Saturday, 21 November 2009

Sketches - A Tale of Two Towns

Contains Spoilers for the fourth season of "Friday Night Lights" (up to Episode Four, "A Sort of Homecoming")

When last season's finale brought the graduation of many of the main characters of the show, it became clear that the fourth season would require a reinvention of sorts, a new beginning. The last scene from "Tomorrow Blues" had Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) walking over the weedy football field of East Dillon, the "other school", which he had helped to deprive of its biggest talents when the special interest of the West Dillon Panthers interfered with the redistricting. This would be a new beginning indeed, a sort of Tabula Rasa: not only would Coach Taylor have a new team, but he would also suddenly find himself on the "wrong side of the tracks" - the part of Dillon that got left behind during the developments of the Eighties, struck by poverty and lack of funding. One of the community leaders Eric Taylor turns to for funding turns him down: he's fed up with hearing people from the other side of town tell him what the problems of his community are, as they are the ones who got funding, the mall, the hotel back in the Eighties.
The writers of the show set this sudden change up perfectly, introducing the unsympathetic character of Mr McCoy (DW Muffett) up to become the driving force of the process of alienation from the team the audience cheered for in the first three seasons: Father of quarterback JD McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), a wealthy and obsessed man, he became the opposite to the passionate and resourceful Coach Taylor, and slowly, as the final episodes of season three progressed, he took over - as money had always been a driving force of sorts for West Dillon Football. Finally, in the last episode, he used his power to send Coach Taylor to Exile in East Dillon.
The first few episodes of the fourth season pick up where the season finale left off. First of, the alienation continues as all of the remaining characters suddenly find themselves re-districted to East Dillon (Landry, Devin, Julie Taylor out of sympathy for her two friends), while  principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) had a hard time standing up to the machismo of the West Dillon footballteam. JD McCoy, portrayed as a boy suffering from the expectations of his dad in season three, turned into an arrogant jerk, enjoying his new stardom too much. The East Dillon Lions, meanwhile, turned out to be an imaginary team: Coach Taylor had to start from scratch, desperately finding moldable talent among the underprivileged students of East Dillon. This talent turned out to be very "raw": Among them a boy who had practiced running quickly by fleeing from the police (Vince, played by Michael B. Jordan), for whom football became the only chance to escape prison, and talented West Dillon player Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria), who had cheated his way into the right school district. The fact that Tami Taylor supported her husband in this matter put her in a miserable position: it was well-established in previous seasons how far the love for the Panthers goes for the Dillon townies, and depriving her own team one of the biggest talents put Tami on the receiving end of much animosity (spray-painting of her car, lack of funding for her own projects like the school library).
Football as the only way out of Dillon for the kids playing it was already an important issue in the first three seasons, but for the Lions, this bears even more importance, as they come from the part of town that is even less resourceful. Coach Taylor is used to be faced with high expectations, but in East Dillon, he has to battle against all odds, as the families of these kids are not invested in football at all, and the community has much bigger problems than funding a team - the big business (and Buddy Garrity) are on the other side of town. Finally, in season four, we start to see the downside of a town obsessed with one team: this is also a town that does not address more burning issues of poverty and unemployment - and this seems to be a racial division as well.
Two characters who have already graduated didn't make it out of Dillon after all, although they had every chance to do so: Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is such a likeable character because he is different from all the other kids: while they struggle to get out of Dillon at all costs, getting scholarships anywhere else, he was always the one guy convinced that he could build a life here. Everybody else tried to push him out of Dillon, into a different life, but it only takes the series a couple of seconds to show how out of place he is at College: and soon, he's driving his shabby truck back to Dillon, tossing his books out of the window. For Tim Riggins, it's Texas Forever, even after his best friend has successfully managed his unlikely big escape to New York, even after his girlfriend has managed to get into college ("I think we had different paths", he tells Matt Sarecen in "A Sort of Homecoming"). Tim ends up as an assistant coach to Eric Taylor in East Dillon - Matt Sarecen (Zach Gilford) meanwhile had different reasons for not going to art school in Chicago: his didn't want to leave his girlfriend Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) behind and still felt responsible for his grandmother (Louanne Stephens). Matt ends up where most former Panther stars who didn't get into College are: in the booming fast food industry (and, in Matt's case, in community art college). While Tim Riggins seems firmly set on staying in Dillon, Matt slowly starts to realize that probably this wasn't such a good idea: the local artist he assists turns out to be not much of a help artistically, and Julie is dead-set on leaving Texas for an Ivy League College anywhere but here. These two characters have fallen from grace fast: there is no better place to be in Dillon than a member of the winning team after a Friday night game, but once you've graduated and gotten out of your uniform, you are suddenly nothing but a shadow of your previous fame and left to fend for yourself. Newly returned from his short stint in College, Tim finds out about that soon: "So what's it like to be the guy who used to be Tim Riggins?"

"Friday Night Lights" manages to tackle issues of race, gender, being a teenager in a small town, politics, the receiving end of failed policy choices and foreign wars and sports - and usually talks about the bigger issues in such an amazingly subtle, character-driven way, that it usually takes you some time to realize what you've just seen. In the most recent episode, unlikely teenage musician Devin (Stephanie Hunt) asked her friend Julie to accompany her to a gay bar "outside of Dillon" ("I need you not to be weird about it")- a truly miserable place, but it's amazing how undramatically the show handles an issue that could easily be exploited. There is space for indie kids, artists and gay and lesbian people in Dillon, but its a tiny, cramped niche, and the show does an incredible job at portraying why exactly most of the students are trying so desperately to get out of the tightly-knit community, as cosy and familiar it might be. The fourth season now turnes to the real underdogs of Dillon - and it was also much easier to root for the underdogs than the shiny stars with the big budget and the jumbo screen.

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