Friday Night Lights

Season two debuts Friday, October 5, at 9 on NBC.

I know next to nothing about football—little more than a vague awareness of what the quarterback does and the number of points a touchdown earns—and I’ve never cared enough to learn. But somehow, that ignorance and indifference toward America’s pastime (or is that baseball? I couldn’t care less about it either) is no obstacle to enjoying Friday Night Lights.

Based (only thematically, I’m sure) on Buzz Bissinger’s revered nonfiction account of high school football in a small Texas town, the drama depends on the game for some of its climaxes, but at heart it’s about the community, not the sport. Following the lives of a few of the players, the coach, and their friends and families, Friday is not only surprisingly thoughtful—fleshing out stock characters and grappling with provocative issues—but also persuasively heartfelt. Friday made me care about the emotional well-being of high school jocks! Not having been known for my team spirit when I was high school (to put it mildly), I’m still disoriented by that.

Kyle Chandler plays Eric Taylor, who moves to Dillon, Texas, with his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), and fifteen-year-old daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), to serve as head coach of the Dillon High School football team. The people of Dillon have great expectations for the Dillon Panthers—the team has a history of winning state championships—but in the first game of the season, star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) takes a devastating hit that leaves him paralyzed. Suddenly those great expectations are threatened. Jason’s promising career is over before it began, and a single loss will make Coach Taylor’s job vulnerable, too.

All that happens in the pilot, and the next twenty-one episodes cover the rest of the rocky season. A true ensemble drama, Friday juggles storylines for nearly a dozen principal characters, from Jason’s troubled friend and former teammate Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) to Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the shy sophomore suddenly promoted to first-string quarterback, to Tim’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), a girl who wants desperately to get out of Dillon.

The show treads familiar ground in its examination of high school romance, both the sweet and stormy varieties, but some of its other material is unusual for what might be categorized (however unfairly) as a teen soap. For example, Jason isn’t shuttled offstage after his accident. Friday casts an unblinking eye on his struggles to adapt to his disability and its repercussions on his parents’ finances and his relationship with his girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly)—and the show doesn’t play coy. I don’t know how they slipped it by the NBC execs, but it deals frankly with the challenges of sex for a paraplegic young man.

In fact, the drama has a refreshingly mature attitude toward teen sexuality in general, finding a way to avoid both heavy-handed moralizing and irresponsible nonchalance. Instead of the usual hysterical no! or leering yes!, it takes a measured approach, recognizing the reality of teen sex and refusing to condemn it outright, yet considering, too, how sex can complicate relationships in ways the high schoolers aren’t prepared for. I had dreaded the episode in which Matt and Julie decide to lose their virginity to each other, so certain was I that it would turn into a squirm-inducing after-school special, but instead the writing was delicate and thoughtful, and the acting extraordinary. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nothing less than a crime that Connie Britton wasn’t nominated for an Emmy just for the scene in which Tami confronts her daughter after spotting Matt buying condoms at a local drug store. Her voice cracks with emotion as she tries to articulate how Julie isn’t ready for the emotional vulnerability of sex, and it’s beautiful and affecting and real.

Another storyline that manages to avoid its dangerous after-school potential is the arc in which running back (?) Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), worried that he’s too small to be recruited for college, begins using some sort of steroid or growth hormone. Friday comes down firmly against performance-enhancing drugs, but it understands why Smash feels forced to take them. Pressure from the team and community is difficult enough, but Smash also dreams of someday supporting his hard-working single mother and younger sister, and those self-imposed expectations are nearly enough to crush him. Charles’ portrayal of Smash’s agony after a bad game—his panicky fear that he will fail to be the kind of son he wants to be—is heartbreaking.

Not every arc is so compelling. One storyline handles the fallout from an assistant coach’s blunderingly offensive remarks about the “natural” abilities of black versus white players. Those two episodes have moments of sharp insight into the damaging effects of unacknowledged racial assumptions, but they conclude with an overwrought lurch into the specter of racial violence, the kind of overtly hateful behavior everyone can acknowledge as bad, thus betraying the thought-provoking buildup with a smugly redemptive climax. Friday also hurries along Jason’s physical rehabilitation, compressing what would probably be years of therapy into a few weeks, but as it doesn’t conclude with some kind of miraculous recovery, I’m more willing to forgive that sin.

Besides, the virtues of Friday Night Lights more than make up for the vices. The documentary-style direction is striking and immersive, and the writing is arrestingly honest—about the codependency at the heart of so many attached-at-the-hip high school romances; about the double-edged devotion of fanatic followers, simultaneously supportive and parasitic; about the fundamental unfairness of a world that celebrates its young male athletes at the expense of nearly everyone around them. The drama’s worldview is clear-eyed, sometimes even bleak, but it’s honest about the good things, too: how being responsible for someone else can press you to be more responsible for yourself; how revisiting what made you fall in love with a pursuit can help exorcise the mercenary demons that have colonized it; how great expectations, however daunting, can indeed inspire greatness.

The ensemble has its weak links (not everyone is as amazing as Connie Britton), and sports stories inevitably have their moments of trite sentimentality, but let’s not underestimate a drama that makes me care about the outcome of a football game. A football game! I still don’t know the difference between a running back and a tight end (and you know what’s really sad? I had to google “football positions” to find two non-quarterback positions I could name), but in the context of Friday Night Lights, I can finally appreciate the drama of the game.

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