I’ve been wanting to write about this episode for months. “Underdogs” is the kind of hour of television that defines shows like Friday Night Lights, taking old ideas and making them better, making them new. There’s a passion in this episode that shines through in every scene. There’s a quiet wisdom, almost atmospheric in its presence. And there’s emotion—oh, is there emotion—that brings life to each situation, that makes every conflict relatable. “Underdogs” isn’t a season finale, but it sure has the strength and care of one. I just can’t get over how much I’ve fallen in love with this episode.
A sense of inevitability regarding the future is as prevalent as ever in “Underdogs.” Billy Riggins has bought a shop to start up his own company, Riggins’ Rigs, to provide for his soon-to-be bride. Lyla informs her father that she wants to move back in with him, explaining that he’s been forgiven, partially because she feels that a solution to her problem has presented itself: she’s decided to go to San Antonio State to live and be with Tim. Matt just can’t get over the idea that he might be going to art school in Chicago. Apparently, the boy loves to draw (which I never knew), and Tami thinks he’s got a legitimate shot at getting into the Art Institute of Chicago. Regarding this, Julie says all the right things (words of encouragement), but her face tells us that she’s scared of what this development could do to their relationship.
Lorraine, however, is unafraid to voice her discontent with the situation. She practically makes Matt feel like an idiot for considering going to Chicago and studying something as silly as art. Later on, in Austin, she asks Julie if Matt had ever expressed to her any interest in art. Lorraine never knew that it was important to Matt; she’d always thought he was only about football. She reveals that she always wants to encourage Matt in everything he pursues, but she finds it difficult to cope with the idea of being without her only loved one. It’s a good thing this scene came along, because I was quite frustrated with Lorraine after her earlier scene. Matt loves his grandmother to the point where he’d sacrifice his own happiness for hers. When she comes out talking about how ridiculous his Chicago aspirations are, it’s recklessly damaging. She finally makes some sense in her conversation with Julie, but who knows what kind of affect her reaction has had on Matt?
After riding the bench all year long, Coach Taylor rewards Landry’s on- and off-field diligence with a starting spot on Special Teams for the championship game. With excitement, he informs Tyra of this news, but is soon disappointed when Tyra says she can’t attend the game because she needs to finish her college essay. Landry finds it hard to blame Tyra for this, as she’s working her butt off to achieve her dreams, but this is important for him as well. Frustrated, he gets extra drunk at a party, his hangover causing him to miss the team bus the next morning. Still feeling too buzzed to drive, he tells Tyra that he’ll help her on her essay if she’ll drive them both to Austin for the game.
Tyra’s essay is pretty terrible. It’s full of Applebee’s references that the girl tries to turn into metaphors for her life. Her main problem is that she doesn’t believe a word she’s written. She needs to give more to this essay, something real. In frustration, she asks Landry if she should write about her mom, who drinks boxed wine as if it’s water. Or if she should mention that she lost her virginity at 13-years-old. Maybe she should mention her stripper sister. “Oh, I know what I should write about! The fact that up until two years ago, I had enough hate in my heart to start a frickin’ car.” What changed two years ago? Jason Street, a kid who always did things the right way, was paralyzed, causing Tyra to realize that nobody has it fair or easy in this world. Around the same time, she was befriended by Julie, Tami, and Landry himself, enabling her to feel like a part of something special. She no longer felt on the outside. In her final essay, Tyra expresses her wants and desires. She wants to travel. She wants to be invited to the White House. She wants a life that’s interesting and surprising. She wants to be generous and big-hearted as others have been with her for the past two years. She knows she’s not guaranteed all of her dreams, but she just wants the possibility. For her, college represents that possibility. It’s a very moving essay as she reads it out loud, so moving that Landry feels compelled to kiss Tyra right then.
After the events of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Tami and Eric are obligated by law to call Child Protective Services and inform them of the situation between Joe McCoy and J.D.. They have no idea if this is the first or 51st time this father has hit his son that way (though personally, based on the reactions of J.D. and Katie, I believe it is indeed the first). J.D. feels betrayed by Coach when he confronts him about it. Jeremy Sumpter shows some range as, in that scene, he plays J.D. as angry but confused, frustrated, and even let down. Last week Eric was someone he could trust. But to a boy who still genuinely loves his father, this move by Eric is a sign of betrayal, and J.D. just can’t understand why Eric would do that to him. Why would he interfere, as if he could possibly know what’s best for the McCoy family? Finally, J.D. tells Eric to stop messing with his life by saying, “I play football for you—that’s it.”
Joe McCoy’s been portrayed as a pretty straight villain for most of the season, so his cold demeanor towards Eric is no surprise, but I did like the way Tami and Katie’s relationship was handled. These two used to be genuine friends, but again, Katie feels betrayed after Tami spent an entire weekend assuring her that things were going to be okay. Instead of portraying her as a Joe-type evil villain, Friday Night Lights shows Katie trying to avoid Tami. When they finally do see each other again, Katie simply lists the many problems that have been introduced to her life thanks to Tami’s actions. “Well, you do what you had to do,” Katie says. “Now you’ll forgive me if I want nothing to do with you. Right?” Before Tami can (almost shamefully) say “Yes,” Katie’s turned, walking away.
