Should I Stay or Should I Go: A look at the third season of “Friday Night Lights”

As promised on my podcast, “Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan,” I’m writing up my belated thoughts on each individual season of “Friday Night Lights” as I finally get through them. All thoughts below are based on knowledge of Season 3, and nothing else that follows. Please keep any comments below centered around Season 3, and Season 3 only.

It’s fitting that I’m writing about the third season of “Friday Night Lights” today of all days. You see, it’s the one-year anniversary of the series finale of “Lost,” a show that seemingly has little in common with a show about small-town Texas football. But in rereading some of my old takes on that finale (“The End”), and checking out some of the action today on Twitter, I realized that perhaps the reason I’d been unable to sum up my experience watching the third season of “Friday Night Lights” may have been destined. Perhaps some unseen hand had been clouding my thoughts this past week.

Or, as Mr. Eko once said: don’t mistake procrastination for fate. (OK, I’m paraphrasing.)

lost601_3.jpgIn anticipation of today’s anniversary, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof solicited hashtag suggestions to commemorate the event. He (like many), settled on #WeHavetoGoBack. But my suggestion came instantaneously and never wavered: #YouCanLetGoNow. A lot of people took slight (or not so slight) exception to my proposal, suggesting that it was somehow negative. Far from it. So near as I could tell, I was honoring the show in the way I best knew how. After all, that sentiment seemed to sum up the sixth and final season, which itself served to sum up the show as a whole. Invoking Rose’s suggestion to Jack aboard Sideways 815 rather than Jack’s please to Kate outside of LAX doesn’t dismiss either the show nor its effect upon me. It means that I absorbed what I felt was its central message was and lived my life accordingly.

Now, what does this all have to do with the middle season of “FNL”’s five year run? I’d argue that the through line for the entire season mirrors the tension encapsulated in the hashtags in the previous paragraph. You could argue that the third season is about various forms of parent/child relationships, but that’s both too simple and too broad a picture to paint. No, I think it’s better to look at each character’s overall arc as toeing the line between returning to an idealized sense of self and embracing the unknown. Season 1 was all about introducing the world of Dillon and its denizens. Season 2 didn’t actually happen, aside from Matt Saracen crying in the shower, so we really can’t assign an overall theme to that year. Because how can you assign meaning to SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T EXIST, RIGHT? But Season 3 marked a different tone and temperament: by scaling the drama of the show back to human size, it managed to speak to issues far beyond the borders of that small town.

Far too many shows concerning high school reach a point in which the inevitability that is life rears its ugly head far before the program is ready to adequately deal with such a life changing event. Either the show plays fast and loose with its own continuity (aka, the Sophomore-for-Three-Years Syndrome), or manages to arbitrarily keep everyone local for reasons that defy belief (aka, the Everyone-Gets-Into-The-Same-Local-College Syndrome). “FNL” took a different approach with its characters, making the real world a lot more real a lot faster than any of its characters anticipated. For someone like Tyra, it’s the realization that the last place on earth she wants to get old is in her hometown. For someone like Matt, it’s the realization that Chicago isn’t an abstract concept but an actual city in which he could live. But for Tyra, Matt, and the host of others that recognize their Friday nights may not always be spent under the same lights, a decision has to be made. As the Clash might put it: should they stay or should they go?

friday-night-lights161.jpgDecisions like this are not as dramatically unique as, say, the decision to push a button or let it count down to zero inside a geodesic dome buried underground on an Island that travels through time and space. But while I can intellectually appreciate the latter, I can viscerally relate to the former. And while there are plot points in this third season through which I could drive a bus full of Dillon Panthers, I always bought the push/pull of hometown life on both the teenagers AND adults throughout the thirteen episodes. I have plenty of friends that I grew up with up here in Massachusetts that think the world ends at its city limits. My hometown isn’t a bad place, but I never thought I’d stay there forever. Part of that comes from natural curiosity, but a lot of it came from the fact that my parents made sure I saw other things while growing up. We didn’t exactly backpack across Europe, but I realized that the town in which I was born didn’t have to be the town in which I was buried.

