As Friday Night Lights closes out its first season, one thing becomes clear about the ethos of the show -- it's half about sincere, realistic interactions and reactions between people that feels almost slice of life in keeping with the faux-documentary shooting and direction of the series, and it's half about all-too-convenient, soap opera-like twists and turns with artificial-if-grand speeches and big dramatic moments that pile up in an unrealistic fashion. The Season 1 finale is definitely representative of both the yin and the yang of the series' soul.
On the one hand, you have one of the most cliche, drama-increasing plot twists imaginable -- the last minute unexpected pregnancy. Tami's unplanned pregnancy throws yet another monkey wrench into the Taylors' decision-making process as the family tries to decide whether to go to Austin, stay in Dillon, or try to have it both ways. It's the kind of development you'd have in a late season episode of Seventh Heaven when the folks behind the show are out of ideas and trying to keep up the stake. From a pure plot standpoint, it's a hacky choice that had me rolling my eyes.
But the performances and the writing of the individual moments in the wake of that storyline were one of the best parts of the episode. Tami's conversation with Corinna about how this was something that the Taylors had given up on, but it complicates things and so there's a certain heaven and hell quality to this news. Tami and Corinna each give some of the best performances on the show, and letting the two mothers play off of one another was a welcome development.
In the same vein, it's a huge cliche to have the pregnant wife wrestle with when and how to tell her husband that she's pregnant, especially when he's already stressed by other things and she's worried as to how he'll react. And yet, the moment between Coach and Tami on the balcony, where Coach is doubting himself and dealing with the fact that the team he's trying to lead to a state championship hates him for leaving and he's trying to balance his personal and professional responsibilities, and yet he exalts at the news that he's going to be a father once more, is amazing for how heartfelt and earnest it is. Coach's initial disbelief, and then clear, perfectly-played joy is the absolute peak of the episode, and it's a testament to how real and true the relationship between the husband and wife feels on the show.
The same goes for their conversation after the game. It's understandable that after the rush of a win, and the news that a baby is on the way, Coach would be more motivated to stay in Dillon, to try to put his family and his commitment to those kids first. And it's equally understandable that as much as she wants her husband around, Tami wouldn't want her or her child to be the cause of Coach not getting to live out his dreams or carry any resentment on that front. The conflict--will Coach stay or go--is another page out of the cheesy drama playbook, but the exchange between the two feels so true-to-life and so genuine that it smooths over the rougher edges of the story.
The same goes for the big emotional conflict of the episode -- the complication of the news breaking that Coach is headed for TMU, and the understandable resentment from the players, Matt in particular (who is already struggling with abandonment issues), that comes with it. It makes it harder for Coach to get the Panthers ready to play; it makes it harder for the players and boosters to trust him, and it makes it harder for him to face himself in the mirror. I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but it's a fairly stock conflict, especially in sports movie terms. But Coach's speech about each of them having dreams too, and that this is his, the moment where he's defensive with Buddy and Buddy simply says he's going to miss him, and the moment Coach and Matt share at the bar, all make it worth more than the storyline seems on paper.
Oh yeah, and the Panthers win state. While it's a nice moment, this is by far the most cliched part of the episode. The team goes down by nearly four touchdowns at the half, the Coach gives a big inspiring speech at halftime, and thanks to a miracle play in the closing seconds that coincidentally involves all of the main characters on the team, the good guys complete their come back. It's pretty traditional sports movie stuff, and while the speech itself works as a nice encapsulation of the season--a story about how the town and the team were counted out and folks on and off the field pulled together to succeed inside and outside the lines--it's also not particularly subtle about it. In some ways, this was the inevitable end to the story of Coach Taylor's first year, but that inevitability seemed to win out over the interesting wrinkles that let the other hokier parts of the episode rise above it.
That same clash and balance comes through in the resolution to the story with Tyra and Lyla. Their big argument with Lyla's busted car is pure OC-level melodrama. Again, much of the limitations of this story come from Minka Kelly's limited range, and the fact that it's just hard to buy too much emotion, real or otherwise, coming from her. But the scene at least tries to convey the contrast between the good girl and the bad girl, and the ways in which they've changed and grown over the year. That said, the way that Tyra is immediately forgiving once she realizes that Lyla has suffered too in the wake of her perfect family and perfect boyfriend and perfect life falling apart is a little too neat.
What isn't neat, what's entertainingly messy, is Landry driving Tyra, Lyla, the Colettes, and Matt's Grandmother to Dallas. Maybe it veers a little too much into gender stereotypes, but the humor of Landry's imagined romantic journey with his paramour descending into an estrogen-fueled caravan that just keeps picking up more hitchikers who talk about their menstral cycle was a blast. Again, the show doubles down on the amusing realism of people clowning around with one another on a road trip.
There are other grace notes here and there with varying levels of success. Riggins passing on tickets "for Beau" is a thankfully brief coda to that story which inevitably will have more cheesy miles to go. Jason Street gets to coach and announce that he's come full circle (thank you, by the way, we couldn't have understood that without him saying it) and get some taste of the football success he was supposed to enjoy. And there's even a hook for next season for Smash, as Voodoo tells him to come to West Cambria where it's promised that he can enjoy the things that have been denied him and his family in Dillon so far: a nice place to live and respect.
And there's a broader hook for whether Coach will, after all the talk and all the possibilities, decide to stay in Dillon, accept the job at TMU, or try to split the difference somehow. The big emotional lever of the episode is his relationship with his players. Is he betraying them, or just doing what anyone would do in this situation, or both? Does winning state wipe away his debt to this team and this town? In keeping with the heart of the show, the moment where he walks into the team room and the assembled players clap for him is corny as all get out, but the looks on the faces of Coach and his players tell the story better than the writing ever could. The one feels false and calculated, and the other feels earnest and earned. Through season one, this show has not reached greatness, but when it leans into the latter rather than settling for the former, it comes damn close.