Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You need to be watching “Friday Night Lights” on NBC.
There. A simple declarative sentence, no bells and whistles or rhetorical embellishments, just sound entertainment advice from someone who has seen a lot of TV, both good and bad, who likes great characters and great storytelling.
If you appreciate these things, then I repeat, you need to be watching “Friday Night Lights.”
While FNL was critically acclaimed last year in its first season, apparently not many people were watching. To NBC’s credit, they stuck with this show, trusting that it would build the viewership it deserved. This season, they moved it from Tuesday to, yes, Friday night ó to the consternation of high school football fans who loved the show. At least it’s easy to remember now.
FNL is about flesh-and-blood humans: humans making choices both stupid and wise; humans having relationships functional and dysfunctional; humans living believable (if dramatic) lives and saying things that actual humans would say.
The show is certainly not just about football, although there is that. You do not have to love or even like football to embrace this show.
Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) is the coach of the Dillon Panthers, a high-school football team that is the epicenter of a small Texas town. A detour to his dream coaching job at a major university has been cut short by the realization that his absences are jeopardizing his family’s stability. Coach ó he of the clipped, repetitive speech cadences (“Are we clear? Are we clear on that?”) ó has made a less than smooth transition back to his old team.
He and his high school guidance counselor wife Tami (the incomparable Connie Britton) have one of the most real, grown-up marriages you will find on TV. The show brilliantly examines the stresses that new baby Grace brings to their marriage as well as to parenting their teenage daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden).
Julie is incredibly self-centered and insecure ó one of the most realistic TV depictions of a teenager in recent memory.
The mother-daughter scenes between Julie and her mom are so spot-on they can be almost painful to watch, like the one in which Julie is getting ready for her baby sister’s christening and comes out wearing a low-cut top. When her mom exhales an “Ohh,” Julie intuits immediately the world of disapproval behind the inflection.
The other high school characters on FNL are equally compelling. There’s Jason Street (Scott Porter), left paralyzed by a football accident and learning how to deal with his new reality and the betrayal of his cheerleader girlfriend with his best friend Riggins.
Left to his own devices by a ne’er-do-well dad to figure out what it means to be a man, Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) throws himself into beer, women and football with equal abandon. Although he makes plenty of bad choices ó like living with a ferret-loving meth dealer ó we get glimpses of Riggins’ essential decency. There’s a fantastic scene in which he realizes that his screw-up of a dad ó whom he’s vociferously defended to Coach ó has, as suspected, stolen the team’s video camera.
When Riggins swallows his pride and shows up at Coach Taylor’s house to return it, you realize there’s hope for this kid, who like no other Panther player needs the discipline football provides.
Lyla (Minka Kelly), Jason’s ex-girlfriend, has found Jesus this season, and it’s a tribute to the show’s quality that the writers do not condescend in this storyline. Lyla’s new-found religion is earnest, if a little prissy at times, and the respect her conversion has been given by the writers (if not by Riggins, who is confounded by it) is refreshing.
Then there’s Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), thrust into the role of starting quarterback (QB1) after Jason’s injury. While Matt takes care of his grandmother with Alzheimer’s, his father prefers to serve his country in Iraq ó effectively dumping all responsibility on his son. QB1 proves to be the real hero in the family, rising magnificently to the occasion.
In one unforgettable scene, Matt ó in the middle of a first date with Julie ó sings “Mr. Sandman” to his confused and agitated grandma, a ritual that calms her down.
Then there’s Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), the hilarious, decent, smart kid óalso sidekick and voice of reason to QB1 but not, until this season, a footballer himself.
Last season, we laughed as Landry played with his Christian speed metal band ó Crucifictorious. This season we agonize with him as he finds himself entangled in a homicide case with his dream girl, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki). While perhaps the least realistic plotline of a show that generally sticks to the believable, this story arc does provide rich character-developing opportunities.
FNL is chock full of moments that feel perfectly authentic: excruciating, beautiful, hilarious moments.
If there’s anything a TV show needs that this one doesn’t have, I can’t imagine what it is.
Every character is fascinating, from smarmy car salesman and head booster Buddy Garrity (the amazing Brad Leland) to the charming Smash (Gaius Charles), the Panthers’ talented but arrogant star (whose penchant for referring to himself in the third person is a clue to how seriously he takes himself). Smash gets himself in a heap o’ trouble because of steroid use and feels pretty guilty when his church family takes up a collection for his fictitious college prep course ó money he uses to buy drugs.
The writers respect their audience enough to know that human weakness can be honestly explored without fear of us disliking these characters. When Tami gets so frustrated with Julie that she smacks her, we understand and forgive her the moment of violent frustration. The show never takes the easy route of creating villains or heroes. The hero one week is likely to be the goat the next.
So if you’re not watching, why not?
Consider this your invitation.
But be warned. There are depictions of sex and underage drinking, so it might not be appropriate for kids younger than high school age. For parents with high school kids, though, FNL’s frank depiction of high school will prompt many valuable conversations: trust me. Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or