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Acting, story shine beneath NBC’s ‘Lights’

Chris Hine | Tuesday, October 31, 2006

“Friday Night Lights” is not really about the game of football, and that’s a good thing.

Adapted from the bestselling book and 2004 movie of the same name, the primary focus of the NBC drama is how football affects the team and the lives of the townspeople of Dillon, Texas.

Dillon is a small town where Monday is known as “four days from Friday,” when the beloved Panthers will take the field in pursuit of another state championship.

Head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, “King Kong”) is in his first year as coach trying to produce a winning squad under enormous expectations from the town. Things get complicated when Notre Dame-bound quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) is paralyzed in the season opener. Taylor must turn to little used backup Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) to save the season and, in turn, protect his own coaching job from the highly critical town.

The show also follows fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) as he struggles to deal with his best friend’s paralysis and the romantic feelings he has for Street’s girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly).

The third central thread of the show involves the everyday life of Saracen, who has to take care of his sick grandmother while his father spends a tour of duty in Iraq. On top if all that, he must deal with the pressure that comes along with suddenly being the starting quarterback for the storied Panthers.

Executive producer, director and writer Peter Berg, who also produced the film version of “Friday Night Lights,” spends each episode developing the characters instead of focusing on the X’s and O’s of football with spectacular results. Berg has captured the cultural impact of football on small-town America. In towns like Dillon, football is not just something to do on Friday nights – it’s the only thing the town has going for it. Everything closes down when the Panthers take the field, and everyone from politicians to small children lives for Dillon football.

Berg’s documentary style of filming each episode adds to the authenticity of being in the moment with the team and experiencing its ups and downs without being invasive. He uses many different camera placements and angles to film the games, giving them big screen treatment on the small screen. Aside from a few editing errors, the footage keeps the drama of the episodes palpable.

What makes “Friday Night Lights” so great is what lies underneath the characters. None of them is a caricature or stereotype, and Berg infuses each with authentic emotional angst and touching storylines.

Chandler does an excellent job portraying the self-doubt that comes along with being the head coach of a heavily scurtinized football team. There is irony in most everything he says to the team. For every pep talk he gives to the team, every motivational technique he employs, there is an underlying sense that he does not believe what he is saying, that in trying to convince his team they can go out and win, he is also trying to convince himself that he is capable of leading them to victory.

TV veteran Connie Britton (“Spin City”) adds a touch of humor and depth in her performance as Coach Taylor’s wife Tami. On one hand, Tami wants badly to help her husband in preparing for the games, but she also knows that the last thing her husband needs is someone else telling him what to do. Britton does an excellent job balancing Tami’s personal struggle with being the coach’s wife while also being the support system and strong figure her husband needs her to be.

Lastly, Porter’s performance as the paralyzed Street is understated and nuanced. This is an accomplishment given that his storyline holds the temptation for others to overact in search of the audience’s sympathy.

But it is Gilford’s heartbreaking portrayal of the backup quarterback Saracen that steals the show. Whether making sure that his grandmother takes her pills or trying to ask Coach Taylor’s daughter on a date, Gilford lends Saracen a genuine innocence with just the expressions on his face. A scene with Coach Chandler in the second episode ranks with some of the most memorable scenes in recent television drama.

Taylor brings Saracen to the field late one night and tells him the quarterback job is his for the taking. In this scene, neither coach nor player have faith in their own abilities, and it is here that both realize the only way they will be able to perform is to rely on each other. It is one of those magical scenes, comparable to Tony’s daughter finding out that her father is a mobster by seeing the blood on his shoes in “The Sopranos,” or President Bartlet questioning God over the death of Mrs. Landingham in “The West Wing,” where a well-written script and great acting combine to create a moment that transcends words.

The weakest part of the show is the melodramatic love story between Tim and Lyla. In spite of the clichéd nature of the relationship, Kitsch and Kelly give strong performances that cover for the triteness of the storyline and keep the audience’s sympathy with the characters despite the fact that they are betraying their best friend.

Episodic television gives Berg the time span he needs to develop characters, weave multiple storylines together, and give an in-depth portrayal and analysis of the town of Dillon. Forty minutes each week can allow a series like “Lights” to develop a sophisticated social analysis to study human motives and the psychological impact of winning that a two-hour movie can not.

Berg can give us insight into the universal desire for people to win. The series can give us insight into our inner soul and what compels people to win at all costs, whether in football, business or love. The only question is, how long can “Friday Night Lights” remain on the air?

“Friday Night Lights” is currently suffering from low ratings, but NBC has shown faith in the series by ordering 13 more episodes in the hopes it can find an audience. Hopefully, it will, because with its strong acting and excellent character writing, “Lights” has the potential to become one of the best dramas of all time.