Friday Night Lights, Season 4
New school. New team. Can't lose! Friday Night Lights is back, and I'm so glad—I missed this show, and I've especially been craving good narrative TV drama (which the tedious Treme is not). In the season's opening shot, our hero tries on a new identity. Coach Eric Taylor puts on a red East Dillon Lions hat in front of the mirror, pursing his lips uncertainly as he takes in the unfamiliar color. The Lions of course can lose and will. It may be all they do this season. But in the first episode, the new season begins with a burst of confidence about its own self-transformation. It looks like a winner to me.
Let's rewind a bit. When we left off at the end of Season 3, we were following a cast of characters through their third year at Dillon High. This meant pretending that Tyra and Tim Riggins had been sophomores when we first met them, which was a little embarrassing. But it was satisfying to watch these kids we'd grown to love crossing the threshold of high-school graduation. Lyla, Tyra, and Tim went off to college. Matt gave up art school to stay with his grandmother. I was resigned to graduating from the show along with them.
But then the writers opened the door to a whole new intrigue. Eric Taylor lost his job coaching the Panthers because of a takeover by Joe McCoy, the rich, conniving father of J.D., the freshman with a blank stare and a golden arm. Dillon split in two, with half the white, middle-class student body we've come to know siphoned off to graffiti-covered, mostly Hispanic and African-American East Dillon High. Joe's coup meant that Eric was sent packing with them. His wife, Tami, stayed behind, keeping her job as Dillon High principal. This set up Eric to mentor a new crew of rough misfits while facing down Joe, as you pointed out, Hanna. And Tami has to negotiate her divided loyalties. All promising.
That said, the first episode isn't perfect. It gets a little heavy-handed in setting up the new rivalry. (Did J.D. really have to yell "It's my Dillon now!"?) But there is plenty to like—as usual, starting with Eric and Tami. He still pours her coffee just the way she likes it. She shows her loyalty by ignoring Joe and his handpicked coach, Wade, when they give her instructions for how to handle the Panthers' opening coin toss: Call heads, and kick off if you win. Tami picks tails, says her team will take the ball, and then sashays off the field with "Have a good game, boys." It's a feisty little rebellion, up to the line of what she can get away with.
I also appreciated the scene in which parents whose kids have been reassigned to East Dillon shout down Tami at a meeting as they vent their frustration. Sucks to be her, but sucks more to be them. It's one thing to say that the two schools are equal and another thing to live it, as Tami herself confronts when her daughter Julie announces that she's decamping for East Dillon along with her friends Landry and Devin.
The main drama, though, comes from Eric wrestling with his rag-tag new team. "Get the hell out of my house if you don't want to be here!" Coach screams after one guy won't let go of a fight he's had with Landry. My 10-year-old son loves his soccer coach, and the other night when we were talking about why, he said, coach Todd is hard on us, but he's never mean. Eric Taylor doesn't confine himself to that safe range. After he yells, a long line of kids take him up on his offer to walk out. Now he's at risk of losing the Lions along with the Panthers. Will he have to humble himself and woo some of these kids back to the field? Should he? Meghan and Hanna—what do you think? One more football point: When Eric humiliatingly has to forfeit the Lions' first game, he ends up shouting at a mild-mannered black referee. Often I think TV writers are reluctant to show white characters taking out anger on black characters. Eric has already been rude to the Hispanic maintenance guy; now he's yelling at a nice calm black man. It's not prettified, and it bodes well for the show's portrayal of East Dillon's cross-racial complexities.
And finally: Did either of you cringe when J.D. swung Julie over his shoulder so he could throw her into the pool at the Panthers' kick-off party? That moment yanked me back to high school and the disturbing—and also, if I'm honest, darkly alluring—realization that the boys had gotten a lot stronger than me. Especially the slightly drunk athletes. Julie's sexuality has been fodder for some of FNL's most finely wrought moments—Tami's sex talk with her daughter, Julie and Matt's sweet camp-out. Here Julie's loss of control is the flip side of Tami's expert handling of Joe and Wade. The mother knows how to play the boys, but the daughter hasn't figured it out yet. What did you think of this small turn toward masculine power and feminine vulnerability, or did you see it a different way?
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.