When we last left Friday Night Lights, it was episode 15 of what was supposed to be a 22 episode season. Stories, plots, and relationships were left hanging with uncertainty when the WGA strike ended the season prematurely. But Season 3 picks up where episode 22 would have left off, and as a result, those missing episodes form a sort of “lost” mini-season. Friday Night Lights now must catch us up on the phantom season without feeling like it’s doing so, all the while pushing the story and relationships of this new season forward—a challenge. When it’s all said and done and the third season premiere cuts to black, it’s with a driving focus that I hope continues for 12 more episodes. So settle in, because there’s a lot to get to.
Season 2 of Friday Night Lights ended with the Panthers prepping for another championship run through the playoffs. As Coach Taylor meets with the press to speak about this new football season, we learn that last year’s ended in double disappointment: Smash Williams busted his knee during a playoff game and the team subsequently imploded. This falls on Eric’s shoulders, who, according to reporters, foolishly built his team around one player.
Speaking of Smash, he’s graduated, but still hanging around Dillon. Following the injury, his scholarship spot, which was difficult enough to come by, was given to someone else. His days are spent working at the Alamo Freeze and training with Coach Taylor. I wondered why Coach would spend so much time training a non-student, besides the fact that he’s Smash Williams. Eric himself said, “Because I need something good to happen.” That sounds about right, with trouble in Dillon coming from all sides (the inevitable JumboTron conflict, the 2 Game rumor, the quarterback controversy). But more simply, it’s because he feels responsible for Smash’s season-ending (and possibly career-ending) injury. Lump that in with Jason Street’s injury and you’d start to feel responsible, too.
A hurdle that only Smash can overcome involves altering his mindset. He’s used to being “the Smash,” the unstoppable speed demon of years past. His knee is healed, but he’ll never have that speed again. To be successful again, he’s got to let go of who he was and make himself into something new. He can still be a superstar running back without his speed (in the same way that a pitcher can be a force without necessarily throwing 90+ mph heat all game). If Smash can’t outrun everyone, then he needs to become more agile, or bigger and stronger, or whatever it takes to become a different but equally successful player. But is Brian capable of such a mental overhaul?
I suppose that’s where the title of this week’s episode comes in. “I Knew You When” contains a lot of reflection on who people were, who they are now, and who they will be. Smash used to be the fastest, baddest guy on the field. Who is he now? Tim Riggins was every negative stereotype you could think of for a jock; now that he’s with Lyla, does that change? And Tyra, once a promiscuous burnout, now has dreams that leave Dillon in the dust. But when the school’s vice principal brings those dreams to a screeching halt, Tyra blames Tami for filling her head with delusions of hope.
As a tearful Tyra walks away from Tami after their confrontation, there’s a sign on the school building that reads “Not Without Honor.” You could make the case that many of this week’s storylines point to that sign. Where’s the honor in letting someone else tell you what you can or can’t do with your life? Or in giving up because someone tells you it’s impossible? Where’s the honor in resorting to everything people predicted about you? That’s why we eventually see significant resolutions of change from Smash, Tyra, and the Lyla/Tim duo (though theirs was a bit weaker. I like the idea of Lyla having the guts to finally kiss Riggins in public, and in front of her disapproving father, but it’s only brought upon by Tim’s lame “thanks for kicking my ass in gear” apology).
Earlier in the episode, Billy Riggins informs Tim that Lyla “went to bed with Jesus” and woke up with Tim. “You’re a rebound from Jesus,” he says. I’d be very disappointed if Lyla’s spiritual awakening from last year was nothing more than a phase. We see that way too often in film and television. Rarely do you see a character go through such a genuine transformation, and even then they usually turn into legalistic judgmental villains. The writers of Friday Night Lights are smart enough to know that Lyla can have her Christianity and still sleep with Riggins (just look at Smash). But while Billy tells Tim that he’s nothing more than a summer fling to Lyla, I’m forced to believe the opposite. Her time with the church felt like the rebound after everything she went through with Jason and Tim in the first season. Now that she’s back with Tim, it seems Jesus was the fling.
