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Friday Night Lights: The Third Season
- Buddy Garrity
In March of 2009, comedian Chelsea Handler--a long-time fan and loud supporter of Friday Night Lights--welcomed Zach Gilford to her late-night talk show. The actor--who plays mild-mannered quarterback Matt Saracen--brought her a Panthers t-shirt as a gift: "My boyfriend will love that! All I ever talk about is you guys at the house," she gushed, soon switching to her deadpan demeanor. "My boyfriend actually introduced me to your show because he cries like a little bitch when he watches it."
And since this is a review of honesty, I have a confession to make: I cry like a little bitch, too. Repeatedly. At one point while watching Season 3, I actually had to pause the disc so I could wipe my stinging, tear-filled eyes and blow my runny nose (and I'm not one to cry easily). Go ahead, make fun. I don't care. You're all just jealous that I'm man enough to admit my emotional outbursts (yeah, that's it! Now where's that damn box of Kleenex?!).
It's been a long wait for many FNL viewers. After the writer's strike of 2008 cut the second season to 15 episodes, it looked like the show might be gone for good. But in a rare move of network intelligence, NBC struck a deal with DirecTV. The satellite service broadcast the 13 episodes of Season 3 starting in the fall, with NBC re-airing them again in early 2009 (apparently in slightly shorter versions). That trend will reportedly continue for two more seasons, so fans can breathe a slight sigh of relief.
As Season 3 opens, we jump ahead to the start of the new school year at Dillon High, nestled in a small Texas town that goes gaga for the gridiron. We learn that the Panthers imploded in last season's playoffs, which had yet to start by the end of Season 2. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has five days left to prepare for the opening game, while wife Tami (Connie Britton) struggles to fit into her new role as school principal. Daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) is still being a brat, now working at Applebee's to make money for a car. She soon begins to wonder if she made a mistake dumping Matt (Gilford), who continues to care for his dementia-inflicted grandma (Louanne Stephens).
Meanwhile, Lyla (Mika Kelly) has stuck by the side of her Panther lovin', car dealer dad Buddy (Brad Leland)--whose wife and younger kids left for California after his infidelity. Lyla (whose religious storyline has been abandoned) is back together with heartbreaker Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), but she may be too embarrassed to make their relationship public ("She went to bed with Jesus and woke up with you," says Tim's brother Billy. "Jesus...you. You're a rebound from Jesus."). Tim's former flame Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) has since broken up with the now-sullen Landry (Jesse Plemons), who escaped into his music when she starts dating rodeo stud Cash (Zach Roerig).
Perceptive viewers will notice that two actors in the principal cast are no longer listed in the opening credits--both are given shorter story arcs this season (I'm guessing budget cuts were the primary cause). Star tailback Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) has graduated, but a knee injury resulted in a loss of his Whitmore College scholarship. He fears his playing days are over--and that he may be stuck at the Alamo Freeze forever. His former quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) shows up mid-season, where we find out what happened with his pregnant one-night stand (and thankfully see more of Kevin Rankin as pal Herc).
Speaking of the superlative supporting players, most of them return this season (sadly, the fabulous Santiago storyline is one casualty). Thankfully, there's lots of screen time for the charismatic Derek Phillips as Billy. He strikes up a romance with Tyra's sister Mindy (Stacey Oristano), much to the delight of Momma Collette (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). A few new faces also situate themselves firmly into the family with compelling screen time--star freshman quarterback J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter) is a threat to Matt's starting position, but rich stage dad Joe (the fabulous D.W. Moffett, who dives into one of the show's few ugly roles) may be doing more harm than good (Janine Turner also shows up as McCoy mom Katie, who starts a friendship with Tami). And Kim Dickens does amazing work as a character whose identity I won't spoil.
If you've read my review of Season 2, you'll understand that I've almost run out of adjectives to describe how special this show is. This is a series that makes you feel: alive, angry, excited, sad, nervous, silly, disappointed, sick. It's a feat we rarely see with a television show. Friday Night Lights demands that you invest time and care into its huge cast of complex, imperfect characters--and challenges you to make yourself better. The people, relationships and stories here are so rich, layered and real, it's impossible not to root for everyone--even the people you sometimes want to strangle (*cough*Tyra and Tim*cough*).
