Review: 'Friday Night Lights'

September 27, 2007

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Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) gives one of his players some urgent motivation in "Friday Night Lights." The acclaimed series returns for its second season Oct. 5 on NBC.

"Friday Night Lights" returns to NBC on Friday, Oct. 5, for its second season. Can the second season possibly be as good as the first? That seems like a tall order given the high quality of the show's critically acclaimed but little-watched first season.

I'm here today to tell you about "FNL" season one, which was, in a word, terrific. I highly recommend anyone who hasn't seen it yet to check out the first season on DVD, which sells at a bargain-basement price of $20. But enough with the dollars-and-cents sales pitch. The real sales pitch comes when I tell you that this series is among the most compelling, watchable, entertaining, well-acted, and well-directed shows on television. If you like quality TV, you should be watching this show.

"FNL" crosses genres seamlessly. It's that rare show that manages to succeed at being all things to all people (okay, except the action crowd). You want a high-school relationship soap? Check. A rousing sports movie? Check. A moving family drama? Check. A topical issue show? Check. A study of small-town values and middle-class struggles? Check. "FNL" finds a way to do it all, and do it well. Really, it manages to transcend genre and simply be a story about people's lives. It do what it do, wonderfully. (IDWIDW.)

Created and executive produced by Peter Berg, who also helmed the 2004 "FNL" movie starring Billy Bob Thornton, the series uses the film's visual style and main themes and creates what feels like a weekly little indie film for television. I personally am a fan of the series' docudrama approach, which uses multiple hand-held cameras and a freestyle cinematography that uses in-the-moment blocking and (often) real locations. The result is a show where actors and performances are paramount, and a fictional world that feels completely real and lived-in.

The show's storylines and characters are too numerous to document (and I wouldn't want to spoil it for newcomers, whom I hope to convert here), but suffice it to say that the show focuses on a high-school football season in Dillon, Texas, and the lives of the coaches, the players, the families, the school, and the town.

The series is a true ensemble show, but you might say it's anchored by the nuclear family of Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), and their daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). The stories follow the arc of Coach Taylor's first season as head coach of the Dillon Panthers. Also plenty of other arcs involving high-school relationships, trust, betrayal, love, friendship, strength, courage, weakness, alcohol abuse, sexual/emotional consequences, steroid use, racial friction, fear, hope, and, well, life in general. With a set of characters with such diverse issues and walks of life, "FNL" is able to cover a lot of ground.

Football is at the center of the show, but never dominates it. This is a show about people and their problems. Football is an escape for the town of Dillon, but it's also a point of borderline obsession. In one telling conversation, Tami notes how the town elevates its high-school players to the status of heroes, then sends them out into a real world where they find that they are ordinary — and ill-prepared for a life that doesn't involve football as a way of earning a living.

In the very first episode, the team's starting quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), faces a devastating injury. While the rest of the team goes on to play a season of football without their star, he faces a future of hospitals and rehab. His relationship with his girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), is put to the test. There's a love triangle, which is the stuff of soap opera, but it's so well written and performed, and with real consequences and painful payoffs, that you really care what happens to them.

"FNL" explores each of its characters as carefully drawn individuals. Characters that seem to be "types" (the goody-good cheerleader, the drunken loser, the slut, the nerd, etc.) are all given their due. Despite their flaws and problems, most of the characters of "FNL" are fundamentally good, and are trying their best. This makes the show true to its family-drama pedigree, although it's definitely got an edge and a modern style as family dramas go.

As a counterpoint to love/sex triangles that seem to be the stuff of people in their mid-20s (some of the characters seem older than they are supposed to be), there's also the sweet innocence of characters who do seem 15, like backup QB Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and Julie. At the heart of the show is the family dynamic in the Taylor household, which makes old formulas involving parents and children and boyfriends and girlfriends seem new (see the episode "I Think We Should Have Sex" as a prime example).

In a show filled with believable actors, the series' newcomer discovery is Scott Porter as injured QB Jason Street. Porter had virtually no acting experience prior to "FNL" and turns in consistently memorable performances as a kid whose life has been changed in an instant, and who now must struggle through a series of personal crises involving his family, his girlfriend, a lawsuit, and the isolation he discovers in trying to make sense of experiences that he never thought he would have to contemplate.

It's a tricky role, but thanks to the writing and Porter's performance, it's a real winner. The show does not sentimentalize or turn to melodrama in documenting Jason's plight, but simply follows the steps of a person trying to put the pieces back together.

His arc is just one of many, all of which takes place amid the football backdrop. It should be noted that among its other fine qualities, "FNL" is a solid and efficient sports drama, featuring exciting and credible sports action, meaty team conflicts, and rousing locker room speeches. And the progress of the football season is as involving as the journey of the charactes who take it.

Jammer's "FNL" Season 1 Rating: 4 stars. (out of four)

Also read my comments on the "FNL" season two premiere.

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11 comments on this post

    I loved the movie, but the series had the misfortune to be aired on Tuesdays at 8, which put it opposite NCIS, which is already the best show on TV. Given this recommendation, however, I'll check out the DVD.

    NBC got smart and moved the show to Friday this season, which means it won't face such tough competition. Then again, no one watches TV on Friday, so whatyagonnado. That's what VCRs and DVRs are for, though.

    Hey. Thanks for giving some credit out to this show. I loved this show last year. I'm not one to start blubbering over a TV show. But the season finale, the scene with Jason Street pointing to his parents in the stands, oh man I just lost it.

    I think NBC switched the show to Fridays so it can die a slow, painful death. Friday is the death slot. Everyone has been raving about this show. I guess I'll have to give it a chance, even though it doesn't remotely seem like it's about any topics that I am interested in.

    Is this showing in the UK? I might take a look if it's being shown here.

    You've convinced me. I'd been on the fence about checking it out after hearing lots of good things about it. A recommendation from you seals the deal though.

    I've watched bits and pieces of FNL, but not much. I found all of the characters, especially the coach, and the players, and the players' girlfriends, or whatever, all completely annoying and uncompelling. I feel bad that a drama that's about something other than crime may not make it, and I appreciate what you're trying to do, but I've already got Heroes, Journeyman, Boston Legal, Bionic Woman, and - coming soon - more Battlestar Galactica. Like high school football itself, this show takes itself too damn seriously. Plus, I don't particularly like high school football, and I really don't like small towns. So I'll respectfully pun intended.

    Thank you, thank you for giving this show its much-deserved props. I watched the pilot, then DEVOURED Season 1 on in a matter of 3 days. Then I bought the DVD. It's that danggg good!!!!

    Excellent show!! I'm halfway through season 1 and it's amazing how 'real' this show is. The performances are the ridiculously good. The filming style reminds me of The Shield, which is another awesome show. In fact, it was your review of The Shield that got me into that show as well. Thanks Jammer for your recommendations. By the way, have you checked out Lost yet? That show is freakin' awesome too.

    I have not watched Lost. I didn't watch it when it first started, and then there was all the buzz but by then it was too late to join. What I decided was to avoid as many spoilers as possible and then one day maybe I'll go back and watch it on DVD. By the way, NBC just set a deal to bring FNL back for a third season.

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