Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Friday Night Lights, "In the Bag": Don't fence me in

A review of tonight's "Friday Night Lights" coming up just as soon as I swaddle and shush...
"I'm offering you all I got. This is not just about football. Think about that." -Coach
Now that Matt Saracen has placed Dillon in his rearview mirror, the latest episode of season four focuses on the characters who are still stuck in town, and focuses on new bonds being forged or old ones being strengthened.

Eric learns to place some trust in Vince over the gun situation, and Vince responds in kind. Julie leans on Landry and an extra-curricular overload to get her over Matt's abrupt departure. Landry realizes that the long distance thing with Tyra ain't happening and makes his move with Jess. After Becky's dad shows up briefly and turns out to be every bit the waste of a paternity test that Papa Riggins was to Tim and Billy, Tim steps further into the role of father figure for Becky, much as she'd like him to be interested in her in a different way. And Luke gets his dad to see the value of the football team in his life just an accident with the repaired fence and the cattle may sideline Luke from that team for a while.

And if Luke is out of commission, that's going to put even more of a burden on Vince - is the wildcat really the wildcat if one guy's taking all the snaps from center? - and his tenuous but growing relationship with Coach.

As I discussed around this point last season, one of the drawbacks of the 13-episode order, when combined with the show's desire to give its outgoing characters multi-episode send-offs, is that some storylines wind up with a lot of blanks left to be filled in by the audience. Vince's story here felt like it was either missing some pieces from his perspective, or else was designed to be told mostly from Eric's POV. In other words, Coach doesn't know if Vince has a gun at school, or why, or whether he's sliding back into the criminal life that landed him on the team, and therefore, neither do we. And if that's the plan, that's fine, but I'd like to get inside Vince's head more as the season goes along. We know from "The Wire" that Michael B. Jordan's good enough actor to carry whatever they want to throw at him here, and with Luke potentially sidelined and Landry a scrub-slash-kicker, the only other good active Lion that we know might be helpful, fry-mooching Tinker.

Landry has less time to work on his kicking game, as he winds up a one-man support system for Julie, who's still struggling to deal with Matt's departure, then hit harder when she learns that she (currently) comes in behind Grandma and Shelby on Matt's priority call list.

There was a time early in the series where I would have lumped Aimee Teegarden in with Taylor Kitsch and Minka Kelly as the cast's obvious weak links. But Kitch is now an indispensable part of the show, and it's been a long time since Teegarden hasn't been up to the challenge of a script. (Kelly? Well, at least the writers figured out how to write around her limitations.) Julie's reaction to hearing that Matt called someone other than her, and her trembling trip to the podium during Academic Smackdown!(*) were wonderfully played. We've been so focused on Matt's departure that it's easy to forget the girlfriend he left behind; this episode made forgetting Julie impossible.

(*) Vince McMahon has taught me that the word Smackdown! must be both capitalized and accompanied by an exclamation point. Who am I to argue with the man who made stars of the likes of Haku and The Brooklyn Brawler?

Of our four new characters, Becky has been the least integrated into the world as a whole. Other than her brief, currently on hold flirtation with Luke, she's appeared almost exclusively with Riggins. But even if she's still on the outskirts of the series, it's hard not to feel sympathy for her after an episode like this one, and also to see how complicated her relationship with Tim is going to get. She's crushing on him madly; he's not interested. Becky worships her daddy; Tim sees the guy as an exact replica of his own deadbeat dad, and while he's not necessarily wrong, it's clear Tim's taking out some anger towards Walt when he picks a fight he knows he can win with this guy. And by shattering Becky's illusions about her dad, Tim might chse her away (not in a way he intended), or he might make her lean harder on him than ever.

Lots going on here. Lots of characters in flux, and lots of potential for the latter half of the season.

