Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Television review: 'Friday Night Lights'

The journey continues for Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and wife Tami (Connie Britton) on a show that proves TV quality can triumph.

By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
October 27, 2010

Like AMC's " Mad Men," "Friday Night Lights" has an industry resonance, and social significance, that far outstrips the size of its audience. A critical darling from the get-go, NBC's adaptation of the book/film of the same name elbowed its way among the urban cop dramas and upscale family shows four seasons ago, offering Dillon, Texas, instead of a coastal city or moneyed suburb, modest single-stories instead of Craftsman or lofts, and folks living lives that included church, Sunday dinner and, of course, high school football.

The numbers weren't good, but the fans and the critics remained stalwart and for once the network listened. After the writers strike cut Season 2 in half, NBC made a deal with DirecTV, which now shares costs and airs episodes a half-season before they appear on NBC.

Did the experiment work? Well, stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton got their — and DirecTV's — first Emmy nominations this year, which shocked even those who felt they were long overdue. Subsequently, "Friday Night Lights" moved out of bubble-show-turned-distribution experiment and back onto the magazine covers just in time for the fifth, and final, season.

Dillon, of course, remains oblivious. Much, and nothing, has changed under that wide, flat Texas sky. Time has passed, of course, but the mood remains one of struggle. The season premiere opens not with the exultation of Coach Eric Taylor's (Chandler) scrappy East Dillon Lions beating his former team, now the Dillon Panthers, but with the grim realization that he's going to have to build this team up from scratch. His wife, Tami (Britton), is on a similar journey — having been forced out of her job as principal of Dillon High, she is now a guidance counselor at East Dillon, coping with the school's poverty and her own lack of authority. Many of the young folk who have not already left town are on their way out, including the Taylors' older daughter Julie ( Aimee Teegarden) and the stalwart Landry ( Jesse Plemons).

Meanwhile, Tim ( Taylor Kitsch) is doing the time that should be his brother's, and coming to terms with the small print of his decision — perpetual gratitude is not a comfortable state for either party. Vince (Michael B. Jordan) is using his own father issues to help Jess ( Jurnee Smollett) care for her two young brothers while Becky (Madison Burge) is stuck with her stepmother, who is so horrible she smokes in front of her baby.

Indifferent to renewed recognition or the knowledge its own demise, the show proceeds at its own quiet but determined pace. The characters are allowed to converse rather than banter, and their manner is awkward as often as it is revelatory. And the camera noses its way into the action from all angles — focusing on Coach Taylor's hands one moment, later peering through curtains and up from the foot of the bed like a mildly curious and utterly nonjudgmental hound dog.

Only on the football field do executive producer Peter Berg and his team give way to sentimental formula; as in the season finale and so many episodes before it, the premiere features a game dominated by one- and two-play touchdown drives that is won in the final seconds.

But considering that this is precisely how "Friday Night Lights" has lived most of its life — last-minute reprieves born of deep personal devotion — it is a flaw that is easily forgiven. The show, and its survival, offers proof that quality can triumph in an industry driven by quantity and that even though necessity is the more fertile of the two, poetry can also be a fine mother to invention.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

Brilliant ‘Lights’

Television’s best drama begins its final season in winning fashion

By Mark A. Perigard
The Boston Herald
Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Friday Night Lights: A

You can tell a series has achieved a certain measure of popularity when viewers start to consider the characters as people they’d like to hang with - think “Lost’s” Sawyer or “Chuck’s” super-spy Sarah.

Then some characters become like family.

So it is with “Friday Night Lights,” which opens its fifth and final season on DirecTV tonight. (Don’t worry, NBC will air the episodes in January as part of the series’ production deal.)

In “Expectations,” written by David Hudgins and directed by Michael Waxman, it’s August, and coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and guidance counselor wife Tami (Connie Britton) brace themselves for the departure of oldest daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) to college.

For Julie, it’s no big deal. She’s impatient to start the rest of her life. For her parents, it’s a major upheaval.

The usually taciturn Eric becomes nostalgic, dragging out the family pingpong table for one last “championship game.” He finds Julie’s Girl Scout sash and says, “I’m gonna miss getting sick eating all those cookies with you.”

(Story continues below)On any other show, this would go down like a glass of cola mixed with honey. Here it feels as if you’re eavesdropping on a family’s most intimate moments.

