Cram Session

Catching up on the first three seasons of 'Friday Night Lights'

If you've never watched Friday Night Lights before, the fourth season premiere on May 7 isn't a terrible place to jump in: A lot of the series' high school-aged characters have graduated and been gradually cycled out of the show, and the reassignment of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) to East Dillon High necessarily means new faces.

Still, there's a lot of backstory to be ingested in the first three seasons of the Best Show on Television You're Not Watching (But Should Be) – a phrase so oft-repeated surely it's trademarked by now. You've got a week to binge-watch the first, second, and third seasons; barring that, you can use our cheat sheet to the essential action and must-see episodes.

Season 1

Coach Taylor and family feel the pressure –and hysteria – of Dillon's football fans... Rising star Jason Street's college quarterback dreams are shattered after a game injury... Replacement quarterback Matt Saracen woos Coach Taylor's daughter Julie... Street's girlfriend Lyla Garrity and best friend, Tim Riggins, share guilt, bedsheets... Street finds a new community in quad rugby... Riggins sexes up the single mom next door... Tami Taylor becomes a guidance counselor at Dillon High... Coach takes the Panthers to the state championships... Coach is offered his dream job coaching college football, but Tami –surprise, she's pregnant! –opts to stay in Dillon while Coach commutes.

1.1: "Pilot"

Written and directed by Peter Berg

The show's kickoff, which first aired in fall of 2006, introduces Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) on the eve of his anticipated debut as head high school football coach in the tiny town of Dillon, Texas, where football is king and a single loss signals Coach's head on a platter. Here, we meet all the major players, both on-field, like the heavily recruited running back Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) and sexy-drunk fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch),and off-field, including Coach's wife, Tami (Connie Britton).

While FNL does a fine job of balancing action on the gridiron with nuanced character drama, here, it's the in-game spinal cord injury of straight-arrow starting quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) that rocks everyone's lives. Street's sudden, devastating paraplegia will define the emotional timbre of the show (a no-punches-pulled kind of inspiring) and the individual arcs of the still-developing young characters.

MVP: Chandler and Britton: As the two halves of what may be TV's most beloved marriage, they convey in this very first episode the trust and respect, shorthand communication, and occasional short tempers of long-marrieds.

1.20: "Mud Bowl"

Written by Elizabeth Heldens and David Hudgins; directed by David Boyd

This episode, in which Coach Taylor builds from scratch a new field in an abandoned cow pasture, is a fine example of how the show straddles extreme highs and lows. The signature piece of the episode is its provocative, deeply uncomfortable cross-cutting between the brute force on the football field and the attempted rape of Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) in the Alamo Freeze parking lot.

MVP: Palicki: In lesser hands, Tyra would begin and end as a "town tramp" cliché, but Palicki makes her a mouthy, profane, and full-bodied character.

Season 2

The Taylor team expands to four with newborn Gracie... Coach Taylor gives up the TMU job and returns home to Dillon and the Panthers... Julie goes through a brat phase, lashing out at her parents and breaking up with boyfriend Matt... Lyla finds God... Tim finds more beer... Study buddies Landry and Tyra circle and sniff (and dump a dead body)... Smash loses his scholarship... Jason Street becomes a dad.

2.2: "Bad Ideas"

Written by Elizabeth Heldens; directed by Jeffrey Reiner

Head booster and consummate car salesman Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) continues his spiraling descent post-marriage dissolution, and Tyra draws closer to the geeky, besotted Landry (Jesse Plemons) after they narrowly dodge jumping the shark – um, we mean after Landry murders Tyra's attempted rapist and the two dispose of the body. Meanwhile, new mom Tami struggles to manage maternity leave and rebellious daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) while Coach Eric commutes from Austin, where he's taken an assistant coach position at the university (Texas Methodist University, standing in for UT).

MVP: Britton: Her sweaty, fraid-nerves-suffering Tami owns this episode.

2.14: "Leave No One Behind"

Written by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas; directed by Dean White

Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the soft-spoken art student who became the unlikely starting quarterback after Street's injury, spectacularly flames out in this episode. Still smarting from his breakup with Julie and then a short-lived affair with his grandmother's hot Guatemalan live-in caretaker (not nearly as tabloid-tawdry as it reads), Matt talks back to Coach, goes strip-clubbing with Riggins, neglects his dear grandma, and generally makes a mess of things. Smash, on the other hand, tries to put the pieces back together when a widely publicized dustup with some racist kids across town results in a three-game suspension and the rescinding of his football scholarship to TMU.

MVP: Gilford and Charles: They eloquently embody boys buckling under the pressure of adult responsibilities.

Season 3

Tami becomes Dillon High principal... Freshman phenom J.D. McCoy ousts Matt Saracen as QB1... Street worries about how to provide for his new family... Matt reconnects with the mom who abandoned him... Matt and Julie get back together... Buddy Garrity burns through Lyla's college savings, and she moves in with boyfriend Tim Riggins... Tim, Lyla, Matt, and Tyra prepare for college... Tyra and Landry = together forever (we hope)... J.D. McCoy chokes at the state playoffs... Matt decides to forgo college to take care of his grandmother... McCoy's dad gets Coach Taylor sacked.

3.8: "New York, New York"

Written by Kerry Ehrin; directed by Jeffrey Reiner

After Smash's college departure in "Hello, Goodbye," Jason Street is the next major character to bid adieu as he follows his dream of becoming a sports agent in New York – and follows his baby mama to neighboring New Jersey. Best friend Tim Riggins makes the trip with him, but the show wisely underplays the two-hicks-in-the-city angle for instead a heartfelt evocation of Jason's never-wavering drive to "get it done" – be it a quarterback pass, a house renovation, a risky new career path (and this, it must be said, is the show's greatest strength – establishing and deepening the inner character development of these teenagers transitioning into adulthood). Meanwhile, Matt Saracen, displaced as QB1 by freshman phenom J.D. McCoy, makes the switch to fullback and finally shakes persona non grata status in the Taylor household (after Coach walked in on a reunited – and post-coital – Julie and Matt – yikes!)

MVP: Porter and Kitsch: Their through-thick-and-thin friendship personifies FNL's twin themes of fraternity and state pride. "Texas forever," indeed.

3.9: "Game of the Week"

Written by David Hudgins; directed by Michael Waxman

No huge fireworks in this episode – Tami laments an upcoming birthday, Tyra runs off with her rodeo-circuit boyfriend only to discover he's a bully, Eric deals with ravenous news crews when the playoff game gets picked for national broadcast – just an exemplary example of FNL's masterful blending of comedy and drama. This episode also marks the long-awaited return of Coach's rallying cry – "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!"; as predictable as Pavlov's dog, our hearts immediately catch in our throats.

MVP: NBC: There's some meta-mind-bending product placement when NBC crews show up in Dillon – especially cheeky considering it's DirecTV's cash injection keeping FNL alive.

Friday Night Lights' fourth season premieres on NBC on Friday, May 7, at 7pm.

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Friday Night Lights, Connie Britton, Kyle Chandler, Taylor Kitsch, Gaius Charles, Aimee Teegarden, Jason Porter, Adrianne Palicki, Jesse Plemons, Brad Leland, Zach Gilford, Peter Berg, Elizabeth Heldens, David Hudgins, David Boyd, Jeffrey Reiner, Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, Dean White, Kerry Ehrin, Michael Waxman

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