Friday Night Lights, “On The Outside Looking In”

Again, this is my review from the DirecTV run of FNL that I’m reposting here for those of you watching on NBC’s schedule. Enjoy.

After my reaction to last week’s premiere episode that succeeded mostly when focusing on the departure of old favorites, I was particularly interested in watching “On The Outside Looking In” to see how Friday Night Lights worked in its first episode ever that didn’t include Riggins, Matt, Landry or a combination of all three.

Unsurprisingly, the answer to that question is Friday Night Lights still works pretty damn well.

One of the (many) things I love about this series is how it’s able to take fairly rote and basic set-ups and inject life into them with relative ease to create interesting and complicated stories about the human condition. That’s probably a hyperbolic statement, but “Outside Looking In” features a slew of stories that are not only familiar to the sports and/or teen drama genres, but ones that the series itself has already kind of explored before, but for the most part, they’re successful.

For those of us who’ve watched the series from the beginning, Vince’s newfound stardom, attraction from colleges and issues with his mother recall the journey Smash took over the first three seasons. However, there are enough tweaks here to make the whole thing seem fresh. Whereas we were dropped into the world when Smash was already an established star who knew he was going to play college football (it was just a question of for who), Vince is experiencing this all for the first time. He doesn’t know how to react when people around town recognize him, want to buy his dinner and ultimately, decide to give his mother a job. And even though he’s self-aware enough to know that he is a damn good football, he’s completely shocked to see that Coach has received countless letters from all the biggest programs in the nation, all of which are interested in him.

And perhaps most importantly, Vince handles these new circumstances with more grace and humility than Smash ever did or even more than he would have had it come last year. For the most part, Vince is a quiet kid who just wants to do the right thing and make sure Coach is happy, whereas Smash was often out to get his and worry about the rest of the world later (not that we didn’t love him for it, however). Of course, Michael B. Jordan handles every one of these scenes with a quiet intensity that totally emphasizes the fact that Vince is shocked by all of this newfound situation that comes with winning.

That theme of the aftermath of winning permeates throughout the episode. Pumped up by their big win against the #8 team in the state last week, everyone on the Lions is more interested in hype than last week. Players and coaches are psyched to see where the team is ranked, and even though he doesn’t express the feelings in public, Coach feels the same way.

But this being Friday Night Lights, where every time an Eric Taylor-coached team is riding high the world smacks them down, it turns out winning that game has major consequences. The Lions do not get ranked in the Week 2 polls and the team they beat only falls one spot, destroying the morale in practice and in the locker room. Moreover, Luke’s big hit last week comes under fire when Texas football politics rears its head in the form of an advisory board that doesn’t like Coach Taylor or the small East Dillon program and ultimately, Luke is suspended for a game.

I don’t know how the series does it, but somehow, every single time that the Coach’s teams are doing well, something awful happens so that they’re underdogs yet again. It shouldn’t work. It should seem obvious. But formula or not, it’s all in the story execution and FNL executes its story just about better than anyone.

A lot of the episode is still laying the groundwork for some probably interesting stories to come throughout the rest of the season. Jess finds that being the girlfriend of the best football player in the school is going to be more difficult than she thought, especially when slutty Rally Girls aren’t willing to take no for an answer (another familiar story) while Julie finds that being a freshman in college is a daunting experience, but thankfully there’s always an inappropriate relationship with a teacher around the corner (hey, we’ve been there too!). Luke acts like his bitchy self due to the suspension, the new guy has little to do but smolder and Tami finds it difficult to fit in at work (been there, done that as well).

However, one final subplot really stands out as an example of what this series does so well. After her obvious hesitation to Becky moving in last week, Mindy spends a scene or two throughout the episode seeming totally pissed that Becky’s still around. And yet, there she is at the end of the episode waiting up for Becky when she’s out late at a party. She gives Becky a great speech about what happens in the Riggins household and it is just such a wonderful, heartwarming and natural moment, one that comes from a supporting player but one that bumps the episode up to another level of quality.

It is those kind of moments that make Friday Night Lights a tremendous television program and one that can take the simplest or most familiar material and raise it to a completely new level.

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