Season Premiere — Friday Night Lights, “Expectations”

Pardon the pun, but coming into Friday Night Lights‘ fifth and final season, we as an audience have certain expectations. Because this is the final season, we expect some sense of closure for the characters we’ve loved for five seasons (and in some cases, less than that). Though we know many of the original Dillon Panther students won’t be around for much of the season, we want them to either have great send-offs (in the case of Julie, Landry and in sense, Tim) or small, but satisfying returns that still serve as additional layers of closure from their “original” send-offs (in the cases of Street, Smash, Saracen, Tyra and Lyla). And because this series has been so damn good with emotional pay-offs from the beginning, we expect that the whole story of Dillon, TX to be wrapped up in a way that’s both subtle and substantial.

As the season premiere to that season packed with expectations, “Expectations” is a relative success, but ultimately an episode that raises concerns about how our hopes for a conclusion could be at least partially derailed.

Like most FNL season premieres, this oftentimes a table-setter for the 12 episodes to come. Because individual seasons always coincide with football, the series premieres have to catch the viewer up on what’s happened between November and August, and there’s certainly some of that here. After their crazy win over West Dillon at the end of last season, East Dillon is now something of a buzzworthy team in Texas high school football. Sure, they were 2-8 last year, but they have Vince and Luke, and in television series about football that aren’t really about football, two good offensive players = state champ contenders! Coach has to manage those expectations as well as he can. Tami’s dealing with her digs at East Dillon and finding it’s going to be harder than she thought. The male East Dillon’ers are doing well, while the females (Jess and Becky) are having some family issues.

But apart from the table setting and the various scenes that reintroduce us to the characters brought to the forefront last year, this episode finds most of its success in the goodbyes. In a chilling opening scene, Billy goes to visit Tim in prison and it’s obvious that though he was happy to make the sacrifice back in November, his time in lock up has made Tim cynical. I don’t want to say “hard,” because this isn’t Locked Up. Billy feels guilty for all of this, so he wants to channel some of that into helping out with the team, particularly because he thinks he helped Tim along during his career. Of course, Tim doesn’t really find that to be true, noting that “Coach was my coach, Billy.” In the end, Tim clearly wants to be left alone for his last three months in the pen because he can’t really look the people he sacrificed his life for in the eye anymore.

Meanwhile, Julie and Landry find themselves as the last remaining members of the original high school cast, and it’s finally time to go off to college. Landry has a heartfelt goodbye with Matt’s grandmother (instant tears), gets to play one last show with Cruxifictorious (that’s wildly over-populated based on their previous shows) and ends things with a nice time from a stripper, courtesy of one Julie Taylor.

But while Landry’s looking for one final bang-up time, Julie’s apparently just ready to move on, even if her school is (presumably, since Aimee Teegarden is still a main cast member) not too far away. She doesn’t necessarily run out the door or anything, but she spends just enough time with Eric and Tami before heading off on her own, not even allowing them to drive her to college. I think Julie became much more responsive to Dillon over the years, but this is still her dream, and as someone who’s gone through this kind of process, it’s hard to balance wanting to get the hell away and making sure your parents know you’ll still miss them.

Of course, this is Friday Night Lights, damnit, and every one of Julie’s scenes with the family is tremendous. Teegarden plays the trepidation of the situation well, and of course, Connie Britton nails all the worried, longing mother stuff with ease. But my absolute favorite moment of the episode is right near the end when Julie’s getting ready to pull away and they all share this knowing look of love and then Kyle Chandler delivers the perfect Coach Taylor “Alright.” Chandler knows exactly how to play Eric in a way that makes him say so much with just a few words, and much like his scenes with Matt in “The Son,” Coach is the emotional core of everything without really doing much. And then after Julie drives away, the episode lets it marinate over the Taylors for more than five seconds, because it’s a big moment that deserves it.

In that sense, I think you can tell my expectations were met with this episode. However, I’m a little concerned that the best moments here were all centered on characters who won’t be around as much. I know there is some extra punch to any goodbye-type situation, but I’m very, very interested in seeing how the series plays with literally know one left from the original team around. Vince is a wonderful character to build around, Luke’s fine and the two ladies seem to work well off those men, but I’m wondering if they had it easy in season four because Landry, Tim, Matt and Julie were still around to carry a lot of the story weight.

Thus, at least for the first half of the season (before all the older characters make their returns), Friday Night Lights faces something of a challenge. I don’t think it’s as big a challenge as the first few episode of last season, but the added weight of “The End” hanging over festivities that don’t really include many characters most people would consider crucial to that endgame makes for a complicated story. I’m pretty sure the writers will handle it with relative ease, particularly because Coach and Tami are still around, but let me say that I am, more questioning than I’ve been before.

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