If ratings woes compel NBC to cancel Friday Night Lights before its sophomore season, it will be the most criminal cancellation of a series in its first season since Freaks and Geeks - and perhaps even more disdainful than the abrupt end to My So-Called Life.
Life was an outstanding series but one that depended principally on a lead actress, Claire Danes, who quickly had designs on a film career. The show also seemed to struggle to find places to take its characters toward the end of the season, though most of its fans had faith they would find a way through.
Friday, on the other hand, brings the same remarkable level of sophistication to its storytelling, but seems to be just getting started. And while it has a nominal lead in Kyle Chandler, it is much more of a true ensemble.
At the heart of its ratings dilemma is that many viewers aren't inclined to give the show a chance, because they perceive it as a football show they won't be interested in, or they feel that the book or movie that it is descended from was enough for one lifetime. You could count me in column A when the series began. But the universally enthusiastic reactions from its few original fans convinced me to try it, and immediately I was sucked in.
Right away, I was drawn to the documentary-style look, which meets our contemporary expectations for verisimilitude without seeming at all affected. It just comes across as honest. But chief among the show's virtues are the stories that have no clear right or wrong to them - complicated problems that not only defy easy resolution but make you question your own beliefs.
Combine all that with convincing, unpretentious performances across-the-board, and you're left with a show that demands watching. It has simply become the top one-hour drama on network television.
Though its new network marketing campaign appropriately emphasizes the sudden development of quality programs in its stable, NBC has not found a way to convince any kind of meaningful audience to give Friday a shot. My sense is that the first thing the Peacock should try is moving the show to a 10 p.m. slot. The fact is, Fridays has some storylines that are PG-13 in subject matter, and while the notion of 8 p.m. as a sex-free zone has long since been blown out of the water, I suspect viewers might be more in the mood for some of the Fridays subject matter after they've had a chance to settle in for the evening.
Beyond that, I'd love to see NBC make a bold stab at marketing the show directly to women I'm talking about fashion magazines, The Today Show, what have you. The show offers so many strong female characters and stories, if NBC can get the women of the show front and center, breaking through viewe resistance, the show's audience could double (which, admittedly, isn't saying much).
NBC has an interesting history with struggling but critically worthy shows. Most notably, they stayed with Hill Street Blues during a first season in which it would regularly check in at the bottom of the ratings, and was handsomely rewarded with TV's all-time greatest drama. Cheers and Seinfeld are other examples of patience validated. But the shoddy treatment of Freaks and Geeks, however ratings-challenged, testifies all too well to the network's fallibility. In a sense, it wouldn't have mattered if that show got a 0.2 rating sometimes you need to see beyond the immediate future and give a show more time. This isn't universal, but when something's different, it makes sense that people might not be ready to climb aboard.
But the clock is ticking on Friday now. And so for those who need a primer to feel comfortable tuning in, here's your Friday Night Lights starting lineup:
Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) - the coach who has to look out for himself, his team and his family and who has to navigate when those concerns collide with each other. In the role of his career, Chandler infuses Taylor's struggle with real grit.
Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) - the lone actress who made the journey from the film to the TV show, Britton is key to attracting that female audience. Her character is sexy and strong, a dreamer yet down-to-earth, a rock for her husband and yet given to flights of fancy. The writers have wonderfully integrated her desire to grow with her desire to serve the family, the school and the community she truly seems to love.
Jason Street (Scott Porter) - - the paralyzed quarterback who wrestles valiantly with his own self-image and self-worth. Neither all-saint nor all-sinner, the writers have made him intensely thoughtful at the same time they make him prone to knee-jerk reactions. His depth and search for insight truly flowered in this past week's episode.
Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly) - the finest acting Minka in television history? Sublimely pretty, her character perhaps stands as the heir to the Winnie Cooper throne. It's rare to see such a portrayal of true love in a high-school character, and her recovery from her betrayal of that love (for Jason) has been carefully rendered.
Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) - the bookdumb running back who would be two-dimensional in most other shows. Here, we see the slow, patient buildup of self-awareness, along with the emotional pain he faces.
Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) - exhibit B for why people of both genders should watch this show. Tyra has packed a lot of living into her teenage years, but the end result has been a fervent belief in her own empowerment, as well as that of her down-but-not-quite-out mother (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Tyra is a role model that teenagers and adults should be able to relate to.
Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) - the Rickey Henderson of this bunch, embracing the third person as he celebrates his own accomplishments, yet faced with his own humbling recovery from being ex-posed as a steroid user. Rather depict his drug use in melodramatic fashion, Friday in typical fashion has just tried to get to some honest truths, examining things from all sides, condemning the sin while still trying to save the sinner.
Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) - the young, short quarterback forced to replace the fallen hero and dealing with a first love (Aimee Teegarden) who happens to be his protective coach's daughter, all while taking care of his mentally deteriorating grandmother with his father fighting in Iraq. This guy's plate is loaded, and sometimes, it drops. But Matt lives and learns, and most of all, endures with quiet dignity.
He's growing up. And maybe that's what the show boils down to it's about how all of us, no matter what our age or gender is, are still growing up. Friday Night Lights is on to something vital here, and if you're not watching, you should be.