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TV Review: Friday Night Lights – “Expectations”

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One of the best shows on television began its final season last night on NBC. For those lucky viewers with DirecTV, it already aired and came to an end in February. It is also already out on DVD, so there is no need to hold off twelve weeks for the finale if you’re so inclined. However, for those waiting for the NBC broadcasts, the countdown to the end has begun. This refers, of course, to Friday Night Lights.

Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) begins her job as guidance counselor at East Dillon High School. She is quickly in over her head, realizing just how bad the students on the poor end of town have it. Her first thought it to set up meetings with parents of high-risk kids, but while many agree to the meetings, almost none actually show up. Tami gets a rude awakening, and realizes she may have taken on the toughest challenge of her life.

But she is willing to step up and do what it takes to help anyone she can. Tami is one of the most compassionate fictional characters ever, in any format of story. She really goes that extra mile to make sure she can help those kids get what they need. She isn’t a pushover. She has a steely toughness that, when mixed with her big heart, gives her the tools she needs to be effective. Whatever challenges the job holds, there is no doubt that Tami will get through them and change at least a couple of the students’ lives this season.

Which is what the Taylors are all about. Tami and her husband, Eric (Kyle Chandler), are the surrogate parents for all of the needy children in Dillon, Texas. While not all the adults in town realize this, the younger generation surely does. Everyone knows these are the people to go to when you need help, and they have already made lives better for many kids over four seasons. They demand and command respect, and don’t just give out charity. They help guide the kids to succeed on their own. While the students on the series come and go as the years pass, the Taylors have been the one constant, and really are the amazing story of Friday Night Lights.

That’s why Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips) now works as an assistant coach for Eric. Billy saw the kind of man that his younger brother Tim (Taylor Kitsch) grew into with Eric’s help. Tim is currently sitting in jail, taking the fall for Billy so that Billy can be there for his family, including a young infant. Billy wants to give back, and is inspired by the kind of loyalty that Tim shows. While Billy is older than most of the Taylors’ projects, he will be changed by them, as most are. And what’s more he knows it, and is actively seeking Eric’s help.

Now, the Taylors are not some kind of deities, or perfect people, despite what it may sound like in the proceeding paragraphs. They are constantly challenged, and do get discouraged, like anyone else. They have fights, with others and with each other. They are painted as complicated, realistic people, which is the show’s biggest strength. Eric is made to quit coaching at the ‘good’ school and transfer to the bad end of town. Tami is forced out of her job as principal of the same ‘good’ school. It’s their determination and pluck that keep them going, no matter what obstacles are stacked against them.

This attitude inspires those around them. Vince (Michael B. Jordan) is one step away from a long prison sentence when Eric takes him under his wing. Last night, Vince sat down and had a talk about responsibility with Jess’s (Jurnee Smollett) younger brother, who is acting up because their father is out of town. Without the influence Eric has had on Vince, he would never have been in a position to mentor anyone else. Now, jail is the last thing in Vince’s bright future.

Jess is not the only one struggling with an unusual family situation. Becky’s (Madison Burge) mother has left her in the care of her father, who in turn dumps Becky on her stepmother, who doesn’t want her. Becky’s best friend, Tim, is in jail, and she has no one to turn to. Except, Tim promises Becky that she is family, so she goes to Billy. Billy’s wife isn’t happy about it, but Billy allows her to stay. While the Taylors are not personally involved in this particular save, it is connected to them, like an inspirational game of Six Degrees.

As with many beginnings of seasons on this show, it is time for some long-running characters to move to the next phase in their lives. Landry (Jesse Plemons) is preparing to leave for Rice University. Landry has been with the show from the beginning, so his exit is sad. Unfortunately, he only gets a couple of scenes to explore it, having a last gig with his band, and saying goodbye to Grandma Saracen (Louanne Stephens). With his best friend already gone, it is up to Julie (Aimee Teegarden) to make Landry’s last night in Dillon memorable. So she takes him to a strip club, though she leaves him there by himself. Probably not what her parents would have done, but still helpful.

Julie is Eric and Tami’s daughter, and she is leaving, too, though only Dillon, not the cast. It’s interesting that the show will follow Julie to college, as it doesn’t usually continue with the main characters once they leave Dillon. There have been small exceptions, and Jason Street (Scott Porter) has a huge arc post-high school, but it’s not the norm. Best guess is that because Julie is a Taylor, she will get a special pass. While the Taylors are far from the only characters featured, they do seem to be the most important.

As Julie packs up to head off to college, it really effects the stoic Eric. She skips out early on a dinner with her parents, and when he waits up for her to come home, she wants to go straight to bed. But he will have none of it, making her play ping pong with him and reliving old memories.

Eric isn’t the most emotionally expressive person, and the series is careful to keep him in character. He does tell Julie he loves her and will miss her, but almost all of his best acting his done in his eyes, not verbally. It’s a testament to Chandler that Eric is able to be so loving without having to be explicit about it. Chandler is one of the few actors that can communicate so much while doing so little. As this series comes to an end, he will not be out of work long.

It should say something that in a show titled Friday Night Lights, there is so much to review that does not concern football. That’s because the series is not about football. For TV fans who avoid sports shows, this is not one of them. Although, it’s so easy to care about the various people the show does follow, that when some of them inevitably make it on the field, whether or not you like football, it is still plenty exciting.

Coach Taylor loves football, and that is probably the best thing the sport has going for it, as Coach Taylor is character to love. He insists that the game is about teamwork, not violence, and that is the attitude he brings to it. It’s why his team follows him so readily. It’s also the one he uses to steal newcomer Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon) from the basketball team over to Taylor’s East Dillon Lions.

The Lions have a losing record last season, going 2-8. They win one really important game, but lose most of the others. It is, after all, the team’s first year playing together. With Friday Night Lights completing its run this season, it is likely that the Lion’s will have a much better record thisseason, and Ruckle, as well as Vince and Luke (Matt Lauria), will be the primary reasons for that. Vince and Luke were new last season, and with Ruckle, the three of them are sure to be Eric’s next, possibly biggest, triumph.

But Ruckle’s story will surely go beyond football, as everyone on the show does. It is just unknown at this time what Ruckle’s story will be.

Luke’s arc seems set to be a doozy, as he injures a player on the field in this week’s game. This will combine his football story with the rest of his screen time. The look on Luke’s face while realizing he has hurt another human being lends to the theory that the action will come back to haunt him. Luke has a genuine kind heart, and he will not be able to go on happily living his life if he causes serious harm to another. It will likely make for hesitation on the field, and a challenge the Lions must overcome. It may also affect Luke’s future as he consider what his post-high school plans should be.

Friday Night Lights continues its thirteen episode final season every Friday night at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com