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T.V. on TV: Friday Night Lights and Notes from the Underbelly

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T.V. on TV: <em>Friday Night Lights</em> and <em>Notes from the Underbelly</em>

It’s easy to see why Friday Night Lights, concluding its first season tonight on NBC at 8 p.m. EDT, would make someone nervous. Almost frighteningly earnest, the show attempts to encompass the whole of a small Texas town by zeroing in on the lives and loves of its high school football team’s members and a variety of satellite characters. If that weren’t enough, the show makes a special effort to take on the issues of the day—from the war in Iraq to steroid use by teen athletes—like a weekly after-school special. Based on a good book and an even better movie, this should be a recipe for disaster.

But, as much as I liked the pilot, Friday Night Lights has grown beyond even that into a deeply moving, sparsely poetic series that just might be the best on TV (and certainly the best on network TV). The show’s ambitions occasionally outstrip its abilities, but it scores so often and so well that it can be forgiven the occasional flub (like having nearly every game in the first half of the season end on some unbelievable trick play). And still no one watches the show, which is commonly ascribed to have too much football for the non-fan and too little football for the fan. While that may be the case for the show’s low ratings, it doesn’t assuage any of the series’s fans doubts about the network ordering up a second season (though NBC has stated frequently that they believe in the program and would like to have it back next year). Still, if tonight is the last time the series ever airs, it will be that rare thing—a near-perfect season of network television—the sort of thing one might treasure on DVD while wondering why no one bothered to check it out when it was airing.

To say that Friday Night Lights is about a football team feels unfairly reductive. The team is certainly the lens through which we peer into the microcosm of Dillon, Tex., but the series has expanded its scope beyond the team and out into the town as a whole. While not quite on the level of, say, The Wire or Deadwood, Lights has such a strong sense of place that it actually earns the shaky camera work that gives the series a docudrama feel. Too many series co-opted the shaky-cam after Homicide: Life on the Street used it to such memorable effect in the 90s, never bothering to write scripts good enough to make the use of the device seem like something other than a conceit. Despite its usual teen show trappings (it must be noted that few on this show who play teenagers look like teenagers—a necessary evil due to work regulations), the series feels almost palpably real, thanks to smart location shooting, a great cast and an even better writing team.

What carries Friday Night Lights beyond the pitfalls that are inherent to issue-driven after-school specials is the gradual layering on of character detail. In the pilot, these people felt like closely-observed archetypes; after a whole season, it feels as if a camera crew had discovered them in West Texas and started filming them. This fictional show somehow feels more real than MTV’s reality show distillation of a football season, Two-a-Days. The actors and writers understand the awkward grace of being a teenager—even one with a special ability or gift. It’s been fascinating to watch how they’ve built, say, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) from the rookie quarterback who saves the big game into an awkward teen who carries a whole family on his shoulders and worships his girlfriend with all the raw intensity of first love. Even characters who seemed superfluous in the pilot have grown into vital parts of the ensemble—Tyra Collette (the remarkable Adrianne Palicki) has gone from an underwritten town slut to a girl who’s attempting to create her own destiny, and having to recreate her own family to do so. Beyond the regulars, the show employs a large variety of recurring players—from family members to a lesbian mayor to football boosters—to portray the sweep and breadth of the whole town.

Much has been written about Friday Night Lights’ realism, but few pieces have grasped why the show has reached this level of close observation where other small town shows have failed. For one thing, FNL understands the passive-aggressive hold that small towns exert over their inhabitants. None of the characters crow about their need to get out of town, a standard element of this milieu. It remains a subtext—something we in the audience necessarily understand, simply because we, too, know what it is to dream of escape from the present, to pin our hopes to the one thing we’re good at and pray for the best. But the show’s unorthodox filming process has at least as much to do with its success as anything else.

Most television shows are shot by journeyman directors who come in and do the bidding of the show runner, who is usually the head writer. Careful negotiations are held over whether actors can change a line on set, and often a call has to be put in to the writers to see if this is possible, even for the simplest of changes. A strong writing team is a necessity in a narrative-bound medium like television (at least, in its current iteration), but the lack of checks and balances often means things get over-written, just so the audience doesn’t miss the point. Friday Night Lights flips that balance on its head—the writers come up with the storylines and write all of the dialogue, but the actors, directors and crew are encouraged (by director Peter Berg, who developed the show for television) to improvise on set and change a scene to get to its emotional center more readily. The scenes are also filmed simultaneously with three cameras, all placed at angles that allow the actors (many of whom are relatively inexperienced) space to work. The scenes are then captured with zoom lenses that can capture every nuance, gesture and facial expression (for more on this process, see this excellent report by Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune). It’s a remarkable process and, combined with the show being sequestered in Austin, Texas, it’s made for a show that feels almost lived-in. One can only hope that more series adopt this filming method in the future, as it allows for an immediacy that is typically missing from television.

Of course, no mention of the series strengths could be made without talking about Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, who portray Eric and Tami Taylor, the coach and his wife and the center of the series, even in episodes when their characters don’t have much to do. The two actors do great work separately, but when they’re together (or with Aimee Teegarden, who plays their daughter, Julie) they portray the most realistic family unit on television. The Taylors squabble and make up like any couple, and the show never resorts to giving one of them a wandering eye or stooping to making Tami a nagging wife or Eric a henpecked husband. This is a fully modern partnership, and Chandler and Britton make it sexy.

But, really, one could single out any aspect of Friday Night Lights and say it was good or even great. Together, however, all of these aspects tie together into one package that distills so much of what we think of as uniquely American (everything from public prayer to leaning into the chill wind of an autumn night while munching on a hot dog and watching a football game) into an hour that exposes the beauty and ugliness of those dreams on a weekly basis. It’s easy to gush when talking about Friday Night Lights simply because it’s the kind of show that inspires gushing—it’s television for wide open skies and hearts that hope to be big enough to encompass them.

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With all the new shows ABC has spawned about earnest yuppies, it’s as if thirtysomething is the Mogwai and ABC has splashed water on it. Add to a list that includes Six Degrees, What About Brian?, Brothers and Sisters and Desperate Housewives the network’s attempt at turning the adventures of the American yuppie into a sitcom, Notes from the Underbelly, which debuts Thursday at 10:01 p.m. EDT.

Underbelly, based on the book by Risa Green, seems a fairly limited premise for a television show. It’s the story of two yuppies who get pregnant (they’re played by Jennifer Westfeldt and Peter Cambor) and then try to accustom themselves to how life is going to change. This is all fitfully amusing (there’s a wonderfully observed moment about the odd trend of black-and-white photos of the father with his ear pressed to the mother’s pregnant midsection, eyes closed solemnly), and Rachael Harris continues the trend of Daily Show alumni going on to do good work in other shows, but it all just feels so same-old, same-old on a network that seems intent on yuppifying every possible genre and type of show (it even has the token racial minority, though this time it’s an Indian guy).

The biggest thing the show has going for it is that the weird wonder of pregnancy hasn’t been thoroughly dissected on television. Most pregnant women on TV are stereotypes who crave odd foods and breathe fire at the men who impregnated them; this series is actually interested in other aspects of the process, especially where it intersects with young parents who want a social life and a kid. But what happens when the baby is born? It’s not as thought television has never depicted new parents who think their kid’s the cutest thing ever. Will the show then just turn into the wacky adventures of new parents? Or the wacky adventures of trying to have more children? Notes from the Underbelly is all right, but it needed to be more than that to stand out on a network that has too many shows focusing on characters of this type. It made me miss the otherwise forgettable Men in Trees. At least some of the people on that show are pilots and bar owners.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.