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Television review: 'Friday Night Lights'

The journey continues for Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and wife Tami (Connie Britton) on a show that proves TV quality can triumph.

October 27, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Like AMC's " Mad Men," "Friday Night Lights" has an industry resonance, and social significance, that far outstrips the size of its audience. A critical darling from the get-go, NBC's adaptation of the book/film of the same name elbowed its way among the urban cop dramas and upscale family shows four seasons ago, offering Dillon, Texas, instead of a coastal city or moneyed suburb, modest single-stories instead of Craftsman or lofts, and folks living lives that included church, Sunday dinner and, of course, high school football.

The numbers weren't good, but the fans and the critics remained stalwart and for once the network listened. After the writers strike cut Season 2 in half, NBC made a deal with DirecTV, which now shares costs and airs episodes a half-season before they appear on NBC.

Did the experiment work? Well, stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton got their — and DirecTV's — first Emmy nominations this year, which shocked even those who felt they were long overdue. Subsequently, "Friday Night Lights" moved out of bubble-show-turned-distribution experiment and back onto the magazine covers just in time for the fifth, and final, season.

Dillon, of course, remains oblivious. Much, and nothing, has changed under that wide, flat Texas sky. Time has passed, of course, but the mood remains one of struggle. The season premiere opens not with the exultation of Coach Eric Taylor's (Chandler) scrappy East Dillon Lions beating his former team, now the Dillon Panthers, but with the grim realization that he's going to have to build this team up from scratch. His wife, Tami (Britton), is on a similar journey — having been forced out of her job as principal of Dillon High, she is now a guidance counselor at East Dillon, coping with the school's poverty and her own lack of authority. Many of the young folk who have not already left town are on their way out, including the Taylors' older daughter Julie ( Aimee Teegarden) and the stalwart Landry ( Jesse Plemons).

Meanwhile, Tim ( Taylor Kitsch) is doing the time that should be his brother's, and coming to terms with the small print of his decision — perpetual gratitude is not a comfortable state for either party. Vince (Michael B. Jordan) is using his own father issues to help Jess ( Jurnee Smollett) care for her two young brothers while Becky (Madison Burge) is stuck with her stepmother, who is so horrible she smokes in front of her baby.

Indifferent to renewed recognition or the knowledge its own demise, the show proceeds at its own quiet but determined pace. The characters are allowed to converse rather than banter, and their manner is awkward as often as it is revelatory. And the camera noses its way into the action from all angles — focusing on Coach Taylor's hands one moment, later peering through curtains and up from the foot of the bed like a mildly curious and utterly nonjudgmental hound dog.

Only on the football field do executive producer Peter Berg and his team give way to sentimental formula; as in the season finale and so many episodes before it, the premiere features a game dominated by one- and two-play touchdown drives that is won in the final seconds.

But considering that this is precisely how "Friday Night Lights" has lived most of its life — last-minute reprieves born of deep personal devotion — it is a flaw that is easily forgiven. The show, and its survival, offers proof that quality can triumph in an industry driven by quantity and that even though necessity is the more fertile of the two, poetry can also be a fine mother to invention.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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