Back from summer, and with a new football season ahead, our favorite (and only) high school football-themed drama, Friday Night Lights, will see a lot of changes in the coming year: Budget cuts, a near network change, and a slight trimming of the cast (past-regulars Gaius Charles and Scott Porter are each noticeably reduced to four episode arcs) have all afflicted this beloved show in its third season. But things are still running surprisingly smooth at Dillon High, thankfully. All the familiar players are back, both on and off the field, but there have been some interesting alterations at the high school: Mrs. Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) is the new, reigning principal, and a highly skilled freshman quarterback, J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter), may pull the rug out right from under current first-string quarterback Matt's (Zach Gilford) feet. These shakeups will surely cause a stir through both the halls of Dillon High as well as the town itself.
Presumed tinkering from the powers-that-be produced not-so-stellar moments last season. Muddled plot points surfaced and questionable characters were introduced, specifically the murdered-rapist-cover-up storyline involving Tyra and Landry (clearly, the producers never meant for this to turn into a Law & Order SVU spin-off), but now that things are back to the mundane lives of high schoolers, we have something to root for again. Tyra, played by emotional powerhouse Adrianne Palicki, is striving to break free from her white-trash upbringing and onto bigger things, like college and a career, but with a distracting lover, Cash (Zach Roerig), to a dream-crushing vice principal, it seems like the world is against her. As she puts it to her on-and-off-again boyfriend Landry (Jesse Plemons) on the way to the State Championship: Seeing ex-Dillon quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) lose the use of his legs after a football-induced injury a few years back made her realize that life isn't fair for anyone. What profound insight for a show with such humbling means. This is what the general viewing public, unfortunately, is not watching: characters with exceedingly intimate revelations about past mistakes and hardships, figuring out how to get their lives back on track.
Undoubtedly, the spine of the show is the Taylor family. Played by the profoundly sensitive Britton and Kyle Chandler, Tami and Coach Taylor have created a bond so thoroughly unique and refreshingly normal that no matter what comes between them, whether it's football politics or their daughter Julie's (Aimee Teergarden) tantrums, they manage to hold steady. And still, the two find time for a romantic date once in a while. (It's also fun to watch the power dynamic switch now that Tami is running things over at the high school.) Britton and Chandler deserve every laud they get: They inhabit these characters with such grace and vitality, solidifying their place as the hardest (and most generous) working actors in television. It's wonderful seeing these two characters mold the students around them, from Coach Taylor helping ex-Dillon football star Smash (Gaius Charles) get back into shape and onto a college team, to Tami making sure Tyra doesn't skip another day of class.
There are several noteworthy storylines that equal the exceptional narrative breadth of the winning first season, thoroughly capturing the intertwining threads of these shifting characters and lives. However, Matt's reconnection with his elusive mother, and his fight to stay on top of the team as quarterback, is a standout. The Friday Night Lights casting department should congratulate themselves: Nailing down the achingly subtle Kim Dickens as Matt's mother is a perfect addition to the show. The way the writers handle this transition is so organic and gripping, curtailing any sort of soap-operatic temptations.
J.D. is the new kid in town who threatens Matt's place on the field, and he has a devilish manipulator of a father to boot. Pulling strings with his money and influence, J.D.'s father, played by D.W. Moffett, puts the pressure on the coach and the rest of the Taylor family when things start to get heated. It's quite disheartening as the season progresses and we begin to realize what J.D.'s dad has in store for the coach. And that is precisely what Friday Night Lights does so well: portraying this cause-and-effect world, in all its fallacies and grudges, in the most humane light. There is not one evil character on the show—only people striving to achieve in the shadows of their regrets and ambitions.
Not since HBO's The Wire has a show juggled so many conflicting and diverse issues like race, money, and class with such staggering insight. It pains me to think the country has not embraced these well-developed characters and, not to mention, the superb handheld camera work that creates the raw aesthetic world in which these emotionally rattled individuals dwell. There are rewards for networks that harbor quality cult shows like Friday Night Lights: the audience stays with it, consistently. Not sure if NBC got that clue in the new framework of niche television programming, but I'm awfully glad this keeper got to live on for one more time, even if Emmy voters and the public aren't tuning in…yet.