Season 4 of Friday Night Lights represents one of the ballsiest moves in television history. Peter Berg moved Coach Taylor to an entirely new school, in the process dropping much of the old cast, adding several major new characters, and drastically increasing the number of African-American characters. And it works. Man, does it work! Season 4 is arguably the finest season of FNL (I rank it second).
Season 4 sees Coach Taylor starting over at the newly created (or recreated) East Dillon. East Dillon is distinctly lacking in funds, in fan support, and in talent. FNL isn’t directly based on Buzz Bissinger’s book in the same way that the movie is, but it frequently mines the book in more subtle ways. And the entire East Dillon-West Dillon storyline is rooted in the real history between Permian High and Odessa High.
Just as in the show, redistricting was driven not by “curriculum, or how minorities would fare in schools that had always been predominately white.” It was driven by football. The FNL version rings a little false, though, because of FNL’s peculiar erasure of West Texas’ Hispanic population. Ector County today is over 50% Hispanic. Even in 1998 when Bissinger followed the Permian Panthers, the Hispanic population was already substantial. The zigs and zags, then, between the Permian High and Odessa High districts were designed “to ensure Permian a greater number of black running backs down the road than its rival” while minimizing the Mexican-American students sent to Permian.
They replaced one of the four high schools in my home county with a new, larger high school just as I was to begin (now, with the reshuffling) middle school. The larger school drew not just from the old school but also from what had been feeder elementary schools for each of the other three high schools. I spent my entire life growing up thinking I would go to one high school, the high school my dad went to. In a small town, that means something. My elementary school and community got split down the middle. I identified with the students pulled from the classroom to be sent to another school they didn’t want to go to. But I guess farm boys weren’t worth fighting over: the county took a more happy-go-lucky approach and I wound up starting at my assigned school, switching to the school I always thought I’d go to, and then switching back to my assigned school.
Long aside notwithstanding, Coach Taylor does not find the cupboard entirely bare, at least after a little searching. First, he gets a running back after Buddy blows the whistle on the old mailbox-in-an-empty-field scheme (presaging a larger change of his booster allegiance). Then he gets a quarterback courtesy of the county sheriff’s office and a second chance program. Luke Cafferty and Vince Howard become major characters, but it is Vince Howard who becomes the new (non-Taylor) core of the show, taking Matt Saracen’s place as a character but far exceeding him.
Two things drive season 4. One is Coach Taylor’s attempts to build a football program from scratch. The other is the broader tension between the (richer, whiter) west and (poorer, blacker) east side of town. One of the reasons why the season is so satisfying is the way the two come together at the end.
5 of 5 Stars.
You can find all of my Friday Night Lights Friday posts here.