So much of “FNL”’s third season plays off characters’ increasing suspicion/realization that their idealized notion of Dillon falls far short when looked it with clear eyes (as well as full hearts). That takes on many forms: Eric Taylor realizing the McCoy Family will cleave the town in two; Tami Taylor realizing that the town would sacrifice education for a better scoreboard; Buddy Garrity trying to pretend the football team can make up for his fractured family; Smash Williams/Jason Street realizing the town that once worshipped them have now abandoned them. I could list a dozen more, but the point is this: so often, people don’t realize change going on around them until it’s too late. “Friday Night Lights” spent its third season looking at how people reacted upon having the truth flood their brain.

street159.jpgIn some ways, the season doesn’t really take off until Smash and Jason leave Dillon for good. I didn’t always like Smash over the first two seasons, but I blame a lot of that on the show’s inability to give him anything but hackneyed plots (the steroid arc, the fight in the movie theatre that led to his suspension). Toss in a strike-shortened second season, and “FNL” had to spent its first four episodes of the following year wrapping up his arc. But damnit if those four episodes didn’t redeem Smash as a character, allowing us to see how wildly special he was instead of simply being told it over and over again. As for Street: look, the fact that 1) he went to NYC and got a job in a top-flight sports agency and 2) Riggins went with him without any school or team repercussions both indicate his exit from the show could qualify as science fiction, plotwise. But holy hell, how can one really complain given the goodbye between the two outside of Erin’s childhood home? I’m getting emotional just typing that out, and I watched that scene three weeks ago. I’ll take an emotional moment that powerful over airtight, but cold, plotting any day of the week.

That Street earned the cash to go to NYC by flipping Buddy’s old home speaks to the upheaval going on throughout the small town over the course of the season. There’s upheaval in the form of geographical/physical distribution in the form of the redistricting storyline, but there are just as many interpersonal upheavals as well. When I stated earlier that Season 3 didn’t boil down simply to parents and children, that’s because the normal societal roles for each varies within each family, and often times the role of parent or child falls outside one’s bloodline. Coach Taylor and Joe McCoy spend the majority of the season fighting over the soul of impressionable, sensitive J.D. Tyra spends as much time seeking motherly advice from Tami as she does being the parental figure to her sister and own mother. But these relationships aren’t set in stone: by season’s end, Angela is finally equipped to not simply be a drinking buddy with her daughters but a functional adult who is able to recognize which daughter would thrive in Dillon and which one would wither. Neither choice is “better” than the other. It’s clear that certain characters need to stick around in order to thrive. Others need to flee, even if they only recognize it when it’s staring them in the face.

T.S. Eliot’s famous “Four Quartets” came to mind a lot as I approached the finish line for this third season. (Not only is it thematically appropriate, I’m also totally pretentious. So invoking Eliot is kinda in my wheelhouse. Just wait until this summer, when I compare “Big Brother” to Baudelaire.) His most famous passage from it states, “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” I would amend that statement to say that many people in Dillon over the course of the third season went exploring, only to know themselves for the first time. For some, that knowledge either pushed them out of Dillon forever or solidified their place within its city limits for the foreseeable future. Again: depending on the individual, neither choice is superior, so long as the exploration was true and the personal revelation honest. But only by making the journey, instead of sleepwalking through a prescribed life, can any of them truly make an active choice either way.

eric-and-tami.jpgFor others, especially the Taylors, things aren’t quite so simple. They explored, and realized that they no longer recognize the place they are in. Eric and Tami survey the East Dillon field like an archeologist discovering a long abandoned ruins beneath the surface of modern civilization. Everything that Eric has built in that town has been stripped away by money, politics, and a fickle population for whom loyalty must be perpetually earned. What I imagine Season 4 will show is that neither Taylor truly know Dillon at all at this point, and that their exploration will only just begin to this redistricting. Taylor functions best as a underdog, and I imagine a “Veronica Mars”-esque set-up next season between the Haves and Have Nots within this small town. But, you know, with more football and less murder. Because no one ever gets murdered in Dillon, especially not in that second season, which, again, we ALL AGREED NEVER HAPPENED.

There’s obviously much more to say about this season than I could ever hope to explore in a single post. But even if I’m wildly wrong about my predictions for Season 4 (which I can now start, having finally written this review), I expect that the show will continue to explore the quote-unquote “small” issues (family, future, community) with the same care and emotional detail that were on display throughout this third season. These are not unique themes by any stretch, but the show’s unfussy representation and execution of them IS unique. (Show me a show that’s done a better job showing two parents discovering their daughter’s sexual activity, and I’ll buy you that car Buddy Garrity can never sell.)

By eschewing the melodrama that plagued The Season That Shall Not Be Named, “FNL” managed to provide drama that extended far beyond the small town of Dillon and into the living rooms and hearts of everyone watching. I still quite like the first season of the show, but much prefer the more intimate, less-sprawling nature of this third year. This was the year in which the show realized just how much more drama was off the field than on, and built their season accordingly. What happens on the gridiron is a reflection of what is happening off, not the other way around. And while many in Dillon think that the world begins and ends under the lights, we got to follow a cadre of people that knew better. Through their process of self-recognition and self-actualization, we got to know them a lot better as well. And I enjoyed every heart swelling (and heart breaking) step along the way.

