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May `Lights' shine bright

NBC's `Friday Night Lights' is real and dramatically different. Maybe it can succeed anyway.

December 03, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

IN a perfect world, TV networks would broadcast the very best shows they could find and viewers, hungry for excellence, would elevate the cream of the crop to positions of popularity commensurate with their quality. If this dream were flesh, NBC's "Friday Night Lights" would not be adored by only a passionate few, and the season's bona fide hits, "Heroes," "Jericho" and "Ugly Betty," would have more company in the winner's circle.

The first thing anyone who has not discovered "Friday Night Lights" should know is, it is not about football. While it would seem logical to call a show that revolves around a high school football team in a rural western Texas town a sports story, that description doesn't really apply.

Well, then, since it is a hormonally charged episodic drama focused on relationships, featuring mostly young, telegenic actors, would "Friday Night Lights" be a teen soap? Nope. It isn't that either.

Predicting which pilots will take off is a black art. Highly anticipated series, blessed with star power and the DNA of talented writers and producers, crash and burn. Other shows defy low expectations and, after being championed by viewers, earn a place in pop culture history. And sometimes, nasty things happen to good shows -- bad timing, tough competition, misdirected ads. "Friday Night Lights" was rather neglected, as NBC and the media lavished "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" with attention, and then "Heroes" -- thanks to its large, noisy fan base -- moved into the spotlight. Critics praised "Friday Night Lights" as exceptional, but their influence has not been significant. Promoting a series about football during Sunday night's prime time games should have been a terrific idea. But not if parenting, drug abuse, racism, ambition and homosexuality regularly take possession of stories with the moxie of an ace wide receiver.

"We've been uncertain about what message we want to send about what this show is," says executive producer Brian Grazer, whose Imagine Television developed the series. "It has a different look, and it can take a minute or so for people to find its emotional epicenter. It was an extremely risky idea, because it doesn't have a conventional form. But the alternative to trying something different is doing the same thing over and over, and that isn't very rewarding."

NBC had enough confidence in its critically acclaimed wallflower to give it a full-season order before Thanksgiving. The network just made good on its promise to find "Friday Night Lights" a luckier time slot (it had the misfortune of debuting at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, without a strong lead-in and against the ratings juggernaut "Dancing with the Stars"). Beginning Jan. 10, the show will air at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. If its producers can figure out how to market their anomaly, perhaps word will spread that the show that isn't what it might seem is the best new series on TV that not many people are watching.

"We're very passionate in our belief in 'Friday Night Lights,' " says Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment. "In television history, there have been more drama series that developed an audience over time and then went on to become long-running hits than those that took off immediately. We know this program has devoted fans. Once people find it, they're hooked."

Even if Reilly weren't aware of the Internet posts from women who confess they hate football but love the series, he's had many women tell him the same thing in person. "It's like a point of pride with them," he says.

"Friday Night Lights" surfaced in 1990 as a nonfiction account of the year journalist H.G. Bissinger spent following a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Required reading in many schools, it's considered one of the finest books ever written about sports in America. It took 14 years and an end run through a squad of writers and directors before a film version was released in 2004, produced by Grazer, co-written and directed by Peter Berg, and starring Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines.

The movie was set in 1988; the TV series is contemporary. In the series, the fictional town of Dillon stands in for Odessa, and while many of its residents were inspired by characters in the book, the people and plots are writers' inventions.

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