Friday, July 02, 2010
The Other Side of Town: Friday Night Lights
This season's Friday Night Lights has expanded the universe of Dillon, Texas and become a much richer and deeper show than it was before - and that's saying something. At the end of season 3 Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) fell victim to redistricting and to the pressure applied by the wealthy father of the school's up-and-coming quarterback. Taylor is forced out of Dillon High and becomes coach of the newly reopened East Dillon, school for the city's predominantly African-American lower to lower middle class population. There's no money and no tradition and almost no team; Taylor is forced to forfeit the first game at halftime because he's afraid his shorthanded team will be physically overrun. The Lions (who still don't seem to have many players) have slowly become a team and recorded their first win last week, thanks mostly to quarterback Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), running back Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria), and ex-Dillon Panther and series stalwart Landry Clark (the wonderfully understated Jesse Plemons).
Race and class are now at the forefront of Friday Night Lights; when Eric was at Dillon there was a reliable network of boosters to depend on but the economically deprived East Dillon program must get what it needs from the community. I'd argue that Friday Night Lights might be the closest network TV can come to depicting a community with the layers and complexity of Deadwood. There's a wonderful scene in which Eric has invited East Dillon leaders with roots in the school's distant football history over for dinner. The conversation flows awkwardly until the arrival of Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), Eric's former Dillon ally and occasional tempter. It's a pleasant surprise to find out that Buddy (who had divorced himself from the increasingly ugly Dillon boosters) is more than just a car dealer to Dillon's wealthy, he's a man of the people and liberal in his friendships. Well known to the East Dillon group, Buddy is warmly welcomed and uses his charm to line up support for the budding Lions program. Leland's performance suggests a lifetime of Buddy's pancake breakfasts and Rotary Club meetings; the character is one of TV's greatest Middle Americans.
Tonight's episode, "The Lights of Carrol Park", deals with race more explicitly and had me worried at the start. Eric, looking a for a truant player, wanders into an underlit and dangerous East Dillon park at night. Shots ring out, and a young boy is wounded while Eric looks on. Eric's determination to restore proper lighting to the park at first feels like the most inappropriate do-gooderism. He's still being greeted with suspicion in some quarters because of his methods and the Lions' slow start. Eric finds an unexpected ally in Vernon Merriwether (Steve Harris, who gets something to do for the first time on the show.) Vernon, a successful barbecue joint owner, is part of the first generation of Lions football and suspicious of the enthusiasm Eric is trying to generate. Vernon reveals his doubts about two white men turning East Dillon around in a refreshingly honest scene with Buddy, but he provides an introduction to an anti-gang activist (Larry Gilyard, Jr. aka D'Angelo Barksdale) which leads to a fund raising touch football game between the Lions and what appears to be part of East Dillon's criminal element. What could have been a working out of liberal guilt turns into to something hopeful, complicated, and unresolved, since star player Vince is still trying to escape the life that's lining up across from him in the touch game.
This season of Friday Night Lights has already aired on Direct TV. I can only assume there's a game between Dillon and East Dillon coming that will end the season on a competitive note, but the slow courtship between Eric and East Dillon has been the show's real heart. By so lovingly offering its small slice of America, Friday Night Lights remains one of TV's biggest shows.