Friday Night Lights, Season 5

Thank You, Lord, for Billy Riggins!
Talking television.
Dec. 8 2010 10:03 PM

Friday Night Lights, Season 5

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Welcome back to FNL co-executive producer David Hudgins, who is going TV clubbing with us again this week. We'll hear from David a little later.

Please forgive me if my FNL thoughts are more like impressions this week. I'm on a train to New York, and I left my notes at home in Washington, so I'm writing blind.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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The most telling moment in this wonderful episode is Coach's brief exhortation to the Lions right before they take the field. He tells them—please pardon the paraphrase—that they will be their own true selves on the field. This notion—the playing field reveals the man—is fundamental to the Teddy-Rooseveltian, Sportism philosophy that thrives in all of American life and that especially dominates high-school football.

But the whole point of the episode is to show how ironic and incomplete that view actually is. Even as Coach is promising glory on the field for Vince, in the shadows where the Friday night lights do not shine, Vince's dad is beating the hell out of menacing thug Kenard. (This is also a great dark echo of Billy's locker room speech: Kenard came to the field for a party, and Vince's dad gave him a fistfight.) And in Coach's own home, the daughter he cannot understand and forgive (yet) has shattered her own life and another family's and flouted his insistence on tough-love exile. In fact, the field doesn't actually matter that much. The game does not make the world right. The game doesn't improve the grim facts of life, doesn't right the wayward girl, doesn't punish the criminal.

I've been lukewarm on Julie's collapse, but this episode vindicates the melodramatic setup. The impasse in the Taylor home is rendered with superb ambiguity. Is Eric correct to try to push Julie out the door? Is Julie running from her bad decisions and failing to live responsibly, as Tami contends? Or is Julie right that she needs a reboot?

The rage of Eric is most persuasive of all: He's a man who almost always knows how to talk to women but (understandably) can't handle the thought of his baby girl being seduced by a teacher, and—much worse—the thought of his baby girl sleeping with another woman's husband. Before the season started, I predicted that FNL would test the Taylor marriage, but I didn't realize that it would test it in this way. This is much cleverer than Eric or Tami succumbing to adultery: Making Julie into a home wrecker undermines the foundation of Taylorism, which is that their strong marriage and family inoculate Julie. Here is their model child, gone from home for just six weeks and already ripping apart someone else's marriage! How are Tami and Eric going to recover from that?

A few quick closing thoughts. First, thank you, Lord, for Billy Riggins! Who knew that the lesser Riggins brother would turn out to be the real star of this show? His embrace of Luke as a temporary substitute for imprisoned Tim is both psychologically persuasive and a helluva lot of fun. Watching those two boys whoop and yell had me in giggles, and Billy's locker room speech was the most rousing moment of the season.

Second, no, no, no, no: We must not have a Becky stripping subplot! Her longing glance at Mindy's pile of ones and fives was a little too meaningful. Please don't let her into the Landing Strip, Hudgins! We will all regret it!

Finally, the congressional hoo-ha over Don't Ask, Don't Tell got me thinking about Jess in the locker room. The objections to DADT are premised on the notion that gay soldiers threaten unit cohesion by sexualizing an unsexual space. Isn't this exactly what Jess is doing? Sen. McCain—check out Jess' excellent performance as laundry girl and her clever coaching tips. Does that persuade you to abandon your wrongheaded beliefs about gays in uniform? 

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