Review: 'Friday Night Lights' season 5 debuts on DirecTV
Early in the fifth and final season of “Friday Night Lights,” one player on the East Dillon Lions receives a stack of recruiting letters from some of the top college football programs in the country, while the players in general aren’t happy with what they feel is a lack of respect from the Texas high school football establishment. Both these developments would seem somewhat improbable, given that the Lions won only two games last season, and one of those came against the worst team in their district.
But I can’t begrudge the Lions their pride, nor the “Friday Night Lights” writers for trying out these storylines. This team wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a joke after the Dillon schools were redistricted, with all the good players gerrymandered into the other side of town. And the show wasn’t supposed to be around this long, not after the first two seasons drew cancellation-level ratings on NBC, with the final three existing only because DirecTV stepped in to play white knight.
(As usual, DirecTV has an exclusive window for the fall and early winter, with new episodes airing on The 101 Network Wednesdays at 9 p.m. starting this week. NBC will tentatively begin airing these same episodes in the summer.)
So given the show’s improbable survival, and that producer Jason Katims entered this season fairly confident it would be the last, I can’t begrudge him with trying out a few improbable story arcs for this victory lap year. This is a great show - one of the best dramas to ever air on network TV - and its creators and fans deserve some feel-good moments in the closing chapters, no?
My concern is less with the plausibility factor - this is a show that, after all, featured week after week of come-from-behind victories even in the seasons when Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) was coaching a more traditional football powerhouse - than with the way this final season opens with much less urgency than the previous one did. I’ve seen the first three episodes - nearly a quarter of the final season - and while parts of each are quite strong, each as a whole feels like one of those solid middle-of-the-year chapters that are necessary to keep the story moving but don’t elicit the goosebumps for which this show is justly celebrated.
In fairness, it would be hard to top the opening of last year, in which Coach arrived at the reopened East Dillon High and tried to build a football program out of nothing but dirt and hope. That was as pure an underdog sports story as you can find, and the chills came early and often. (My spine still tingles a little thinking of a scene at the end of the fourth season premiere where Eric wandered through the locker room at halftime, surveying his battered, bloody, overmatched but courageous troops.)
There was a siege mentality to the open of season four that season five can’t realistically match. The Lions now have a season under their belts. Coach has a quarterback in ex-delinquent Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) and a strong complementary piece in Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria). The Lions aren’t playing for pride anymore, but victories, which makes the athletic stakes higher but the emotional stakes less so.
(Minor spoilers follow.)
Once again, we open with some goodbyes. Former fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is in the middle of a prison term after taking the fall for the chop shop he ran with brother Billy (Derek Phillips). Tight end/placekicker/musician/murderer Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) is heading off to college, as is Eric’s daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Teegarden, unlike Plemons and Kitsch and the other graduated original castmembers, remains a cast regular, and so the action occasionally (and a bit awkwardly, so far) cuts away from Dillon to see what Julie’s up to at school.
There are also some introductions. After four years of focusing entirely on his offensive backfield, Eric finally realizes he needs a wide receiver and recruits a basketball player by the name of Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), while the Lions are now popular enough that all the players get their own rally girls, to the delight of Tim’s friend Becky (Madison Burge) and the frustration of Vince’s girlfriend Jess (Jurnee Smollett), who loves football but doesn’t want to be baking cookies to put in the QB’s locker.
All of these storylines are fine, and feel appropriate to the show’s universe, but it wasn’t until a Vince subplot in the third episode that I began to feel my pulse racing the way it has in the series’ best moments. (Katims and company did a remarkably good job of casting new characters to replace the original teens, and Jordan remains the best of those.)
Other times, though, I kept scratching my head at the show’s weirdly inconsistent portrait of East Dillon High. Sometimes, it’s supposed to be a school that lay dormant for decades until its doors reopned last year; at others, everyone but Eric and his guidance counselor wife Tami (Connie Britton) act like it’s been there all this time. Tami begins her new job as East Dillon’s guidance counselor and is shocked - shocked! - to learn of the problems so many of the kids there have, even though many of them would have been students at the school across town where she worked as guidance counselor and then principal. Britton has consistently delivered one of the best performances on television in this role, but a lot of her scenes this year had me scratching my head.
But the third episode was stronger than the first two, and there’s never anything as jaw-droppingly awful as the murder plot that opened season two. (I’ll take low but realistic stakes over absurdly high stakes, thank you.) And even if the fifth season never reaches the thrilling levels the series achieved at various points in years one, three and four, I’m just happy to spend a little more time in the town of Dillon, TX, and in the company of people like Eric and Tami Taylor. “Friday Night Lights” deserves a great ending, but I’ll settle for a pretty good one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
As I have the previous two seasons with the DirecTV/NBC split, my plan is to review the episodes as they air on The 101 Network, then repost them as they're rerun on NBC. And as always, all the spoiler-y content will be contained after the jump, so you won't have to worry about having things ruined months ahead of time.