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‘Friday Night Lights’ scores another TD

TV Review | 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Published: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 07:11

Some shows need to know when to quit. "CSI," while it has seen some creative resurgence this season, has suffered some hard blows since the departure of three of its main cast members. "Law & Order," once a shining beacon on the NBC schedule, is now barely pulling its weight on Friday nights after countless casting coups.

But then there is "Friday Night Lights." Set in the fictional small town of Dillon, Texas, the show revolves around the world of high school football. This setting has forced the writers to deal with the inevitable graduations and exits of beloved characters. A lesser show would fumble those losses, lose creative steam and make viewers yearn for a return to the glory days. "Friday Night Lights," though, carefully executes its send-off arcs and then introduces new characters who are every bit as intriguing and likeable as the old ones.

Last season ended with the ousting of Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) as head coach of the Dillon Panthers, and his instatement as coach of the Lions of the newly redistricted East Dillon High. Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and, it seemed, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) were off to college. All the pieces were in place for the end of the show, and it looked like its third season would be its last. But then DIRECTV stepped in, agreeing to co-finance the ratings-challenged masterpiece for not one but two more 13-episode seasons.

This season, the fourth, "Friday Night Lights" picks up right where it left off. Coach Taylor is stuck at East Dillon, where the locker room has raccoons living in it and the field is a hundred yards of dead grass — a far cry from the facilities of his former team. His wife, Tami (Connie Britton), is still the principal at West Dillon where she is taking heat from parents angry about the redistricting.

Their daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), is now a senior attending East Dillon. Former Panthers Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and Riggins have also stuck around, foregoing college for personal reasons — for the former, girlfriend Julie and his grandmother; for the latter, a job and no interest in academics.

These returning faces are all very welcome fan favorites, but the new school setting allows for some interesting new characters. Vince Howard (Michael B. Jordan), one step away from juvenile detention, joins the team through a "Cops and Jocks" program. Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria) is a West Dillon star forced to move to Lions territory when Tami finds he has been lying about his address. And Jess Merriweather (Jurnee Smollett) and Becky Sproles (Madison Burge) seem to be the new love interests, or at least friends, of Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) and Riggins, respectively.

In the first two episodes, everything works. The split-town format gives the Taylors big problems to deal with. Matt is navigating the tricky time between high school and what comes after; the new characters are clicking and are consistent with the show's form and tone. And the Lions' first game of the season, although ending in a disappointment never seen on the show before, makes for excellent television.

The performances, as always, are terrific, especially since the show features so many young actors. Chandler and Britton lead the way as the seasoned veterans, never failing to ignite every scene they are in — together or apart. Chandler is equally adept at playing the tough but respectable coach and the loving husband, and Britton plays wife, mother and skillful school politician flawlessly. The couple's chemistry is immediately apparent. Their on-screen marriage is realistic and a model of maturity. It is a crime that neither has been nominated for, let alone won, an Emmy award.

To say the show revolves around the world of high school football in no way means it is simply a "football show." It tackles issues of family, relationships, responsibility, race and class — things that affect everyone everywhere, but are highlighted by the small-town Texas setting. There is football involved, of course, but non-sports fans won't be distanced.

"Friday Night Lights" is that rare television show that, even with an uncommon off episode, is better than most anything else on the air. It lives by Coach Taylor's motto ("clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose") and if more viewers would tune in (it's not too late to start: NBC will rebroadcast the episodes next year), they would undoubtedly agree.

 

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