Friday Night Lights Season One
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Gaius Charles, Zach Gilford, Minka Kelly, Taylor Kitsch, Adrianne Palicki, Jesse Plemons, Scott Porter, Aimee Teegarden
Series Creators: Peter Berg, Brian Grazer, David Nevins
When the new TV season debuted last year, I had some interest in watching this show, having enjoyed the 2004 movie of the same name, both based on the 1989 book (also of the same name) by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger. But ultimately, I didn’t bother due to a few concerns: first off, I was worried that it would be too schmaltzy, like recent shows Clubhouse and American Dreams. My bigger concern was that it didn’t seem like a show that would last the season, so I didn’t want to get invested in it. It’s a phenomenon I wrote about a year ago, with networks booking more shows that require loyal viewership to follow their season long arcs, but can’t get those viewers because the networks are so quick to cancel shows that viewers are too worried about cancellation to get into the show. Even if the show gets a decent audience, it can’t build upon it in mid-season because no one wants to pick up the story halfway through, so then it gets cancelled for failure to build on its small audience. Friday Night Lights felt like it would be that type of show, so I didn’t bother with it.
My instincts were pretty close. Friday Night Lights didn’t manage to gain a big audience, and had it not been on a fourth place network, it probably would’ve been cancelled. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been given a shot at another season. But NBC is struggling to rebuild, so right now, while ratings would be nice, critical reception will have to do. Since the critics have raved about the show, NBC decided to give the show one last push by rushing out the first season on DVD before the beginning of season two, hoping that people like me who were interested by the buzz but unwilling to pick-up the story halfway would grab the set then follow season two. To help with this, they produced the set to be as affordable as possible (if you paid more than $30, you paid too much), then NBC Universal took the unprecedented step by offering a money-back guarantee for anyone who bought the set. If you buy it and don’t like it, they’ll give you your money back. Pretty confident, I’d say. I’ll also say that I can’t imagine too many people will be taking them up on that offer.
It’s possible that critics might have oversold the show a bit in their attempts to help save the show by building an audience, but not by much. It’s neither the best drama on TV, nor is it the best new show of the 2006-2007 season. But it is one of the best dramas on network television, and one of the best shows that people aren’t watching.
That said, it’s not a show that I can see ever becoming that popular, and sadly, its quality will be what keeps it from taking off. Friday Night Lights profiles the fictional Dillon Panthers, a high school football team in small-town Texas, where high school football is the biggest game in town (the movie and the book dramatized the true story of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas). The series follows the trials and tribulations of the team throughout the football season as they pursue the Texas State Championship while dealing with the pressures of high school and the added pressures of having the entire town’s hopes on their young shoulders.
Since it’s a show about high school, the show is, by definition, a teen show. Sadly, teens don’t generally respond to smart, mature representations of themselves on television, choosing instead to support wish fulfilment representations of teen life like you’d see on The Hills. This isn’t some “kids these days” rant. My generation chose to support Beverly Hills 90210 far more than it did My So-Called Life, and gave Dawson’s Creek six seasons while Freaks and Geeks only got one. Unfortunately, the better audience for this show is adults, but they don’t usually tune into shows about teens, no matter how great they are.
Not only does the audience for this show need not be teens, it also need not be football fans. Yes, the show is about a football team, but it plays just as well to non-fans as it does to football fans. Sure, I’m a huge football fan, so I can’t be the judge of that, but my wife loved the series, and she leaves the house when I watch football. Basically, football is what the characters do, but Friday Night Lights is about who the characters are, providing a glimpse into the lives of middle America, and drawing you into their stories. To give you an idea of the appeal and addictiveness of the show, we started watching it on a Friday night of a long weekend (and yes, the Friday night thing was intentional), and finished the 22-episode season on the Monday night. The characters quickly ingratiated themselves, leaving us desperate to watch “one more” (which would often to lead to another “one more” after that, and perhaps another after that).
I quickly grew attached to most of the characters, with the highlights being the two adults of the cast, Kyle Chandler‘s Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), who have unmatched chemistry and are easily the best couple on television. They are the stars of the ensemble, proving that this isn’t just a teen show. Zach Gilford is very appealing as the awkward back-up QB Matt Saracen, a good kid with a lot of responsibility on his shoulders who is easy to cheer for, acting as the audience surrogate into this football-mad world. His non-football-playing sidekick Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) might be my favourite character, a genuinely funny kid who brings the show a bit of a Freaks and Geeks-vibe. Scott Porter plays golden-boy QB Jason Street, a character who would normally be a bland pretty boy, but instead is given an incredibly interesting storyline throughout the season that is one of the highlights of the show.
In typical teen show fashion, some of the actors are cast more for their looks than their acting ability (Minka Kelly, Taylor Kitsch, Adrianne Palicki, and in even more typical fashion, only Plemons and Aimee Teegarden are actually teenagers), but none of them are terrible enough to take you out of the show, and the show’s writing and direction makes up for their shortcomings. In many ways, the series benefited from the low ratings in that it holds nothing back this season, knowing that it couldn’t save ideas for future seasons that may never come. The series creators pack in so much drama and so many stories into this first season that it’s hard to say where they’ll go next season, having already tackled issues like adultery, steroids, paralysis, pay offs, recruiting violations, racism, and several different hook-ups.
Luckily, they should have the same concerns for season two, so the show runners should have the same motivation to keep things humming. They have a helluva season to follow, which never failed to make life in small-town America as engrossing as it is endearing. It is a show that’s easy to love, which helps explain the zeal in which critics have been greeting the show, in a desperate attempt to keep it on the air. Well count me in with those critics, as I fell wholeheartedly in love with this show, and recommend you all take NBC Universal up on their money back guarantee and check out this show for yourself before the second season begins on October 5th.