Some other thoughts:

• Because there are so many new and old characters to service, and because Adrianne Palicki wasn't available to stop by this season the way Minka Kelly did, our closure (for now) on the Landry/Tyra romance has to come via a one-sided phone call. But it felt right to me (even if the show/Landry maybe waited too long to make that call), because as good as Tyra could be at times, and as much as she cared for Landry, she also was desperate to get the hell out of Dillon without looking back, and she has a history of treating Landry badly even though he went on a five-state killing spree for her that one time. So while it makes me sad that she didn't even have the courtesy to write a "Dear Lance" e-mail or text message, I buy that she would have moved on with her life and tried not to look back. (Or that she looked back but didn't have the heart to tell Landry it was over, possibly out of fear that he might kill her.)

• We've established a pattern by now that Billy Riggins is both none-too-bright and a little too eager to try on a life of crime when his finances get tight. So I can buy that he would let himself get drawn into Angry Necklace Guy's pitch about turning Riggins Rigs into a chop shop, and this could potentially tie Tim to Vince down the road, when for now the only new character he has a relationship with is Becky. But season two has made me incredibly wary of this show dabbling in crime, you know?

• And what are we to make of the final scene, with Tim and the renamed Skeeter stopping by a large piece of ranching property for sale? Is Tim going to take the Riggins Rigs cow and start his own cattle operation?

• As we see, West Dillon (formerly Dillon High) has its own Smackdown! team, so how did Landry the chess club nerd not know about it?

• Barry Tubb, who plays Luke's dad, knows a thing or two about TV ranching, as he played a supporting role in the original "Lonesome Dove" miniseries and the "Return to Lonesome Dove" sequel.

• When we met Glenn at the start of season two, I wondered if the writers were going to have him throw himself at Tami while Eric was still commuting to and from TMU. Two seasons later, he finally does it, fueled by booze and tequila and a blue ribbon award for West Dillon, which clearly has as many academic advantages over East Dillon as it does athletic ones. Tami's response to this, both in the moment and the next day (after Glenn has an attack of liberal guilt and says, "It's like I mouth-raped you!") was yet another example of how great this woman is under pressure.

Just a reminder, this is the last original episode to air until January 6, in the usual timeslot, Wednesday at 9 p.m. on DirecTV's 101 Network.

What did everybody else think?




I guess I was a little less enthralled than you, particularly with the Coach-Vince storyline. For the first time in 3+ years, I thought that Coach's "I believe in you" speech was a bit much. The earlier scene when he simply takes Vince at his word played a lot more powerfully.

Having said that*, it FNL is still pretty damn good, especially for network tv (though is that really true anymore now that DirecTV will be 6 months or so ahead of the start of NBC's run?).

*Thank you Larry and Jerry.

mj said...

Loved the episode. So much going on, which was all so nicely captured in your excellent and always insightful review.

I really liked how nothing was said about the gun but Coach begs of Vince to consider carefully what Coach has offered Vince. And the scene with Coach and Tami staring at the brown paper bag - without them saying anything directly, you could see from their body language that they were thinking if they don't open the bag then they can't say that they knew Vince had a gun.

On a side note it is interesting that Tami has developed a habit of not telling Coach all that is going on in her life. Of course, it makes no sense for her to tell Coach about the mouth rape but this is on top of the events re the boosters etc that Coach apparently doesn't know about. I can't see that ending well.

The actor who played Tinker was outstanding. I really liked the way that he doesn't overdo the delivery of the dialogue. Hope to see more screen time for him in future episodes.

Track 1 on Matt's CD for Julie was Fire by Augustana. A beautiful touch.

bsangs said...

My first thoughts at the end scene were: Riggins lives in a trailer and doesn't have enough money to buy anything other than a six-pack. I know real estate values are down across the country, but enough for him to buy that many acres? I don't think so.

Not a good night for the ladies. Tammy gets "mouth-raped", Julie and Becky get hearts broken. I thought they all played it very well. I really felt for poor Julie and started envisioning the future when my daughter goes through the same things. Her scenes really hit home.

