The series has its roots in a 1990 non-fiction book by H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, which chronicled the 1988 season of the Panthers football team from Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. That inspired the 2004 film starring Billy Bob Thornton, and in 2006 NBC debuted its own series set in fictional Dillon, Texas.
Many of my friends hear the show is good, but respond with this: "I'm just not really a football fan." Let's set the record straight: This is not a show about football. It's a show about family and friends, life and love, with football used as a backdrop tying all of the characters and themes together, a vehicle to tell stories and impart lessons that will make all of us better people.
There are nearly a dozen prime characters in this series, with the Taylor family at the center: Eric (Kyle Chandler) is the family man and football coach, as wife Tami (Connie Britton) juggles a guidance counselor position at Dillon High with her parenting of daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden); former benchwarmer Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), now the starting quarterback who also takes care of his grandmother while his father is stationed in Iraq; running back Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), the cocky star of the team; trouble magnet Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), the talented fullback with a healthy sex life and a drinking problem; former star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), confined to a wheelchair after a spine injury on the field in the first episode of Season 1; his former girlfriend (and former cheerleader) Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), daughter of car dealer and football fanatic Buddy (Brad Leland); Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), a troubled beauty who sometimes shuns the football fanfare and hopes for something better; and Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), Matt's geeky, joke-cracking friend who takes a bigger role this cycle.
Season 2 opens up at summer's end, nearly eight months after the end of Season 1, and the writers decided to throw us many curveballs. Coach Taylor has accepted a QB coaching position at Texas Methodist University in Austin, while his family stays in Dillon and the team tries to adjust to the more aggressive style of Coach MacGregor (Chris Mulkey). Tami goes into labor in the opening scenes to deliver daughter Gracie, an event that helps contribute to Julie's growing frustration and distance from her friends and family. She soon breaks up with Matt, leaving both of them to explore other romances.
Smash spends much of the time navigating college recruiters as he tries to figure out where to go to school, but gets challenges from his fellow Panthers, who fear he doesn't have a team mentality; his mother (Liz Mikel), who stresses an education; and some townspeople, who disapprove of his relationship with a white woman, bringing more racial issues to the forefront and leading to a big change in his story arc.
Jason searches for a new purpose after failing to make the quad rugby team, and may have found a fit as an assistant coach, but former best friend Tim has regressed to his drinking ways, alienating virtually everyone he comes in contact with. Lyla goes through one of the biggest transformations, finding a calling with the Christ Teen Messengers to spread the word of God. It's a radical shift for the character that at first seems like a stretch, but the writers--and Minka Kelly--do a fantastic job of making it work perfectly, and don't make the performance a caricature. They treat the material with a maturity that won't alienate anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The relationship between Tyra and Landry has grown, and takes a dramatic leap at the end of the first episode with the return of Tyra's stalker. It leads to a decision that is the only misstep of Season 2, a slightly sensationalized storyline that seems out of place in this otherwise believable world. It still allows for meaningful scenes and character development that succeed on their own, but that same evolution could have been achieved with more realistic decisions and plot devices.
And while these characters get the most screen time, the supporting players are the ones you'll be clamoring for: Mikel continues to shine as a single mother trying to help her son make good decisions; Louanne Stephens also supplies some heart and soul as grandma Saracen; Kevin Rankin elicits the most laughs per line as Jason's annoying yet hilarious pal/roommate Herc; and Derek Phillips is perfect as Tim's older brother Billy, who has problems keeping a job as he tries to play father to his younger brother--but still shows love and compassion beneath all the disappointment. (It's a relationship that will hopefully get more development, and felt under-explored to me this season.)
Plenty of new faces leave an impression: We finally get to meet Landry's parents, including protective father Chad (Glenn Morshower), who questions Tyra's intentions; Carlotta (Daniella Alonso), grandma Saracen's new live-in caregiver, provides a distraction for Matt; and Tami's sister Shelly (Jessalyn Gilsig) moves in to help out with the baby, and stirs up emotions in the process. But the strongest addition to the cast for me was Santiago (Benny Ciaramello), a troubled youth fresh out of a two-year stint in a juvenile detention center. He attracts the attention of Lyla, who tries to live up to her newfound spirituality by helping someone in need. Santiago soon gets a job at Buddy Garrity's car dealership, and strikes up an odd yet promising relationship with Lyla's father that helps both men grow--and both actors display some great chops. Their scenes together were some of my favorite of the season; here's hoping Santiago becomes an official regular cast member. (Also watch for a brief appearance from Mark Zupan of Murderball fame in Episode 2, and executive producer/writer Berg in the finale).
