By TOM MAURSTAD Media Critic
Dallas Morning News
02:45 PM CDT on Thursday, May 6, 2010
Friday Night Lights is the football show that isn't about football; it's the broadcast network show that isn't really like a broadcast network show.
But there's one thing that Friday Night Lights absolutely is: great television.
The NBC drama set in small-town Texas where life revolves around high-school football started out good. Going into its fourth season, which starts Friday at 7 p.m., it's just gotten better – richer, deeper and more confident. That's an unusual trajectory for TV shows, broadcast or cable.
The show stands out because it deals with its challenges head-on. High school is an assembly line, with new students coming in, old students going out. Rather than cling to the compelling cast of characters FNL developed in its first seasons – the hotshot-hothead running back "Smash" Williams, the paraplegic quarterback Jason Street, the smart party girl Tyra Collette – the writers and producers just blew up the show.
Characters grow up and out of the show. Season 4 even divides its central couple, Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife, Tami (Connie Britton). Coach Taylor has been dismissed from his beloved Dillon Panthers team and banished to East Dillon High School, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks school languishing from years of civic neglect. Tami remains principal at West Dillon, where she's caught between the clash of cultures.
The result is a reinvented show, applying its rock-solid foundation to a new set of challenges. The fourth season introduces a new set of student, faculty, parent characters – a troubled but promising young player, Vince (Michael B. Jordan ); the beautiful but conflicted Jess (Jurnee Smollett); her dad, Vernon, the former football star who's turned his back on the game (the welcome return of Steve Harris from The Practice).
It also opens up a new social dimension. Where the previous seasons of Dillon presented a tableau of white small-town life, this season takes viewers into minority (mostly black) small-town life. Don't expect The Wire, but this shift opens an incredibly rich reserve of storytelling drama.
There's Coach Taylor trying to rebuild a football program all but obliterated by years of neglect, leading him to take on the community's own devastation due to crime, drugs and, of course, racism.
Then there are the problems and challenges of being a teenager (or the parent of one) that FNL has always dealt with.
A few familiar faces return for Season 4 – Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden). But in another reflection of this show's willingness to embrace change, all of them are either out of school or on their way to somewhere else.
That's just one of the many differences making Friday Night Lights so extraordinary. For a show so superficially traditional, even conservative, at its core, it's downright radical.
One way it expresses that radical spirit is in the use of quiet, just when things are blowing up or spiraling out of control.
In one scene this season, a pregnant 16-year-old goes to Tami looking for adult guidance. The two of them talk about one of the most hotly divisive issues in America. As their talk gets deeper and deeper, their voices get softer and softer.
Then there's a scene between Coach Taylor and Matt, his former quarterback and his daughter's true love. Matt is in crisis. He's just suffered a devastating loss; he doesn't have words to express what he's feeling, and even if he did, he couldn't. He runs out of the house and into the street. Coach follows him, catches up, and simply says, "I'll walk you home." Off they slowly shuffle into the night, neither saying a word.
All you can manage as you watch is to shake your head in wonder and silently mouth, "Wow."
Friday Night Lights
7 p.m. Friday, NBC (Channel 5). 1 hr. (8 p.m. Eastern)