Week 1: Coach Taylor Is Acting Like a Man Backed Into a Corner

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

Week 1: Coach Taylor Is Acting Like a Man Backed Into a Corner

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

Week 1: Coach Taylor Is Acting Like a Man Backed Into a Corner
Talking television.
May 10 2010 6:54 AM

Friday Night Lights, Season 4

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Emily, Hanna:

Let me contain my excitement … no, let me not: WOOHOO, FNL is back and it's better than before. I dunno, I thought this was the best first episode in quite some time. There's a level of tension and uncertainty—almost, dare I say, a grittiness—I haven't really felt since the first season. Yes, Hanna, it's nowhere near the level of grittiness David Simon so brilliantly dramatized in The Wire, a show that remains, for me, the benchmark that truly great TV must measure up to. But FNL is not about grittiness or authenticity, exactly, though it cares some about the latter; it's about capturing a certain kind of American sport—not football, but endeavor—at its most distilled.

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So you two have already singled out the few moments that gave me pause: First, J.D.'s rather sudden transformation to boasty bad boy. It seems a big change from the gawky freshman of last season. On the other hand, as I thought about it more, I realized we left that season with what was a seminal moment for J.D.—his confrontation with his dad, followed by his sense that Coach and Tami had betrayed him by calling in child services. (I presume that's whom they called.) Followed by a long summer of presumably somewhat relaxed parenting on Dad's part, in which maybe J.D. grew a bit, drank some beers, flirted, and generally tested his muscles. (And began eating pizza! A far cry from his old dad-regimented diet.) This kind of transformation actually does remind me of high school—I knew a boy who went through a similar kind of about-face, though he was much nicer than J.D. So yeah, the moment when he picked Julie up—it brought me back, to that, and to that weird semi-sexual, semi-childish manhandling that takes place at parties in high school, as you so evocatively described it, Emily. And to the slight thrill that went along with the sense of annoyance or frustration.

The other difficulty is more substantive, Hanna, and it's that one of "white man as leader/ inspiring teacher" or what have you. East Dillon—we assume, though it's not made super-clear at first—is full of more Latinos and black students. Clearly, it's supposed to be on the wrong side of the tracks. (And clearly, too, the infrastructure needs some work. That football field!) We'll see. So far, I like how the show is handling it: by having Eric totally screwing up. He's yelling way too much. He's misjudging the context of the team. And he's acting like a man backed into a corner—he's got no give, and he's not listening. This was powerful—I was on the edge of my seat saying, Be inspiring! It's, um, inspired of the show to withhold the particular brand of Taylor-motivated uplift that keeps people coming back for more—to create tension out of failure. One of the many ways, I hope, that this season will surprise us. Because much as I love FNL, I'm not sure how much more they could've spun out of regular old Panther life at Dillon High. Life at East Dillon … well, it's a whole new ballgame. And I have to say, this episode really drove something home: how risky it was for Eric to take this job. He could've surely gotten a job, maybe not one he truly wanted, but a good job, a safe, prestigious, interim job at some college. But now. He'd rather go to this place that has no team and little money to support one. That's a huge, hard thing for an acclaimed coach (acclaimed person of any kind) to do. Isn't it?

I do hope the show takes its time getting to the tidy inspiration, that it lets this season be slow and messy and unexpected as that first glimpse of a dried-out old field. (No JumboTron here, Buddy!) What made The Wire such a delight, early on, was that it was a show about process, something TV (as opposed to film) is uniquely good at capturing. And the process of turning a scrappy, fast, untrained kid like Vince (oh, Wallace … he broke my heart) into a real player—well, that's fascinating. I want to see a lot of that.

Question: Does the color scheme seem different? Not just the red—which, alas, doesn't suit poor Eric the way blue did—but the whole look of the show: It all seems grayer, cooler, somehow—more grainy. Like you, Hanna, I'm intrigued by Becky. Doesn't she look eerily like Tyra? And: Where did J.D.'s mom go? Finally: Won't this job-transition thing be kind of wearing on Tami and Eric?

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Meghan O’Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.