I have just watched the first two episodes of the new season of Friday Night Lights. My (full) heart is still racing and breaking. Keeping this show on the air is the one thing that Ben Silverman did right during his disastrous tenure at NBC. It’s a shame that only those viewers with DirecTV can watch it tonight. The rest of the country should not be deprived until the spring. If there were any justice in this world, FNL would have as many viewers as American Idol and Kyle Chandler would get as much critical recognition as Jon Hamm.
It is not just that FNL is a great show. It is that it is a unique show whose writers have risen to the extraordinarily difficult challenge of crafting a riveting drama out of the lives of ordinary people. The characters have dull jobs, worry about paying their bills, and fail more often then they succeed. The show is more realistic than any reality show. It is far easier to create high stakes tension from life-and-death medical crises, murders, and the tumultuous 1960s and vampires than it is from school zoning issues. Yet (mild spoilers follow), that is what this season of FNL does.
The decision to split the cast into two rival high schools — Dillon and East Dillon — while adding many new characters was as potentially disastrous as the Grey’s Anatomy’s hospital merger. Instead, it keeps the show fresh and expands its scope. No longer working with a championship franchise, the legacy of Coach Taylor must build an inexperienced team from the ground up. The East Dillon Lions are the ultimate underdogs. The reopened school has a field of dried brown grass and dirt. The show boldly divided the town among racial and economic lines. Coach Taylor now leads a predominantly African American team whose members are even poorer than the rest of working class Dillon. (Curiously, there are still few Latino characters in Dillon, Texas.) These students are more focused on survival than championships or scholarships. Instead of revering the coach, Eric must earn their respect. His confidence shaken by his unfamiliar surroundings, he makes one of the biggest mistakes of his career.
I have a few quibbles about East Dillon. Were all of these Thug Life teens at Dillon High last year? We sure did not see any of them. It also seems a little too easy to turn the Dillon Panthers 2.0 into villains. A previously sympathetic character’s sudden transition into a Jon Gosselin level schmuck requires a bit of fanwanking. It’s also convenient that all of the the most likeable characters magically end up at East Dillon.
Tyra and Lila have made it out of Devil Town. It’s the boys who cannot leave Dillon behind. Matt’s family responsibilities have kept him from pursuing his dreams. Fortunately, he finds himself a new surrogate father. The aforementioned Riggins finds himself participating in what may well be the funniest reference to the hero’s journey ever, not that he is in on the joke. Fortunately he also finds himself in nothing but black boxer briefs. This show truly has it all, including eye candy. Riggins ultimately appears to be heading down the path savvy viewers predicted back in season one.
Thankfully, the new characters are as interesting as the old favorites. They include: Vince (The Wire’s Michael R. Jordan), a potentially talented quarterback with a criminal record, Jess (The Great Debaters Jurnee Smollett), a hardworking East Dillon student and Madison (Becky Sproles) an aspiring singer who may strike some as a wanna-be Tyra. They fit organically into the story without taking away time from veteran characters (Ahem, ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’) I am rooting for Coach Taylor to mold these misfits into responsible young adults.
If you have DirecTV, there is no excuse for missing this show. If you do not watch, I will hunt you down like a player who skipped practice. Everyone should spend an hour a week in Dillon, Texas. It will leave you with clear eyes, and a full heart. You can’t lose.