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.
"If you don't want to know, don't ask." -Buddy GarrityThe first two-thirds of this season had to serve two masters: moving forward the stories of our core characters while also giving Smash and Street proper send-offs. Over this most recent batch of episodes, Jason Katims and company have had a new double-mission: to send off the remaining high school characters while also laying the groundwork for a fourth season, even if the chances of one aren't that likely.
So while Matt and Shelby try to find a better solution for taking care of Grandma, and while Lyla and Tyra try to figure out how to get into college, the McCoy family situation explodes and the school board introduces the controversial idea of re-opening the long defunct East Dillon High in order to get more state assistance.
As always, I'm coming at the subject of high school football (Texas or otherwise) from a position of extreme ignorance, but would the redistricting plan automatically lead to the creation of a second football team? My wife went through a similar redistricting in her Long Island town, and the two schools there had joint athletic teams. But whether or not the writers are fudging the reality of this scenario, it's creating some interesting tension between Eric and Buddy (whom I'm always glad to see in full-on Machiavellian king of the boosters mode), and between Eric and Tami. Even if there isn't a fourth season for all this to pay off, I feel like some good stuff is going to go down between now and the finale.
The episode did a great job of laying the groundwork for Joe McCoy's explosion, as he let various perceived mistakes and violations by J.D. just build and build in his mind until he couldn't think straight anymore. As Katie tried to point out to him, J.D. doesn't call the plays, but by the time the game was in full swing, Joe was so far gone that he took every pass, completed or otherwise, as a personal affront, so that he was primed to blow when J.D. talked back for what I'm guessing is the first time in his life. Again, this is a story with potential to work in both the short-term and the hypothetical long-term, though I suppose I could also see a scenario where the McCoys leave Dillon at the end of the season.
The Tyra story was probably the episode's weak point, if only because, like last week, it just felt like a replay of Tyra moments from earlier in the series. In particular, her mom's big speech about Tyra being different from Mindy was really reminiscent of the speech she gave Tyra at the father-daughter dance in season one -- and then, as now, I didn't totally buy it. It's not that Angela's a bad person, but they spend so much time showing how narrow her worldview is, and how she tries to justify her own life choices by nudging her daughters down the same path, that it always seems a little pat when she turns around and gives a tearful monologue about how what she really wants is for Tyra to live a completely different life. People can be complicated, but I see no connection between the woman at the end of this episode and the one who all but told Tyra to skip school to go chasing after cowboy Cash.
Unlike Tyra, Lyla doesn't have to worry about getting into a college; she just can't pay for it. As the reality has sunk in, she's turning herself into an honorary Riggins to cope -- after all, isn't much of Tim's character defined by his ability to shrug off all the terrible things that happen to him as simply his lot in life? -- and you can see how much that's bothering Tim. What drew him to Lyla was that she was the exact opposite of him: optimistic and driven and outgoing. He doesn't want to date the female Tim Riggins, even if she looks like Lyla. My only issue with this subplot is that Minka Kelly is still the cast's weakest link. She's been fairly solid when asked to play sarcastic or disapproving, but whenever one of her stories takes a serious emotional turn, she's never quite up to it.
Definitely up to it? Zach Gilford and Kim Dickens and Louanne Stephens, as Lorraine takes a tumble and Matt lashes out at Shelby because he doesn't want to face the reality of the situation. Grandma's outburst about her slippers felt terrifyingly real; when the dementia reaches that point, what the hell can you do? Dickens in particular has had to carry a very tricky role; because Shelby knows how badly she hurt her son, she's now making a superhuman effort to be whatever he and Lorraine need her to be, whether that's a chauffeur or a caretaker or, in that great scene at the hospital, a verbal punching bag. I think a lot of actresses would make Shelby seem a little too perfect for a woman who ran out on her son, but Dickens always lets you see the wheels spinning, the way Shelby's letting Matt tear into her because she knows she's got 17 years of karmic debt to pay off.
Now, we only have two episodes left, and I'm curious to see how they're going to be structured. Do we get the state championship in episode 12 and then a 13th episode that tries to telescope the rest of the school year and shows us how all the seniors wind up? Or will it follow the pattern of the final two season one episodes, where we had an episode with no game, followed by the championship, with any resolutions sprinkled in and around the football action? Whether or not a fourth season happens, the graduating characters deserve their own send-offs, and even if they don't get as much screen time as either Street or Smash, I hope they each get their moments.
Some other thoughts on "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall":
* Joe McCoy is so nuts that I almost -- almost -- feel sorry for him. Wade Aikman, on the other hand? Total jerk. I don't know what practice he was watching, but the one I saw had JD in complete command of the Panthers offense, and the only time he let Madison distract him was during the water break. When does Mac get back?
* Riggins plays special teams? Is that common for the star offensive player on a high school team? Then again, Justin Tuck did block a field goal a couple of games ago, and he's the Giants best defender, and we've already established that I know little to nothing on this subject. I will say, though, that maniacal as Joe was, I don't know what Eric was thinking trying to throw the ball that much in those conditions. To bring in another Giants analogy, that was like whenever offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride insists on having Eli throw the ball a few dozen times when the Meadowlands winds are swirling at tornado levels.
* I loved Riggins asking Buddy if he was going to have to walk back to his car, and Buddy realizing he had randomly driven them to the middle of nowhere.
* Princess Diana died when Tyra would have been six or seven years old (unless you assume that she and Tim and Lyla have all been held back a few grades); would she really be making a "Lady Di" reference to Mindy?
* Even though a lot of the Tyra/Landry material has been repetitive, I really like the easy banter the two characters have together, which only makes a moment like the one where Landry gives her a pep talk about all her hard work feel even sweeter.
* Have we established the financial situation of Lyla's mom and stepdad? I doubt the health food store is raking in the cash, but surely they could help out a little with college, no? Or does her mother feel so betrayed by Lyla staying with Buddy that she wouldn't help? Either way, that needs to be addressed.
* God, I love stripper names, real or stage. Fashionette?
What did everybody else think?