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.
"You be proud of yourselves. Because gentlemen, you are champions." -CoachAnd the chills are back, boys and girls.
"Underdogs" is, like, much of season three, a fairly straight rehash of material from season one -- in this case, the bulk of "State." Among the elements they share:
* On the eve of the state championship against an obviously superior team, Coach finds his relationship with his QB One strained due to a controversial decision made by Coach.
* Tyra and Landry take a memorable road trip together to the big game.
* The Panthers fall deep into a hole in the first half as the QB-Coach tensions get worse, then after a speech at halftime, the anonymous Panther defenders improbably shut down the opposing offense and Matt Saracen leads the team to an equally improbable comeback.
But this is a sadder spin on the same material. Coach is at odds with JD McCoy here, not Saracen, and he and JD remain at odds when the game's over. The Panthers somehow blow out South Texas for most of the second half, but they leave too much time on the clock in the end, allowing South Texas to go down the field and kick the game-winning field goal.
And in many ways, I prefer "Underdogs" to "State." I complained at the time of the season one finale that the game was too storybook even by the show's standards, that Eric didn't really do anything at halftime to inspire the troops into suddenly turning into the '85 Bears, and that the come-from-behind win went against the series' vision that you can have all the talent and drive and effort in the world and still come up short. Here, there was a plausible reason for the turnaround (on offense, anyway; with Santiago gone, we still have no idea who anybody is on defense) in the QB switch, and as happened in the book and movie (and in real life), the team gives a valiant effort but eventually loses to the more talented team.
Beyond the plot and theme, though, what really made "Underdogs" feel special in spite of its familiarity was the work done by director Jeffrey Reiner and his production team, who, like the Panthers, left it all out there on the field. The visual and aural palettes were beautifully used throughout and made everything seem more intense, whether it was the flashing lights at the pep rally while Tami and Eric are debating what to do about the McCoys, or the music nearly dropping out as Saracen and the offense watched South Texas drive for the game-winner, or the eerie silence of Riggins walking back into the empty stadium to leave his cleats on the field, like a soldier laying down his shield on the field of a brutal battle.
If you define the success or failure of a "Friday Night Lights" episode by how high it raises the goosebumps on your arm, then "Underdogs" was a tremendous success, the best episode of the season since Smash left in "Hello Goodbye." It felt right, and moving, and all those emotions we associate with the show when it's clicking.
It wasn't just the game action, either. Moments like Landry coaxing a better essay out of Tyra in the car were just as good -- that one especially because it invoked Street's injury from the pilot, which was the seismic event responsible for changing the lives of every other character on the show. And so even though Tyra can be an incredible drama queen, and even though she and Landry seem to have the same conflicts over and over again (give or take a dead body in the river), it's worth it for scenes like that, or for hearing Tyra read the final draft of the essay over the montage of everybody else getting ready for the big game.
All that being said, "Underdogs" also illustrated an inescapable flaw of the third season, which is that 13 episodes is far too few to adequately chronicle the football season while still servicing every character -- especially since 8 of those 13 had to devote large swaths of time to giving Street and Smash appropriate farewells. Now, the Street and Smash stories were among the season's highlights (Smash in particular), but it's become more and more obvious as we go into these final episodes that the writers are having to use shorthand to tell most of the remaining characters' stories.
JD is a 15-year-old kid, and so I can understand why he might go running back to Daddy's embrace even after Joe smacked him around in the last episode. But to go from him sitting on Eric's patio and flatly declaring that he never wants to see Joe again, to him being happy at home and then angry that Eric and Tami brought the cops into the matter, felt jarring. I can fill in the gaps in my head, but it's the kind of story that could have breathed more in a regular 24-episode season.
Similarly, Grandma Saracen's dementia allows the writers a certain amount of latitude when it comes to her ever-shifting attitude about Matt, and Shelby, and Matt's quest to go to college out of state, but the changes still feel abrupt.
And, for that matter, I still have no sense of why Landry is on the team, how much he really cares about it, and whether Coach would actually tolerate "Lance" missing the bus to Austin and still let him start. As I said for a lot of season two, I think the story of Landry joining the team had a lot of potential, but they passed over the good stuff in favor of the murder arc. This year, meanwhile, what little we've seen of Landry in a football context suggests he's an end-of-the-bench joke and doesn't really mind that status. So for him to be so fired up about the chance to play special teams, and so upset at the thought that Tyra wouldn't be there to see him do it, seemed to come out of nowhere.
I understand that it was 13 episodes or nothing, and I respect and appreciate Jason Katims and company's attempt to do right by both their outgoing actors and the ones who'd be around all season. And these gaps in the story don't really derail the good things that are happening. But they're noticeable, and they've only grown as we're this close to the season finale next week.
Some other thoughts on "Underdogs":
* Lyla's morning ordeal at Casa Riggins -- complete with having to use coffee filters as a cover on the toilet seat, a glimpse of a nude Billy, and then Billy having to piss in the sink (as George Costanza would say, "It's all pipes, Jerry!") -- was one of Minka Kelly's funnier moments to date, and a very candid approximation of what life is like under that roof.
* Another underfed subplot: there's no real comment Mac's return from his heart problems (other than him joking that he can't afford stress) or on the fact that that weasel Wade Aikman is somehow still on staff even with Mac gone.
* Even with the various scholarship possibilities that Shelby talked about with Matt a few episodes ago, I understand that the Art Institute ain't cheap. Still, I thought it was a nice choice from both a character (Matt's always loved to draw) and actor (Zach Gilford's from Illinois) perspective.
* I'm not sure exactly what was the timetable on the production for this episode, but while Matt comparing himself to Seneca Wallace from the Seattle Seahawks -- the backup QB who also frequently plays wide receiver -- was accurate, given what happened to Wallace and virtually every skill position player in Seattle this season, I expected poor Matt's leg to fall off before the interview was over.
* It's been a while since I watched "State," but I don't recall that episode spending so much time lingering on the Austin skyline -- which has been the working home to the show for three seasons now -- but I loved a lot of the shots here, particularly Matt and Tim playing Frisbee against the backdrop of the state capitol building. "Last game, Seven." Damn.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: In case you somehow missed the joyous news by now, NBC and DirecTV have teamed up to order two more seasons of "Friday Night Lights." So next week's "Tomorrow Blues" will not be the series finale, and I can't wait to discuss the implications of that seven days from now. For those of you who watched the DirecTV run and know what's coming, please keep it under your hats for just a little bit longer.
What did everybody else think?