Friday Night Lights began its entertainment lifespan as a fantastic book written by Buzz Bissinger. Bissinger's book told the engaging story of the near "life and death" importance of a high school football team to the west Texas town of Odessa.
Bissinger's cousin, actor Peter Berg, saw a movie in his non-fiction work, bringing it to screen as its director with the great Billy Bob Thornton playing the central role of the head football coach. Never one to leave a great story alone, Berg developed FNL as a television series, and NBC picked it up a couple years ago.
Despite an excellent cast and fantastic local flavor (FNL has been filmed in Austin, TX for each of its three seasons), NBC blew it from the beginning. The show aired initially on Mondays putting it directly against it potential core audience of football fans, and then they moved it around the schedule grid until everyone lost track of it.
Additionally, they couldn't decided whether to market the show as Texas high school football meets Beverly Hills 90210, or whether to stay true to the nature of the Bissinger's book.
Despite all of these problems, FNL still emerged as one of the best shows on television. It is expertly acted, well-written, and largely true to its subject matter.
This season, which only made it back to NBC after it was exclusively aired in its entireity on DirecTV, may well be the best season so far, and this is saying quite a lot. Not only have the characters matured to the point that the viewer knows them intimately, but the storylines seem more true to life (and football) than ever.
The best attribute of the show remains the relationship between its lead characters, head coach Eric Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler) and his wife, and school principal, Tami Taylor (played by Connie Britton). By placing these two married characters at opposite ends of the high school spectrum (football coach vs. administration), the show explores the dynamics of football within a small town culture.
Never does FNL doubt or mock the importance of football to the fictional town of Dillon, Texas. It remains both a joy and escape to its residents and players, while still being a burden as well, especially when they lose. High school kids learn early the heights of (local) heroism, and the depth of being a loser that no one wants to be too close to.
FNL continues to also get better in its choice of storylines. Whereas in the first two seasons the show felt the need to rely on standard TV fare such as high school romances and tragic tales (a paralyzed player in the first season and an accidental murder in the second), the third season deals with more real to life drama.
Off the field, Tami Taylor is dealing with funding cuts to her school. So far, she has angered the school booster by reallocating their Jumbotron fund to pay for school short falls.
On the field, the story focuses on the battle for starting QB of the Dillon Panthers. The tough, but smallish Matt Saracen has been Dillon's starter since Jason Street was paralyzed in the series first episode. Saracen led the Panthers to a state championship that year.
In season 3, both Saracen and Coach Taylor must deal with a new family in Dillon, the McCoys.
Young J.D. McCoy has been schooled by the best to be a spread offense QB. His wealthy father (played by the deliciously smarmy D.W. Moffett) wants to make sure his son and the spread offense lead the Dillon Panthers post haste. The Panther boosters love this idea leaving both Coach Taylor and his loyal senior QB on a quickly shrinking island of mutual support.
As we recently chronicled in our Texas Longhorn recruiting Dispatch, the state of Texas - from high school to college - is all about the spread offense these days. There is no doubt it is an exciting system that can allow QBs to put up incredible numbers, but it can also be a system that bury a team as fast as it can lead them to victory since the pace of this offense can work against a defense.
One only needs to look at Tommy Tuberville's spread debacle that, in part, cost him his job at Auburn, or Texas Tech's quick fall from the top of the Big 12 as they lost big to Oklahoma, then Ole Miss in the Cotton Bowl. The spread offense can be a dangerous gamble. Coach Taylor has a right to be nervous about this kind of change.
For those like me who haven't watched it already on DirecTV, we are only a few episodes in. You can catch up with the entire series online or through many on demand channels via your local cable company.
Finally, NBC got it right! Reward them and yourself by watching this great show now airing on Fridays where it belongs.
- Jim Markel