Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Friday Night Lights

Although the news has been out for a while, I just discovered that NBC is bringing back the high school football drama Friday Night Lights for a second season. Given its ratings and the network's lengthy equivocation on whether to bring it back despite its critical success (it won a Peabody award), I'm guessing that many of you didn't watch last season. Well, you blew it. Friday Night Lights (FNL) was the best show on television last year.

I admit, that is a highly subjective statement, which I base only on the shows I regularly watch--How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, Heroes, Lost (which has grown tiresome), Entourage, and Gray's Anatomy (slightly embarrassed about this). And I should admit off the bat that I'm a sucker for teen angst. But still, FNL is legitimately a great show. The plot is engaging, the actors are almost uniformly good, the characters are complex--both sympathetic and frustrating-- and the football backdrop gives it constant drama. Plus, there's high school recruiting shenanigans, "quad" rugby, 'roids, cheerleading competitions, bipolar disorder, and several seriously attractive women-- headlined by Adrianne Palicki who plays Tyra, a bright but under-performing reprobate with serious sass. Throughout the first season, the "dirty hot" (in the words of one of my coworkers) Tyra is in something of an ongoing cage match with Lyla, the cheerleader/girlfriend to the star quarterback. Lyla starts off being a high school Stepford Wife, but gradually becomes more real. She's played by the oddly named and very pretty Minka Kelly. (Don't worry--according to IMDB, both actresses are in their twenties.)

If folks want to catch up, I suggest watching this episode (Episode Five) where Tyra allows herself to be romanced by a young businessman from LA, and where Lyla and the quarterback's best friend repeatedly couple. The episode features Applebee's, a quarterback dilemma, and lots of fooling around. Awesome.

For those of you who believe FNL's the TV show is a blasphemous bastardization of the wonderful Buzz Bissinger book, I once shared your concerns. Friday Night Lights is probably the most affecting book I've ever read about sports. It's heartbreaking and fascinating, and what Bissinger did to write it (move his entire family to Odessa, TX) is just remarkable. In fact, I have such respect for Bissinger as a writer that I almost totally ignored his recent Tony LaRussa puff piece. (Come on, Buzz!)

Friday Night Lights, the book, was then adapted into the mostly crap movie, headlined by Antwone Fisher, the star of the Fast and the Furitated: Tokyo Drift, and Billy Bob Thorton as the coach. This was not a strong Billy Bob performance, as those of you who've seen the movie know. Based on his career, I think it's safe to say Billy Bob is at his best when either pretending to be developmentally disabled (Slingblade, A Simple Plan) or rogering the mother from Gilmore Girls (Bad Santa). Anyhow, because the movie was such a stark failure, even though it tried to be faithful to the book, I can understand why fans of the book would be reluctant to start watching the show. That's where I was.

I actually watched some of the first episode and didn't like it that much. But then at some point, I was talked back into it and got hooked. Early on, it becomes clear that the TV show is almost nothing like the book or the movie. The book provides the setting--a good high school football team in a football obsessed town in West Texas--a small portion of the plot--star player gets badly injured--and the basis for a character--specifically, Riggins seems a lot like Don Billingsley. But then the show goes in totally different directions plot-wise. Plus, for those of you who bemoaned how superficial the movie was in comparison to the book, the show solves the problem. Because a full TV season is way longer than a film, you really get to know and appreciate the complexity of the characters, and you can see how time and experience changes them. (You get that kind of extended character development on some HBO shows, like the Sopranos.)

When we get closer to the new TV season, I'll give you advance warning of the first episode so those who might be interested can set their Tivos/Digital Recorders. (I can't encourage people to watch it live since NBC moved it to the basement office of prime time television-- Friday nights at 9 pm; the network must be fine with it continuing to pull iffy ratings.) Until then, try catching up online or through the season one DVD, when it comes out.

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