Clear eyes, full hearts, onto Season 4.

6 Comments

  1. Greg
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    This is probably my second favorite season of the show. It’s got so much great stuff, and really does return the show to its roots as a gentle, understated drama after a disastrous second season (a season which I actually hate a lot more in retrospect than I did when I watched it).

    Season 4, by the way, is my favorite season. You’re in for a serious treat over the next 13 episodes. One in particular stands out, but that’s all I’ll say on that subject.

  2. Tausif Khan
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    I could have done without the Lost reference. I don’t feel that it adds anything to this post. I am starting to get the same feeling about your references that you have about Community, in that when you make a ton of references I have hard time buying the core of your post. I notice that when you make too many references outside of the program you are covering your analysis becomes weaker and thinner. As you note yourself there are more issues in the third season you could have tackled beyond this post. I would have liked to see a treatment of those issues rather than then the latest Twitter discussion.

  3. Posted May 24, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Tausif: I spend one paragraph talking about “Lost,” and 10 on “FNL,” all of which use the theme of the Twitter discussion as the basis of discussion. I’m sorry you feel that makes things weaker and thinner. Talking about every single thing that happened in the season wouldn’t have made sense: it would have been overlong and unfocused. So I used the central theme, as I saw it, and contextualized it via what I’m thinking about as I’m writing it.

    But if you want to talk about the issues you think I forgot here in the comments, I’d be happy to read them!

  4. Jess D
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the thematic trip down memory lane, Ryan. Both in regards to FNL and Lost. I love that you suggested “You can let go now” as your hashtag to remember Lost on the anniversary of the finale. Before you even explained what you meant, that quote struck me as exactly the place I’m in with that show a year later. At peace, with fond memories of the experience, and ready to move on.

    In spite of the wonderful goodbye moments for Smash and Street, as well as a resonant goodbye arc for Tyra, the moment that most sticks in my mind from Season 3 was a very small one between Coach and Tami. They’re getting ready for some event and they are having a bit of a tiff and says to her, “You know who I miss? The coach’s wife.” And her calm response was so resonant and pitch perfect: “You know who I can’t wait to meet? The principal’s husband.” Just an awesome moment between those two that has stuck with me all these years, even after so many more wonderful moments to come.

    It’s been fun experiencing this wonderful show through your eyes, Ryan. I look forward to your thoughts on the final two seasons.

  5. Steve Timberman
    Posted May 24, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    A great overall write-up of a pretty damn fantastic season of the show. For all of your talk about how you’re much more of an “average joe” without all those years of critical theory, this is a very accomplished and academic slice of writing. I don’t mean academic in a “ho ho, look at that TS Elliot quote” but in an “examination of society through the lense of television way”. I noticed the same shift when you wrote about Justified as well.

    But enough belly aching about that stuff. I think the largest difference between season one and three is just how indispensable Tim Riggins became to the show. Every single damn story they gave him this year (especially the material with Lyla and/or Street”) was compelling and felt uniquely FNL-ey.

    Season three is the show at its strongest, primarily because there’s always some great pressing issue the show has to tackle. First we have Tami suddenly as the Principal mixed with Smash’s inevitable departure. “I may have to stop being Smash and learn how to be Brian”. Then the show starts to delve into JD right as Scott Porter tells Lyla he’s off to more urban pastures. Then the show has to frantically scramble to send off its four core characters into a post-High School world.

    One thing I’m surprised you didn’t touch on was the show’s shorter episode order. The thirteen episode limit didn’t constrict the show’s storytelling ability. There was no hackneyed “Tim dates an older woman from central casting”, no manufactured on-field football drama, no erratic u-turns from the female characters. You’re absolutely right that season three scales things back and somehow ends up ratcheting the emotional gravity of Dillon.

    Great post, as always. Keep them coming. Can’t wait for your Alias write-ups!

  6. Tausif Khan
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Ryan, thanks for the reply. The reason why I wanted to hear more about this season in particular is because I have not seen it. I am considering buying the DVDs but I am not certain of their replay value. The reason why I asked for more of a discussion of the themes is because I feel that would be a test of the richness of the season. That is why I was disappointed that your review wasn’t a focus on solely Friday Night Lights issues and themes.

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