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T.V. on TV: Friday Night Lights, The Nine, & Battlestar Galactica

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T.V. on TV: <em>Friday Night Lights</em>, <em>The Nine</em>, & <em>Battlestar Galactica</em>

Friday Night Lights (tonight 8 p.m., NBC) is the most accurate and honest portrayal of contemporary small town life in the small screen’s history. Relocated from the 1980s to the present, the pilot cribs heavily from the 2004 movie (which, like the series, was written and directed by Peter Berg), yet it manages to stand apart from it. If you’ve seen any sports movie ever, you won’t be surprised by much that happens; Friday Night Lights marches through the expected cliches in its portrayal of the “big game,” and even repeats a heartrending moment from the movie (though it happens to a different character). Still, for anyone who has attended a high school football game, much of the series will ring true, and the emotions that Berg earns through sports movie cliche are genuine. And the overall emphasis is different. Unlike the film, where nearly every event was directed toward the climactic showdown, in the series pilot the game is almost an afterthought; bits of it even feel rushed and perfunctory. This time around, Berg is more interested in the town itself.

The fictional Dillon, Texas, is small and economically depressed. Town gatherings occur at a local restaurant and a Chevy dealership. Most of its characters live in small houses or trailers; only the quarterback’s cheerleader girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (the unknown and perfect Minka Kelly) and the football coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, seeming almost exhausted in his intensity and erasing any memory of Early Edition), live in affluent neighborhoods. We hear references to racism from local sports reporters covering the Panthers, and when the team appears in public, everyone has advice on how to play Friday night.

In this place, there are just two things worth living for, football and God (the two are conflated rather clumsily when a small child asks if God loves football and is assured that everyone does). The local radio station seems devoted to round-the-clock discussion of the high school team, the Panthers, first-year coach Taylor and Peyton Manning-esque quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter). All conversations inevitably lead to the game; even a stolen moment between Street and Lyla is framed in the context of football. NBC’s other big pilot, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, has earned criticism for its often condescending portrayal of Christians; television so rarely gets religion right that it’s easy to fear that Berg’s series will get it wrong, too. But it doesn’t. The characters recite the Lord’s Prayer before practice, and at pilot’s end, when confronted by a problem bigger than any of them, they turn to prayer again. Berg doesn’t turn this into an opportunity to either mock or praise his characters—they’re still, after all, high school kids who get drunk and have premarital sex and otherwise behave in ways that would make Pat Robertson cluck his tongue. But the show’s understanding of the social function of prayer does offer viewers a window into a world where there’s always something larger than the individual, be it a deity or a community.

The series doesn’t alway step right. Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy (“This is life, not Maxim magazine!”), and the images of big tackles scored to hard rock is a football film cliche that’s wearing thin. Plus, there are touches that don’t work as well as Berg seems to think—as when the coach’s daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) declares to her parents, “Moby Dick is the perfect metaphor for this town” (though that scene ends on a nicely observed father-daughter moment). Finally, Julie’s character is underdeveloped, and for a grimly realistic series, her dialogue is too tart, as if she’d stepped out of Veronica Mars. But these miscalculations fade when the dialogue drops out and the camera glides by the darkened, grey buildings of the town and the barren practice field with its leafless trees and brown grass under grey clouds, backed by a gorgeously moody score by Explosions in the Sky. Too often, it’s easy to say, “Well, that was good, for network TV.” Friday Night Lights is a rare network series that’s just good, period.

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Like Friday Night Lights, The Nine (Wednesday, 10 p.m., ABC) fascinates for reasons you don’t expect. The serialized elements (namely, the mystery of what happened during the bank robbery that opens the pilot) are compelling enough, but what sets this series apart is how it uses that mystery as a pretext to dig into the ways that people’s lives are altered by trauma. It’s Lost: The PTSD Edition.

Here, as in Friday Night Lights, there are misjudged or overdone moments (someone drops a tray full of dishes and the survivors flinch). But for the most part, The Nine is a closely observed character study, contrasting the people who went in to the bank with the people who came out shaken, numb. Existing relationships apparently dissolved within the bank, while new ones were forged between people who were strangers mere hours before. The nerd becomes a hero; the cop fears he’ll be a scapegoat; the surgeon finds himself incapable. Without putting too fine a point on it, the bank robbery works as a metaphor not just for 9/11, but for any seriously life-changing event.

It helps that the show is well-cast with a mix of familiar faces (Tim Daly’s cop, who seems most upset by a botched rescue attempt; Scott Wolf"s hyper-confident and confused-in-love surgeon, relying on his dimples as much as any Wolf character does; Chi McBride’s bank manager, the most obviously shattered by the robbery; and Kim Raver’s assistant district attorney, who seems most interested in keeping relationships born in the bank alive) and acto’s who’ve been knocking around in guest roles for a while (Camille Guaty as a bank employee) and some new faces (Dana Davis as the manager’s wannabe-rebel daughter; Jessica Collins as the surgeon’s overly compassionate girlfriend). These actors are able to put over a few clunky lines, and when it comes time for them to reveal how their experience shattered them, they rise to the challenge (notably a gathering near the end when they have the chemistry of fast friends). In a season filled with great new ensembles, this is the best.

The biggest concern, of course, is that this is a series that will have trouble sustaining interest beyond its first season (it seems self-evident that the mystery element will have to end after year one). As serialized dramas continue to catch on, American television will eventually have to figure out how to do limited-run series that are longer than miniseries but have definite endpoints; but for now, give The Nine the benefit of the doubt.