Eric-Vince has a lot of Eric-Smash retread in it, but it still plays very well. And Angry Necklace Guy now has the potential to get Billy, Tim and Vince in trouble. Like you, I thought he'd eventually return to the football team, but starting think that's not going to happen anymore.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Like you, I thought he'd eventually return to the football team, but starting think that's not going to happen anymore.

Yeah, they've taken ANG in a different direction. And I'm still waiting for someone, anyone, on the show to refer to him by his actual name.

Unknown said...

Decent show with some nice touches but my biggest problem with it was editing - when coach showed up at Vince's place I felt like we'd missed something.

My thought on the real estate at the end is that for the first time in his life Tim actually wants something (besides Lyla). This could be a good thing for him but it could also be dangerous with the chop-shop temptation coming up

Maxwell said...

Alan - A small quibble: If you're going to plug the timeslot for the show, why not do it before the jump, not after and certainly not at the end of the piece. Anyone seeing the time in your posts must already know when it airs, since they've just read your insights on the program, suggesting to me that they know enough about the show that they would know when it airs. I assume the good people at DirecTV ask you to mention it in hopes of reminding folks not watching to do so. By doing it at the end of your pieces, it seems like there is little chance it has that effect.

sam said...

I think FNL does a great job of balancing several plot lines, but agree that this episode might have been spread a little thin. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but there was a fair amount left to be assumed about certain story arcs (Vince's, why Luke's folks seemed deadset against his involvement with something away from the ranch -- besides their need of help on the farm, they were against football before this episode). I appreciate that the writers don't assume that the viewers need everything spelled out for them, but there are certain characters that need some lovin.

(Aside: I might be thinking this in part because we saw the potential of having one larger, more important story in "The Son," but that's certainly an unfair standard to set for every episode and eventually, it would end up taking away from the ensemble nature that, IMO, makes the show what it is.)

(Second aside: Part of the issue with Vince's plot line, for me, is that we don't have a lot to go on to believe that he's the delinquent we're told he is. Yes, he got into a fight with Luke and we're told he's been in and out of trouble, but he has also presented himself as someone ready and willing to help the team out, and has seemed friendly with the rest of the non-authority characters on the show. It's believable that he's been in trouble, but that he carried a piece was a larger step than I was willing to take. Maybe I just can't separate Vince from Wallace.)

I had something else to mention, but it's gone now. Good stuff Alan!

Unknown said...

Speaking of Luke's parents - I don't think Alan brought this up before- Peter Berg did an interview with Bill Simmons about his 30 for 30 doc on Wayne Gretsky and they talked a little about FNL. This was taped early in the season and it's interesting to see how some of the characters and plotlines have changed from the original plan.

One of those changes is that Luke was originally supposed to be a farm boy that wasn't allowed to play football for religious reasons - no mention of him coming from Dillon High. Berg talks quite a bit about FNL and it's very interesting but WARNING there is a couple spoilers (unless they've changed their minds)

Here's a link. (just click on podcast with Bill Simmons) It's fairly long and sorry I don't remember when he discusses it exactly.

Merrylegs said...

Overall, I liked the episode although it certainly wasn't the season's strongest. I was a little confused by Coach showing up at Vince's house, but I guess I interpret it as something he read from Vince when he asked him about the gun. Vince definitely would not look Eric directly in the eye during that conversation, so that may have led to some doubt (although if that conversation had been the last of it, I would have interpreted Vince's eye movement as distrust in not being trusted). As has been said before, Tami was great; not just with how she handled Glen, but also how she handled Julie and Eric's situations. I really liked the look between Eric and Tami at dinner when she asked him whether or not he could trust Vince. As always, Kyle Chandler can convey so much without saying a word.

