I’d like to begin at the end. Wasn’t it surprising that the season ended on a close-up of Matt, flying away from Dillon? I love Zach Gilford, the actor who plays Matt, and his mumbling, drawling pessimism defines FNL for me more than Tim Riggins’ flowing locks do, but it still struck me as an odd choice. Tim was the emotional center of this season; Matt was a satellite.
Emily, what’s gotten into you? James Harrison’s interception return? Dirk Borgognone’s 68-yard field goal for Reno High in 1986? Next you’re going to start explaining why you picked Rashard Mendenhall in your fantasy league draft. I was going to take advantage of gender prerogative to dazzle you guys with football analysis, but now I’m a little afraid to!
The dirty little secret about Friday Night Lights has always been that it’s not very interested in football. We see this most clearly whenever a game is central to the plot, because the on-field action feels unpersuasive, at least compared with the emotional realism of the rest of the show. I’m not complaining about the unusual prevalence of last-gasp victories in Dillon—fully half of FNL games are decided on the final play, and this week’s Big Cat Clash was no exception. It’s more that coach Taylor’s game strategy seems pedestrian. What’s striking about football these days—particularly high-school football—is its incredible strategic ferment. High-school coaches are experimenting with all kinds of weird and fantastical tactics—formations with players spread all across the field, off-kilter wishbones, variations on the Wildcat. (Hanna, when you and I went to that high-school game in Austin last November, both teams used offensive formations I had never even seen before.) This kind of wackiness is thriving because it allows small or undermanned schools to compete with the big boys. (The most famous practitioner is fired Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach, who transformed a third-rate football school into an NCAA powerhouse through offensive innovation. Leach, of course, had a peculiar gas station cameo early in this season of FNL.)
In real life, a coach like Eric Taylor trying to give a crummy team a fighting chance would surely attempt this kind of novelty football. Instead, his Big Cat Clash game plan was mundane. The moment that turned the tide for the Lions appeared to be a simple power sweep by Luke Cafferty, the kind of play that an undersized, less-practiced squad could never pull off against a huge and powerful team like the Dillon Panthers.
I assume that FNL eschews football creativity for two reasons. First, most of its viewers simply don’t care. Second, if the show emphasized the football genius of Eric Taylor, it would undermine the most important theme of the show, which is that Eric, as Mrs. Coach told us last season, is “a molder of men.” And to be a molder of men is not to drill teenagers in arcane blocking schemes; it is to connect with them psychologically, to give them speeches, to understand them and challenge them. This psychological drama—will Vince learn to be a lion? will Landry rise to the occasion? will Luke redeem himself?—makes for gripping television in a way a coach analyzing defensive line gaps would not. In truth, most great football coaches, like most great generals, are systematic, process-oriented, and cold. FNL chose to make coach Taylor a George Patton, not a George Marshall, a decision that makes its drama better and its football worse.
(One more really boring, pedantic word about football. I repeat my assertion from earlier in the season. There is no way Landry makes that 46-yard field goal. Landry’s form is dreadful. In his marvelous book A Few Seconds of Panic, the journalist and Slate contributor Stefan Fatsis trained for a year to become a professional field goal kicker. At the end of that year, his longest kick was a 40-yarder. I’ve watched Stefan Fatsis kick and I’ve watched Landry Clark kick, and Landry Clark is no Stefan Fatsis. His field goal wasn’t a miracle; it was pure fantasy.)
I’m disappointed that the finale (and the entire season, I think) passed without a single “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” But coach Taylor’s pep talk at practice was almost better. In particular, this line sticks: “Friday night there will be a bond formed between and among you that will not be broken.” It is, of course, a gridiron knockoff of the greatest of all inspirational speeches, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V (given a little histrionically here by Kenneth Branagh). “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile. …”
Hanna, I agree with you about the excellence of the Tim-Billy dénouement and the implausibility of the Tami resolution. She’s going to be the counselor at Luke’s school; would Mama Grizzly Cafferty really stand for that? Perhaps Peter Berg is setting us up for a fifth season culture war between Tami and Dillon’s social conservatives.
My other Season 5 predictions? I don’t think they can afford to lose Julie, so I expect some kind of accident or misfortune will force her to spend significant time in Dillon during the season. The producers may decide it’s time to test the marriage of Coach and Mrs. Coach a little more emphatically. Coach won’t stray—he would never stray—but some woman, perhaps from his past, will try him. They’ll supply a love interest for Becky, and for Luke, and one will certainly be Hispanic. The major obstacle to Season 5: Too many of the fun characters have left. Matt, Tyra, Smash, and Landry were always good for a laugh. The remaining youngsters are way serious. That sublime exchange about Buddy’s turkey was a reminder of how fantastic FNL is when it’s funny. Next season needs more turkey, and fewer sno-globes.
Let me close with a final, wild prediction. Tim Riggins will return in Season 5, head shaved, a little more withdrawn. Paroled and cut a break for good behavior in prison, he’ll be back in Dillon by midseason. Coach Taylor will cut him a break, too, and make him an assistant coach. When Coach develops unexpected health problems—perhaps the deus ex machina that brings Julie back—Tim leads the Lions to a playoff-clinching upset victory. Coach recovers in time to take the Lions to the state championship, and when Wade Aikman is fired, Tim ends up as the head coach of the Panthers. You heard it here first, Dillon fans!