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Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights, NBC's exceptional exploration of life in the football-obsessed small town of Dillon, TX, debuted last year to critical acclaim and mediocre ratings. It barely managed to survive its first year of schedule changes and emerged still much beloved by its tiny fan base, but seemingly rooted in the ratings cellar.

I bet I know why you're not watching, and I hope I can convince you to at least give it a shot. Herewith are the top reasons you're not already watching FNL, and my responses to them.

1. I can't believe this show is even still on, no one watches it. Why should I get into it now when it will be cancelled by Christmas?

I know how it feels when you've invested in a series only to have it summarily cancelled, and TV execs are notoriously fickle, especially with under-performing programs. In spite of the myriad stupid decisions NBC has made with respect to FNL, the network really is trying.

To wit: they've ordered an entire 22-episode season. There's nothing to stop them from cancelling mid-season, but when execs are truly nervous, they only order a half season. NBC has been making attempts for the past several months to expand the audience, but they keep screwing up. For example, when they announced that FNL was renewed back in May, they promised support by re-airing episodes over the summer. But then they aired episodes starting mid-way through the season, leaving newbies wondering what the heck was going on; ratings tanked and NBC punted it from the schedule but didn't give up hope. They attached a money back guarantee to the season one DVD set, released at the wallet-friendly price point of only $29.99; it's now available at discounters like Amazon.com or Overstock.com for under $20. But the DVD was released in late August, hardly enough time for new fans to catch up before the October 5 premiere.

Perhaps the best evidence that NBC isn't ready to ditch FNL came when NBC announced its fall schedule. FNL's slot? Friday nights, sandwiched between Deal or No Deal and Las Vegas, now featuring the return of Tom Selleck's facial hair. Deal or No Deal has been strong in its Monday time slot, and has done relatively well on Fridays, too—but Friday night is traditionally where broadcast networks send shows to die. So why am I so sanguine about this schedule? NBC's entertainment president Ben Silverman explains the decision this way, "[W]e are looking at fiscally responsible ways to deliver ratings at different matrix," explaining that lower-rated, high quality shows don't necessarily have to be killed off if the execs can find a way to "balance those two pots, the quality pot and the fiscally hemorrhaging pot." In other words: FNL, blessedly economical to produce, can succeed with the reduced ratings expectations that come along with Friday night scheduling.

2. You expect me to stay home on Friday nights and watch?

If you've got nothing better to do—but the prevalence of TiVO and other DVRs out there means that just because FNL broadcasts on Friday nights that's when you have to watch it. Besides, NBC is making every episode available for viewing online, so if you miss one, you can always download it. Yahoo! TV will also have full episodes available; currently they're streaming the Season 2 premiere episode, "Last Days of Summer."

3. I have zero interest in football.

That's a good thing, because one of the complaints I often hear leveled against this show by real high school football fans is that there isn't enough football. I promise you, you will not learn anything about football by watching this series. There's just enough to convince us that the characters are involved with the team, and we see coaches in their offices about as often as we see the boys in practice or on the field.

We don't get to see a game every episode, and what little game footage there is, is very well done. I was consistently impressed in the first season by two things: first, I wasn't sure whether or not the Panthers would win, and second, I really wanted them to.

4. OK, it's not all football—but the cast is majority football players, right? I'm not interested in a show about jocks.

First, let me come to the defense of jocks everywhere by admitting I'm shallow enough to enjoy watching handsome young men in excellent physical condition. ("Eye candy.")

Yes, there are jocks among the cast, but not too many, and while at first glance they seem to fill stock roles, it works out to be so much more than that. First up would be Jason Street (Scott Porter), who would be the All-American quarterback if he hadn't been paralyzed in the pilot episode. Watching Jason's struggle to come to terms with his new life has been fascinating, as the writers never let Jason descend into the maudlin or predictable. Next would be Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Jason's best friend, orphan, and on-again, off-again alcoholic. Riggins typifies the messed-up kid who has big ideas but neither the intelligence nor the discipline to bring them to fruition. He does stupid things but mostly his heart is in the right place even if his cock isn't always.

Which brings us to Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), star running back and most prominent African American member of the team. Like Riggins, Smash has big dreams; unlike Riggins, Smash knows how to sell himself and has the ambition to go for what he wants. Smash shows all the mental acuity and good judgment of a typical high school junior, and accordingly his plotlines got a little stupid mid-season, but he seems to have recovered. Last but not least, the non-jock new QB1 (first string quarter back), taking over for the paralyzed Street, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). Saracen, a sophomore in the first season, expected to spend the next two football seasons on the bench, watching Street march the Panthers to the State Championships. With Street's injury, Saracen is thrown into a role for which he is entirely unprepared, but not entirely unfit. Matt struggles to figure out how to lead a team that until very recently barely recognized his existence. One of the joys of the first season is watching Saracen growing up and growing into his QB1 position.

We get to see other team members from time to time, and yes, they occasionally do stupid jock-type things; usually the Rally Girls are involved. But the writers keep that stuff to a minimum, because they've got more interesting stuff to focus on.

