"Don't quit on me. Don't quit on yourself." -CoachThe season four premiere climaxed with Coach taking one for the team - accepting the public humiliation of a forfeit to protect his eager but inexperienced players from further injury.
A forfeit is a big deal in the show's world, and "After the Fall" doesn't shy away from the ramifications of it, from the "QUITTER!" signs on the Taylor lawn to the team staging an unofficial mass walk-out to protest Eric humiliating them right along with himself. They may have been spared any more physical pain, but this is mortifying for all of them. And it's made worse because Eric - who does not like to share his thought processes with his players under even the best of circumstances - won't explain why he did what he did, and because these kids barely know Eric(*) and therefore don't implicitly trust him the way the Panthers might.
(*) Even Landry was a scrub who was so far removed from Coach that Eric thought his name was "Lance" for the better part of three seasons. And speaking of which, did I miss a moment in season three where he finally started calling him by the right name, or was an opportunity missed here by having him suddenly switch to "Landry"?
As the school year begins at both Dillon high schools, and as Eric and his threadbare coaching staff try to recover from the opening game fiasco, "After the Fall" has to deal with some of the usual logic holes that come up a few times a season on "FNL" (not even counting that time Landry went on a three-state killing spree). For one, it's awfully convenient that the Lions would have a bye in the very second week of the season, at the exact moment when the players have all quit and Eric needs extra time to get them back together and practicing.
For another, it feels like the vast majority of the students at East Dillon didn't exist in this show's universe until the writers came up with the redistricting idea and needed a bunch of poor and/or black kids to attend the other school. We know from Smash's family that Dillon had some low-cost housing, but the vibe at both East Dillon high and in the projects where Vince lives was far seedier than anything we'd seen in the show's first three seasons.
But if the east side of town sometimes feels as if it sprung up magically during the hiatus, its existence is allowing the show to deal with race and class in a more ongoing manner than in the past. It wasn't a coincidence that nearly every player who walked out on the team after Eric's rant last week to Angry Necklace Guy was black (though several black players, like Vince, stayed). Eric has had black players, even stars, on his teams in the past, but the one we got to know was Smash, who was laser-focused on being a pro football player one day, and who therefore was willing to put up with whatever Coach dished out if it would make him better. Most of the kids at East Dillon are not only coming from a very different cultural place than Eric, but they have no real organized football experience (if they did, they'd have been gerrymandered into the other district), no apparent interest in a long-term future in it (even Vince joined the team to get out of trouble with the cops) and perhaps no interest in indulging the histrionics of your average Texas high school football coach.
By the end of the episode, it looks like both sides are willing to learn more about the other - Eric recognizes he made a mistake in giving money to Vince's mom, and Vince gets the team to show up for the special practice - but this isn't going to come easy for anybody.
But if the Lions are still a mess, at least Eric gets an unexpected windfall when Buddy tips him off to the existence of the phony mailbox, which Tami uses to get stud running back(**) Luke Cafferty transferred to East Dillon. I imagine there will be some direct confrontations between Eric and Joe McCoy before the season's out, but for now it's damned entertaining to watch Mrs. Coach take it to evil Joe, calling his bluff about getting previous Panther titles voided in front of all the other Panther-loving boosters. In the end, the situation is a mess for all involved - Joe loses his star tailback (and possibly some face with the boosters), while Tami gets blamed for screwing with the Panthers - but it's sure not dull to watch.
(**) Luke's status is another one of those things you just have to accept. If the kid is as all-world as we're told - so revered by Panthers fans already that the student body roundly boos Tami, that the boosters are all in a panic about losing the kid to the ghetto school across town - wouldn't we have met him before? Riggins was only the tailback last season because Eric didn't have anyone better after Smash graduated, and Luke acts like he's never met Eric or the non-Mac assistant coach before. And I really don't want to have the show claim he's a freshman. Not only does Matt Lauria look at least 25, but with the show almost certainly coming to an end after next season (the end of the two-year DirecTV extension), there doesn't seem to be a need to play games anymore with what grade the kids are in.
So we already knew Vince and Becky, who now gets to live in dangerously close proximity to Tim Riggins And now we know Luke, who's this ultra-polite, eager-to-please kid who seems to feel as bad about lying to Tami as he does at having to go to East Dillon. And we've met Jurnee Smollett as Jess, whose bike gets hit by the Landrymobile 2.0. And with Landry and Devin and Julie all attending East Dillon (Julie by choice, in a decision I suspect she's going to regret if the schools academic program is as pathetic as its athletic program), our new locale is fully-populated, with JD as the only kid we know who's still at West Dillon. It's going to take a while to get to really know all the new characters, and to see how all these pieces fit together, but so far the reinvention of the series seems to be going pretty smoothly.
I just wish there was a way to more easily integrate our two Panther alums. Saracen in particular still feels like he's off in his own show. While I like the idea of Riggins turning into an acolyte of Coach's - Taylor Kitsch and Kyle Chandler were both terrific in the way they showed how happy each man was to be in each other's familiar company after their recent setbacks - I remember how quickly the show squandered the potential of Jason Street: Assistant Coach, and I hope they have a better plan this time around.
But like I said last week, I wouldn't want to have to say goodbye to Tim Riggins, particularly when he and Billy keep providing the funny, as they did when Tim told his brother, "Billy, would you pass me that violin, please? You're hoggin' it!"
Some other thoughts:
• I loved the closing line of the episode, because as soon as Eric and the kids started throwing jerseys into the fire, I said to myself, "This is a team that's so poor Eric didn't have an extra hat to give to his new assistant coach. How's he going to get new jerseys?" Thankfully, the writers were thinking this, too.
• Anyone want to set the over/under on when Angry Necklace Guy shows up on the practice field, chastened, and asks Eric if he can re-join the team?
• Richard Sherman the artist was played by Hey It's That Guy! John Diehl, whom I'll always think of first as Cruiser, the guy in "Stripes" who had the dumbest reason for enlisting. (As a "Shield" fan, I'm also obligated to point out that he played Assistant Chief Gilroy.)
• Meanwhile, Jess' father was played by Steve Harris, best known for "The Practice," but who will always hold a special place in my heart for being on the receiving end of this John Munch rant from the pilot episode of "Homicide." (Clip's audio-only, alas.)
• Still one more guest star note: the weird dude talking to Coach at the gas station was Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach. He follows on the heels of last week's cameo by Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as the cop who introduced Eric to Vince.
What did everybody else think?