NBC's "Friday Night Lights" is like a small-town student-body presidential race financed by Hollywood money. It's a music video, really, twice removed from the backdrop that gave H.G. Bissinger the terrain for his 1988 book -- a dusty, racially troubled West Texas oil town united by its outsized passion for the hometown Permian High School football team.
Peter Berg, who directed the 2004 movie version, is co-executive producer of "Friday Night Lights" the series, and he seems to have decided that the show would only work if storytelling were pared down to quick-cutting iconography set to guitars.
We bounce from tableau to tableau -- the coach watching game footage in his living room, the players with their girls and their beers by the barbecue, the pep rally at the car dealership where the dragon-lady mayor corners the star quarterback while another asks the running back: "Have you ever blitzed an older woman?"
They're tantalizing brush strokes. "Friday Night Lights" the movie had this stylized, documentary feel too, but it also had the half-mad Billy Bob Thornton; you thought he might be capable of hitting a kid, or at least saying something incredibly mean. Ditto Coach Rush Propst on MTV's involving "Two-a-Days," a reality series about the Hoover High football team in Alabama.
"The main thing you need to do, let me tell you what you need to do -- you need to shut up," Coach Propst told his star defensive lineman Repete Smith on a recent episode, after Repete was caught flirting with the opposing team's cheerleaders during a game.
The coach on "Friday Night Lights" is played by the handsome Kyle Chandler, who wears his weary, soulful gaze like a headset sponsored by the makers of an antidepressant. Chandler's the new coach of the Dillon High Panthers (changed from the Permian Panthers of Odessa), on whose teenage shoulder pads rest a town's hopes and dreams.
The subtitle of Bissinger's book was "A Town, a Team, and a Dream," because it was partly about the socioeconomics out of which "Mojo" mania grew, but the TV show shortens things to just the team and the dream.
"I'm starting to look at this whole damn town like a big ol' out-tune guitar," the backup quarterback's best friend says of one-horse Dillon. It sounds like a line he might have stolen from a Willie Nelson tune. The NBC release calls it "the small, rural town of Dillon," which is TV exec-speak for any place in America you can't get to by direct flight.
If Berg doesn't make Dillon any more specific, he does make it dreamily universal; even the bigotry and heartlessness is shot through with a kind of movie-land warmth.
In Dillon High's season opener, star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) is knocked out with a spinal injury and in comes terrified benchwarmer Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who throws a pass off his own lineman's helmet before tossing a majestic, Doug Flutie-like Hail Mary for the winning touchdown.
Can little Matt Saracen lead Dillon to state championship glory? Talk at the weekly Rotary luncheon at Applebee's suggests not. But the Saracen character's loaded with pathos -- he likes to draw, and he cares for his grandmother while his father's in Iraq.
He's Flutie, but once more with feeling. The former Boston College quarterback's miracle happened in 1984, anyway, and mostly endures as a Top 10 something-or-other on a "SportsCenter" or "College Game Day" highlight package.
"Friday Night Lights" blitzes the fact that you can still play high school football as a parable of innocence lost. I like the characters on "Two-a-Days" better, though -- the parents and adults, Repete's name, Alex's sly-seeming grin, Coach Propst's gut. As TV, "Friday Night Lights," with its cinematic sheen, is the gleaming dynasty across town.
'Friday Night Lights'
When: 8 to 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)