[06/07/06 - 12:00 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Friday Night Lights" (NBC)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

Please note: As a courtesy, please do not reproduce these comments to newsgroups, forums or other online places. Links only please.

With the official start of the 2006-07 season less than three months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month or so previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at one of the 39 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.

There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entry:

(Tuesdays at 8:00/7:00c this fall)

The network's description: "Expanding on the themes from the hit feature film "Friday Night Lights," this series centers on the small rural town of Dillon, Texas, where the vaunted 2006 state football championship rings are held in the highest regard. The town's promising high school team, its star quarterback, and newly appointed head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, "Grey's Anatomy," "King Kong") feel the mounting pressure of the town's pride and honor riding on their shoulders as a new season kicks off. The fresh cast also includes: Scott Porter ("All My Children") as team captain and first-string quarterback Jason Street; Gaius Charles ("The Book of Daniel") as feared running back Brian "Smash" Williams; Taylor Kitsch ("Kyle XY") as running back Tim Riggins; Connie Britton ("The Brothers McMullen," "24") as Taylor's long-suffering wife, Tami; Zach Gilford ("The Last Winter") as third-string quarterback Matt Saracen, and Minka Kelly ("What I Like About You") as Lyla Garrity, Panther cheerleader and Street's girlfriend. Also starring are Aimee Teegarden ("Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide") as Julie Taylor and Adrienne Palicki ("South Beach") as Tyra Collette."

What did they leave out: It's literally like watching the movie again - same writer, same director, same basic plot, same dramatic themes, same handheld camerawork, same twangy score (west Texas indie band Explosions In The Sky) - and that's a good thing.

The plot in a nutshell: Essentially a present-day reimagining of Peter Berg's 2004 film (who himself returns as writer/director), this time with Kyle Chandler in the lead role of head coach Eric Taylor. After five years as the offensive coordinator of the famed Dillon Panthers, he's been promoted to head coach. And with said role comes all sorts of pressures, most notably the demand to bring home the Texas state championship. Much like the film, we see Taylor being prodded by anyone and everyone with their advice on how to win, not to mention talk radio shows second guessing everything he does and the ever-present local media circling the team like vultures. In his corner though are the team's two superstar athletes - nice guy quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), on his way to a Notre Dame scholarship, and motormouth running back Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), whose talent is only surpassed by his ego. We're also introduced to Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the team's shy backup quarterback who "got to hold a few extra points last year" and hard-living fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) who lives in the shadow of his brother and doesn't get along with Smash. They're analogous to the various leads from the film version with a few slight deviations. Unlike the film however, there's a significant effort put into building up the female characters, which include Eric's wife Tami (Connie Britton) and daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) as well as Jason and Tim's girlfriends - nice girl cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) and the flirtacious Tyra Collette (Adrienne Palicki), respectively, the latter of which is looking to trade up. The pilot then tracks the first week of the season (title cards count us down from Monday to Friday) and most importantly, the team's first game, against an upstart team with a knack for running lots of counters and fake run plays. From there, we hit all the film's plot beats including the "big injury" and the nailbitting finale.

What works: I cannot stress enough how perfectly the film has been translated to the small screen. This isn't the "TV version," this literally could have been the film itself. Plain and simple: if you were a fan of the movie, you'll be doing cartwheels after seeing this. I only wish Berg could direct every episode - he just brings something special to the table. He makes it a show about small, fleeting moments - whether it be Jason and Lyla sweetly flirting about his football talents or the team giving pointers to the local PeeWee club or a brief shot of the crowd all holding up crossed fingers when one of their heroes goes down - against the backdrop of the huge, pressure-filled world of Texas football. Holding it all together is Chandler, who not only gets the pilot's best line ("Saracen, quarterbacks are captains"), but also feels like a real person - not only a coach but also a dad and a husband. Just as strong is the relatively "unknown" ensemble cast that again, makes you feel like these are all real teenagers living in a small town. And most importantly, I dare you not to let out a "woo-hoo" in the game's final moments. It's just a genuine pleasure to watch this show.

What doesn't: In terms of the pilot itself, it clicks on every level. As a weekly series, one can't help but wonder if this level can be sustained over the course of the season. After all, at a certain point the "big game" magic will wear off. I have complete trust in Berg in co. though - I simply can't wait to tune in every week.

The challenges ahead: With a landscape littered with failed shows about sports, can a "football" show make it in today's TV universe? And will viewers stick around once the "real" football seasons (NFL and college) have ended? Let's hope they do.

  [june 2006]  


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