By Ken Tucker
Updated August 06, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Friday Night Lights wrapped up its fourth season a big winner: It succeeded in turning the East Dillon Lions into a team to root for, tying up story lines for some fan-favorite characters, and introducing key personalities that will carry the series into its next season. And, oh yeah: Somebody kicked a 46-yard field goal to win the big game!

The Riggins brothers’ car stripping scheme

played out as I feared it would. At the start of the hour, we saw Tim and Billy meeting with a lawyer who thought he could cut them a deal that would result in a “one-to-five year” sentence for each. By the end of the night, you knew that Tim was going to take the fall for this, solo — he couldn’t bear for his newborn nephew to have a jailbird dad. I sorta hated this, but on the level that one “hates” anything about FNL, which is to say, the characters are so vivid and authentic, you get angry with them for making bad decisions. As drama, however, it played out beautifully, almost tragically: Tim, who had finally bought that parcel of land that would let him roam free, will leave to do time in the pen (and presumably, Taylor Kitsch will leave the series).

The hour had a lot to get through: subplots to resolve and an extended-family Thanksgiving dinner at the Taylors’ house, the highlight was which was (to Tami’s chagrin) Buddy Garrity’s deep-fried turkey. It says a huge amount about Brad Leland’s presence in this series that, while he was pushed to the show’s edges this season, Buddy still looms like a big, goofy, lovable presence. Next season,

I’d like him and Steve Harris to team up somehow — I can’t see Harris’ taciturn character co-hosting Buddy’s radio show, but I could see Buddy as a BBQ cook, couldn’t you?

Speaking of Tami’s chagrin, she couldn’t muster enough of it to make an apology to that chicken-livered school board and the witch-hunting parents, so she volunteered to become a guidance counselor again… but at East Dillon. This reunites her with Eric at work, always a good arena for these characters to play in, and the “Connie Britton Deserves An Emmy” campaign got another boost this evening.

Onward: How about that very cunningly staged scene in which Julie knocks on the door of Matt’s grandmother only to see Matt? (It was, in fact, a big night for people showing up on other people’s doorsteps to emote: Tim did it with Becky and later with Billy; Jess did it with Vince and his mom). Matt is such a lunkhead, he thought Julie would be happy to see him unexpectedly home from Chicago. The very nice parallel work here was to have Landry also irritated with Matt for never calling, never “texting.”

In fact, this turned out to be the surprise

Great Landry Episode: Jesse Plemons played terrific scenes breaking up with Jess, speaking bitterly to Vince, squabbling with Matt, and struggling as the team’s place-kicker. In a more just world, Plemons would be a best-supporting-actor nominee.

As for the climactic Panthers-Lions showdown, I was happy it turned into a fairy tale win for the Lions. I know it strained credulity, I know it was all too obvious that Coach would let poor ol’ wounded Luke play at a key moment, and I know that Landry’s kick was well-neigh impossible for a kid of his abilities. Bottom line: the Lions and the show needed a rousing, enthusiastic ending, and it worked.

And so we come to the end of the season, with a fade-out on Matt’s face as he flies home to Chicago. Seeing that close-up of Zach Gilford gave me pause: If there’s one thing this hour didn’t do, it was to raise the stakes for new characters such as Vince or Jess or anyone else on the Lions team. But I’m sure the producers will remedy this as soon as the fifth season commences. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that when we speak of Friday Night Lights and its ratings-cursed, quality-blessed existence, all things come to those who wait.

Random notes:

Best line of the night Matt to Julie: “The area I live in is called Greektown. There’s a lotta, like Greek people there.”

Best exchange of the night Matt to Julie: “This is a special spot.” Julie to Matt: “Why? Because you deflowered me here?” Bonus points for using the word “deflowered.” Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of TV shows trying to sneak in racier words like “douche,” they started using old-fashioned words like “bounder” and “gadzooks”?

Best emotional moment Vince telling Coach Eric, referring to victory, “I don’t think I’m the one who can give it to you.” Believe me, Michael B. Jordan, you were victorious as an actor in that scene.

What did you think of this season overall?

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