By Ken Tucker
Updated October 27, 2007 at 06:38 PM EDT

Whatever happened to “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”? The slogan of our beloved Dillon Panthers has been turned, in recent weeks, into clouded eyes (this week’s Jason-gets-drunk-in-Mexico excursion), broken hearts (Julie, that rebellious teen, realizes the older guy she’s pining for could care less about her), and can’t win (Coach Taylor gets his high-school job back, but has to feel guilty about having a part in ousting the mean new coach).

Don’t get me wrong — I’m a big fan of feel-bad TV. And I’m loving the way Tim Riggins is turning into the most soulful character in the show. It’s just that Friday Night Lights used to show some range; the only time I had a laugh during last night’s episode was when Lyla went to the prison to proselytize and hadn’t come prepared to endure either the inevitable catcalls from inmates or their most elementary religious questions. Her character never used to be plain stupid. And do any of you think that neat coincidence — the prisoner fresh out on parole who gives her the opportunity to make good on her professions of trust — is going to turn out well? And by well, I mean interesting. I’m already tired of this dead-eyed ex-con who’s bound to cause either trouble or heartache for Lyla.

This Friday night, we got two semi-resolutions to major plot-points, neither of them satisfying as drama. The police fished that dead body out of the water, and when Tyra was called down to the police station, didn’t you sense in advance that nothing of consequence was going to happen? Unless Landry’s cop-pop found the grandfather’s lost watch near the corpse, that whole fraught subplot has just evaporated. Sure, I’m glad it’s more or less over — it was a drag — but the method of execution left something (subtlety, shades of character) to be desired.

And, boy, I was really looking forward to a big showdown between Coaches Taylor and McGregor — Kyle Chandler and Chris Mulkey are two terrific actors you really want to see go toe-to-toe and in-your-face. Instead, the fired McGregor just shows up at Taylor’s house and makes him feel like a heel for going along with Buddy Garrity’s plan to reinstall Taylor. We don’t want Taylor/Chandler looking like a whipped dog.

Here’s the thing about Friday Night Lights so far this season: You have to pour everything you know and love about these characters from last season into these hollow versions of the same characters this season, because the show has become all about its melodramatic subplots, and not about people. Remember when we could happily spend whole segments just watching Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton debate, argue, make up, and crack each other up? Remember when a high point of an FNL hour was overhearing Landry and Matt (Matt Saracen! How much we miss you and your shy, halting talk this season!) bicker and joke about silly things? No one behind the scenes is writing that kind of dialogue anymore, or letting enough time play out in any given scene for us to become emotionally reinvested with these people.

We all know the kind of ratings pressure Friday Night Lights is under, and we appreciate that the show is trying to hook new viewers by taking the characters off the field and into new territory. (Mexico and stem-cells extracted from sharks — now that sure as heck is new!) But it ain’t the Friday Night Lights most of got hooked on. As Buddy Garrity put it, there’s a hitch in its git-along. I’ll keep watching, fanning the flames of hope that, now that Eric Taylor’s back in town, he can light a spark under everyone, on the team and at home. (In the latter area, I’d start by making that brat Julie hold her baby sister in her arms for a few minutes a day, and do the dishes and the wash for her mom before she gets her driver’s license.) We want clearer eyes, fuller hearts on this show — then, even when someone loses, they’ll win in our eyes and hearts.