Friday Night Lights: “East of Dillon”

fnls4e01Welcome back, Coach!

I have very little and very much to say about this beautiful season four premiere. Let’s see whether my talky or taciturn side wins, shall we?

When we left Dillon, Coach had been screwed out of his position by Joe McCoy’s machinations, ((I’m sure in his eyes, Coach hoisted himself on his own petard by ignoring precious, perfect JD.)) banished to the newly reopened East Dillon High as both consolation and punishment. Despite promises of large state grants to both schools, the best talent and lion’s share of the money have been diverted to Dillon.

With reduced income, reduced status, inadequate facilities, and a dearth of assistants, Eric finds himself in a position he hasn’t faced in a very long time. Remember: he was the JV coach at Dillon before he was elevated to the head coaching job. He isn’t accustomed to fighting with and for scraps. And they are scraps.

His team, such as it is, consists of those unskilled and unidentified athletes Dillon was willing to draw district lines around. Of course there’s a strong racial and economic split between the two squads as well. With the East Dillon players coming from the poor side of town, black and Latino students make up a large percentage of its population which is reflected in the composition of the team. Hearkening back to season one’s “Blinders”, there’s a strong but so far unmentioned problem with race on the team. Following Eric’s rant, only black players walk out and Eric specifically checks with Vince Howard ((Welcome to Dillon, Wallace.)) to see if he’s going to stay.

In fact, race is a thread through much of the episode despite never being mentioned. In the scene with the bloc of angry parents shouting at Tami about their children being moved, the first two parents to speak are black. Then a white woman whose “parents went to this school before Tami ever heard of Dillon High” wants to know why her daughter is being “sent to that hellhole with that element.” In the context of the scene, her rant is overlooked but we can’t ignore it. Especially not given the question asked of Tami numerous times about whether she thinks the two schools are equal. It would be impolitic of Tami to say, “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” but that is the clear implication.

Give all this context, Eric’s emotional explosion against his new team and the subsequent racial divide is far more worrisome.

On other fronts:

  • JD has gone full Vader, embracing daddy and daddy’s ways even if he’s letting himself be a bit wild on the side. I remember last season how excited I was to see what Jeremy Sumpter would bring to the table but now I fear he’s been turned into a caricature. I realize he was dejected at State but the mustache twirling is a bit much.
  • Matt is back in town – we don’t know why yet – and finding that Dillon Tech isn’t quite the same as the Art Institute of Chicago. Then again, perhaps he’s finally come across a truly insightful teacher (his sketches do have a bit of that “art student” feel to them and I can’t disagree with her sentiments) who will help him find his own unique vision.
  • Julie is going to run to East Dillon to be with her few friends who’ve not graduated yet, further challenging Tami’s public proclamations that the two schools are equal.
  • Tami and the coaching staff at Dillon are dancing to two vastly different pieces of music. Whether she can keep from being stomped by them will be one of the key story lines this season.
  • Related, Buddy realizes he’s not only been marginalized but has in fact thrown his lot in with bad folk. With so little power thanks to Joe’s money, I expected him to stand by Coach Taylor at East Dillon this season. After seeing him tonight, I’m further convinced he’ll make that jump, as difficult as it may be.
  • And Tim. Ah, Tim Riggins. Thank you for one great scene after another. The books flying, the young girl’s shredding of a former star, and every moment with Billy and Mindy. That first scene at dinner with Billy and Mindy, where Billy says nothing, that was gold. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep repeating it until the end of time: Derek Phillips is a remarkable actor whose talents made Billy Riggins so much more than the joke he was intended to be.

I’m thrilled to see FNL back at full power. I would stack this season premiere next to most of the episodes in that first, perfect season. Last year was good; this year promises to be great.

What did everyone else think?