This truly is an ensemble cast, and you can pick virtually any performer to praise. And when you combine that with writing that is so relatable, so realistic, so heartfelt (it's clear the writers care a great deal about each and every character), you have that kind of remarkable series that doesn't come along much. This portrayal of middle class American life is not just something that is entertaining, but something everyone can appreciate, learn from and become a better person by watching. By focusing on what's good in people, the show forces you to think about your own dreams, relationships and faults. None of these characters fit any type of stereotype--you may initially peg someone as "the bitch" or "the villain" but quickly realize there is depth and complexity under the surface.
But it's not just the writers and actors that are able to convey care and compassion. The scenes are filmed with three hand-held cameras, and the actors never have "marks", go through technical rehearsals or have to worry about much lighting. It doesn't just free them up to exist "in the moment," it allows the camera operators to tell a story by having the freedom to find the right shots. The action breathes, existing outside of a traditional filmmaking process, giving each scene a real-life feeling (also aided by the Austin filming locations and use of locals as extras).
It's incomprehensible to me that this show hasn't been nominated for more Emmys. It's a crime that Chandler and Britton haven't received lead acting recognition (the show wins for Best Casting, yet fails to land one acting nomination?!), and that the show didn't land a Best Drama Series nod. The chemistry between Chandler and Britton is simply amazing...they just click, and have an indescribable rapport with each other. You'd swear they were a real couple in a documentary. The two navigate their characters with heart, and (like the whole cast) excel in saying a lot with few words. You want to know these people, and you feel like you do. Chandler is both a tough coach and a tender family man, while Britton is a revelation as Tami, the woman everyone can go to for advice. Britton is able to convey so much with her face, and even stands out when she's in the background, out of focus (watch her reaction when her sister flirts with Tim Riggins).
This show has a lot in common with another one of my favorite all-times series, Once and Again. Like that ABC gem, Friday Night Lights excels in finding those moments between people, those little magical nuggets that make you think, make you feel, make you explore your own character. Shows like this don't come along often, and if they have a message in common, it's to do the right thing, to learn and grow from your faults, to not be afraid of forgiving. This is a show about adults and kids, and how we all grow up.
Despite high praise from critics and a vocal, rabid fan base, the series suffered low ratings (from the network's perspective, anyway), and due to the writers' strike in late 2007 and early 2008, the 22-episode run of Season 2 was cut to 15, with no new episodes filmed after the strike's end. That led to a slightly unfulfilled feeling after such a satisfying Season 1, with not enough closure on some issues. And for a while, it was questionable whether there would ever be closure. But it now appears that the series will thankfully live on. In April, NBC announced a deal with DirecTV, which will get the first-run of a new 13-episode season in October. NBC will then air those same episodes starting in early 2009. Fewer episodes are better than none, and while I want as many shows of this series as I can get, it's nice to know that the writers have a set season to work with. And if the deal proves successful, the series will hopefully be around for a long time.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!
1. Last Days of Summer (aired 10/5/07) Coach Taylor returns to town when Tami goes into labor and realizes how much things have changed. Elsewhere, Julie flirts with a guy at the pool; and Tyra appoints Landry as her protector. Includes 3 deleted scenes (4:20).
5. Let's Get It On (aired 11/2/07) Coach Taylor comes home to a team in chaos, fueled by Matt and Smash's feud. Elsewhere, Riggins seeks Lyla's help in dissuading Street from surgery, and Landry takes comfort in football as he struggles for control in his life. Includes 2 deleted scenes (1:41).
10. There Goes the Neighborhood (aired 1/4/08) The Panthers host a rival team whose school was hit by a tornado; Tami, Julie and Riggins adjust to their new living situation; Lyla's mom plans to remarry; and Landry and Tyra attempt to put the murder behind them. Includes 3 deleted scenes (3:00).
Three of the episodes have full-length audio commentary: executive producer Jason Katims and co-executive producer Jeffrey Reiner on Episode 1; actors Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden on Episode 3; and actors Adrianne Palicki and Jesse Plemons on Episode 10. I'm never really a big fan of commentaries in general, but it's nice to hear all of them chime in with their thoughts on the writing, fellow actors and the series.
Rounding out the bonus features is an interview with the cast and crew from a panel discussion (36:10) at the William S. Paley Television Festival, presented in full frame. This took place after Season 1, but before they knew if Season 2 was going to happen. Berg and Katims are joined by Chandler (Coach Taylor), Britton (Tami), Gilford (Matt), Teegarden (Julie), Kelly (Lyla), Porter (Jason), Plemons (Landry) and Kitsch (Tim). It's an entertaining conversation with a lot of laughs as the actors talk about casting and filming (highlights include Kelly's "Heroin 101" comment and the crew's attempt to get the Canadian out of Kitsch).