Matt Lauria and Michael Jordan of 'Friday Night Lights'
These last episodes are sure to be emotional, but it's possible that no show in television history has ever more thoroughly prepared its fanbase for saying farewell.
Devoted "Friday Night Lights" fans had already faced the possibility of cancellation after the first, second and third seasons. In fact, last year's finale was the first time that viewers were able to enjoy the end of one season knowing that another season was guaranteed to follow.
In the process of taking audiences on this high school-based journey, "Friday Night Lights" has also regularly graduated characters both within the show and off into the next phase of their lives, outside of the series. With varying degrees of ceremony, we've bid adieu to Smash, Street, Saracen, Lyla and Tyra in the past two seasons alone.
Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton have always been the show's backbone, but a daunting number of vital organs have been shed over the years, though the body has lived on, sometimes every bit as strong as it ever was.
There will be no last-second stay of execution for "Friday Night Lights" after the fifth season. And there are more major castmembers ready to depart before the show shuffles off its own mortal coil. So expect plenty of tears as "Friday Night Lights" approaches that final finale.
But how is the last season? Well, I've seen the first three episodes. Click through for some thoughts, with minor spoilers...
When we left our favorite Dillon residents, the East Dillon Lions had just scored a dramatic victory over our formerly beloved, now hated Dillon Panthers, the highlight of an otherwise dismal 2-8 season.
"Friday Night Lights" resumes in August of the following year. Rebuilding seemingly a thing of the past, hopes are high for Coach Taylor and the Lions. With Vince (Michael B. Jordan) settled in at QB and Luke (Matt Lauria) at RB, the Lions have a core in place.
After a rocky end to her already confusing journey as a high school principal, Tami Taylor has returned to her roots as a guidance counselor, forcing flashbacks to her similar gig in the best-forgotten Season Two.
Because another spring has come and gone, Landry and Julie are both high school graduates. Julie's packing her bags for Fictional University X, while Landry's off to Rice and both departures are emotional. [Aimee Teegarden continues to be a regular presence. I'm not sure when/if we're going to have Jesse Plemons back.]
But Julie and Landry aren't the only familiar favorites either departing, or at least being pushed to the outside of the main narrative. When Season Four ended, Taylor Kitsch's Tim Riggins was face time in the hoosegow, sacrificing himself for his family. Kitsch appears early in the premiere and doesn't return in the opening episodes, though his prison schedule suggests a return later in the season.
It's not unheard of for shows to cycle through cast members, but such ensemble refreshing is more common on an "E.R." or a "Law & Order," a show where the format and procedure are ultimately the key elements.
"Friday Night Lights" is not a procedural. Although seasons are generally structured around football season, the common party line has always been that the show isn't about football. I've never agree with that contention, personally. I've always thought "Friday Night Lights" was strongest when it was executing the football core successfully and letting everything else flow out of that season. But leaving that aside, "Friday Night Lights" has always been a socially conscious, sports-curious, character-driven soap opera with a high school backdrop. Similar shows have definitely experienced cast exoduses, but there's a reason you rarely hear anybody saying, "Boy, I loved the Hilary Swank Era of 'Beverly Hills, 90210.'" You grow to love a group of central characters and no matter how much narrative or thematic continuity exists when they're gone, and no matter how excellent their replacements might be, it's hard to feel the same way about the new guys.
I miss QB-1, Street (and Kevin Rankin's Herc), Lyla, Tyra and Smash (and Liz Mikel's Mama Smash). I miss having Riggins, Landry and Julie all stirring things up in the same plotlines. Do I miss them because they were better characters (or portrayed by better actors) or because they had better stories surrounding them? Dunno. Or do I just miss them because I knew them first and suffered through Season Two and came out the other side with them? I can't say for sure. But my ties with the new kids just aren't as strong and so my ties to the current show just aren't as strong. Your results may vary, of course.
