NBC recently made the gutsy decision to renew this fall the superb but little-watched Friday Night Lights, its rookie drama about high school football in Texas. In a season marked by quick exits for highly promoted serial dramas with big stars — notably Fox's Drive, ABC's The Nine and NBC's own Kidnapped, all of which were quality shows -- this is a remarkable event.
The renewal is especially noteworthy because, in its own laid-back way, Friday Night Lights is one of the most politically incorrect shows on television. Maybe 24 hero Jack Bauer drew all the fire from the ACLU. But whatever the reason, the usual suspects failed to object to a show featuring prayer at school events, manliness as a good thing and even the idea that striving for excellence is a better way to mend race relations than political protests.
But Friday Night Lights is not just TV's Rookie of the Year, it should be considered an MVP candidate, as it was hands down the best drama on a traditional broadcast network. As great dramatic TV increasingly moves to both basic cable (The Shield, Battlestar Galactica, and Rescue Me) and pay cable (Sleeper Cell, The Sopranos, Dexter and The Wire) FNL was one of the few standouts on a traditional network whose story developed with the richness and depth of a good novel.
While FNL owes its inspiration to the book and movie of the same name, viewers can liken it to a 22-hour football version of Hoosiers. It is consistently as good as that classic basketball film, arguably one of the greatest sports movies of all time. Like The Wire, FNL is filled with superb performances by actors you have never seen before, playing more than a dozen fully realized characters. Probably the biggest names are Kyle Chandler of Early Edition as coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton of Spin City as his wife, Tami.
What sets FNL apart from the pack is its sense of place. Not just the sun-baked, hardscrabble vistas of central Texas but the ways in which producer Peter Berg keeps it focused on ordinary American lives. People in Dillon, Texas, go to church, work boring jobs and care more about who will win the state football title than who has control of Congress. Just like real people.
The writers of Friday Night Lights understand that football is about fathers and sons. First-year coach Eric Taylor has only one daughter, but is a surrogate father to dozens of Central Texas's roughest, toughest young men, including two whose lives have taken unexpected directions.
FNL centers its story on two quarterbacks: Jason Street (Scott Porter) and Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). Street, the All-American boy, is recruited to Notre Dame and planning his future with the cheerleader daughter of the town's biggest car dealer and football booster. Saracen, is the everyman backup who has never taken a snap, and is barely part of the football culture, hanging out with his brainy best friend (Jesse Plemmons) when not caring for his grandmother (Louanne Stephens).
In the first game of what is supposed to be the Panther's state championship season, Street is paralyzed from the waist down. Suddenly, Street's only concern is rebuilding some semblance of a life, while the weight of the town's hopes and dreams are placed on the not nearly as broad shoulders of Saracen.
But Matt Saracen is used to responsibility. His father is a career soldier serving in Iraq, while Matt has been taking sole care of Grandma, who is suffering the beginnings of Alzheimer's ( but is always lucid on the subject of Panther football.)
Matt's life is further complicated when Taylor's jock-shunning daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) decides that all of his anti-star qualities make him the perfect guy for her.
The other two main characters are the team's running backs: the flashy Brian "Smash" Williams, (Gaius Charles) the most recruited running back in Texas whose single mother keeps a firm hand on his life and career; and the brooding hulk of a fullback, Tim Riggins, (Taylor Kitsch) who lives a beer-soaked existence with an older brother who is barely more responsible than the father who abandoned them.
FNL is honest and heartfelt, as well as insightful and smart. It is must viewing for teens and above.
While FNL has its share of moments about the downside of a whole town's expectations being put on the shoulders of teenaged boys, the writers also get what is great and glorious about it, too. There is no cheap, knowing cynicism here, but a realistic celebration of uniquely American ritual. The season's penultimate chapter, Mud Bowl captures the sheer joy of sport like few things I've seen.
Taylor yells at his players and challenges their manhood when they are lazy or thoughtless, but he loves every last member of his team. He despises the media, but puts up with them—to a point. He not only fiercely loves his wife and daughter, he sees himself as their protector. When he threatens death to any football player who touches his daughter, we are only partly sure it's a figure of speech.
A traditional view of American manliness so pervades Friday Night Lights, that it covers just about everything in Professor Harvey Manfield's great book on the subject—duty, honor, loyalty, standing up in the face of adversity, chivalry and even patriotism.
God has almost as big a place in Dillon, Texas, as football. It's not uncommon for network TV to show black characters in church, but Smash Williams is only one of a majority of the characters in FNL to attend during the season, including the Taylors. And the temptation to present uber-booster Buddy Garrity, the town's big car salesman and philandering philanthropist (Brad Leland) as the cheap archetype Christian hypocrite is resisted.
If you think that Smash's non-generic pre-game prayers that invariably end "in the matchless and powerful name of Jesus" flies in the face of the Supreme Court's Lemon Test, how about the fact that an annual football booster's dinner at the First Baptist Church is a required team event?
A couple of story arcs deserve special mention:
First, the episode in which Julie sets out to seduce Matt is worth the whole season of your watching time. The Taylors get wind of the plan too late, and are reduced to pacing the living room all night long, facing each other and wondering where they failed, alternating between tears and threats, anger and frustration. Matt and Julie, meanwhile, find that their upbringing isn't so easy to set aside. The writing and acting in this segment are superb and every viewer will identify with the situation.
Later in the season, a multi-episode plot takes on race issues. After a playoff win, a TV station reporterette badgers assistant coach Mac McGill (Blue Deckert) a crusty old-school guy, about why there are so many black players at running back and receiver, and none at quarterback. Caught off guard, McGill tries to answer the question, and like Al Campanis, seems to say something he doesn't really mean about innate ability and the like.
McGill tries to apologize, but the media have their story and won't let it go. Smash tries to get a one on one with the coach, but his I'm-here-to-get-your-explanation attitude doesn't play with a guy unaccustomed to explaining himself to teenagers.
The fuss introduces a level of racial tension to the team that had not been there before, and Smash is eventually goaded by his liberal activist girlfriend to lead a walkout of the team's black players in the midst of the playoffs.
When McGill resigns, Taylor stubbornly refuses to accept it. He will not let a good man's life be ruined to save a football season, or placate the PC media.
The standoff is ended by Smash's mother, who knows McGill is not a racist, and orders her son back to the team. Her reasoning? You don't gain respect by marching in the street and demanding it, you gain respect through excellence—by showing that you deserve it.
Now it's time for you to show that you deserve excellent television. Friday Night Lights begins its replay of Season One in the desirable Sunday night slot. Sit down with your teens, set the TiVo or VCR, or even watch the episodes online at NBC.com. But watch.