5. It's all about boys, though, right? Coaches and football players. I just can't identify, no matter how cute they are.

Don't worry, there's eye candy for everyone. The girls are even prettier than the boys, and given how pretty Taylor Kitsch is, that's saying something. You'll notice immediately that these girls all look like Texans: they've all got long hair, wear little makeup, and have healthy tans. Like the boys, they're types-with-a-twist, starting with Jason's girlfriend, head cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly). Props to Kelly for pulling off the role of the pretty girl with the repellent character. Lyla's fall in Season One is fascinating—a slow-motion train wreck; like a superhero, Lyla always seems to escape unscathed, but maybe not. The show features two anti-Lylas, each at her own end of the behavioral spectrum. First there is Tyra Collete (Adrianne Palicki), waitress at Applebee's, Tim Riggins' ex, and easy, in contrast to the reserved, virginal Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden). Palicki and Teegarden are fabulous in these roles, making the characters' unlikely friendship believable. Tyra can't wait to get out of Dillon, while Julie would just like to stay somewhere long enough for it to feel like home.

6. It's a high school soap opera!

I won't lie to you: yes, a significant percentage of the main characters are high school kids. But the two central characters around which the majority of the action takes place are adults: Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton). Chandler and Britton play the most realistic, believable married couple ever on television. The writers have completely nailed the dynamic that exists between two people who both love each other and have figured out, mostly, how to live with each other while not submerging their own identities. The discussions, negotiations, arguments, and apologies between these two are fantastic, and their relationship with their daughter Julie is awesomely realistic as well. The Taylors work as the series' pivot points because they're both involved with so many of the other characters, since Eric coaches the football team, and Tami's the school's guidance counselor.

The Taylors don't have to do all the adult work, though. There's a terrific and varied supporting cast of coaches and parents that pop in and out, deftly sketched by the writers and compellingly performed. Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), Lyla's dad and Dillon Panthers booster, is a glad-handing car salesman and general reprobate who finally gets called on his boorish behavior. Saracen's Gran (Louanne Stephens), sweetly drifting into senility, is Matt's ostensible guardian while his father (Brent Smiga) is deployed to Iraq, but in reality, it's Matt who is the caretaker. Smash's mother Corrina (Liz Mikel) is fabulous, showing all the common sense and intelligence her son lacks, and coping as all single mothers must.

7. Small town, huh? Everyone is always in everyone else's business. I'm not interested in a show about gossip.

First season episodes dealt with issues like racism, abandonment, steroid use, and fidelity among both the teens and the adults. Recent events such as Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War were referenced appropriately. I could go on and list more "deep" topics that were covered, but instead I'll highlight a few of my favorite scenes, because this series illuminates what human relationships can and should be, like very few others I've ever seen. In "Who's Your Daddy," Coach screws up big time, forcing Tami to host a party for the team, the teams' parents, and anyone else remotely connected with the team, all on impossibly short notice. Tami seethes but manages it superbly; at the party, she gives Coach what-for in a hysterical scene while she's mopping up a spill under a table. Tami's speech is classic, as is the fact that she won't accept his non-apology the next day; at the end of the episode, Coach gives her the real apology ("I was wrong") she deserves, and they finally make up. The combination of emotions here—anger, frustration, stubbornness—and the humor and honesty with which they're handled are a pleasure to watch.

Even better is Tami's talk with Julie in "I Think We Should Have Sex." Julie, frustrated with her life and unsure of Matt, decides that they should have sex. She goes to Tyra for advice, and even Tyra can see that Julie's approach to this is too calculated, and that she's not ready. When Tami sees Saracen buying condoms, the jig is up, and Tami confronts Julie about her plans. Tami doesn't call down fire and brimstone upon her daughter. She just tells her, quite simply, that she wishes she would wait, because sex should be something beautiful, and getting into it too early can make you cynical, and hard, and Tami would hate to see Julie that way. It was awesome, and I hope I can be as cool as Tami when my kids are in high school.

8. I missed the whole first season! I'll never catch up—how will I know what's going on?

No need to fear. If you don't have time to blast through the 22 episodes on DVD, and don't want to torture yourself with the online download experience, you've got options. NBC's website has text recaps with photos to get you through the high points of each episode; two minute replays may be available as well.

Over on Television Without Pity, Drunken Bee's recaps turn each episode into a online novella, making great lunch time reading. TV.com has more manageable one-page recaps for those who don't want to deal with all those pages.

9. No, thanks. I'll catch it on DVD when the show has completed its run.

I sympathize with this view, in fact I typify this view; I just finished watching Deadwood, for pete's sake. And if FNL had wrapped after just 22 episodes, I'd be here encouraging you to get those DVDs. But here we have an opportunity to encourage the production of more quality television, and that's a good thing. NBC went out on a limb to keep this series going, and I'd like to see them satisfied that they made the right decision. I have no love for the suits at NBC or any other network, but actions have consequences. We can't be constantly whining about the crappy state of broadcast entertainment and then turn up our noses when they finally dish up something as gritty and lovely and compelling as FNL.

10. The documentary-style "shaky cam" and extreme close-ups make me feel like I'm going to puke.

They toned down the shaky cam after the first few episodes, reserving it for practice or game scenes, so it's not as bad as it was in the beginning. As for the extreme close-ups, yeah, they still use those, but with a Steadicam, they're OK. Plus you get to notice all the little wrinkles in Tami's brow, or the way Coach's hair has a life of its own. That's a good thing. And if you're really worried about vomit, there's always Dramamine.

Joan O'Connell Hedman grew up in a home with four brothers, one television, and a father who rarely ceded control of the remote. She writes about Friday Night Lights at her blog, Oasis of Sanity. For Andrew Johnson's review of the Season Two debut, click here.

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TAGS: Adrianne Palicki, Aimee Teegarden, ben silverman, brad leland, brent smiga, Connie Britton, friday night lights, Gaius Charles, kyle chandler, liz mikel, louanne stephens, Minka Kelly, nbc, scott proter, taylor kitsch, Zach Gilford








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