TV Review: Old Heroes Embark on New Journeys in “Friday Night Lights”

The stadium lights of Dillon High School no longer shine upon Coach Eric Taylor. Gone is the glitz of a state championship, college scouts, and star running backs. On a tattered, neglected field, an untrained band of young men now stands before him.This season on “Friday Night Lights,” the pristine athletes of Dillon High’s football team will no longer be our heroes. Instead, the scrappy underdogs of East Dillon High have been called to duty. “Friday Night Lights” has unfurled a renegade tale of good versus evil. At its center is Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who must conquer the demons of Dillon to rebuild himself. With the penetrating, emotional, and passionate grace of “Friday Night Lights,” it will be just as much our quest as his.Last season, Coach Taylor was unjustly ousted from his position as head coach of the Dillon Panthers. As a consolation, he is given the coaching position for a startup team at East Dillon High. While Dillon lives and breathes football, Coach Taylor is all that East has of a football legacy.In one of season four’s opening scenes, Tim Riggins’ professor explains that “every hero has his journey.” This show has always been about the hero’s odyssey, from the Panthers’ come-from-behind state championship victory, to Jason Street’s adjustment to life as a quadriplegic, to Tyra’s quest for a place at her dream university. This season, the hero’s journey has once again been rewritten. Coach Taylor’s journey has been reborn in East Dillon. He must rise from the ashes of school board issues, inexperienced players, and family stress with more than a few demons to conquer along the way.Visceral depictions of the physical and emotional intensity of its characters’ experiences have made “Friday Night Lights” mostly spectacular for three seasons. We rooted for the Panthers on the field and off. Through their eyes we experienced the town of Dillon, the temptations of teenage life, and the ups and the downs of being worshipped as gods in a football-obsessed town.In the fourth season, the grittiness of elite high school football will be showcased within the realm of town politics. Redistricting measures have sent some of Dillon High’s students to the dilapidated East Dillon. Among parents, there is outrage, the brunt of which heroine Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) must bear.“Friday Night Lights” is based on a nonfiction book of the same name. A school board that cared more about football than academics, a stark inequality between district high schools, redistricting for football’s sake—these were real issues for the people of Odessa, Texas, and their Permian Panthers. And like in Odessa, fights that should not be settled on the football field will likely climax there this season. To keep us hopeful, Coach Taylor and Tami will likely endure these new struggles lovingly and with resilience—as usual, Dillon’s ultimate team.As transitions abound in season four, “Friday Night Lights” will rely on the comfort that Tami and Coach Taylor bring. Julie Taylor, Tim Riggins, and Landry will remain fixtures of Dillon’s fable, but former core cast members Tyra and Lyla have graduated from Dillon High and will make only guest appearances on the show. In the season’s first episode, it is achingly clear that Matt Saracen’s potential exceeds what Dillon can offer him. Though he fears abandoning his girlfriend and grandmother, Matt’s journey will soon require him to leave Dillon behind. The show’s new characters will have beloved shoes to fill.

In the season opener, “Friday Night Lights” gives us glimpses of Vince, East Dillon’s most promising player. He is one run-in with the police away from juvenile hall. Football—and more importantly, Coach Taylor—could be his saving grace. When Coach Taylor reaches out to shake Vince’s hand upon meeting him, the boy looks at him as if no one has ever extended such an offer. In that moment, with every muscle in his body, Vince seems young and helpless. And in that moment, the knowledge that Coach Taylor will guide him sparks a rejuvenating flicker of hope.Midway through East Dillon’s first game, Coach Taylor evaluates his team in the locker room. Sprawled around the room, many bleeding or worse, the boys have given the game their all but have nevertheless expired. Coach Taylor, tender yet stoic, approaches his players one by one, offering empathy and imparting courage. His team in pieces, he is forced to forfeit the game. But to have earned their coach’s respect, the team seems to have come so far.The opening moments of season four are set to a melancholy soundtrack, a ballad whose chorus repeats “Against all odds, I’m trying.” With so many heroes embarking on new journeys this season, these lyrics act as a promise. With clear eyes and full hearts, our heroes, new and old, will triumph. You can catch “Friday Night Lights” Wednesdays at 9 on NBC and DirecTV.

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