I also found the Tim storyline very touching. Tim has had the benefit of two father figures, Billy and Coach, to help him overcome the baggage from his own father. Billy, despite all his flaws and his willingness to go criminal to support his new family, made a lot of sacrifices for his little brother when he could have walked away like his own father. Obviously, Coach Taylor has been an even better influence on Tim and it was echoes of Eric that I felt in Tim when he went to get that dog back out of the shelter and told the woman working there that he was "ready to accept the responsibility." It was established in the pilot that Tim desired a ranch (albeit at Jason's expense), but now he is going to have to figure out a way to make that dream happen on his own. This storyline is starting to parallel that of Vince and Billy; the question is, will Tim make the right choice. Anyway, I found it kind of touching that Tim wanted to do right by that dog and not leave him abandoned. His character has made a lot of progress from early season 1.

One correction, Alan. We did see Tim and Luke working together a few episodes back; so that is at least one other new character he has interacted with. There can be some assumption that he has also had interaction with the rest of the Lions.

Bryan said...

Even though I never really liked Julie all that much as a character, I always liked her and Matt as a couple. So to watch her go through his leaving with no goodbye was pretty heart-wrenching. But, it also reminded me of how much I liked the Sarecen character. The whole time, even as I felt awful for Julie, I still wanted to know what was going on with Matt. Where is he? He got an apartment? What's he going to do now? I guess I just want to know that he's alright. Hopefully they bring him back at some point so we can get a little closure there. But, even so, with Matt gone, I think the show loses a lot of its heart. I like the new characters (so far), but I'm not sure they'll ever be able to replace that.

Alan Sepinwall said...

As I said in the review, it definitely felt like there were missing scenes in the Vince story. But I took Eric's trip to the projects as his reaction to the visit from Vince's sobered-up mom, which made him feel ashamed about how he acted with Vince when the cops searched for the gun and then when he asked him about the gun. In both cases, these things had to be done, but he realized in talking to Vince's mom that he hadn't treated Vince the way he would his Dillon players - he's a little afraid of the unknown element with this kid - and so was holding him at a distance. The trip was his attempt to close that distance, to acknowledge that they're in this boat together and move forward accordingly.

Merrylegs said...

I forgot to add, the one thing that really bothered me about this episode was Luke's father keeping his son out of school. I don't know how it is in Texas, but in other parts of the country, parents can get fined or go to jail for that. I'm just going to let it go though, because this is a town where a mailbox in an empty field can be a valid address!

Gish said...

That has got to be the first time the word "scrub" has appeared in an article along with "The Brooklyn Brawler" without the two being directly linked. Could a Koko B. Ware reference be far behind?

Unknown said...

one thing that really bothered me about this episode was Luke's father keeping his son out of school. I don't know how it is in Texas, but in other parts of the country, parents can get fined or go to jail for that

Hey Merry, though it's certainly not as common as it used to be (spring and fall breaks were instituted so the kids could plant and harvest) kids in rural, farming communities still take time off school to work. In a area like Dillon a kid would certainly be excused for doing something as important as what Luke was doing (hell, he might even get school credit if he was a member of ffa or something)

I'm in the suburbs but I live close enough to the country to know families that let there kids off school for hunting seasons (esp deer) because that's a big part of what they live on.

Merrylegs said...

Thanks for the info Bryan. I knew about the American school calendar being built around harvest, but I wasn't aware that this would be an excused absence in more rural areas.

Melanism said...

My favorite scene was Tinker talking to Luke's dad about why he came out to help build the fence and what a good guy his son is. Made me a little misty-eyed for some reason.

I bet Coach Taylor could talk sh!t out of stinking.

"Son, you don't need to lead your life like this. You wanna smell like roses? I'll help you the best I can and if we can't get there, at least we tried."

PY said...

If you look in the credits, Angry Necklace Guy's name is Calvin Brown. Sorry to puncture his mystique a bit. I was hoping for a more exotic name for him.

I thought the episode was solid, though not spectacular. But that's more than good enough for me. And I was actually struck by how Taylor Kitsch's acting skill seems to have grown since the beginning of the series, when he seemed to be a series of grunts and monotone lines. The thought hit me during the scene with the dog in the truck, which I thought he carried really well.

