By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Extraordinary in just about every conceivable way -- but especially in the quality of its cast -- NBC's "Friday Night Lights" expands upon and extends the 2004 movie of the same name about high school football in a Texas town where the game is only nominally a game. It's also a community obsession, a religion, a way of life, a source of energy and an excessively cherished institution.
Onto the harshly lit field of dreams each Friday night come the young Panthers -- the No. 1 team in the state -- in whom the townsfolk place entirely too much importance. Even though "Friday Night Lights" exposes the banalities of the central ritual and its reverberations, it isn't judgmental or prone to ridicule. The production is so skillfully done that even skeptics, even people who hate football, could easily be caught up in the drama and the melodrama, the grand opera and the soap opera, that come with the game and with the territory.
The series could well mark a milestone in the television career of Peter Berg, who directed the motion picture and is the chief creative force behind the series. On the basis of the craftsmanship and showmanship evident in the first two episodes (tonight's premiere is basically a remake of the film), Berg could be the next TV "auteur" in the tradition of Steven Bochco, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley and others in a select and prestigious group.
An actor himself, Berg lets the brilliant young talents in the cast shine as brightly as they can, especially Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen, who starts the season not knowing that greatness is going to be thrust upon him (whether he likes it or not), and Minka Kelly as Lyla Garrity, the girlfriend of the star quarterback in whose footsteps Saracen may have to follow.
There's an unusual number of strikingly beautiful young women in the cast, thus upholding what is either myth or tradition about Texas, but none of them is just a pretty face. Nor are the women consigned to the background while the scripts focus on the players themselves. "Friday Night Lights" is as much about the town, its people, culture and subcultures as it is about the rallying point that brings them together.
It doesn't necessarily bond them all in a common cause, either. A young man named Taylor Kitsch plays Tim Riggins, a white running back with a seemingly race-based animosity toward a teammate, Gaius Charles as Brian "Smash" Williams, who is African American. Their simmering feud is one of several plot strands that are woven together in a dynamic group portrait.
Kyle Chandler stars as the team's coach; he has graduated to head coach of this much-watched team in the year that is also scheduled to be the last for its celebrated quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter) -- who, it's assumed, will go on to even greater glory in college and perhaps professional sports. But the coach faces a crisis in the premiere that shakes his faith in himself and his own future; suddenly the possibilities seem anything but limitless, and a year that was already bound to be challenging turns into a potentially crippling ordeal.
The series is full of individual dramas, bites of life and bursts of local color. Clearly the game doesn't bring out the best in everybody. There's an aura of menace behind the bravado, especially in the way local businessmen subject the coach to constant pressure; nothing less than victory on the field is acceptable. The coach has to keep his balance as he is being poked and prodded, and stuffed with food, from every direction.
Chandler, who has a long list of past series to his credit, makes the character credible and empathetic. He doesn't seem to have completely bought into the ethos but knows what he must do to make the game work to his advantage -- how the team's performance will be used as a club to beat him over the head or a platform from which he can take bows and be blown kisses. Connie Britton also contributes a strong performance as the coach's understanding and dutifully supportive wife, Tami.
She's supportive now, as is the town, but it's obvious that things can change around these parts, and in a hurry.
Each of the first two episodes -- and presumably subsequent installments -- is structured around a week in the life of the city, with Friday night the looming climax. About a quarter of the pilot is given over to the actual game, but in the second episode -- well, you'll have to see it to find out. The crescendo in that episode is actually reached on Thursday night: an incredible scene between Chandler and Gilford, alone together on the field in the dark of night, with the coach telling the kid, "It's yours for the taking," but it all "depends on how much you want it."
It's hard to recall a more powerful confrontation in a piece of episodic television, at least so far this century. Chandler and Gilford are electrifying.
"Friday Night Lights" shows every sign of being the best new drama series of the season, though it's harder and harder to make these assessments as television grows somehow more fluid and fluctuating. In other words, it's the best new drama if the quality of the first two episodes can be maintained over the long haul.
About the only other reservation one might have regarding the show is the way it's photographed, a documentary style that apparently dictates that every scene be shot with a hand-held camera that never stops moving, or at least jiggling. The larger your TV screen, the more this may irritate you. It often looks as though scenes were shot on the sly by an undercover camera crew that didn't want to be discovered. Even when two people simply sit at a table and talk, there's as much gyration as if they were on an airplane during a patch of turbulence.
Perhaps it enhances the visual authenticity even as it drives some of us batty. But it's not an omnipresent problem nor, for that matter, a party pooper. "Friday Night Lights" is too good in too many other details to let that one hold it back; the performances alone are worth tuning in to see, but watching the bits and pieces come together, and being swept up in the show's powerful emotional pull, can be pure exhilaration. "Friday Night Lights" is great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV.
Friday Night Lights (one hour) premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 4.