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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ere’s a box set that’s a bit of a TV on DVD anomaly: Most fans of the series haven’t yet had the opportunity to view these episodes. If you watch “Friday Night Lights” on NBC, and you’re thinking, “Hey, did I somehow manage to miss the fifth season?,” the answer is no, you didn’t. This block of 13 episodes won’t begin airing until later this month on network TV. They did, however, play on DirecTV late last year and early this year, and now somebody, somewhere, has decided to go ahead and release this season on DVD before it plays on NBC. Given that this is the final season of this great series, that must make this set mighty tempting to the people who haven’t seen this material.
The big question, no doubt, is, “Does it deliver?” From this fan’s point of view the answer is “Most definitely.” But that’s a loaded answer that requires detailed – yet spoiler-free – explanation. If you didn’t care for the manner in which the show rebooted for Season Four, then there’s a good chance you’re not going to care for most of this season, either. Last season introduced four new major characters along with a slew of peripheral figures surrounding them, and this season continues on with those storylines. In many ways it feels less like a new season, and more like a continuation of last season’s stories; as if Seasons Four and Five combine to make one mammoth 26-episode story. It would be utterly useless to watch this block without having seen the year that preceded it, as that setup is imperative to appreciating what’s served up here.
Now, taking the above equation into consideration, the first three or four episodes of Season Five have a pretty unexpected “noodling” vibe, as if they’re the vaguely weak middle of this long story, and they’re biding their time until it begins ramping up for the big finish. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible the writers, led by Jason Katims, knew the ending they wanted, but weren’t sure of how to get there. I dub this the Hastings Ruckle Conundrum.
Hastings Ruckle is a character introduced at the start of the season. He’s played by a young man named Grey Damon, who I’m sure is a fine actor, although we can’t know one way or the other based on his work here, because the show does nothing with him over the course of 13 episodes. He pops up every once in a while, with a few lines of dialogue, but never even comes close to getting a storyline of his own. Years from now when people discuss this show, he’ll be remembered as an utterly insignificant cog in the “Friday Night Lights” wheel, and that’s assuming he’ll be remembered at all. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue if not for one important factor: Grey Damon is given opening credit status (as well as having his image added to the opening credit montage) for the entire season.
By contrast, Derek Phillips, who plays Billy Riggins, has worked tirelessly on this series since the start, yet always receiving end credit status. For Season Five – in which Billy is a major player – Phillips is finally upgraded to post opening credits “guest starring” status. There aren’t enough italic keystrokes and quotation marks on my keyboard to adequately convey the proper sarcasm inherent in the facts of that last sentence. And yet Grey Damon as Hastings Ruckle is suddenly one of the “stars” of this series? Don’t even get me started on the credit placement of Stacey Oristano (Mindy Collette Riggins), who, like Phillips, has much more to do here than in previous years. Of course, contracts and agent demands and so forth are always factors, but the actors chosen to represent a series in its opening credits say a lot about a show, and what I see in the season’s opening episodes is a great deal of scrambling around and a lack of focus and vision, exemplified by the showcasing of Grey Damon as a lead, when he is little more than a glorified extra. Hence, the Hastings Ruckle Conundrum.
Wow. Sure went off on a tangent there, did I not? The opening episodes are in no way bad, just not as engaging as what one would expect from the final season of a great show like “Friday Night Lights,” especially coming off the perfection that was Season Four. Once Season Five gets to the place it needs to be, probably somewhere around episode five, “Kingdom,” it charges full steam ahead, delivering a largely excellent batch of installments that eventually take us to a wholly satisfying payoff. The season is all about Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) leading the Lions to State, and those viewers who missed the emphasis on football last year will find plenty of field play to satisfy their appetites.
There are loads of surprises (not to mention surprise appearances) along the way, but given how unseen this material is by the “Friday Night Lights” masses, I’m uncomfortable delving into specific plot points. Although Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) make multi-episode appearances, neither are major components of the entire season. Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) even less so, as he’s sent away to college in the season premiere. Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) goes off to college as well, yet the show sees fit to follow her journey, which typifies the clubfooted nature of the opening episodes. The storyline does make its way back to Dillon in a manner that works quite effectively, and eventually ricochets into and tests the marriage of Eric and Tami (Connie Britton). There’s some great layered writing here, folks. As with last season, there’s the same stellar work from the four newbies, led by Michael B. Jordan as Vince Howard. The storyline featuring the return of his father, Ornette, is a season highlight, and Cress Williams, who portrays the ex-con, positively electrifies with one of the most complex, nuanced characters “Friday Night Lights” has ever unveiled.
And the series finale? Gorgeous and heartfelt, with plenty of moments to test the tear ducts of even the most hardened fan. I’ve heard it said that “Friday Night Lights” is often a predictable show. I’ll give that to critics in regard to the football games, because drama demands that that aspect of the show frequently plays out in an “I saw it coming a mile away” manner. But as far as the character drama? I take issue with calling these characters predictable, unless predictable means good people doing the right thing in difficult situations. If there’s any reason this show is predictable, it’s because its characters behave in ways that people are expected to behave. That’s why they are so easy to care about. The people of Dillon show us the best in ourselves, and if that’s the definition of predictable, then TV is sorely lacking in predictable fare, and the end of “Friday Night Lights” will be felt for years to come.
Clear eyes, full hearts, and by all means, Texas forever.
Special Features: I wish I could rave about the extras on this set, but sadly they are pretty ordinary, and in no way do they feel like a celebration of the end of a series, which is a shame. There are two commentary tracks; the first is on episode ten, “Don’t Go,” and features director Michael Waxman, while the second is on the finale, “Always”, and features Jason Katims. There’s also a quick photo gallery called “Yearbook,” and a featurette entitled “The Lights Go Out,” which has a 30-minute running time. Nobody will convince me that the people who work on this show collectively only have 30 minutes worth of reflection and goodbyes in them. Oh, it’s a nice piece, but it needed to be – and could have been – so much more. Finally, there are the deleted scenes, which normally are a huge part of the extras on the “Friday Night Lights” DVD sets. Here, only five of the episodes feature deleted material, and some offer up only one deleted scene. Find a way to enjoy the season itself folks, because the extras are pretty much guaranteed to underwhelm.