Thank heavens for Kyle Chandler. Finally recognized with an Emmy nomination last season -- not his most deserving season, but who's gonna quibble? -- Chandler is an amazingly successful still point in a changing "Friday Night Lights" universe. He's convincing with ernest inspiration, aspirational parenting or coaching and when the time comes to get humor out of an exasperated declaration or furrowed brow, nobody does it better. He's been TV's parenting, husbanding and leading paragon that it's hard to imagine who or what will fill the vacuum when "FNL" is over. Chandler has several of his best moments in the season's third episode, but he's stable throughout.
Leaving aside the show's true ensemble nature, Season Five starts off as "The Michael B Jordan Show," with far more of a conscious focus on one young character than we've ever seen before. He's the only one of the young stars with a football plotline (both current and involving his athletic future), a romantic plotline (with Jurnee Smollett's Jess) and a family/domestic plotline. Part of that may just be that Jordan is now the longest tenured player under Chandler's watch, part probably stems from the practical difficulties of realigning the chess pieces to start the season and part just stems from Jordan being an increasingly impressive actor. By the third episode, you know exactly why Jordan is getting the spotlight.
Then again, Matt Lauria is also very good -- he's got a possible star-making role in FOX's midseason "The Chicago Code" -- but his non-football arcs don't come together as quickly. Perhaps realizing that if the show was going to fabricate storylines surrounding the recruitment of the team's star QB, he needed somebody to pass to, we've added Grey Damon as a wide receiver prospect with the unlikely name of Hastings Ruckle. It's too soon for me to make a call on either the actor or the character.
Want the best argument for why "Friday Night Lights" actually *is* a show about football? Check out the series' struggles with finding things for its actresses to do when they aren't directly connected to a specific player. Note that I said "struggle," not failure. Lyla and Tyra were, in the balance, terrific characters and gave Minka Kelly and Adrianne Palicki lots to do, but look at all of the random, temporary situations both characters had to be slotted into to keep them from drifting off entirely. Volleyball? Christian talk radio? The rodeo circuit? Santiago? It's not a coincidence that Teegarden's Julie has always been the best of the show's female characters, with her tight tethering to both Matt and to Coach Taylor, but even she had a dead-end dalliance with the teacher played by Austin Nichols. [Away at college and again untethered, Julie looks to be heading for trouble in early episodes.]
The new female characters are similarly unsteady. Smollett's winning energy is keeping Jess afloat, but she's as inconsistently written and realized as any character on TV and she starts the season on an arc that feels really desperate for the scribes. Also erratic is Madison Burge's Becky, whose flirtations with Riggins left some fans cold last season. I liked Burge, but the writers' discomfort in giving her a role that isn't defined by Riggins or ex-flame Luke is evident.
That flaw in grounding female characters has even extended to Tami. No. Connie Britton has never suffered. That she hadn't received an Emmy nod before last year is a disgrace. But think of Tami and her arcs away from her husband and you get more under-utilized duds (like her Season Two depression) than effective arcs (last season's abortion story was one of the good ones). Tami starts Season Five in "The kids are all out of control, but I can save them one at a time" mode and comes across as more naive and strident than effective and crusading. Britton pushes hard and if the Tami story works, it's because of her and not what she's been given.
I've always been of the opinion that the worst of "Friday Night Lights" is pretty much better than 98% of what's on TV, but I watched the second season, so I know that's not quite true. Fortunately, the start of Season Five isn't the worst of "Friday Night Lights." It's still consummately filmed and acted and you still sense that the writers have Big Issues they're prepared to tackle -- some about football, some about Kids Today -- which is always admirable, but not always subtle.
This season's bigger arcs are revealing themselves slowly and by the third episode, I definitely felt like I was along for the journey and properly invested in the characters, but also the Lions. But that progression isn't flawless and neither is the start of the "Friday Night Lights" season. It's still damn good.
"Friday Night Lights" premieres on DirecTV's 101 Network on Wednesday, October 27. It'll return to NBC at some point next year.
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