Review: 'Friday Night Lights'
Compelling look at small-town life is authentic to the core
That authenticity extends to almost every level of the production on the NBC series, which is one of the two or three best new shows of the season (along with "Heroes" and "The Nine"). In painting a portrait of a town that lives for its high-school football team, creator Peter Berg nails nearly every detail, from big issues like race and faith to small notes like overzealous boosters (including one amusingly played by University of Texas coach Mack Brown) and the "Gone to the Game" signs in windows of local businesses on Fridays.
"Friday Night Lights" is based on the book and movie of the same title, both of which took a real high school, Odessa Permian, in the late 1980s as their subject. Berg, who wrote and directed the film and does the same in the show's first episode, updates the story to the present day in the fictional town of Dillon, a smallish city not that different from Odessa.
Kyle Chandler stars as Eric Taylor, the new coach of the highly ranked Dillon Panthers. A TV crew is following the team, and the locals are already wondering if he's up to the job. Coach Taylor doesn't betray publicly that he's worried, but Chandler, in a fine, understated performance, lets us see the strain he's under through subtle gestures and intimate moments with his wife, Tami (Connie Britton, more or less reprising her role from the movie).
The relationship between Eric and Tami is at the heart of the show. She understands the pressure he's under and is unwaveringly supportive, but she also gently pokes at the bubble he retreats into in the days leading up to a game. It's an honest look at a marriage, and Britton and Chandler are entirely believable as husband and wife.
Panthers players, and the other students who orbit around them, are well-drawn as well, from the star quarterback (Scott Porter) who's trying not to let the attention go to his head, to his buried-on-the-bench backup (Zach Gilford) who also has to look after his grandmother, to the talented but volatile backfield duo (Gaius Charles and Taylor Kitsch) who can't stand each other off the field (and for whom race is a present, but not overwhelming, source of tension) but work together beautifully on it.
The premiere episode revolves around the team's first game, and it contains some of the best football action ever featured on television. Future episodes, though, will delve deeper into the lives of the players and the town (the second covers the week leading up to the game but ends at kickoff), and there is a wealth of material on which to draw.
Issues of race, love, expectations, the pressure a town can place on a team -- they're all on the table in "Friday Night Lights," but Berg and Co. don't overplay any one of them. Also remarkable is the completely unremarkable way the show treats faith and religion; Sunday church services and a pre-game prayer are just a part of life in Dillon, and it's one more aspect of the show that rings true.
"Friday Night Lights" could easily have been a one-note show about the ups and downs of a football team. By stepping back to take in a larger picture, though, the series rises way above that and strikes a hugely compelling chord.