Unlike other here, I didn't feel to me like Vince's story had huge gaps, as I thought the writers doled out pieces of the story and Vince did a pretty good job fleshing out his story during Coach's visit. It seemed like he carries the gun more as a defensive measure because he fears for his life. He doesn't want to be shot walking home from school, like 3 of his friends. I thought that made giving up the gun more poignant, because he's trading off what he feels is necessary for his safety for Coach's trust.

In terms of the football, I like how Tinker established Luke as the "star" of the team, when talking to Luke's dad. Make me worry less about his college prospects (though the leg injury adds the necessary drama). And the issue with the Wildcat now is not that there is a single player taking snaps, but the lack of two strong runners (with Luke's injury). With the one-two of assuming the QB position and now carrying the team with Luke out, it looks like Vince will have to handle a lot. It will be interesting to see how he holds up under it all, particularly if he gets tied up in the chop shop scheme, as well.

Byron Hauck said...

Mr. Sepinwall, your first bullet point was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Why do the producers feel it necessary to get Billy involved in some crime-related arc every season? Has any of them (the meth dealer, the copper wire, Tyra & Landry's deadly adventures) gone over good with the fans?

Matt said...

Thanks for filling in the blank on Becky's dad, Alan. he looked so faintly familiar, and then yes! He's the guy who beats up Ricky Schroeder in the last installment of Lonesome Dove.

Alan, any thoughts on Friday Night Lights' continued snubs at various award shows? Not that it's a huge deal...The 2-season renewal is a blessing in itself...

Anonymous said...

I thought the episode was quite good considering it was the first one post-Matt (who I still think was the heart and soul of the show from day 1).

I'm a bit confused about the title of this episode, though. Various sources say it's "In the Bag", yet I've learned to trust you more than the likes of imdb, Alan.

Alan Sepinwall said...

No, it's "In the Bag." No idea how that typo lasted so long without me noticing it. Thanks.

Christine said...

Bryan- thanks for the link to the Peter Berg interview. He seemed like a cool, down to earth guy for a big shot Hollywood producer. It was interesting to hear him talk about Matt staying in Dillon as being motivated by his love for Julie--the show got some flack for inconsistency on that point but it seems like that was the original reason Berg had in mind for keeping Matt.

James said...


I'm not Alan, but I believe he's mentioned in the past that there a couple reasons FNL gets passed over during award season and part of it has to do with filming in a non-industry town so the voters aren't as exposed to it/shun it.

I thought this was just a mediocre episode, but a mediocre FNL episode is still miles above anything else on TV these days.

Mark Gilman said...

Couple of my favorite moments on this episode that haven't been mentioned thus far (and yes, I rank this like most as an "Okay" episode). 1) Riggins yelling to Becky's father that he slept with his wife before he started throwing punches and 2) a quick shot of Landry kicking on the sideline into the practice net showed that he could never kick a ball more than 10 yards if called upon (go ahead and look back at it again - it's pathetic).

ps said...

I had just assumed Tyra and Landry had broken up at the beginning of the season, and so I was thrown by the cellphone scene. It seemed long and unnecessary to me. I really liked the Julie storyline. It was so true and real to what it feels like to be left behind.

I'm not a huge fan of the Father Tim Riggins storyline. I'm not sure what bothers me about it, but it just seems a little false. Still, Taylor is knocking it out of the park. Has he been in any movies or anything? Someone has to snap that kid up, and not just for a bad action movie or romantic comedy.

Bryan Murray said...

Just looked at IMDB after your post - can't believe Luke's Dad was Jasper in Lonesome Dove. Did not recognize him at all and I've seen the miniseries at least ten times.

King of a strange episode - there was just one or two too many story lines that didn't overlap at all so some of the scenes seemed pretty choppy. It still had a few great moments though. Already miss Mayday Saracen.

Tazzie said...

Sorry Alan, but isn't this season four (first para after the jump)?


Alan Sepinwall said...

You are correct, Tazzie. Thanks.