Also heading off to college: Landry (Jesse Plemons), who makes a pit stop that will resonate with longtime viewers.

There’s always a new season of high school football just around the bend. Eric hunts for new recruits, even if it means poaching the school’s top basketball prospect, a brainy transfer student named Hastings Ruckle (Grey Damon), who believes football “celebrates the worst instincts of American culture.”

Chandler, who deserves an Emmy for just his facial expressions, reacts as if he heard someone pledge allegiance to Satan.

“You live in Texas now. You love the game of football. You just don’t know it yet.”

Tami gets off to a rocky start as East Dillon High’s newest counselor by suggesting improvements to a jaded faculty.

Meanwhile, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) languishes behind bars, with three months left on his sentence, assuming he can stay out of trouble. His guilty brother Billy (Derek Phillips) turns to an unlikely source for help. With her father working out of town, Jess (Jurnee Smollett) struggles to take care of her younger brothers.

As part of the show’s final season, expect appearances from several longtime favorites, including Jason (Scott Porter), Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and Matt (Zach Gilford).

“Friday Night Lights” used high school football as a vehicle to explore plainly and authentically the way in which people live, struggle and thrive in small towns. It just might be the finest scripted series on prime time.

Regardless of how the coach’s team performed, fans have always been able to say, well, there’s always next season.

No longer. That final farewell looming ahead already looks to be the hardest. Who wants to say goodbye to family?

Season premiere tonight at 9 on DirecTV.

A Swan Song To Great Television

Scott Tunstall
Oct 27, 2010

Friday Night Lights, the little show that could, will begin its fifth and final season tonight on DirecTV’s 101 Network. For the small, yet dedicated, fanbase who have followed the series from its inception in 2006, it comes as bittersweet news that the long, strange journey will reach an end in a few short months.

On the surface, FNL was about high school football, which may have had something to do with its less than positive reception. Sports, in general, has never been the most appealing subject matter for serialized television. Sadly, some avid TV watchers dismissed the series without ever giving it a real chance. It would be their loss.

NBC tried to find an audience in 2006 and 2007 by shifting it around the schedule, but it was all for naught. No amount of jockeying worked, so the Peacock partnered up with DirecTV and shipped the show to the fledgling 101 Network, where it managed to carve out a niche for itself, before being rebroadcast on NBC. The deal saved Friday Night Lights and those fortunate enough to see all four seasons were treated to some truly great episodic storytelling.

Football merely served as a launching point for the everyday goings-on in a small fictional Texas town. Marital struggles, family squabbles, troubled friendships, fading first love, broken dreams, careers at a crossroads and the pitfalls of adulthood defined a group of complex characters living simple lives devoid of artifice.

For the most part, the series eschewed melodrama and preachiness. Instead, it focused on relatable problems common to everyone, no matter their socioeconomic background. Lower, middle and upper class existence was placed under the microscope, as was cultural and educational inequality. The writers left no stone unturned in their attempt to create disparate personalities united by one central theme — high school football.

The sport played on a 100-yard field with an odd looking ball was not only critical to the plot, but it also affected each and every character. It was used to teach, motivate and shape, young and old alike. Its inherent drama paralleled the trials and tribulations of those who played it, coached it, cheered for it and condemned it. The game represented the passion and hope of a community. A community divided by politics, race and what side of town a person called home.

Football remained the one constant throughout. While names, faces and relationships changed, the game stayed exactly the same. It kept families together and provided a safe haven for those in need. It offered an opportunity to be extraordinary for those destined to be ordinary. It was a chance to achieve greatness when greatness was in short supply. It created lasting memories for those who stepped on its field, paced on its sidelines and sat in its bleachers.

Friday Night Lights was about football, but it was also about people. A husband and wife who loved and supported one another in the darkest of times. A rebellious daughter eager to spread her wings. A quiet outcast forced to grow up too soon. A brooding loner struggling to walk the straight and narrow path. And a host of others who made the tiny hamlet of Dillon, Texas an endearing place to inhabit for the last five years.

Smart, thought-provoking, well-intentioned television is hard to find these days. There are plenty of good shows to go around, but very few included such a detailed and authentic view of small town America as did Friday Night Lights. It showed the best and worst in all of us and did so in a natural, unapologetic style. We cared about the characters and shared in their moments of joy, laughter, heartache and sadness. It might not have been the most watched series, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be missed.

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