Transition plays a big part in both high school and football. By season three of Friday Night Lights, many of the show’s troubled teens were still attending high school despite being depicted as upper classmen when the series premiered. But as Friday Night Lights enters its fourth season, series creator Peter Berg has embraced the need to restructure, sending the winds of change hurtling through Dillon, Texas like a tornado. Most of the show’s principal cast has been replaced by a new stock of characters, and the town has been redistricted along class lines. After getting fired from his job at Dillon High School, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has taken the coaching position at the newly created East Dillon High on the other side of town.
At one point, Coach Taylor had risen as far as coaching at a major university, and after returning to Dillon for two successful but non-championship-winning football seasons, it makes dramatic sense that the writers would pull the rug out from under him. While Taylor never had it easy in his stint as head coach at Dillon High, he had always been blessed with a talented team, devoted fans, and a bloated budget. But after the redistricting, Taylor has found himself coaching a barely functioning team of disaffected, predominantly black youths, with a budget that barely pays for uniforms. East Dillon’s browned field and his team’s ratty, 30-year-old equipment makes his old job at Dillon High look like the NFL.
The new season sees Coach at an emotional and psychological nadir. He’s gone from winning championship rings to forfeiting games, and the toll it’s taking on him has given Chandler the chance to broaden his already ridiculously charming character even more. He has that familiar hunched swagger of a high school football coach down to a science, and, while we’ve seen hints of Coach Taylor’s temper in the past, the increasingly desperate situation at East Dillon has brought it bursting to the surface. Taylor has always been firm in his coaching, but it was nowhere near the Bill Cowher-levels of bug-eyed screaming that he unleashes on his disobedient players at East Dillon.
Despite his troubles, Coach’s interactions with his wife and Dillon High principal Tami (Connie Britton) remain the show’s emotional anchor. Their relationship is as warm and real as any on television, and even with their increasingly heated arguments, their affection for each other shines through. It’s a shame their performances don’t generate more awards buzz, because Chandler and Britton’s ability to communicate through a series of glances shows a familiarity that takes actual married couples years to establish. Their work together is nothing short of masterful.
Coach isn’t the only person affected by Dillon’s split. Being principal of Dillon High and architect of the redistricting plan, Tami finds herself torn between doing what’s best for her school and supporting her struggling husband. Headed by the delightfully smarmy and unlikable Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett), the parents and former players that make up the Dillon High booster club have taken a stronger role in the series and are starting to feel more like a mafia rather than supportive alumni. Not only have the boosters gerrymandered talent away from East Dillon, but they’ve also taken to recruiting out-of-town players, and after forcing Coach Taylor out of Dillon High, they’re taking aim for Tami. The passive-aggressive war brewing between Tami and the boosters over control of the school is some of the show’s best political intrigue to date.
The racial divide in Dillon has surfaced from time to time throughout Friday Night Lights, especially in season one, but the redistricting has brought the extent of the town’s impoverished and neglected black community front and center. The East Dillon Lions is a team brutally divided by racial and class resentment, which is embodied by the conflict over the running-back position between two gifted athletes: hyper-polite cowboy Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) and brooding hood Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordon). Race is a touchy subject for any show to handle eloquently (it’s easy to come across as contrived or heavy-handed like a certain recent Best Picture winner turned Starz TV series), but Vince’s struggle to improve himself and listen to instruction from a white man without seeming like he’s selling out feels remarkably honest.
There is, however, an odd dissonance throughout the season so far. With all of the intrigue going on over at Dillon High and the class conflict at East Dillon, some of the show’s older kids are still around and trying to cope with life after football. The presence of graduates Riggins and Saracen (Taylor Kitsch and Zach Gilford) gives the season an odd feeling of being stuck between stations. Much of the old cast has simply disappeared, presumably to return in their own sendoff arcs, and the time dedicated to the ones that remain comes across as extraneous when shown alongside everything else. It makes sense for some graduates to linger around after high school, especially Riggins, who is on a fast track of peaking at 17, but their stories feel more like extended epilogues than forward momentum. The drama still resonates, but the longer that Saracen tries to balance his ambition as an artist with his love for Julie and his grandmother, the more it feels like that subplot could have been resolved last season.
On a whole, the new season of Friday Night Lights manages to retain its depth and heart-wrenching warmth despite a sea change in its structure and characters. The season concentrates on division and the conflicts that arise when people are kept apart—be it the divide of a town, the divide between classes, or even the divide between love and ambition. The series trudges on with its winning vision in check despite the ever-present cancellation axe looming over its head.