NOW THAT NBC is clearing out a patch of prime time by moving Jay Leno to a later time slot, maybe it can make room for a show that truly deserves more attention.
I'm talking (once again) about "Friday Night Lights", the drama about a small Texas town and the trials of the people within it. Now in its fourth season, it's by far one of the best shows around (don't rely on my judgment; hardly any serious TV critic disagrees). But, for some strange reason, very few people seem to know about it, let alone seen it.
That's in part because, beginning with the first season, NBC never found time or day to run the show. It started off opposite "Dancing With the Stars," which, for reasons I will never understand, is one of the most popular shows on television. Then, I seem to recall, they experimented with it on a Sunday, and later settled -- believe or not -- on Friday nights, where I understand it generated a little more of a following.
Season Four, though, which began in the fall, ran on Direct TV, the satellite network. Fortunately for me, I'm a Direct TV subscriber, so I'm at least -- I don't know -- seven or eight episodes into the season. But for all those who don't have Direct TV, they will have to wait until NBC decides to air the show, which, I read somewhere, may not be until late this spring. There may also be a way to watch this season on Hulu, or one of those online TV channels, I'm not sure. But if you haven't seen it before this year, I recommend renting DVDs of the earlier seasons, just to catch the story arc.
It's a shame, not only because I have no one to talk with about the new episodes (other than my wife, who is also hooked on the show), but also because "Friday Night Lights" reflects so much on real life. I shows the authentic strains, sorrows, anxieties - and, every once in awhile -- exhilaration people feel as they try to make a living, repair a relationship, overcome a terrible hardship, cobble together a functioning organization, win the big game or find away to get of this struggling town.
Ostensibly, the show, created by Peter Berg and based on a non-fiction book by Buzz Bissinger, revolves around the culture of high school football, which is, to be sure, treated as religion in some parts of Texas and beyond (or so I'm told).
But football is really not what it's about. Rather the show revolves around a football coach and his wife, principal of the high school, who face the challenges that nearly everyone does in America: trying to find a way to communicate with family; coping with exceptional political battles in their workplaces; and ministering to players and students, whose own parents seem to have left them with little to survive.
There is something about the situations -- often perilous and sometimes trivial (but that's how life is, isn't it?) -- that will ring true to most of us, and they touch on many of the social issues of our time: economic downturn, a nation at war, race, homosexuality, death in the family, the care of an ailing relative, catastrophic illness, alcoholism, teenage sex, parents who care too little and set a bad example, and parents who care too much and set a bad example. Okay, that makes the show sound like a real downer; it's not always, though these characters probably have more than anyone's fair share of trouble (artistic license).
The performances are absolutely convincing and complex. Eric Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler (above)is the coach: brilliant, yet misunderstood and manipulated; hard driving on and sometimes profane the practice field and inspiring and loving to his players, as they turn to him to help them out of one painful jam after another.
His wife, Tammy Taylor (Connie Britton, also above), struggles to keep control of a boisterous high school. She wins the respect of her staff and students but can't always connect with a sullen daughter (Aimee Teegarden) who is finding her own way through the emotional battlefield that teens face. Her boyfriend (Zach Gilford) is a taciturn artist, who fell into the starting quarterback position, with all its pressures for perfection, and feels trapped by his devotion for an aging grandmother, for whom he is the only caretaker.
There are many other characters, but few as nuanced and suprising as Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), the star fullback of the team, who projects a shiftless, outlaw-like personality to much of the outside world, but, in spite of some failings, is turning into an almost moral, ethical touchstone to the rest of the characters. You feel bad for him, stuck, so it seems, with few options, but you also get the sense that this is one guy who will make it out of here alive.
In short, it's a lot more real than the so-called "reality shows," which I think deserve to be referred to as "contrived reality shows" -- reality as defined by some bizarre conventions of show biz. It really is one of those shows that everyone ought to be talking about around the water cooler at work -- except that too few have actually seen enough of it.