Eventually, the stress of the situation and distrust in his coach causes J.D. to have a meltdown during the championship game versus the bigger, stronger South Texas Titans. He’s throwing interceptions and begins pushing around his lineman, blaming everyone else for his problems. He talks back to the coach, yelling, “What do you want?!” when he’s called over to the sideline. Halftime comes, and with the Panthers behind by 27 points, Coach Taylor yanks J.D. from the game, putting Matt back at QB. It’s a move that I could see coming from pretty far away, as this kind of karma was being set up since Matt was demoted. It’s hard for me to argue either way for this move from a storytelling standpoint. It’s a bit cliched and predictable, but then again, did any of us want to see whiny little J.D. dig the Panthers out of this hole? Putting Matt back at QB “plays to the crowd” so to speak, but the crowd wanted it pretty badly.
During halftime, Coach yells at Landry, telling him that if he wanted to be out there on the field so badly, to prove it with his effort. During the kickoff to begin the second half, Landry gets plowed by a Titans player, but gets up, runs with all his might, and knocks another Titans defender on his butt, making a key block to allow Dillon to run the ball all the way back for a tone-setting touchdown. The play feels like a scene out of Any Given Sunday (a film I love), but the emotional payoff feels a bit more like Rudy, with Landry being, for lack of a better term, an underdog. To see him get back up after being knocked down is simply an echo of what Friday Night Lights seems to really be about.
The Panthers do claw their way back in the second half, eventually taking the lead. The Titans get the ball and start moving it down the field with time running down. The Panthers try their hardest, but they just can’t seem to stop the stronger team. Finally, South Texas lines up for a shot at the game-winning field goal.
Since I first saw the episode during its DirecTV run, I haven’t been able to get the final sequence from the championship game out of my mind. It’s so special, so beautifully crafted, never overdoing things. The slow motion images of the team holding hands on the sideline, coaches barking orders to players, and the kick finally going through, coupled with a score that manages to represent anticipation, disappointment, and inevitability all at the same time, somehow come together to create a little bit of TV magic. The moment ends with a close-up of Eric, after seeing the ball go through the posts, with almost a smile on his face. All I can see in that shot is wisdom. The wisdom to know that this was a fight well fought. The wisdom to know that just because the scoreboard says 30-28, it doesn’t mean that these Panthers are losers. Such a lingering, affecting sequence. For me, it is, thus far, the highlight of this season.
After the game, in the locker room, there’s not an air of anger or frustration, but rather satisfaction, even if there was some disappointment. Coach, after inviting friends and family of the players into the room, tells them he’s never, ever been prouder of a team. They played like champions, and that’s what they are. Many of the players look disappointed and worn, but I love Tim in this scene, as he sits at his locker, a smile on his face, with, as he loves to say, no regrets. In the episode’s final moments, with the team already loaded onto the bus, Tim (with his arm in a sling) heads back out onto the field, looks around, takes in the moment, and places his football cleats on the grass. Silently, he walks off, literally leaving everything on the field.
In preparation for “Underdogs,” I rewatched the Season 1 finale, back when the Panthers played in the 2006 State Championship against Voodoo Tatum and the Mustangs. I’m sure it’s been a while since many have seen any of the first season, but I was surprised at the similarities between the situation then and the situation now, from the superficial to the important.
Briefly: both the 2006 and 2008 teams clinched their championship spots by winning a game in a torrential downpour. Lyla is angry at Buddy in both episodes, Landry and Tyra travel together to both games. In both seasons, there’s a rift between coach and quarterback (in Season 1, Matt found out that Eric was ditching the Panthers to take a job at TMU). And in both games, the Panthers play terribly in the first half, allowing the other team to build a 25+ point lead, only to make a major comeback in the second half.
For those who’ve been frustrated by the rehashing and reworking of many past storylines so far this season, the State Championship similarities could be too much; there are, after all, many more ways to win a football game.
Is it possible that “Underdogs” represents the episode that Friday Night Lights wanted to make the first time they showed Dillon going to State? The show really didn’t really have much freedom the first time around, did it? It was an infant show, unsure if it would be renewed. If the first season finale was to be the series finale, everyone needed to be ready. If you’ve only got one crack at portraying the Panthers making a championship run, you’re almost obligated to make them win; how much of a downer would it have been to have your show canceled after you had the team experience a heartbreaking loss in the championship game? The Panthers winning State in 2006, to me, was a foregone conclusion. This season, the conclusion seemed almost as inevitable. I think most of us hate to see the Panthers lose a championship, but the show can’t have this team winning every year, can it? It’s not terribly realistic, and it’s boring. Had the Panthers won their game in “Underdogs,” I have no doubt that I would have lambasted the show for taking the easy route.