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Battlestar Galactica returns this Friday at 9 p.m. on Sci Fi Channel with a two-hour premiere. Coupled with the British import Doctor Who, the two make up the best night of science fiction on the air right now (not that there are a lot of contenders).

It’s not easy to convince newcomers to watch Galactica. Call it the Buffy syndrome. Like the latter series, Galactica is critically acclaimed, and smarter about many things than other dramas. In particular, it understands the numbing effect of wartime—the way it turns soldiers into raw, workaday grunts who just want to go home. It’s also smart about finding the intersection between the civilian government and the war machine it ostensibly controls, and pointing out how that same machine can rise up and subsume civilian authority at any moment. Most of the first season was spent with the characters barely avoiding a coup that eventually hit early in Season Two. It’s grim stuff played absolutely straight, shot in a jittery docudrama style that almost never pulls back for a wide shot to let you get your bearings. In many series, that would feel like a cheat, but in Galactica, it’s appropriately disorienting (the series, after all, kicked off with most of the human race being decimated by monotheistic robots). Unfortunately, like Buffy, Galactica is a genre series with off-putting name that’s based on an inferior predecessor—in this case, the short-lived Star Wars ripoff from the last ’70s. Luckily, Ron Moore and David Eick, the creative shepherds of Galactica, have taken the best element from the original (the idea of human survivors of an apocalypse searching for a new home) and wedded it to a series that’s equal parts political and military drama; think The West Wing crossed with Platoon and set in space.

Science fiction and fantasy have long been pop culture’s bastard children; even the western had a sort of mythic poetry that was easily embraced by the intelligentsia. Chalk it up to the commercial constraints of the TV and movie industries, which punish complexity and reward schlock, but while science fiction literature is given enough latitude accomodate the likes of Phillip K. Dick, Samuel Delaney and Ursula K. LeGuin, TV and cinema are often limited to space opera. The exceptions (2001, Blade Runner and the like) don’t disprove the rule; the long-term popular success of Star Wars and Star Trek so dominate the genre that every new effort is likely to be judged in relation to them.

The most popular thing to say to get people to watch Galactica is to say that, yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s really about real-world problems like terrorism and abortion. While that’s true (the series is more honest about the moral implications of the War on Terror than anything else on the air, or even at the multiplex), the show also does for science fiction itself what The Wire does for cop shows and what Deadwood did for the western—it cleans off decades of neglect and build-up and uncovers what made the genre relevant in the first place. In many ways, the series is a very specific response to Star Trek, that show couched in 60s idealism and set in a universe that’s nearly unrecognizable. (Battlestar wasn’t the first series to answer Star TrekFarscape and Firefly also took on the behemoth with varying degrees of success.) But if the original Trek offered examples of who we might hope to become, Battlestar Galactica shows what we probably will become. Robots that look like people and faster-than-light drives that can carry one across solar systems in minutes won’t change the basic human makeup, which is too often dominated by pettiness, greed and sheer will to survive. One of the show’s greatest reconceptions of the original material is in the character of Gaius Baltar, a sniveling bastard in the original who was reborn as a man too frightened and weighed down by his complicity in the original attack (he bedded the most beautiful of the robots, giving her the ability to weaken humanity’s defenses). Played by a haggard and harried James Callis, he’s a believably small bureaucrat, petty enough to exploit the president’s weaknesses (namely, a desire to continue the war rather than settle on a barely inhabitable planet) to win an election merely to satisfy his own craving for more power. And he puts his will to survive ahead of anything else, often collaborating directly with the enemy. Baltar exemplifies the show’s fear that humanity can’t change its stripes.

The show is packed with great performances. Edward James Olmos (as Admiral Adama, a military man constantly questioning the worth of his species) and Mary McDonnell (as President Roslin, the woman Hillary Clinton dreams of being) are the names you recognize, and both turn in performances rich enough to rank with the their career-best work. But the lesser-known players are equally good, especially Katee Sackhoff as the brave, almost reckless pilot Starbuck; the decision to reimagine a male character from the original series as a woman caused a fan uproar before the introductory miniseries had even aired, but Sackhoff’s turn is more observant of the way a soldier, even a female one, has to shut off real human contact in order to function. The show’s refreshing lack of technobabble grounds the show’s human moments in an emotional reality that will be recognizable to anyone. These characters aren’t the swashbuckling stereotypes of 1950s pulp magazines; they’re sons trying to impress fathers, soldiers trying to function despite their grief over recent losses, and presidents making hard decisions in the heat of battle.

Galactica’s great flaw is its inconsistency: in the first two seasons, stellar episodes bumped up against ones that seemed ill-conceived. (Season Two saw the remarkable “Epiphanies,” an episode that featured one of McDonnell’s best performances and substantial advancements in the show’s mythology, placed right next to “Black Market,” the series’ worst episode yet, with dramatically inert flashbacks and a story that required us to care about characters we barely knew.) Now that Moore and Eick have had a few seasons to settle into the series’ production rhythms, one hopes they’ll finally put together 20 straight episodes of thought-provoking television. In any event, this is a series that rewards loyal (and close) viewing. If you’re a newcomer, check out one of the numerous episode guides available online (tv.com offers up fairly succinct recaps) or watch “The Story So Far,” the special that seems to air at every hour of the day on any NBC-Universal owned station (or, better yet, watch it online at tv.com’s BSG page), then tune in Friday night and give it a chance.