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'Friday Night Lights' season premiere: 'Expectations' exceeded

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“I do not like the way this is starting out,” said Coach Eric Taylor as Friday Night Lights began its final-season run on NBC. Make that one of him.

The fifth and final season premiere was energetic with the changes we knew were coming. It’s August, and daughter Julie bustled around getting ready to head off to college. Brother Billy visited Tim Riggins in jail, a quick scene that suggested two developments: Billy has become a more responsible fellow, if only out of guilt at letting Tim take the fall for the chop-shop scheme last season, and Tim has become hollow-eyed and despairing — pretty wrenching, since the Tim we love is a smirking, lovable wise guy. At East Dillon, Tami is once again a guidance counselor, overseen by a principal who was suddenly exhibiting signs of friendliness, a far cry from the sourpuss he was last season. And Becky is living with her mean ol’ stepmom-with-squalling-baby, as her father drives his rig into the sunset, eager to get away from a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Tobacco Road.

Meanwhile, Coach was not happy with the way the season is starting out because the East Dillon tems will play its first game in three days and the guys lack something, a receiver who can catch what Vince is throwing. Coach tried to recruit a “hippie” basketball player named Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon, who’s been on True Blood and 90210, among other shows). In an uncharacteristic move, Coach asked Vince and Luke to help him get Hastings to suit up. Coach, a control freak beneath that armor of honor and boyish charm, usually likes to do that sort of work himself, but it gave the show an excuse to have Luke throw a party at his farm while his parents were away (huh? who’s slopping the pigs while Luke’s at practice?). There, Hastings told us he was a “free spirit” but he was charmed into joining not only by Luke and Vince, but Vince urged Jess to apply her female charms to Hastings, which would have been creepy were we not such Vince-and-Jess fans.

That party was, unfortunately for Landry, the same night as the final concert by Crucifictorus before Landry heads off to Rice. I loved that he made up fliers referring to the gig as “The Last Waltz,” and that the band played its charming emo-grunge swan song to a mere handful of enthusiasts. These included Julie, and later, she and Landry shared a nice little scene at The Alamo Freeze, where they reminisced about all the ice cream and french fries they’d coaxed out of Matt when he worked there. Ah. Matt — in Chicago living the bohemian artist’s life! (Nostalgia was heavy in the air this night. Eric waited up for Julie so they could play a final game of Ping-Pong.)

With Tim (who has three more months in the clink with time off for good behavior), Landry, and Julie literally out of the picture, FNL is going to really have to rev up its story lines for Vince, Jess, Luke, and now Hastings. The show has to make Becky more than a weepy victim of her own life. Seeing Billy Riggins beg Coach for a job and then watching him during practice, I had a small fear that he’s just going to be Stan 2.0 — a chatty bumbler.

Now more than ever, the marriage of Eric and Tami will be a necessary focus for longtime fans, which is just fine — Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are always terrific. But I’m not so sure I’m looking forward to another season of their professional lives: FNL and the Lions have gone to the come-from-behind victories or sodden defeats too many times already, and having Tami counsel troubled students — well, these kids had better be fascinating cases lest that become repetitive. I’m optimistic: It sounds as though there’s at least one student whom all the teachers agree is an “epic” headache.

Regarding the closing scene: I simply could not believe that the Tami we know and love would not have insisted on driving with Julie to make sure her dorm room was comfy, and to size up her daughter’s roommate. But Julie driving off into the future as Eric and Tami stayed behind to anchor the show did make for a nice scene of misty finality. The episode was titled “Expectations,” and mine are high for the new season.

Did you watch? How are you feeling about Friday Night Lights ending its run?

Follow: @kentucker

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