Yet, in hindsight, wouldn’t Season 1’s finale have been more interesting for the characters if Dillon had lost State? It’s not a fairy tale ending, and it would mean that Eric is abandoning his team after a heartbreaking loss, so close to winning that championship. It would also make Eric’s halftime speech in “State” even more affective, as he points out to his team that sometimes a man will fight and claw and struggle, yet still lose (the important point being that he not lose himself in the process). That’s why part of me is itching to say that maybe the show’s writers purposefully mimicked and paralleled the first State game in “Underdogs,” but brought in the conclusion that was too risky the first time around. It’s a theory I haven’t totally bought into—not by any means—but an interesting one, nonetheless.
Going back and watching that episode from the first season, it was interesting to see how the show was different. Shows evolve; that’s the nature of TV. Season 1 looked a little grungier. The small town aspect was played up a lot more, there wasn’t nearly as much makeup on these young ladies, and it obviously had the benefit of a 22-episode season, as opposed to the 13 for this season. For some, Season 1 was the show’s heyday, and “State” is an episode that epitomizes that for them. While I loved that season’s finale, it wasn’t nearly as affecting to me as it was to many other people—and that’s fine. Different people at different points in their lives need different things. Andrew Johnston, who used to write this column, often said that the show’s emphasis on the team’s mantra (“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”) as well as the Panthers’ inspirational climb from adversity, culminating in “State,” played a huge part in his personal recovery during very difficult times.
“Underdogs” may not be this season’s finale, but even as a penultimate episode, I feel, at least for me, that it is vastly superior to “State,” which was a pretty darn good episode to begin with. There’s such a wisdom to this episode as well as an emotional satisfaction in almost every single storyline, whether it has to do with the team’s ultimate loss to the Titans, or with the McCoy/Taylor situation, or with Tyra’s revealing college essay. Almost every step of the way, “Underdogs” simply hits the right notes. I’ve watched the episode 3 or 4 times now, and every time I do, I can’t help but get choked up and become very moved during several key moments. I don’t know if I can think of any other Friday Night Lights episode that I can say that about. The best part is that it never feels manipulative or dishonest to me. It always feels emotionally true.
Some miscellaneous thoughts:
1. Further proof (at least to me) that Lyla’s Season 2 religious transformation wasn’t as genuine as we all thought: when she tells Buddy about her, Tim, and San Antonio State, she says that it was “kind of like fate.” I’m convinced that last season’s Lyla would have called it “a blessing.”
2. The Panther song on the bus ride to Austin was fun. Always good to see coaches in roles that don’t involve barking orders or yanking at helmets. It also easily showed some of the camaraderie between the players and the coaches.
3. Speaking of coaches, we see Mac back on the staff after his heart condition a few weeks ago. Yet Wade Aikmen is still hanging around, despite the agreement to leave once Mac returned. I suppose Mac isn’t at full strength yet, not to mention the fact that it wouldn’t kill the Panthers to have Wade around for just one more game, the most important game of the season. I love Mac’s line, when asked if he was worried about the brutal Titans’ defense: “Can’t afford to be worried. Doctor’s orders. Bad for the ticker.”
4. Something I found hilarious when watching Season 1’s “State” was the city skyline. The championship game that season took place in Dallas. We see the team entering Texas Stadium, and when we see them play on the field, we know they’re actually there in Dallas (technically Irving, TX, but you don’t care about that). However, during the nighttime hotel scenes between Eric and Tami, the buildings outside are clearly from the Austin skyline. I live close to Dallas and I just spent a week and a half in Austin for SXSW, so the flaw became even more apparent to me, and pretty comical. In “Underdogs,” with the game happening at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (where the Longhorns play), the buildings and landmarks in Austin are almost emphasized by the show; they want you to know that they’re actually there. Two years earlier, they were showing off the same skyline, but saying, “Look, we’re in Dallas!”
5. If you’ve been following NFL news lately, you know everything about the Jay Cutler saga. A young, talented QB with a rocket for an arm but a little bit of an ego. A new coach joins the Broncos, and when Cutler feels disrespected, he creates a rift between himself and the coach, claiming he feels he can’t trust the man, therefore can’t play for him. Eventually the situation escalates to the point where the Broncos trade their QB who could no longer coexist with their new coach. I see a lot of similarities between J.D. McCoy and Jay Cutler. Both talented, though both overhyped. Both can let a game get away from them after too many interceptions. Both love slinging the ball all over the field. But both grow to distrust their coaches, and both end up being drama queens about it.
6. I found it very telling that, just before the game started, there’s a somber tone as we see the fans in the stands and the players kneeling quietly in the locker room. Coach Taylor then asks them one question: “Can you play like champions?” He didn’t ask if they were ready to win, or if they were ready to kick some Titan butt. He asked if they could put forth a championship effort, win or lose. Looking back, it matches perfectly with his post-game speech.
7. After such a hoopla last week, there’s no mention of the Dillon redistricting, so I can only assume that it will show up in the season finale, if at all.
8. If you hadn’t heard, Season 4 of Friday Night Lights is now official. Next week’s finale should give us an idea of what we can expect next season.
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