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Wednesday, November 20

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Friday Night Lights was hailed by television critics as one of the best new series before it aired. Inspired by on the 1990 nonfiction book and the 2004 Hollywood film of the same name (which is edging dangerously close to a play based on the novelization of the movie territory), this show centers around the fictional town of Dillon, Texas, and its high school football team, the Panthers. The name initially caused some confusion; a show with "Friday" in the title airing on a Tuesday? (At least it didn't have a number in it — I'm looking at you, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Six Degrees, The Nine and 30 Rock.) Also, it was hard to convince people that the show isn't only about what happens on the gridiron. Its reputation grew steadily as each new show aired. Unfortunately, ratings did not follow.

Luckily, NBC has been standing by FNL…so far. It rescheduled the show from 7 p.m. Tuesdays to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, although now instead of competing with Dancing with the Stars, it will be decimated by American Idol. Before the move, NBC aired one episode on a Monday night in Studio 60's timeslot (Mondays 9 p.m.) and garnered its best share to date. However, the outlook for this gem is not good. So, I'm listing several reasons why you should tune in:

Genuine Storylines, Complicated Characters
Creator Peter Berg deliberately chose to set a different mood and tone by relying on natural rather than artificial light. Improvisation from the actors in encouraged, and instead of filming in a studio or shooting with stationary equipment, camera operators follow the characters and the action on and off the field. This documentary style is rarely used in scripted shows — although it works with similar effect on NBC's The Office — but it gives the cast a remarkable amount of freedom in their choices. The actors aren't worried about hitting marks or finding their light or anything but the moment. As a result, what sounds ordinary and formulaic on the page is transformed by the execution and performances. You'll peer through your fingers in embarrassment as Matt Saracen — awkwardly but determinedly — tries to work up the courage to ask out the coach's daughter, Julie, on a date. You'll laugh when Matt's best friend, Landry, finally decides to name his Christian speed metal band Crucifictorious. You'll wince as you watch Jason Street's family sues the coach for the accident that put their NFL-track son in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and you'll understand that it's not for personal reason but for financial ones. You'll completely buy that Tim Riggins would tackle a guy and start a fight in defense of Smash Williams, even though Smash and Riggins are anything but friends. You'll smile as Coach Taylor gives Julie a few pointers before she helms a Powerpuff football team. You'll see how much he loves his daughter and how much he loves the game and his excitement as two of the things he loves most meld together.

Eye Candy…and More
Shallow but true: FNL has one of the prettiest young casts in primetime. Also true: Almost every single one of them can honest-to-Pete act. Scott Porter's quadriplegic quarterback manages to convey strength and vulnerability simultaneously as he tries to cope with the fact that he'll never walk again, never mind play football. He forgave his girlfriend for sleeping with his best friend, but they both still struggle. Tall drink of water Adrienne Palecki did starlet work on the WB, including appearing in the buff on Smallville and a playing a pivotal role on Supernatural, before landing the role of Tyra Collette. Her brittle portrayal exceeds far beyond the stereotypical small town bad girl who has feelings, too. Former model Taylor Kitsch broods magnificently as loose canon Tim Riggins. His Canadian accent sometimes slips out over his drawl, and sometimes he relies too much on his hair to do the heavy emotive lifting, but he's made Riggins more than a kid going nowhere fast. Minka Kelly's turn as school sweetheart Lyla Garrity isn't as strong as the other portrayals, but she's improving as the season progresses.

Support Local Talent
Zach Gilford, who plays gawky rookie quarterback Matt Saracen, graduated from Evanston Township High School in 2000 before moving on to Northwestern University. He played for the Wildkits football team until an injury turned him toward acting. Gilford is in turns sweet and exasperating as a sophomore second-stringer who suddenly gets promoted to QB1. Matt lives at home with his senile grandmother, and his father returned to Iraq after a disastrous attempt to stay home in Dillon. He's dating the coach's daughter, and the wealth of this material gives Gilford the opportunity to gradually transform the shy kid into a more confident player and person. He carries the show, and does it well.

Eric and Tami Taylor
Kyle Chandler, formerly of Chicago-based Early Edition and currently cameoing on the bloated and self-involved dreck Grey's Anatomy, and Connie Britton — who played the coach's wife in the movie — have the most loving, real, grown-up relationship on TV. Eric has the pressure from the town, the boosters, the press and himself to manage on a daily basis. Tami provides support and any needed kicks in the ass. The Taylors are never less than honest with each other, and they often have arguments and disagreements about the town, football, their daughter or her work. But they obviously love each other immensely. Last week's episode continued a well-executed storyline about African-American players walking off the team after an assistant coach made racist comments during an interview. The Boosters want Eric to fire him, and Eric immediately goes to his wife, who works as the guidance counselor at the high school. He asks Tami's advice, first as the guidance counselor, then as his wife. When he doesn't agree with her, he grumbles, "Is there anyone else I can talk to?" She replies that as his friend, she gives him the same answer: he should do as the Boosters ask. As Eric leaves, he says, "All three of you scare me." But after Tami breaks down after a student forum about racism deteriorates into a shouting match and nearly a physical confrontation, Eric is nothing but supportive of her determination to help the students and give them a place to express their feelings. "You're my wife. And I'm damn proud of you."

I wrote this about the pilot last fall:

The story is from every sports movie ever, with the obvious plot points and outcome telegraphed in the first ten minutes. It is full of currently one-dimensional characters, including the boastful African-American who raps at a moment's notice, the underdog underclassman, the "slutty" girl who likes the nice boy, and the woobie. Yet, in spite of these drawbacks, I really liked it. Perhaps it's because I remember going to Friday night football games in Nebraska, which is another state that loves its football (Go Huskers!). Or, maybe I thought the depiction of class differences and family dynamics was spot on, as were the settings and the performances. Either way, give this series a shot. It's about much more than the game.

It's still true. Football is the metaphor, the machine driving the characters, the setting and the uniting-yet-decisive force for the people and the town. But Friday Night Lights is really about life and all of its messy glory, mistakes and victories and complications and loving support from family or friends. Your heart will turn over — and it will break, in the best and worst ways — every week.

This is the best show on network TV. Period. Watch it.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the CW's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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