With the Dillon High School graduates now entering the real world, a new group of student-athletes have arrived in this football crazy Texas town. Like a team with an influx of freshmen, the fourth season of “Friday Night Lights” arrives at a transitional juncture. Series, returning on satcaster DirecTV but relegated to summer 2010 duty on NBC, finished last year with what could easily have been a series-ending storyline and now faces the additional challenge of maintaining a high level of quality despite showrunner Jason Katims splitting exec producer duties between this and the Peacock’s “Parenthood.”
Since the pilot, Katims has been the creative force of “FNL,” and first episode signals he still has lots of original storylines to be mined. Most notable is the change of scenery for Coach Eric Taylor (the always stellar Kyle Chandler), who, despite winning a state title, has been forced out of his old job and reassigned to take over as coach of dilapidated rival East Dillon.
Many of his players — a majority are minorities, with the school in a depressed part of town that has far fewer acoutrements than Dillon High — are unwilling to put in the effort needed to become a well-rounded team, and Taylor is clearly starting from scratch.
Just how much Katims and his writers will include former Panthers quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) on upcoming episodes remains to be seen. Both are still meandering in Dillon post-graduation — Riggins discovers he and higher education aren’t a good fit — and having Saracen deliver pizzas after turning down a college scholarship is almost too sad to ponder.
Storylines on those two feel a bit played out, while new characters are intriguing and help the show remain vibrant. Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan) is one step away from being locked up in juvenile detention before Coach Taylor gives him an opportunity to get off the streets and reinvent himself on the field.
Show’s minscule budget has turned into one of its greatest assets, using real-life Austin locales and citizens to bring an authenticity that only adds to the drama.
One doesn’t have to be a soothsayer to figure out the season is heading toward a showdown between Dillon and East Dillon. Yet, what has made “FNL” so riveting over its run is that while the town is football obsessed, nothing that happens between the goalposts is as compelling as the journey before the lights go on.