Matt Lauria, Madison Burge
The Fourth Season
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All photos © NBC
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
t isn’t often that a series reinvents itself so successfully that you don’t find yourself longing for the seasons that came before, but that’s exactly what happens with Season Four of “Friday Night Lights.” At the close of Season Three, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) had lost his job coaching for the Dillon Panthers, and a case of redistricting left him in charge of a non-existent East Dillon team. Further, most of the kids we’d grown to know and love over the previous three seasons were headed off to college. It could easily have been the end of the show, and it would have been a perfect series of notes to go out on, had DirecTV, which saved the show and helped to give us that third season, not stepped up to the plate and signed on to help NBC co-produce two more 13 episode seasons. Thank you DirecTV, because Season Four may actually be the series’ best since its first. Of course, where Season Four ranks in this fine show’s history is probably irrelevant – what matters is that it’s yet another great batch of chapters in the ongoing story of the fictitious town of Dillon, Texas.
East Dillon High is on the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks.” It lacks money and credibility, and as such caters to a much poorer class of student than West Dillon (which, in a subtle move of TV retconning, is what the old school is occasionally referred to as this year). What this does is allow “Friday Night Lights” to showcase far more African-Americans than ever before, and in doing so, it changes the scope and feel of this series that had previously been mostly about middle-class white folks (Brian “Smash” Williams aside). Coach Taylor’s job is to rebuild the East Dillon Lions, but it isn’t going to be easy, as few of the students seem interested in cooperating. It’s almost as if the series is starting over from the beginning, only with a much different point of view. The Dillon Panthers, whom we’ve cheered on for three straight seasons, have now become the enemy, and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), who remains the principal of West Dillon, also finds herself in increasingly difficult situations, perhaps due in part to the fact that her husband is no longer the savior of the school.
Luckily, aside from the Taylors, plenty of other faces from the old days remain. When last we saw Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), he was headed off to attend college in San Antonio. Almost immediately we discover that, perhaps predictably, college just wasn’t for him. So he heads back to Dillon to work with his brother Billy at Riggins Rigs. Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) is one of the kids who’s been redistricted, and so he’s now going to East Dillon and playing for the Lions. He was a little fish in a big pond when he played for the Panthers, but maybe with Lions he’ll finally get his chance to shine. Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is trying to figure out who he is as an artist, as well as his place in Julie Taylor’s (Aimee Teegarden) life. Is it even in the cards for him to do both? One the series’ strongest episodes ever, “The Son,” revolves around a personal tragedy in Matt’s life this season. People like Tyra Collette, Jason Street, Lyla Garrity and Smash Williams seem all but memories at this point, but maybe at least one of those faces will pop up before the season’s finish.
With all of the absent folks, the show introduces four new characters, each of which quickly become as near and dear as the ones we’ve left behind. Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) plays for the Panthers, even though he’s districted for East Dillon. A cleverly-placed mailbox allows for the deception, but early on the whistle is blown (by the most unlikely of persons) and he’s forced to go to East Dillon and play for the Lions. Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) is a member of the dance team who eventually finds herself in an unlikely triangle with two very different guys. Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) is a girl with big dreams and plenty of limitations. How does Tim Riggins fit into her life? Finally, there’s Vince Howard (Michael P. Jordan), whose story is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking. A big part of this season revolves around this character, and Jordan is a real coup for the series, sliding in and becoming as important to the ongoing tapestry as Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen were before him.
In rereading this review, much of what I wrote feels trite. The thing about “Friday Night Lights” is that it takes the ordinary, the mundane or the clichéd, and somehow turns them into important truths. It isn’t something that can really be captured in a DVD review. It’s something you have to tune into and feel for yourself. This season also goes to some pretty dark places, particularly in its second half – fare that you’ve never seen on this show before. There are moments that feel more like “The Shield” than “Friday Night Lights.” The season as a whole is an expert weave of well over a dozen characters, drifting in and out of one another’s lives, sometimes blissfully unaware of the havoc they’re wreaking as they do so. If you’ve never seen the show before, this wouldn’t be at all a bad place to start.
Special Features: Most people who watch this show know that the only thing worth getting really excited about in the extras department on these box sets is the selection of deleted scenes. Here there must be close to 50 minutes worth, and many of them are well worth checking out, and add a great deal of shading to the storyline. Additionally, there are three behind-the-scenes featurettes titled “Friday Night Lights…Camera, Action!,” “New Faces, New Places,” and “Playbook.” There are three other short interviews featuring creator Peter Berg, in which he talks about various aspects of the series; he directed the first episode on this set, and it was the first time he’d sat in that chair since the pilot. Finally, there’s a commentary track on that first episode, which unfortunately doesn’t feature Berg, but instead has showrunner Jason Katims. Katims gets all the respect in the world from me as the guy taking care of this wonderful show, but for heaven’s sakes, man, stay away from the yak tracks. Had I played a drinking game in which I’d taken a shot every time the man says either “um” or “you know,” I’d have had to visit the porcelain throne five minutes into the commentary, and I wouldn’t have been seen again for the rest of the night.