Spoilers for the "Friday Night Lights" season three premiere coming up just as soon as I find out whether I deserve a smoothie...
NOTE: This and all subsequent "FNL" season three reviews were written after viewing the DirecTV cut, which can be several minutes longer than the NBC version. So both my review and the early comments may refer to scenes that were not shown on NBC.
Now that's more like it.
You all remember the problems I had with season two, and there's no need to rehash them here. While there was nothing in "I Knew You When" that gave me the goosebumps in the same way I got them from, say, Street getting his helmet cut off in the hospital, or Coach talking Saracen into being confident enough to play QB1, or Tami having The Talk with Julie, this still felt very much like an episode set in the same universe as the first season, where too much of season two seemed to be taking place in a parallel world where the faces were the same but nothing was quite right.
There were some bumpy spots -- the press conference felt more nakedly expository than a similar sequence at the start of season one, and the JD McCoy pass that has everyone all agog looked almost identical to the one that Saracen threw right after Street was paralyzed -- but overall, this was a very strong return to the show and its characters.
It was also, somewhat surprisingly, a very funny return. Now, "Friday Night Lights" has never suffered from excess solemnity -- "I've got two words for you: Members Only" -- but the premiere felt like a concentrated burst of all the amusing things that happen in Dillon, including:
* Coach ending the otherwise inspiring practice session with Smash by reminding Smash to pick up the cones;
* Pretty much every moment between Buddy and Tami, but particularly her "Let's not go there" when Buddy tried to do the clear eyes, full hearts bit;
* Landry and Tyra's simultaneous, conflicting assessment of the state of their relationship;
* Coach's patronizing, "Honey, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard" to Julie's insistence on eating free-range eggs;
* Coach righteous indignation about the smoothies;
* Coach's complete and utter cluelessness about how much better he has it than the rest of the Dillon faculty;
* Billy and Mindy's schmoopie talk while Mindy's dancing on the pole, and especially Billy's take on Tim and Lyla's relationship: "She went to bed with Jesus, and woke up with you. Jesus, you. You're a rebound from Jesus."
It almost felt like Jason Katims and company wanted to be absolutely clear that we were over and done with the gloominess of the murder, and Julie's rebellious phase, and everything else that went haywire last season. "Come back!" the premiere seemed to say. "It's fun to watch again!"
Which isn't to say that the premiere was a non-stop laugh riot. This is "Friday Night Lights." Heavy stuff goes down here. But the drama felt much more organic than it did last year, in part because so much of it was tied to the football team.
I suppose they could have pinned the failure of last year's team on Smash's suspension (which happened in the last episode before the strike shut down production), but an injury later in the season allows Gaius Charles to stay in the picture a bit longer than if Smash were healthy and off at college. I'm going to miss him once he's gone (in case you missed it, Charles and Scott Porter -- who wasn't in this episode -- will be doing four episodes apiece to get a proper send-off), but he'll still be around for nearly a third of the season, and he did some very nice work here. In particular, I liked seeing Smash's posture completely change once he donned the Alamo Freeze manager's uniform. That's not the kid who was going to dazzle Mack Brown, go to the NFL and endorse two rival sneaker companies simultaneously; that's just another poor Dillon soul whose life peaked in high school, and he knows it.
Eric's explanation for wanting so badly to help Smash -- "Cause I need something good to happen" -- speaks not only to the turmoil on the team in this episode, but all the bad things that happened last year. He made the right decision for his family in quitting the TMU gig, but nothing seems to have gone right for the team since he returned. They couldn't survive Smash's injury, Saracen and Riggins are feuding for reasons unknown (maybe Tim's just bitter that Saracen stopped ditching class with him to go to The Landing Strip?), and even a blowout season-opening win (easily the most plausible game we've ever seen on this show) winds up controversial because of JD McCoy's big throw. (Though, again, that particular beat would work better if we hadn't seen Saracen do something similar a couple of years ago.)
One of the things that's always distinguished "Friday Night Lights" is its use of silence, the way it asks its actors to tell you so much more than the characters will verbally tell each other. Kyle Chandler is arguably the best at that, and he gets a lot of opportunities to be expressive here. Other than that one line to Smash, Eric doesn't say much about the trouble with the Panthers, but you can see it on his face throughout the episode.
The re-focus on the football team not only brings the show back on-mission, but forces the characters to all interact with each other in a way they didn't last year. Even Tami's promotion, while probably not that realistic (she had apparently been a stay-at-home mom from the time Julie was born until early in the first season), places her in a situation where she'll be more involved in Eric's professional life, with Buddy, and maybe with the rest of the team.
(I also think that Tami made a mistake by appropriating Buddy's Jumbotron check, but it's a mistake I wasn't surprised to see her make, as opposed to last year, when characters often did stupid things that also seemed wildly out of character.)
Again, not a "wow" premiere, but a reassuringly solid one.
Some other thoughts:
* I will complain this once about the characters' ages and then be done with it, because this is the choice that's been made, right or wrong: I had a hard enough time buying Riggins, Lyla and Tyra still being in school last year, as they had all been established as contemporaries of 12th-grader Street, but asking me to believe that they were all sophomores in the first season is original recipe "90210" levels of silliness. Aside from the plausibility of it, it gets in the way of Tyra's storyline, since Tami made Tyra her pet project very early in what we now learn was her sophomore year, which should have been plenty of time to erase whatever GPA damage was done as a freshman. I like the story -- and I'm glad that the writers have remembered Tami's role as Tyra's mentor -- so I'll go with it, but with gritted teeth.
* Much better exposition than the press conference: Buddy rails about Lyla's mom moving off to California with her tree-hugging new husband (and, presumably the younger Garrity kids). Explains why Lyla and Buddy are now co-habitating, but in a funny way. On the other hand, they didn't explain what happened to Santiago -- and, based on Katims' surprised reaction when I asked about him at press tour, I'm not expecting them to.
* D.W. Moffett, who plays Joe McCoy, has had a career that's largely interchangeable with Brett Cullen (who plays Riggins Sr.) -- and, in fact, he replaced Cullen as the dad in the CW's short-lived "Life is Wild." So it's funny to see them both wind up as very different
* I liked that Riggins was so eager to support Smash's desire to give up. One of the few strong threads from last year was watching Riggins let his life fall apart because he didn't think he deserved any better, and the one disappointment of seeing him together with Lyla is that he's now sort of content, and even trying to better himself. Growth is good, but I hope we don't lose the epic self-destructive streak that made Riggins so compelling.
What did everybody else think?