Ken Tucker
May 20, 2011 AT 12:00 PM EDT

It’s interesting to see where Friday Night Lights places its emphasis in its final hours, and the biggest surprise in this week’s episode, titled “Swerve,” was the prominent Julie-centric plot. I really thought we’d pretty much waved good-bye to that kid when she left for college, and her smooching-the-married-TA subplot seemed an almost literal kiss-off to a character that had outgrown the show.

But FNL has a way of making dramatic gold out of other shows’ tin cliches. After last week’s college showdown between Julie and TA-wife’s public slap-down, the hapless daughter returned home to feel guilty and sorry for herself. And when forced by her parents to go back to school, she swerved her little birthday present into a neighbor’s mailbox in a convincingly adolescence-addled attempt at forestalling the inevitable: Facing up to one’s responsibilities in life, a fundamental of not only Eric and Tami’s parenting philosophy, but of FNL‘s bedrock values.

Another plot-line I was not expecting: Vince facing an extortion attempt by a comrade of the fallen Calvin. At first, this felt a little sadistic, to both Vince and us — FNL reminding us that we should never forget that Vince Has Pulled Himself Up By His Bootstraps. But it turned out that the episode’s real paternal influence was more blunt and swift. Except for season two’s misbegotten murder story-line, FNL has rarely dealt with any violence more severe than a brisk clotheslining during a football game. So to see Vince dad deliver a brutally precise thumping to Vince’s bully, especially after the thug had threatened our precious Jess — well, I have to say, I cheered that beat-down shamelessly.

One of the things that keeps FNL fascinating for its fans, and what’s always prevented it from appealing to a wider audience, is that it rarely allows any of its main characters to enjoy a moment of success or triumph without also serving up a slice of humble pie. So it was with Coach’s appearance on the cover of Texas Football magazine, billed as “The Kingmaker” (and writing as a blogging critic with a vested interest in the printed page, hallelujah for the idea that everyone in town buys magazines!). Texas Football must be the most niche-market publication this side of Vermont Maple Syrup Quarterly, but this honor was undercut by a number of things. First, Eric is press-shy, so this was basically more of an embarrassment for him than an honor. Second, the team used it as a joke to kid him, at a moment when Coach wanted to chew out his team and instead had to acknowledge the joke. And third, the cover story probably went unread by the Taylor household, because everyone there was dealing with the Julie crisis. Why, Coach even came close to missing the start of a game, a true measure of catastrophe in Texas.

So who fired up the team? Billy, the rookie coach. I know that the show wanted to give Billy some face-time, but two seconds’ thought made this scenario unlikely — don’t you think the three other coaches, even the excitable Coach Stan, had more seniority to deliver a pep talk in Eric’s temporary absence? Well, we forgive this dramatic license, of course, because Billy opens the window to the Riggins household, which is becoming more complex and anarchic by the minute, thanks to Billy’s wife, Mindy. This was a stand-out hour for Mindy, who got to show her grateful side in thanking Becky for taking care of the Riggins’ baby while she wiggled for bar tips. (Quick shot of Becky eyeing Mindy’s mini-mountain of greenbacks — uh-oh, is the beauty contestant headed for life as a stripper?) Mindy also had a great scene urging Becky to forget Tim and go for it with the increasingly perpetually-drunken Luke (“You’re both hot and you both need to get laid” — how sweetly maternal is our Mindy!).

All this, plus a minimum of come-from-behind football-victory time-wasting. “Swerve” was a fine Friday Night Lights outing. Now if we can only get a quick scene of Julie rebuilding that mailbox she hit and heading back to college, all will be well.

Twitter: @kentucker

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