(Yeah, I know, that pic ain't from this episode. It's the best I could find at short notice!)
This week's Friday Night Lights, "Jumping the Gun", was probably one of the strongest episodes the show's put out this season, although it still sometimes felt a little...off, if you know what I mean. "Jumping the Gun" and last week's "There Goes the Neighborhood" made up a kinda really loose two-parter, which showed off the strengths of the show, while also having a little fun with itself. Last week's episode felt a little TOO silly, with prankster rivals and house parties, but "Jumping the Gun" got in some nice character stuff, focusing only on the Taylors, Smash, and Riggins. Both episodes kinda gave off a relieved vibe of "don't you worry, that whole murder story is done with now!", but there were still some plot elements that had me raising my eyebrows.
Take Smash's story, for example. Now, the recruitment process by big colleges for sports scholarships is interesting, and the writers have generally done a good job illuminating a basically unknown subject for me. Still, although Gaius Charles always nails the Smash-heavy plots and his scenes with his mother were as good as they always are, the resolution of where he's going to college next year seemed a little rushed to me. It was all a little confusing - we basically lept from vague examples of courtship to a big showdown crunch-time thing where Smash had to make his decision ASAP. Alabama! Oklahoma! Michigan! All sounds good to me, but about halfway through the episode, we suddenly became aware that of course Smash was destined to go to TMU (that fictional university that Coach Taylor worked at a while back), that everyone wanted him to go to TMU, that his mother knew he was supposed to go to TMU. I started wracking my brains, wondering if this had come up before, and maybe it has, but it was still totally out of nowhere for me. Once TMU entered the mix, it seemed obvious Smash would go for it - it's not too far off in Austin, so if the writers have a plan for what they're gonna do in season three (and I hope they're thinking of one, cause they may well get renewed) it'd be good to put him there. Plus, Coach Taylor's big scene where he dissuaded Smash from Alabama was just about the best darn bit in the episode and one of Kyle Chandler's best moments in what's been another astounding year from the guy. Almost nobody on this show ever puts a foot wrong, but Chandler is intimidating when he really settles into a speech like that.
Hell, this whole episode was a fantastic Coach Taylor showcase. Sometimes Eric can slink into the background when it comes to non-football stuff, because Tami is such a domineering character, but he was just terrific in every one of his scenes. He moved from enraged (bitching out poor Riggins) to crabby (bitching out Shelley for never leaving), to enraged, but this time totally collected (bitching out Julie for drinkin'). His final shutdown of Julie was worthy of Tami & him combined, and might have been his most convincing act of parenting, like, ever. I was scared, that's for sure. I won't be playing quarters anytime soon. I was happy the way this developed, too - mostly because Julie needs a little shake-up and I wanted Eric and Riggins to make up. I always knew his rooming with the Taylors wouldn't be permanent (these storylines never are) but I liked the father-son thing they were building up together, and unless Riggins gets shot by a drug dealer anytime soon (not impossible), I'm looking forward to more of that from them. I giggled a little that Eric congratulated Riggins on his honor in saving Julie, as Riggins had just ripped off a drug dealer, but whatever. It was a nice moment.
OK, I was gonna do Tami next, but seriously. Riggins ripped off a drug dealer!? Is he nuts!? Especially after Riggins' brother declared the ferret meth dude "one of the biggest drug dealers in Dillon". I'm not sure how the ferret meth dude, who spent most his time on the show hunting in his underwear, is now a Dillon drug lord, but Tim's newfound maturity does not really gel with stealing $3,000 from an extremely unbalanced, gun-wielding maniac. I'm gonna blame the Brothers Riggins' dumb call on the fact that Tim was despondent cause Eric was yelling at him, and that Billy was despondent cause that cougar mom broke up with him (as well as motivated cause he needed $3,000), but I hope this storyline doesn't end up dominating the next nine episodes. That's a joke, but seriously. Let this one pass quietly, please guys! I don't want Riggins to die. He's definitely my favorite of the teen cast this year.
Tami's storyline was probably the least interesting cause it was the most predictable (Shelley was doomed to depart the minute Eric pulled a face at the 'new phone line' idea), but I thought Britton and Gilsig did a great job anyway. Tami and Shelley's relationship has been one of the biggest surprises of the season for me, especially how their conflict/love swung between nicely subtle tension to huge bombastic arguments in a totally believable way. Their farewell played out just like that - although Eric did most of the yelling this time around. The fact that Tami didn't get too mad at Eric suggested she was happy to see Shelley go, but she really served as a buffer for everyone - the family's gonna start bumping up against each other real soon, I predict, especially if Julie keeps acting out, or if life with the baby gets tougher (and you gotta think it's gonna). Jessalyn Gilsig was basically an unknown quantity to me before this, but she was one of many successful guest stars this show's had this year, and I'd like to see her pop up elsewhere. And return here sometime.
Finally, I'll touch on the football story, a rarity these days, and I always enjoy the games and greatly miss the more dominant presence they had last year. Last week, the rival team setting up shop seemed like a good story opportunity, but they basically wasted it by turning it into a series of boring stock moments. This week, it was the other way around. I liked Eric's rivalry with the other coach, and I liked their tense moments, and hell, I even liked that the coach went nuts and tackled Riggins. Yeah, that moment was a little outside of reality, but it was a pretty well-done moment anyway, and I can believe that a bigshot high school football coach at the end of his tether could go nuts for a second. But then they had to go and slip in that totally unnecessary "my wife has three months to live" thing at the end! It seemed the coach made that confession only to give us another powerful, dramatic scene and to totally over-justify a previous dramatic moment. I dunno, it bothered me.
That was the only big misstep of the week, though. Overall I think FNL's been steadily improving since the very shaky early episodes of this season, and the tone has been successfully and consistently re-established. What do we have, like five more episodes left? Hopefully now that there's literally no scripted material on television, people will start tuning in a little more and they'll like what they see. Right now, I definitely like what I see.