You experience everyone's joy and pain as if it's your own, and it's a credit to the cast and crew that everything feels so authentic. There are so many "moments" here, and not just the obvious big ones like the huge games or confrontations (if ever a word deserved those overused critic quotes, it's "moments" in a Friday Night Lights review). What's so wonderful about FNL is how often it surprises you--some of the most powerful scenes creep up out of nowhere, and many come from the most unlikely pairing of characters.
The lack of Emmy recognition for the show--and the lack of even a single nomination for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards--is a joke, a sign of how pointless and political both awards are. I'd love to single some performances out, but it's impossible--just when you think you've figured someone out or seen the last of a supposedly minor character, get ready for a pleasant and powerful surprise. Pep talks come from sources both obvious and improbable, and you'll constantly wish you had an Eric or Tami by your side when you're feeling down.
The two continue to play surrogate parents to everyone in need, and the Chandler/Britton duo is an unstoppable force of fabulous. They are the heart and soul of the series, and words can't do justice to their performances--I dare you to find a more magical duo in all of TV history. No two performers have ever crafted such brilliant chemistry on camera--the way they communicate and play off each other is effortless. They have the perfect dynamic, one that represents everything a strong, loving couple should be--they're sexy and smart, yet still down-to-earth and believable. Their relationship, like the series, flows like liquid.
But everyone here has their place in the sun, and every performer hits their moment--no matter how big or how small--out of the park. No character is thrown away to advance the plot, and the show rarely takes the easy way out. Nothing here is black and white--we see both sides to every conflict and understand the difficult dilemmas these characters face. As in life, the solutions are never obvious--and because these people are so lovable, we ache for them to be happy.
While Season 2 was cut unexpectedly short, this shorter season feels more complete because the writers knew what they were working with. There were a few hiccups last year (the murder subplot and the entire Carlotta storyline), but even with those flubs it was still a stellar season. This year, the mistakes are even smaller: two sub-plots in Episode 7 are resolved a little too conveniently (a rarity for this series), and I was slightly annoyed at the habit some characters have of showing up unnecessarily unannounced at places (why don't they use their damn phones?!).
But the few moments that might frustrate you mostly involve bad decisions that make these characters more human. Like life, this show doesn't always make it easy on you. That helps make Friday Night Lights--shot documentary style with three cameras and no marks for the actors, who improvise much of the dialogue--feel even more realistic.
With a series like this, the less you know about the stories, the better. Season 3 is yet another incredible ride, and it doesn't take the show long to fire on all cylinders. Just pop these discs in and enjoy the emotional ride, one filled with humor and heartache, passion and pride. It's rare for a TV show to make you care so much, a feat that makes Friday Night Lights something you can stand up and cheer about--even if it makes you cry like a little bitch (for those keeping track, the latter halves of Episodes 4 and 11 were particularly brutal on my tear ducts). If I haven't yet convinced you, it's time I let Chelsea talk some sense into you:
"It is not only one of the best shows on television, it's one of the best shows ever. So if you have not seen the show and you have a social life, TiVo Friday Night Lights...I haven't seen this good of acting since, well...since I saw There Will Be Blood the other night. But it's a really, really good show--and I don't say a lot of nice things, so pay attention when I do."
Some reports online have mentioned that DirecTV--which I don't have--originally aired these episodes in longer formats, and that the episodes presented here are the shorter NBC versions (and also have some different music in spots due to rights issues). My guess is that the deletions are minor, and I assume the deleted scenes (viewable separately) account for much of the content. However, there was one indication that at least a few scenes are missing. The intro to Episode 2 (the "previously on Friday Night Lights" beginning) has clips from the season opener that aren't included on the episode presented here or as deleted scenes: Tami telling Eric about a conversation she had with Buddy, and Lyla asking Tim a question. While it's annoying to think some scenes might not be included here (and I doubt there's much), it's obvious that any missing material is extremely minor--and this show is far too good to miss because of that.
The 13 episodes, each running around 42 minutes, are presented on four discs:
1. I Knew You When (aired 10/1/08) Tami tries to keep everything in focus as she deals with her new challenges as the school principal, while Tyra and Smash consider their futures after recent shocking events. Includes 2 deleted scenes (1:34).
2. Tami Knows Best (aired 10/8/08) Putting academics before football creates problems for Tami, and Matt must confront someone from his past. Includes 1 deleted scene (1:43).
3. How the Other Half Lives (aired 10/15/08) Katie McCoy goes out of her way to make Tami's life easier; Smash debates his future.
