Baseball Toaster Screen Jam
Friday Night Lights Shine Bright
2007-01-25 17:49
by Jon Weisman

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.

2007-01-25 18:55:28
1.   El Lay Dave
This may seem extremely silly, but does anything think viewers are confused by a show with "Friday Night" in the title that doesn't run on, well, Friday night? Jon's suggestion of a 10 P.M. time is spot-on; how about Friday at 10?
2007-01-25 21:03:17
2.   dzzrtRatt
A question you probably know the answer to:

Why hasn't Hill Street Blues made much of an impact in syndication? Why is L&Ox3 so ubiquitous, but Hill Street seemed to have a very brief afterlife?

2007-01-25 22:11:20
3.   Jon Weisman
I don't know the answer to that, actually. In Los Angeles, at least, Hill Street in reruns never got the kind of visibility that say, Law and Order has. It could just be that generally, shows with running arcs don't play as well in syndication. Law and Order doesn't depend on you seeing the previous episode to be caught up.

At least they've been putting Hill Street out on DVD.

2007-01-25 23:43:14
4.   overkill94
Better than 24? That's a pretty bold claim.

Is there anywhere to get a quick video recap or somewhere to watch previous episodes? Do I even need to know what happened before?

2007-01-26 07:01:12
5.   JoeyP
Minka Kelly is a terrible actress.
I think she detracts alot from the show and hopefully they get rid of her. I hate her. Even everyone on the IMDB boards thinks she doesnt belong in the show. Plus, she's 26. Its one thing for older people to portray HS'ers...I grew up watching 90210..but this is just out of hand.

Otherwise, I do like the storylines:
Sarazen--he's basically a carbon copy of the Mike Winchell character from the movie. But he's a really good actor.

Smash doing steroids and how the coach reacts to it after finding out---thats good TV.

The old QB trying to adapt to his new paralysis. Thats an interesting storyline and if you want to see the real thing--check out Murderball. Its a great documentary.

One reason why FNL (the TV show) might be sagging in ratings is bc it takes so much from the movie. Granted, the movie was good, but I think when people watch TV shows they want to see something original. The Coach's wife, some of the announcers, and the lead booster all play the same characters in the TV show, as they did in the movie.

2007-01-26 07:12:51
6.   Mike J
I watched the first episode of FNL, and thought it was decent but I took a pass on it for two reasons:

1) Too many cuts. I swear, the camera cut to a different shot every 3-4 seconds. For an hour straight. I was getting dizzy. Not sure if they have kept up that pace or not, but I couldn't handle it.

2) I didn't think it would last. After being burned on a few shows in the past, I follow the ratings to get a gauge on how long the show will last on a network with itchy trigger fingers. The ratings were bad, of course, prompting me to give it the quick heave-ho.

Still, I've heard nothing but good things. If it does indeed come back for season 2, I may download (or rent/buy if available) season 1.

2007-01-26 07:43:31
7.   SMY
I enjoyed the book, and the reason I enjoyed it was because the author went into a lot of detail about the players' lives outside of football. I thought the movie suffered because they focused more on the team and football aspects, but I think that the show does a good job of going into all the issues off the field.

As for Lyla, up until now she's been pretty much defined by her relationship with Street (and Riggins) and I think her character has been pretty flat. I'm interested to see what they do to flesh her out a bit.

2007-01-26 11:34:37
8.   Penarol1916
5. I think that Minka Kelly has gotten better, but she is still the weak point of the show, which is too bad, because her character really could be the most interesting. Right now my favorite character is probably her dad, I don't know the name of the actor who plays him, but he is, like most of the cast, excellent.
2007-01-26 11:55:02
9.   Marty
Hill Street Blues is one show I disagree with Jon on. I always thought it was ok when it was running, but many of the characters were too cartoonish. On the rare occasions I see it now, it's almost unwatchable to me it is so dated.
2007-01-26 12:02:04
10.   Stu
Like Jon says, FNL has become the first watch for me when my Tivo is overflowing. Terrific in every way -- acting, storylines, capturing the visual landscapes of small-town Texas (it's actually filmed in Austin).

And lay off Minka!!

2007-01-26 12:05:16
11.   Jon Weisman
9 - Renko, Belker and Howard might have seemed cartoonish on the surface, but their depth was shown in a hundred different ways.

I think some of you guys are being too hard on Minka. The episode in which they went after her on the Internet cemented the fact that she can act. She had a lot of different emotions to express in that show, and she carried them all off.

2007-01-26 12:09:13
12.   Jon Weisman
4 - I didn't see it from the premiere, and I was able to get up to speed fairly quickly.
2007-01-26 21:54:18
13.   Voxter
I've pretty much been on the "football show [I] won't be interested in" bandwagon so far, but between your strong endorsements and some of the things I've heard, I mgiht give it a shot. It won't be the first time I've got invested in a doomed show, for sure.

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