Outsiders are at the heart of the fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights, a show whose tepid ratings have made it a bit of an outsider itself. Despite its adoring fans and recent awards recognition, the show has lived largely on the fringes of network television, even finding itself airing on the TV equivalent of East Dillon High School, DIRECTV.
In what’s no doubt a parallel of the show’s own underdog status, this season Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) gets fed up with the football community’s lack of respect for his East Dillon Lions and sets his eyes on his band of misfits taking the state championship right out from under their stupid, smug noses. But the final season suffers from a rather severe case of thematic overkill: quarterback Vince Howard (Michael Jordan) struggles to deal with the homecoming of his jailbird father and his girlfriend’s (Jurnee Smollett) new job in the locker room as the team’s equipment manager; Becky’s (Madison Burge) troubled home life forces her to take refuge in the Riggins home; Tammy Taylor (Connie Britton), now an East Dillon guidance counselor, tries to motivate the school’s burned-out teaching staff and save its troubled student body; Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden), failing to connect with her peers at college, winds up in the bed of her older, married teacher’s assistant; newcomer Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon) reluctantly signs on as East Dillon’s new wide receiver to the ire of running back Luke Caferty (Matt Lauria); and Buddy Garrity’s (Brad Leland) son (Jeff Rosick) moves back in with him and winds up on the football team, despite not knowing anything about the game, making him—you guessed it—another outsider on the Lions’s bench.
Friday Night Lights has never shied away from overarching themes, but it’s never been this thematically homogenous before. As the show draws to a close, one can’t fault the writers for trying to hammer home its core principles on the transformative effect of team sports, or the impact that a positive role model can play on the hearts of frustrated youths, but with all of the dramatic similarities running through town this season, it seems they’ve lost a bit of their patented light touch.
While this season’s arc may be presented too broadly, with a cast this strong it’s difficult not to become ensnared in the raw emotions of Dillon, Texas. Michael Jordan’s fiery turn as Vince Howard is especially noteworthy, and bears the brunt of the season’s emotional weight. Even Madison Burge, who started off as the weakest character from season four’s new class, has shown dramatic improvement as Becky. Her initial witless, pixie sheen has since melted away to reveal a girl who’s been virtually abandoned by her selfish parents.
The only storyline that’s genuinely weak is Julie’s, which retreads territory that’s been covered pretty much every other season. It seems that no matter how many times she gets burned by older boys, Julie just can’t keep from falling for them. Her story feels disconnected from the rest of the goings on in Dillon, which makes sense considering she’s out of town in college, but it’s an unnecessary add-on seemingly devised just to keep the lovely Teegarden around. Then again, I said the same thing about Matt Saracen’s lingering presence last season before his arc went on to deliver one of the show’s most powerful episodes. If the writers could turn around season two’s notorious murder storyline, they can probably make something out of wayward Julie and her skeezy TA by season’s end.
But there are other troubles in Dillon. Hastings, the show’s newest addition, remains a cipher, and for all of Coach Taylor’s West Texas charm, his routine of improving the lives of kids through the magic of the gridiron is starting to grow stale. It would be a shame for the show’s best, most consistent character to fizzle out as it comes to a close, especially as he plots his team’s unlikely—but totally likely—quest to conquer Texas high school football. Early on in the season, when Coach Taylor surveys East Dillon High’s newfound fandom, he quietly marches back into the Lions’s locker room. Grabbing a piece of chalk in front of his disheartened players, he scribbles one word on the chalkboard: “State.” As you watch the look of quiet determination spread across his player’s faces, it becomes clear that the show’s final season may not be perfect, but it still has the power to make you feel like storming the football field yourself.