL. Lots of players from historically black colleges and universities do (the New York Giants’ Michael Strahan, for one) but they often have a hard time of it in the draft because the uneven competition in football at the HBCU level provides few opportunities for coaches to size up their skills in action against known Division I quantities. Material greed is influencing Smash to some degree here, make no mistake, but Smash knows what he has to do if he wants to provide for his mama—a woman who, on the other hand, seems so flattered by the academic recruiter’s pitch that she’s willfully blind to the potential downsides. The best things she could do in this situation, of course, is to enlist Coach Taylor’s help in sorting everything out, and his agreement to do promises to develop the coaching-as-surrogate-fatherhood aspect of football on the series, one of my favorite FNL elements and one that we haven’t had much of lately due to Matt’s increasing independence and the chaos surrounding the coaching transition.
This week’s episode made me do a lot of thinking about Matt. A hookup with Carlotta is something we could all see coming from a mile away (the same can be said of a number of things in the episode, come to think of it), and things with Lauren continue to move fast. It’s no surprise the ladies are taking more of an interest in him now that he’s the QB of the frakking defending state champions; what’s startling is that he isn’t more of a big deal. The people of Dillon continue to treat Smash and Riggins like rock stars, while Matt, for the most part, keeps being Matt. It’d be tiresome to see him face temptation in every episode, but what we’ve seen of Dillon’s football culture makes me think that the issue of his ego could be getting a little more play. If he’s not swaggering, he’s definitely a bit more confident—the laid back smile he flashes around both the girls, which they can’t see, is hugely winning. I can’t help wondering to a degree if the smile is more a reflection of Zach Gilford’s personality than it is of Matt’s. No matter what, it reminded me of the young Paul Newman in his less sulky roles and reminded me that Gilford has a particular kind of good looks/charisma combo more common to ’60s/’70s leading men than to those of today, and it of course makes me eager to see him in some feature film roles (why can’t I help suspecting that in either 2008 or 2008, we’ll have a Sundance competition slate with FNL alumni in three quarters of the films?).
As to the inevitable question—Lauren vs. Carlotta—I’m with the latter all the way, and not just because their chemistry is more believable. Lauren’s automotive advice to Matt is spectacularly bad—I suspect there has never been a worse time than the present to buy an old Dodge Dart. I drove a ’72 Dart for most of my college days in the late ’80s, which were not coincidentally the only time in my adult life when gas was consistently available at around $1 a gallon. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, gas went through the roof and the Dart became one of the least appropriate cars a jobless college student could have. On his Alamo Freeze salary, and with no small amount of grandma-related expenses to cover, Matt would have been a hell of a lot better going for a 10-year-old Toyota in today’s $3-a-gallon world. And if the guy with the bad dye job knocked $200 off the price because Matt’s QB1, you have to wonder what he was asking in the first place—in 1987, my Dart was just $600.
Julie was pretty annoying this week, leading me to believe that Matt’s definitely much better off without her. Her story with the new journalism teacher moved *way* too fast and should probably have been spread over a couple of episodes. Her article came together way too quickly, and weirdly came across as part op-ed, part feature—we really should have seen her do more reporting on it. Tami’s suspicion of the new teacher seemed a bit extreme at this early a point, causing me to wonder if he reminds her of a situation in her past. On the heel of the Swede situation, it seems a little soon to have Julie repeat another of her mom’s high school mistakes.
There was actually a lot to chuckle about in the journalism storyline. The 250-word movie review made me laugh, because it takes a lot of experience to write a good one at that length—it’s a lot smarter to teach kids how to write, period, before one starts teaching them to write short. As an alumnus of Columbia’s journalism program, Noah’s pride in having gone there gave me a healthy laugh, especially since few people still have an ego like his when they graduate from there (and if he did, a year of gruntwork at the Milwaukee paper would have robbed him of any remaining illusions). The shout-out to the Journal-Sentinel was a neat in-joke for Columbia grads, as j-school professor/Pulitzer Prizes head honcho Sig Gissler was formerly the editor of the Sentinel, one of two papers that merged in 1995 to form the MJ-C.
I really enjoyed all of Riggins’ scenes with Tyra, even if the situation that took him to her house—Billy’s relationship with the older woman—strikes me as wildly unbelievable—Billy’s just a little too crass and dumb, I think, to interest the woman we met last year—that is, unless Dillon is *really* short on eligible men. With the focus of the Santiago plot shifting to Buddy Garrity, the redemption-of-Riggins arc could get a little dissolute if the writers aren’t careful—but I like seeing Tim and Tyra interact as friendly exes, and I can easily see him influencing her toward the conclusion that Landry is the guy for her, regardless of what his dad says.
The Pantherama event itself was pretty dopey, especially since the Tyra and Lyla “let’s put on a show” sequence was dominated by generic background Panthers we’ve seldom seen before—it can be hard to swallow the need to put guys like Landry and Santiago on the team when so many previously-unseen players are capable of emerging from the woodwork on a moment’s notice (another puzzler—if Tami found out she was pregnant in December and gave birth to Gracie in August, she couldn’t have missed more than three weeks or so of school if we’re only two games into the season—so why does everyone act like she’s been gone for months?). Thankfully Matt and Smash were involved in the event itself; still, the amount of time devoted to it really did seem like an attempt to pad the episode (though it was all basically made worthwhile by Tami strongarming Lyla and Tyra into managing the entertainment, an absolutely classic Tami moment.
As to the potentially brilliant story arc I referred to at the top…it may be premature, but I think the plot with Buddy and Santiago could shape up to be one of FNL’s defining stories. Brad Leland is one of the show’s least-heralded good actors, chiefly because he’s so good at making Buddy so dislikable. He steps it up a notch in the scenes where he talks about what a great foster dad he’d make, making it transparent that in reality, Buddy’s approaching the situation as one might approach adopting a dog. He’s getting in way over his head here, and none of it would be half as interesting if the writers weren’t defying expectations with Santiago, making him a smart kid who got pretty good grades before his family situation got out of control rather than a mere Latino gang punk. The kid has a real nobility to him, and while the line about him never having had a real bed before was corny as hell, it sure worked. Add Tami and Coach’s vested interests in Santiago to the mix and you’ve got an arc that could run all season and provide god knows how much meaty material for the show’s two deepest and most beloved characters as well as one who could only benefit from more depth (Buddy) and a hugely promising newcomer (albeit more promising as a character than as a player at this point). Let’s just hope the writers’ strike doesn’t fuck it all up.
Although the preview over the end credits was for Episode 2.9, “Confession”, the episode of December 7, there’s still 2/8. “Seeing Other People” (I had to check to make sure it wasn’t a rerun—for some reason that totally sounds like an S1 title) coming up on November 30. In the meantime, here’s wishing everyone a spectacular holiday meal with the people they most want to be with.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.