'Friday Night Lights' Shines in a Vast Wasteland

Taylor Kitsch, left, Scott Porter and Gaius Charles in NBC's heart-winning and ratings-poor drama series about a Texas town's passion for high school football.
Taylor Kitsch, left, Scott Porter and Gaius Charles in NBC's heart-winning and ratings-poor drama series about a Texas town's passion for high school football. (By Paul Drinkwater -- Nbc Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Some of us who have discovered "Friday Night Lights," NBC's tense and sensitive drama about football and religion at a Texas high school, are as passionate about the fictitious Dillon Panthers as some people are about the Washington Redskins or the St. Louis Cardinals or any other real sports team, no matter the game.

Football is so much more than a game to these Texas townsfolk, especially now that the Panthers' star quarterback, paralyzed from an injury in the opening game, is biding his time and turning bitter in a rehab clinic. As the season progresses -- the TV season and the Panthers' season -- actors such as Scott Porter (as quarterback Jason Street) and Zach Gilford (as Matt Saracen, his perhaps temporary replacement) get to show increasing range and depth.

They and the rest of a dazzlingly perfect cast -- including Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor (his first name does seem to be "Coach") -- are working their hearts out, and the series easily seems to be the best new drama. But the ratings for "Friday Night Lights" have been disappointing -- so disappointing that there is cause to worry whether the Panthers will still be around when this TV season ends.

At least NBC executives are trying to give the show a few breaks. A fresh episode is scheduled to air next Monday night at 10, in the time slot normally squandered on that pomposity "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," also known as Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme's revenge on NBC for not renewing "The West Wing" through the year 2525.

"Friday Night Lights," based on the 2004 film, is the "Platoon" of high school football -- the story of the embattled infantry as well as of the officers in the field, reverberant with metaphorical and microcosmic echoes. Thus, viewers can come off a weekend of football satiated with the sport and still find fascination in producer-creator Peter Berg's realistic saga of how The Game affects life in this town -- not just affects it, but also overwhelms it.

The Texan local color is shrewdly observed, but most of what happens in "Friday Night Lights" could be happening in the Midwest or in California or in suburban Washington -- could be, and probably is.

In tonight's episode, the coach and the team prepare for one of the biggest games of the season against an absolute and ruthless arch-rival, so arch that there's a nastily upheld tradition of staging raids and attacks on the other team's territory. The enemy begins by trashing the Panthers' training facility; warfare escalates with a brick thrown through Coach Taylor's window. The note attached: "Die, Panther Pigs."

Taylor cautions against retaliation, but he knows the plea is futile, and soon a squad of Panthers is laying waste to an " '02 red Mustang" that belongs to the other team's captain. Of all people, the innocent Saracen is the only one caught at the scene of the crime, but good soldier that he is -- and although he will suffer for his nobility -- he refuses to name names. These towns are like medieval villages sending out war parties to pillage and plunder.

Berg came up with the haunting war cry "Clear eyes, full hearts." Lovely, although keeping clear eyes while enduring the show's herky-jerky camera work is no easy feat.

In a Q and A on the NBC Web site, Berg addressed the problem without conceding it's a problem: "It's definitely not our intention to make anyone dizzy or sick," Berg said of the bob-and-weave shooting. Although he suggested there might be some modulation of the current "where's-my-Dramamine?" approach, Berg also said he is determined to maintain the show's "realistic visual look."

Beneath that look, "Friday Night Lights" has plenty of realism -- as well as passion, soul and heart at levels rare in episodic TV.

The show raises innumerable troubling questions and refrains from supplying the usual easy answers. Even as the earnest and upright Saracen, for instance, tries desperately to fill the fallen quarterback's cleats -- and to watch over the borderline-senile granny with whom he lives -- cold-blooded plans are afoot to replace him with a brassier, sassier quarterback who has just transferred to Dillon. Arrogant and self-obsessed, the new player -- who became available because Hurricane Katrina washed away his house and school -- has the kind of intimidating confidence that Saracen lacks.

All eyes are not on either quarterback, however; they're on Coach Taylor, whom blowhard boosters expect to deliver victories at almost any cost. Even the coach's wife, well-played by Connie Britton, is beginning to lose faith in him. At a party she's obliged to give for the team and its followers, she and the coach argue under a table, then emerge smiling so no one will know.

NBC seems to have a number of shows -- dramas and comedies -- sitting in inappropriate time slots. The network should be stripping "Deal or No Deal" at 8 p.m. across the board, thus giving everything that airs at 9 p.m. the advantage of a powerhouse lead-in. But programming, like football, is full of confounding complications.

Even so, and whatever it takes, a place just has to be found for "Friday Night Lights" on the prime-time schedule. It has already won a place in many a serious viewer's heart.

Friday Night Lights (one hour) airs Tuesdays at 8 on Channel 4.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company