By Ken Tucker
Updated May 08, 2010 at 12:09 PM EDT
  • TV Show
  • NBC

The fourth season of Friday Night Lights finally arrived on NBC last night. Man, what a dust bowl that new East Dillon High football field was. You could almost feel the

grit getting into the eyes of Kyle Chandler’s Coach Eric Taylor, and that red cap sat lumpily upon his head. Since the re-districting of Dillon and his loss of the lead-coach position at (west) Dillon, Eric has his work cut out for him. Dusty, tedious work: building a new team.

That team will include Vince (Michael B. Jordan), a new-character tough kid whom the police brought to Eric at the start of the hour, hoping Coach would take the kid on as part of the “Cops ‘N’ Jocks,” second-chance program for minor-offenders. It was impossible to tell what Victor is like from the premiere, which required him to limit his reactions to sullen and wary, as who would not be, in his position — a black youth handed over to a white coach who doesn’t even understand him when he tells Coach the only football he’s played is the Madden video game.

The most rewarding scenes, as directed with crisp briskness by Peter Berg, were those that caught us up with key characters:

• Tim Riggins has had it with college — great moment when he tossed his textbooks out the window of his roaring pick-up truck, yes?

• Matt is having his dreams of being an artist dashed by a provincial art teacher who couldn’t care less that he’d been accepted to the Chicago Institute of Art. Plus, he’s delivering “Panther Pizza” door-to-door.

• J.D. McCoy, the callow wuss last season, has become an appalling smuggie who condescended to Matt and came on to Julie. Good fight material here. Or as Landry (the always-terrific Jesse Plemons) referred to it, Matt’s “Get thee behind me, Satan” even-temper has ignite, the sooner the better. And it’s the tiny moments that count on FNL, as usual: When J.D. said to delivery-boy Matt, “Weren’t cinnamon sticks supposed to come with this?” Matt’s drop-dead monotone, “No,” was cut-the-crap coooold. Followed by, “Thanks for the tip.” Yay, Matt.

• Tami is feeling the heat as the school official who’s the public face of the unpopular Dillon re-districting. But Tami is also wily, tough Tami: It was clever the way she turned the Panthers coin-toss into a small act of revenge against Joe McCoy (hello, D.W. Moffett, king of the witty smirk!). And speaking Joe McCoy, did you catch how depressed and dismayed Joe’s former champion, the great Buddy Garrity (welcome back, Brad Leland!) looked sitting in the coach’s locker room? Trouble’s a-brewin’ there…

• Do you think Tim Riggins’ new girlfriend will end up being the daughter of the bartender he bedded last night? Actress Madison Burge certainly seems to be set up to become the new Adrianne Palicki. Nothing against this new gal, but I miss Tyra.

• I always admire the way FNL handles the fights Tim has with his brother Billy. And the fact that Billy is now under pressure to become a responsible grown-up — painting that baby’s room puke-yellow for his impending arrival was a very nice detail — is the latest way for Tim to get the message he’s received so many times and from so many people in his life: “There’s no room for you here.”

• Coach’s locker-room explosion — “There’s no fighting on my field… There’s you shuttin’ up, and me talkin’!” — was Eric not merely venting at the immature behavior of his team. It was Eric Taylor exploding at the lousy injustice that has put him in this position at this point in his career.

And if there’s one thing that Friday Night Lights portrays brilliantly, it’s the small injustices that pile up only to become a lifetime of failure, if one is not very tough and very resourceful. This theme is also one big reason why FNL isn’t a ratings hit, and why Crucifictorious isn’t a hit indie band in Austin: There are an awful lot of people across America who don’t want to hear downbeat messages after working a long, hard week. That’s why God created crap like Wife Swap.

So, bottom line: Are you engaged by Coach Taylor’s challenge to turn the East Dillon stragglers into guys who can complete the phrase, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”? Did you think the Dillon Lions’ forfeited first game was an exciting bit of realism, or a dramatic cop-out?

Or are you leery about having to follow two different teams plus all the FNL subplots? Is that going to stretch our favorite sports show too thin?

Comment away, please.

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Friday Night Lights

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