TV Review: 'Friday Night Lights' isn't just about the gridiron
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You don't have to love football to enjoy NBC's "Friday Night Lights," one of the fall's brightest new dramas. Even in a TV season filled with plenty of quality shows, "Lights" and NBC's "Heroes" compete for superlatives above all others, even the more heavily promoted "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, NBC.
Starring: Kyle Chandler.
Among a certain set of obsessive TV-philes (myself included), "Friday Night Lights," airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m., may bring to mind the 1993 NBC series "Against the Grain," which starred a pre-stardom Ben Affleck as a football player in a small Texas town. I loved "Grain" and thought NBC didn't give it enough of a chance at the time, but "Lights" is a more sophisticated series.
Based on the movie, which was based on the H.G. Bissinger book of the same name, "Lights" explores not only family, friends and football, but the effect the sport has on the fictional town of Dillon, Texas.
Kyle Chandler ("Homefront," "Early Edition"), often cast as earnest, decent characters, plays the new coach of the town high school's football team, the Dillon Panthers. The first two episodes show the pressure he's under to coach the team to a winning season and the state championship. Everyone -- from the mayor to the owner of a car dealership -- has advice on how the coach should do his job.
His wife (Connie Britton, reprising her role from the feature film) has her own concerns, namely leading as normal a life as possible when you're married to the town's biggest celebrity.
Written and directed by Peter Berg, who also directed the big-screen "Lights," the first two episodes introduce a welcome batch of newcomers as the students. They include polite quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter); volatile fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who clashes with teammate "Smash" (Gaius Charles); backup quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and his best friend, Landry (Jesse Plemons).
Berg directs the pilot in a jittery style that makes the show feel like you're watching a documentary. It's a realistic touch that's also mirrored in the script, which is filled with subtle grace notes that highlight how football-crazy this town is. (The pilot's one reminder that viewers have tuned to a fictional TV show is a live news truck with the world's most fake-looking equipment on its roof.)
Scenes at the football game are rough and violent, filmed in a close-up, visceral style that makes NFL games on TV appear tame by comparison. The pilot's plot, though a typical sports story in some respects, still managed to stir up in this viewer's emotions of empathy for the players and fervent hope for victories for the nice-guy QBs, both on and off the field.
Chandler stars in a role that fits like a glove. He's the understanding coach, the stand-in father figure for a player whose father is in Iraq, a dependable mentor who tells an injured player, "You are a good man," in a way that's believable but not sticky-sweet.
At a July press conference, Berg said he returned to the football field after the "Lights" movie because in the film he was limited in telling all the stories Bissinger, Berg's cousin, covered in his book. So he's back with the series, exploring myriad topics, including racism, education, parent-child relationships and the culture of small-town high school athletics.
Show runner Jason Katims, who knows a thing or two about teen drama from stints on "My So-Called Life," "Roswell" and "Boston Public," said he was drawn to Berg's creation for the same reason I found myself wrapped up in the "Lights" story.
"I felt like this was a world. This was a culture," Katims said at an NBC press conference in July. "This was a place that I wanted to be, and it really went beyond being just about football and about sports. ... You felt like you were dropped into this real small town in Texas. The show just has an authenticity and a reality that draws you in. It has this sense of community that I think people yearn for."
Sure, Katims is paid to pump the show, but he's absolutely right about what should draw viewers to "Lights" and, with any luck, keep them coming back every week.
First Published October 1, 2006 12:00 am