Rejoice! The ultimate underdog drama Friday Night Lights is back for its fourth season. After a setup in last year's finale that all but guaranteed a huge shift for this coming season, "East of Dillon" is a near perfect beginning to the fulfillment of that promise. And while it's still the same series you know and love, there are a lot of differences to this year.
What's up is down, what's blue is now red and Panther football is no longer "our" team. While the town still clearly favors its Dillon Panthers, nearly all the sympathetic characters have either graduated or are heading East. And while both Buddy and Mrs. Coach/Principal Tami are still stationed in Patherville, their hearts are already leaning East.
Is there anybody better at playing passive-aggressive than Connie Britton's portrayal of Tami? Whether it's intentionally flubbing the Panther coin toss plans (meant to keep her from her husband's game, we can gather from Buddy's face) or wishing Joe McCoy luck in the coming year ("I hope y'all get everything you deserve this year"), it's all done with the most pleasant smile on her face. So while the gerrymandering that went on at the end of last season may have been focused on keeping the good football players as Panthers, it also appears to have re-districted our living rooms East.
The opening montage (beautifully set to the apropos "Sideways Walking" by Eastern Conference Champions) does wonders to orient ourselves into this new world, because even though Coach Taylor, Matt, Landry and even Buddy all still have the same addresses, their settings are markedly different. Throw in Tim Riggins' failure at being a college student (Homer's tales of a hero's journey apparently missed their mark) and you have a theme of characters out of their element, or, better put, in exile. The episode title "East of Dillon" is a play on the biblical "East of Eden*," where Cain was exiled (the Land of Nod) after his fratricidal fall from grace. Coach has been exiled to a place where he's locked out of his own raccoon-infested field house, Buddy no longer has the ear of Dillon's coach (the golf-cart riding Wade), Matt's just another art student with no direction forced to humiliate himself further by being a Panther Pizza delivery boy. And Riggins? Well, new character and cougar-meat offspring Becky sums it up perfectly, asking him "So what's it like being the guy who used to be Tim Riggins?"
Getting back to the shift in the series: The origin of Friday Night Lights was to follow a Coach in a town too obsessed with its football team. Overzealous boosters, parents, alumni and years of unbending tradition alike were a thorn in our hero's side, and ultimately, in the case of Joe McCoy, lead to his ousting. Now, starting up a team at the newly reborn East Dillon, our Coach's problems here are the opposite. With no tradition and no boosters, there's little funding, no experience in shoulder pads, and nobody except Crazy Stan and funny-looking Landry on his side. This side of town doesn't care about football, unless it's Madden NFL, which makes it quite the challenge for our heroes -- and a boon to both the writers of FNL and the viewers alike. Getting to see a Texas football team built from scratch, complete with characters we already know and love, is going to be fun to watch.
But it won't be fun to live, as we're shown by Coach Taylor's scream session after one practice, and then the Lions' first game. The scene during halftime was like Saving Private Ryan-lite, with war-torn athletes licking their wounds (no severed limbs, thankfully). It was made all the more poignant through the use of Sufjan Stevens' take on the hymn "Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing," which refers to Ebenezer, the "stone of help," which our Lions desperately need (and bookends nicely with Tinker's battle hymn he hums before the game).
There wasn't much time to introduce new characters, but Michael B. Jordan (Wallace from The Wire) is obviously going to be one to watch. He's our East Dillon version of Matt Saracen, a character from a broken family forced to step up and lead a team (and, like Matt, I expect we'll see much of the battles going forward through his eyes). The other character introduced was the aforementioned Becky (Madison Burge), who obviously has eyes for #33, even though he's already scored a TD with her mom (the barely recognizable Alicia Witt).
One final shot: It's good to see FNL can still be funny, even when everything's upside down, thanks to Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Lorraine (Louanne Stephens):
"You just gotta pull the slot machine and elbow the midget in the face." --Landry on learning to throw the football.
"Landry, stop throwing the ball. You look like a girl ... you're just a funny lookin' creature there." --Lorraine.
Playlist: Friday Night Lights - Episode 4.01
9. "Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing" - Sufjan Stevens [download]: Halftime, Tami arrives,Coach forfeits game
Previously: Tomorrow Blues (Episode 3.13, Season 3 finale)
curator of the music/soundtrack blog thus spake drake