So, one of the things that I said I’d do after the Lost Finale was spend some time writing about Friday Night Lights, for two reasons:
(1) I haven’t written about anything close to pop culture in roughly a decade (okay, not quite).
(2) FNL has jumped to a new level of awesomeness in this season, and demands careful attention.
You still have time to catch the first episode of the season over at the indispensable Hulu. Make sure you check it out prior to Saturday.
Here’s all the backdrop you need to know from previous seasons: Dillon, Texas has been divided into two. The main family on the show, the Taylors, have been divided along with it. Tami is principle at Dillon High, which is the main football power in town. Her husband, Eric, has been exiled to East Dillon after being pushed out of his head coaching position at Dillon High by the father of his star quarterback.
And that sets up the central drama in this first episode. Coach Taylor assembles a band of misfits who we’re pretty sure have never played football before, including Vince, who he rescues from having to go to juvy. Meanwhile, Tami is picked for the coin toss at Dillon, where she artfully asserts her own independence by doing precisely the opposite of what “the powers” behind Dillon football tell her.
The central problem of this episode, though, is that the old world of Dillon football, where Coach Taylor incited both fear and love into his players and had the legitimacy of a championship season to back it up, is over. Landry may take to being called a coward, but not the rest of this team. In a move surprising only for its results, Coach chastised his players for fighting, but is reduced to screaming when it doesn’t take. And no wonder–while we’ve heard that sort of tone for three seasons, it’s a new cast, and Taylor speaks with no authority.
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”–his motto from the glory days at Dillon High–rings somewhat hollow here. It is simply one more misguided attempt to use the old traditions in a new context, where no one except Landry has any attachment to them.
Which makes Coach’s betrayal-by-forfeit all the more problematic. It’s a touching moment, that locker room scene. Sufjian’s Come Thou Fount plays while Taylor surveys his faithful wounded. The best moment of the episode. In each case, they say the same: “I can play, coach,” demonstrating the sort of hard-nosed character that a game like football calls for.
While Coach has an obligation to keep his players safe, this game also sets the tone, and thanks to his own misjudgments, he has left himself in the impossible position of respecting the effort of his players and protecting their safety.
It’s hard to describe the momentousness of the forfeit without understanding the nature of small-town football. I grew up in a small town not unlike Dillon. Our football team won State my junior year and took second my senior year. A forfeit to another team? Unheard of, except for ethical reasons. We’d rather suffer–as my school once did–a seven year losing streak.
Which is why Coach Taylor’s decision to forfeit is a stunning reversal on his players who demonstrated their willingness to bleed for him. What might have been the opportunity to forge a new way of being East Dillon, to establish a football program on a legacy of sacrifice, pain, and grittiness becomes instead a question mark over both Taylor’s leadership and the school’s future.
Of course, what presents itself as a show about football really isn’t. It’s a drama of respect, of promise and failure, and the inevitable conflicts that arise in the course of normal life.