4. Hello, Goodbye (aired 10/22/08) Coach Taylor struggles with the decision to start another quarterback; Landry becomes jealous of Tyra's new love interest. Includes 2 deleted scene (2:21).
5. Every Rose Has It's Thorn (aired 10/29/08) Ugly truths surface as Tyra sees more of Cash, Matt resents no longer being the star player, and Jason moves in with Herc, Tim and Billy. Includes 3 deleted scenes (3:20).
6. It Ain't Easy being J.D. McCoy (aired 11/5/08) Acceptance is hard to come by when J.D. tries to bond with his new teammates. Julie and Matt reconnect, Tyra discovers someone's past. Includes 2 deleted scenes (2:15).
7. Keeping Up Appearances (aired 11/12/08) Family issues come front and center when Coach Taylor and Tami confront someone's parents; Buddy attempst to reconnect with his kids, and Billy makes a surprising revelation. Includes 5 deleted scenes presented as a deleted storyline (6:52).
8. New York, New York (aired 11/19/08) Emotions run high when Riggins hears Jason talking about leaving Dillon, and Tami wants to buy a new house. Includes 1 deleted scene (2:30).
9. Game of the Week (aired 12/3/08) The pressure is on when the Panthers' playoff match is selected to be televised as the High School Game of the Week, and a college coach is interested in meeting with Riggins. Includes 2 deleted scenes (3:45).
10. The Giving Tree (aired 12/10/08) Cupid brings trouble when Coach Taylor makes a discovery; J.D.'s father worries that the new girl in his son's life will cause him to lose focus. Includes 1 deleted scene (1:57).
11. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall (aired 12/17/08) Tyra seeks help from Landry, a new development endangers the team and J.T. handles confrontation.
12. Underdogs(aired 1/7/09) It's all in the planning as Tyra and Matt prepare for college, and the panthers get ready to battle one of their toughest opponents. Includes 4 deleted scenes (4:59).
13. Tomorrow Blues (aired 1/14/09) The future is on everyone's minds, Tyra waits for news on her wait-list status, and a wedding day arrives. Includes 2 deleted scenes (5:40) and a deleted storyline with six scenes (12:14).
Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 video, this season looks like the other two: a little dark and full of grain, an intentional effect meant to give the series that raw and real look. There's still plenty of detail, and there's nothing wrong with the transfer--visually, this isn't meant to knock your socks off.
While the 5.1 track comes to life a little bit during the football games, this track is front-focused, with rear channels getting a very modest workout most of the time. Dialogue is usually distinct and clear. English subtitles (for the deaf and hearing impaired) are provided.
Deleted scenes (in non-anamorphic video) are presented separately per episode (and per disc); see the Episode Guide above for number of scenes and running times. Most of them would have made strong inclusions, helping to better connect a few scenes. Two episodes also include an extra batch of deleted scenes presented as deleted storylines: "Keeping Up Appearances" has a terrible Matt/Julie arc that was wisely deleted (I'd almost advise you to just skip it), while finale "Tomorrow Blues" has a collection of six scenes that focus on more than just one storyline; while strong, their absence doesn't hurt the episode.
There's also a great audio commentary on the season finale with executive producer Jason Katims and co-executive producer/director Jeffrey Reiner, who mention it was a luxury having a set number of episodes to construct the season around. They note that the shortened season forced them to get back to the core of the cast, with fewer tangential subplots. Stories were built with the main characters intersecting in as many ways as possible, and the actors "never give up searching for the truth" of a scene, always finding something new in the dynamic between various characters.
The men talk a lot about the approach for the finale, so I won't share too much about their comments to avoid spoiling anything. But I will point out that at the time they filmed this episode and recorded this track, they weren't sure if the show was returning--creating an interesting challenge. A lot of the other comments focus on all aspects of the show's creative process--writing, acting, shooting, designing--providing some fascinating details on why it clicks on so many levels (for instance, episodes are shot on existing locations--they don't build sets, an effort to help with the show's authentic feel). Trailers round out the slim collection of extras.
Special shows like this are few and far between. Friday Night Lights hits you hard with its heartfelt, layered look at life in a small Texas town. Brought to life by an ensemble cast on top of its game, the series is overflowing with complex characters that force you to feel a wide range of raw, honest emotions. I dare you to deny this series and not root for these people. Like me, you'll be moved by the pure passion on display during every second of this inspiring, superlative series. Highly Recommended.