The divisive Landry-Tyra plotline recedes into the background for a week as the Panthers take to the gridiron at last for their first game of the 2007 season. The long run-up to said game retroactively draws attention to how there’s undeniably been some spinning of wheels in the first two episodes of FNL’s second season, and tonight’s episode continues the trend. I really loved “Last Days of Summer”, and I think that anyone who considers “Bad Ideas” a shark jumper is being premature, but this week’s episode—by no means a bad one—makes it hard to deny that the writers are still in housekeeping mode as they continue dealing with the consequences of having had to make sure that last season’s “State” could have served, if necessary, as a series finale as well as a season-ender.
Sending Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) to the new job in Austin was a good move from a character development POV in terms of how it gives us a really solid look at why he’s a great high school football coach rather than a great football coach, period—he excels at a kind of mentorship that doesn’t work in the more corporate world of college ball. But while I really liked his scenes with Antwone last week (as well as his reluctance this week at being forced to cut an underperforming player), his separation from the Panthers and Tami (Connie Britton) has gone on a bit long. I’m sure these early S2 episodes will flow more smoothly when DVDs of the whole second season are out there, and the Matt-Smash tension (more about that below) offers a couple of ways for the writers to unseat Coach McGregor without too much difficulty. But the juxtaposition of Coach’s plot with the rest of the current story lines makes it seem pretty transparent that the writers are spending a lot of time moving around furniture.
Case in point: Jason Street’s (Scott Porter) interest in the experimental stem-cell surgery, which I’m pretty sure is just a device to get Jason and Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) on a road trip together which will (I hope!) make Riggins a little more mature and leave Jason in a position where he can better focus on becoming the terrific coach we all know he can be (on the subject of Jason, it would have been nice if the writers threw in a line saying he got his GED over the summer or something like that—as of now, I believe he’s technically a high school dropout). It probably didn’t need to take so long to get them on the road, though by the same token it allowed us to get some pretty interesting scenes with Riggins and Lyla, which proved that Riggins isn’t purely self-destructive: He knows he needs something beyond football (and three-ways) to give his life meaning, but in Dillon, there just ain’t too many options.
The tension between Tami and Julie (Aimee Teegarden) has been another interesting repercussion of Coach’s stint in Austin, and I’m pleased with how unafraid the writers have been to make Julie legitimately unsympathetic. In time, there will probably be a big teary scene in which Julie, her cheeks streaming with tears, turns to Tami for support with a jam she’s in, but for the time being it’s interesting to see the writers make her as cold as they have (as in the scene where she calls Gracie “your baby”). It’d be a shame if the writers overplayed stuff like the scene where we see the Swede and his buddies smoking pot—Julie’s smart enough that I’d like to think that seeing her new beau’s friends be stupid and boring while they’re high would be enough to keep her away from drugs.
After making an ass of himself while drunk last week, it seems a stretch in some ways for Buddy (Brad Leland) to actually start to get somewhere with a Machiavellian plot to unseat Coach McGregor and bring back Coach Taylor, though it helps that Coach Taylor wasn’t around to see Buddy at his worst (and that Riggins, for obvious reasons, is more likely than many people to cut Buddy a break. Their mutual sympathy, of course, sets up the episode’s funniest line: “I’ve seen you play hung over many times, and you’ve always performed like a champion!”). The preview for next week’s episode suggests that Buddy’s plan might not go so smoothly, and while that adds some believability to the story line, it of course also poses the prospect of us having to wait even longer for Coach Taylor to be back where he should be.
At the beginning of the episode, when Coach McGregor calls Jason Street “coach”, I was hoping the writers would muddy the McGregor story line by having his respect for Jason sort of cancel out his dick-itude towards Riggins and Matt, making him seem like something less than a complete jerk. “Coach” has often seemed like a religious title on FNL, and it’s clearly a big deal for Jason when McGregor calls him that…so having him turn around and call Jason “the team mascot” seems like an unnecessarily obvious way to make us dislike McGregor (and an unnecessarily obvious second motive for Jason to go on a road trip). McGregor’s embrace of a running offense is also a strike against him due to the way Matt has been built up as a viewer identification figure, and on this front we get some welcome ambiguity. Smash has a point when he says that, as a senior who’s being recruited, he’s earned his time in the spotlight. However, McGregor lacks the paternal instinct to ensure that Smash’s ego doesn’t run amok given his new role…so while the Panthers win their first game, the fight between Smash and Matt, and the ensuing lack of team cohesion, suggests that McGregor’s coaching strategy is penny wise but pound foolish. But while I found this situation highly believable, I was dubious that nobody pointed at Jason as an example of the folly of building an offense around a single player.
My favorite scenes in the episode involved Landry and his father, which is kind of a mixed blessing—Glenn Morshower plays the character beautifully, and in just a few fleeting moments of screen time we get a vivid sense of how he loves his son but doesn’t really understand him, and how he’s thrilled that Landry has a girlfriend but is also scared that his son will get burned and is eager, above all, to protect Landry (this extends to Landry’s role on the team—he’s aware that at a certain level Landry has taken up football to impress him, and he’s flattered by it, but also rightly concerned for the kid’s physical well-being given his lack of athletic experience). But as good as Morshower is and as admirably subtle as his scenes are, the only reason he’s on the show is because of a plot line that has the potential to really screw things up. As I said before, I’m reserving judgement where the story line about the killing is concerned, and if the promo for the next episode is even remotely accurate, it seems we won’t have to wait very long to find out if the benefit of the doubt has been earned.
After having cited medical reasons for the delay of a recent Mad Men recap, I want to reassure anyone wondering about the delay of this week’s FNL analysis that health issues had nothing to do with the hold-up: Blame falls upon the failure of my Macbook Pro power adapter and an apparent nationwide shortage that made it impossible to score a replacement. Then, once I scared up another computer, my dog unplugged it from the wall when the recap was half written (after 15 years of writing professionally, you’d think I’d be better about saving documents by now). Despite the annoyance factor, it should go without saying that I don’t love my dog any less for it.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.