Friday Night Lights Watch: Expectations

“You live in the state of Texas now. You love football, you just don’t know it yet.” - Coach Taylor

“I pictured my last night in Dillon to be epic, in some way.” - Landry

“Bye guys.” - Julie

So begins the fifth and final season of the greatest show no one ever watched. And while the “no one” part of that sentence may be a bit of an overstatement, I am confident in saying the genius of Friday Night Lights is inversely proportional to the show’s ratings share. It never caught on in the mainstream for reasons unknown (bad marketing, too broad, unfortunate timing, etc) but it resonates in the television commentary simply because it was the Little Engine That Could of primetime. Simply put: Friday Night Lights should not still be on the air. But it is (with an assist from DirecTV), and tonight the story of Dillon, Texas began its last chapter.

“Expectations” set just that; an idea that more will come. Much how the first chapter of the new book in a series reminds us of all the things that have come before, this first episode was just as much closure as it was a new beginning. It was out with the old. If that sounds cold, it’s not. In fact, this is an aspect of Friday Night Lights that I love. It would be easy for the writers to just pen a couple of throwaway lines about Julie being off at college or Landry’s last “epic” night in Dillon. But instead we’re given those moments that define young adulthood through the eyes of those leaving their hometown (Landry making his last rounds around town, Julie driving away to college). And they’re not given to us as culminating (i.e. in a final episode of a season), but rather as a sign of a new beginning. This is a unique aspect of Friday Night Lights. It doesn’t write off characters. Rather it just moves them off to the next stage of life.

And with Julie and Landry exiting stage college, we’re left with a Dillon that pretty much resembles the Dillon we’ve come to know and love. The kid’s aren’t all right and each is struggling with their own version of qualified angst. This isn’t cliche necessarily, but it isn’t new ground either. It’s a story of missing parents, exceedingly suffocating responsibility, and the idea that football is a singularly encompassing entity.

We’re left with Becky, still pining after a now-incarcerated Tim Riggins (more on him at the bottom), being forced out of her house by a trashbag stepmom. And Jess’s struggles to control a family without a father whose gone off to open a chain of his BBQ restaurants. And Vince suddenly on the straight and narrow juggling a girlfriend, football, and presumably school (jury’s out on that one). But actually these stories are secondary. Their importance is implied, but by no means crucial to “Expectations” because this episode isn’t really about them. No doubt the rest of the season will focus on their stories, but tonight was about saying goodbye.

As Julie drove out of the driveway in a packed car, prepared for college, it left us with Eric and Tami most definitely not prepared to make that emotional trip. Such is parenthood. And so we see Coach Taylor, who with his players is never at any kind of loss for words, struggling to find the ways to tell his daughter he still cares about her. Searching for the ping pong paddles, practically begging her to stay for dessert during their final dinner and ultimately just slipping her some cash for emergencies; these are the ways fathers say goodbye. It was touching in the sense that Coach elicits passion and emotion from his players on a daily basis, but his relationship with Julie is singular and special. She doesn’t need a motivational speech. To her he just needs to be a father.

I don’t expect Friday Night Lights’s final season to differ too greatly from those that’ve come before. This is a show about a town and a high school and a few of the folks who walk its streets or sit in its classrooms. Things like that rarely change. The people might, but the problems don’t.

Some other thoughts

The football in Friday Night Lights is almost secondary at this point. I know its a necessary piece of the puzzle, but it, in some ways detracts from the show as a whole. I knew from the first snap that East Dillon would win the game in some unbelievable fashion. That’s probably not a great thing.

- Who is this Epic girl and at what point does she become the new Tyra?

- Nothing touched my heart more in this episode than Landry visiting Matt Saracen’s grandma. In an episode about goodbyes, this one may have been the most bittersweet (prepare yourself to see that word a lot this year). Landry and Matt are probably not coming back, so getting one last chance to see Grandma (capital G) understand the minutia of what embodies Landry (music and education and Matt) while also confusing a blood pressure reader with an Ipod was a moment, plain and simple. This scene was great television.

Billy Riggins is the new Stan Traub and I love it.

Hastings Ruckle - playing the “undiscovered athlete” twice in two seasons is a bit heavy-handed. They did this last year with Vince, so repackaging it with a white “hippy” who can jump is a bit farfetched. Not to mention that he has the worst shooting form for any “star basketball player” in television history. Even his diatribe on why he’s anti-football (I felt like I was watching Dawson’s Creek again) rang a little false.

Where we’re given a definitive goodbye with Julie and Landry, Tim’s story is left a little cloudier. Here’s a kid who was always a little sadder than the rest of the bunch now sitting in prison for, presumably, the rest of the show’s run (assuming the final season runs the length of the football season. The writers went out of their way to say he had three months left in). But unlike Julie and Landry, I can’t imagine this is the last we see of Tim. It can’t be. What’s interesting, is that if in the first season you had told me Tim Riggins would be the character who a) hung around longer than any other FNL regular without the last name Taylor and b) proved to be the most emotionally complex character on the show, I would have scoffed.

I wrote a great deal about Tim in this post last year so I won’t retread old ground. But I suspect this season ends with Tim leaving prison for a chance to finally live free in Texas.

Doug Norrie

Doug began writing for CinemaBlend back when Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles actually existed. Since then he's been writing This Rotten Week, predicting RottenTomatoes scores for movies you don't even remember for the better part of a decade. He can be found re-watching The Office for the infinity time.