Spoilers for "Friday Night Lights" season three, episode nine coming up just as soon as I pick a theme for the winter formal...
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.
Street is gone. Smash is long gone. Starting with "Game of the Week," we have five more episodes in the TV season and four more games, at most, in the football season. Shouldn't the stakes feel a little higher?
The episode's teaser suggested that they would be. This has been an up-and-down season for the team following a complete catastrophe of a season the year before. Even with JD McCoy firmly entrenched as QB1 and with the success of the new spread offense, this seems a very fragile team. So the idea that their first playoff game would be shown on national television should have only ramped up the pressure -- on Eric, on Buddy, on JD, on all the seniors hoping to land a college scholarship -- but after the pre-credits teaser, the episode largely ignored the presence of the camera crews. Matt's bemusement at Landry being chosen for an interview, and the running gag about the status of the physics club were funny enough, I suppose, but how could the McCoy family completely recede into the background for this one? How could there not be more tension between Coach and Wade? Why, in all the Saracen family discussion about Matt's college prospects, or in Lyla's attempts to get Tim to want college more, did the idea of this game as potentially life-changing come up. Really, it felt like just another game, which would have been fine if they hadn't introduced the cameras in the first place, or if we weren't so deep into an abbreviated season where every episode needs to count for more than they did in the old NBC-premiere days.
Now, there were still some good things in "Game of the Week," notably the ongoing tension in the Saracen household. Grandma has always been portrayed as difficult but firmly in Matt's corner. For her to announce that she expects Matt to eschew college so he can stay home to care for her was shocking, but not out-of-character. It's scary enough being Lorraine without the safety net that Matt provides, and the continued presence of her hated former daughter-in-law -- not to mention the idea of Shelby becoming the new safety net -- had to terrify her into going to such an awful, selfish place. Some excellent work by Zach Gilford, Kim Dickens and Louanne Stephens, and I like that there isn't going to be a simple solution to this problem. Something has to be done about Lorraine, and Matt probably isn't good enough to get a free ride from a college (at least not a top school), but there are options open to him if he's lucky and applies himself the way we know he can.
Some people defended the Tyra storyline when I complained about it in recent weeks, saying that the push-pull of wanting to get the hell out of this town/life and being drawn into the same self-destructive behavior of her mom and sister rang very true to life. I can see that, but it wasn't until this episode where the Cash arc really clicked for me -- specifically, in the moment where Tyra started looking around the bar full of creeps and realized just where her exotic adventure with Cash had brought her. Adrianne Palicki was very good throughout the episode -- I liked the palpable relief on her face when Landry made her laugh -- and I like when the show gives Tami an opportunity to play hero for the kids in the same way that Eric does for his players (this time, with Eric getting to watch/help).
Riggins college scholarship, meanwhile, came to him as easily as Street's new sports agent career, only with about a tenth the emotion of Street on the steps at his baby mama's house. I like Lyla best when she's used for comedy -- here with Tim noting that if he thinks her breath reeks too much of booze, then she's really had too much -- but this subplot felt very lightweight, as did the episode overall. Not bad, but more filler than I want this late in the year.
Some other thoughts on "Game of the Week":
* I liked the realization on Landry's face when Julie passed along Tyra's "sick aunt" excuse, which he is painfully familiar with the truth of.
* Also leading to the episode's disappointing feel: Eric's underwhelming halftime speech. I know they can't all be "Win one for the gipper," but that moment called for better oratory than Kyle Chandler was given.
* Have they ever established exactly where in the state Dillon's supposed to be? I know it's a flight (or long car trip) from Austin, home to the fictional TMU, but how long were Coach and Mrs. Coach on the road before they got to Tyra's motel in Dallas? And might they have a chance to get back to the hotel suite in time to take a shower?
* Back when Lyla, Riggins and Tyra were all supposed to be seniors like Street, Lyla talked all the time about intending to go to college wherever Jason went. Her relationship with Tim is more mature in a lot of ways (even though Tim is much less mature than Street), and so it makes sense that she wants to go to Vanderbilt, regardless of where Tim winds up. (San Antonio to Nashville: a 14-hour drive, which even Michael Scott wouldn't think realistic for an ongoing romance.)
* Buddy doesn't have any friends, and also the self-awareness to understand this. Nice.
What did everybody else think?