Although Friday Night Lights has already run its course on DirectTv this year, the show returned to NBC on Friday to begin its fourth season. Simply stated, Friday Night Lights is on the short list of best television shows out there right now. It is a program that clicks on almost every conceivable level from dramatic, to humorous, to touching, to tough, to redeeming. Friday Night Lights sets the bar extremely high for what a network, hour-long drama can accomplish if given the freedom to create something outside the normal realm of crime-solving stand alones.

Coach Taylor’s (and half the town’s students) move to newly reopened but overly dilapidated East Dillon High (with its equally rundown supply of quality football players) has the town divided between the haves and have nots. When the town redistricted, at the behest and direction of Joe McCoy: the wealthy thug and father of suddenly very douchebaggy, star quarterback J.D., it set in motion an outline of how far down people are willing to go on the morality scale in order to ensure a winning football product. “East of Dillon” did as much to remind us of the built tension between Taylor and McCoy (with Tami caught directly in the middle) as it did to remind us what happens to those who finished high school, but can’t ever really leave Dillon.

Tim Riggins lasted, what appears to be, exactly two weeks in college before deciding higher education wasn’t really his thing. Not surprising considering he barely graduated high school. But he, along with Matt Saracen who forewent a chance at art school in Chicago to take care of his ailing grandmother, offer harsh glimpses of how quickly the high school football star falls after throwing their caps in the air at graduation. This is somewhat new ground for Friday Night Lights, but an important look at how the world forgets, almost instantaneously, your exploits on the gridiron. And while Riggins never struck me as the kind of guy (or Saracen for that matter) who reveled too much in the glory football provided him its another thing to look at the lack of prospects for guys hanging around the town that once provided them with an insular bubble of local fame. Riggins’s return home to an unwelcoming brother and pregnant sister-in-law, subsequent sleeping with the towny, quasi milf bartender, and breakdown of his truck mean he may have left high school, but he’s just still the same Tim Riggins.

It’s clear from the beginning of the episode that this season of Friday Night Lights will be about Taylor’s forced reclamation project of a football team. It’s an interesting move from the writers’ standpoints seeing as how there weren’t too many more directions for Taylor to go with the powerhouse Panthers. The rebuilding process comes in a variety of forms from fixing a field littered with beer bottles, ridding raccoon-infested locker rooms of vermin, and training a group of players that not only lack the respect Taylor once enjoyed, but the relative discipline he once maintained in his old digs. The reclamation also comes in the form of running back Vince Howard (the anti-Smash Williams) who’s quiet and subdued, but also a kid looking to avoid going to juvenile hall with another offense against his record.

And although we were treated to a signature “Clear eyes, full hearts...can’t lose,” before the first game, the tale on the field told something completely different. The East Dillon crew, so overmatched and underprepared, forced Taylor to reevaluate his mission at halftime. This final scene of the episode encompassed everything beautiful and perfect about Friday Night Lights. With Sufjan Stevens’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” playing in the background, Taylor sized up his battered army, the players that stuck with him (including Landry), the players that emulated Taylor’s toughness in their refusal to admit pain or defeat and he saw the scene through clear eyes that told him he had begun to shape young men again, but a full heart that knew he couldn’t send them back out on to the field. So he forfeited, but I saw this less an admission of defeat and more prologue to a long season; a sign that although a battle may be lost, the war is what counts.

Other thoughts:

- While I’m not necessarily happy it happened, it was an interesting direction to go with J.D.’s character as he became the typical cliché, QB-1 for a winning football program. The show has been almost devoid of guys like this (Smash for all his “me first” attitude, was still extremely likable), even though they exist in every town in America.

- I know a couple of guys just like new assistant coach Stan Traub. A guy so excited to just be doing something he loves, he can’t come up with a single thought of his own. He added some much needed comic relief to a heavy episode.

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