For a complex show, "Friday Night Lights" has always been unambiguous. It takes place in a city, Dillon, Texas, that has its own rules and hierarchies, and the show makes as much sense as a naturalistic look at rural life as a functioning moral universe.
Over its three seasons, efforts have been made to unseat football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, school Principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), from their perches, but they've always been unsuccessful: Other shows might sympathize with the bad guy, but "Friday Night Lights" has no room for that. That is, until the arrival of the McCoy family last season -- freshman quarterback phenom J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter), domineering father Joe (D.W. Moffett) and manipulative mother Katie (Janine Turner).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, October 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
'Friday Night Lights': In Sunday Calendar's Monitor column about the season premiere of "Friday Night Lights," the character Becky, played by Madison Burge, was incorrectly identified as Jess, played by Jurnee Smollett. Also, the last name of actress Aimee Teegarden was misspelled as Teagarden.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 01, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
'Friday Night Lights': In last Sunday's The Monitor column about the season premiere of "Friday Night Lights," the character Becky, played by Madison Burge, was incorrectly identified as Jess, played by Jurnee Smollett. Also, the name of actress Aimee Teegarden was misspelled as Teagarden.
Armed with money, determination and J.D.'s laser arm, the McCoys began to slowly alter the power structure in Dillon. Together, they were ruthless and entitled. Worse, what the McCoys brought to Dillon wasn't just evil but insincerity.
Coach Taylor, of course, couldn't be bought, which has led to his exile at the beginning of this show's fourth season -- the premiere episode airs at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Direct TV's 101 Network -- to East Dillon High School, a newly opened school that's a product of redistricting. (East Dillon is seemingly blacker and browner and poorer than the rest of the town. Landry [Jesse Plemons] jokes to a friend, "I've got a piece on me at all times.")
Needless to say, Taylor's old Dillon program kept all the most promising football talent, leaving Taylor with a bone-dry field, a raccoon in the locker room and a collection of haphazard talents with which to piece together some semblance of a team. It verges on "Stand and Deliver" territory or at least "The Bad News Bears" with mild racial overtones.
Dillon, once idyllic, is now a battlefield. Not just between the Taylors and the McCoys or between Dillon and East Dillon but also between yesterday and today. At the end of last season, several key characters -- Jason Street (Scott Porter), Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) -- managed to escape Dillon's gravitational pull, making their way to college or employment. What's left are stragglers and arrivistes and the stubborn.
Former quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) gave up the chance to leave for the Art Institute of Chicago to remain in Dillon, looking after his grandmother, delivering pizzas and struggling with the art teachers at Dillon Tech. Or more succinctly, he went from being one of the most important people in Dillon to a footnote. At a party in the premiere episode, J.D. makes a play for Matt's girlfriend (and the Taylors' daughter) Julie (Aimee Teagarden) and drunkenly tells Matt, "This is my Dillon now!"
Beefcake running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) appeared to be forging a new life for himself, attending college in San Antonio. But one class on Homer's "Odyssey" and he was back in his pickup truck, headed for the familiar -- squabbling with his brother, seducing any woman in sight. And yet it's not the same as when he left. Jess (Jurnee Smollett), the teenage daughter of one of his conquests, asks him, "What's it like being the guy who used to be Tim Riggins?"
Nowhere has the earth shifted more than at Dillon High, where Tami Taylor remains principal, overseeing the mutineers who overthrew her husband from his job. New Coach Wade Aikman (Drew Waters) and J.D. McCoy patronize her and use her as a symbolic weapon, knowing the loyalty her job demands will trump her personal distaste for them. (They even ask her to call heads on the season-opener coin toss -- she calls tails.) Tami also has to enforce the new school segregation, escorting off the property those students who won't switch schools as required by the school board.
In every way, this is an upending of all that was right about Dillon and about this show. Accordingly, the premiere can be difficult to watch, just like the last few episodes of last season, because watching feels like assenting to a fundamental change in the order of right and wrong.
The easy, verite camera work remains beautiful, and the Taylors will not be bowed. Tami remains a sparkplug, and Eric's not yet out of hard-jawed wisdom: "Six a.m. sharp means quarter till 6," he says. Sighs one of his new players, "That dude can talk, man. He's like that dude from the infomercials."
How the season will unfold will depend on how efficiently the Taylors can seed this new barren land with their fortitude, their rigor and their faith. Vince (Michael B. Jordan) is Eric's lone football hope, a young running back with anger issues and an arrest record. And Tim's needling antagonist Jess, an East Dillon student with glowing skin, a short skirt and dreams of being somewhere greater, figures to be a bright spot -- in essence, a young Tyra. With some care, this new band of outsiders, the ones the other side of town pays no mind to, will eventually make up the new hierarchy.