I’m looking forward to Tami’s story. It’s really easy to go into a new job with great ideas and confidence and optimism, but things look very different when you’ve been beat down all day by vice principals, busted air conditioners, quitting teachers, and no budget. To have a massive check handed to her by Buddy but forbidden to use it for anything but a 30” JumboTron is a classic test of character for Tami. We can guess that her decision to keep the funds for academic purposes is going to be the catalyst for some nasty confrontations with Buddy and the boosters, and there are two things that I really like about this situation. First, Eric is caught between siding with the group that lets him keep his job and siding with his own wife. We don’t even know yet if Eric thinks that Tami is doing the right thing—he’s just worried about the mess it’s about to create. Second, I’m intrigued by the notion of Tami trying to do something noble, but going about it in a borderline-unethical manner.
Matt Saracen is a virtual no-show in the season premiere. He’s relegated to shooting suspicious glances at the new backup quarterback, J.D. McCoy (a shout-out to Texas Longhorns QB Colt McCoy). The freshman, played by none other than Jeremy “Peter Pan” Sumpter, has been breaking passing records since middle school, and now his family is in Dillon so their boy can play for Coach Taylor. McCoy’s father Joe is a Little League Dad in the worst sense as he schmoozes the boosters and tries to win over the team (in an uncharacteristically silly scene involving smoothies). Even worse, he’s unafraid to approach the coach about giving his son some playing time.
He appeals to Coach Taylor with some flattery, and soon enough, he starts to make a little sense. While everyone else rips Coach for building his team around one superstar, Joe believes that’s the only way to go. Coach has a gift for getting the best out of quarterbacks, exemplified by the transformation of Matt, who is not a “great talent” like the Jason Streets of the world. So imagine what Taylor could do with a superstar talent playing the position he’s so good at developing. If Joe is to be believed, J.D. McCoy is essentially Coach’s second shot at having a Jason Street, an opportunity that was tragically taken away from him two years ago. This could be Taylor’s franchise quarterback for 4 years, and could potentially guarantee him his job for that duration. That’s a perk that should not be undervalued in Dillon.
I’ve always thought of Coach Taylor as a smart guy, but man, what a boneheaded move during Friday night’s game. With the Panthers blowing out their opponent (thanks to Tim and Matt, who seem to be the only players on this team if you believe the highlights), Coach Taylor looks over at J.D., who’s hanging his head. Yes, J.D. pities himself because, as an underclassman, he didn’t get the starting gig over the senior who’s been the team’s leader for the past two years. How unfair! If J.D. eventually becomes the Dillon starter, these are the first signs of immaturity that could bite the team in the butt. And yet, Eric takes pity on J.D., putting him in the game for some garbage time play. Before you can say “quarterback controversy,” the phenom from Big D throws a perfect bomb into the endzone, causing the announcers to crown him “Jason Street reincarnated.” A bit over the top and it’s only in the episode so that we could get a shot of Matt on the sidelines, now the one pitying himself. Just like that, a tense situation is born, and Coach Taylor’s the one who let it happen. He gave the McCoys an inch, and I get the feeling that they’re going to take a mile.
Some quick miscellaneous notes: Did this episode seem, at times, a little ... goofy to anyone else? From the aforementioned smoothie scene to coach’s press conference (juxtaposing Eric’s vouching comments on behalf of his team and clips of his players contradicting those comments), some of the premiere felt like it was attempting to appeal to a broader audience.
I enjoyed many of the understated visual choices in the premiere. The juxtaposed clips from the news conference, as well as an attempt at a hand-held rendition of a dolly zoom during the closing minutes of the football game (camera moves in on Matt while zooming out). I’ve never seen a rugged version like that done on TV before. And the final shot of the episode (Smash hitting the racquetball) had a little something to it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Such a close, nearly-straight on shot isn’t often used on this show, so when it was, it had an added effect.
I’ll admit that the “Great Moments of Panther Football” sequence gave me chills. Not only for the emotional impact of the scene, but also because I’m a sucker for nostalgia. It was interesting to see what kind of fake history they came up with. Buddy Garrity played QB in ’73 and ’74, in the early ’80s there was a decorated coach, Stanley Mansfield, and we saw glimpses of championship teams in ’81, ’82, ’98, ’00 (Regional), and of course, 2006.