I have arrived late to some of my favorite shows ever … we didn't have HBO until Season Two of The Wire, I resisted Buffy until Season Three, latched onto Battlestar Galactica just before the second season started by enjoying a self-made marathon. So I won't apologize for missing the entire first season of Friday Night Lights, the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged drama, until the last week, when I watched all 22 first-season episodes so I could climb on board for Season Two.
Everything people had said about the first season of Friday Night Lights was true. Not only is it not "just" about football, football isn't really the primary focus of the show. I mean, Buffy wouldn't have existed without the Vampire Slayer part, so on one level, it was "about" vampires, but what it was really about was adolescence and, later, early adulthood, trust and community and friendship, heroic behavior, and a lot of other things. On Friday Night Lights, the main characters are connected to high-school football (the small town in which it takes place is obsessed with the local team, so it would be hard to have many characters who weren't connected in some way to high-school football). But the central theme of the show … well, it's too good to reduce it to one theme. It's a high-school show that works because the characters are realistically written and acted. It's a family show because the adults are an integral part of what happens, and because they too are realistically written and acted. It's a show about small-town American life that is realistically written (I guess my point is made).
The style of the show deserves special attention. It's filmed in a "documentary" style, which some of the actors have noted allows them to construct characters that are more than dialogue … every move they make is covered by one of the cameras for later use in the editing room, so a nervous finger or hidden glance can be surprisingly important. Combined with the writing and acting (did I mention they were "realistic"?), this style results in a show that has the best features of cinéma vérité, with the added advantage of a good script and real actors.
This means Friday Night Lights can deal with the clichés of standard television drama and get away with it, because they happen in such a matter-of-fact fashion that you don't realize you've seen it before until it's already impressed you. Which is to say, you haven't really seen it before, not done like this.
No discussion of Friday Night Lights would be complete without a mention of the "Coach/Mrs. Coach" tandem of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. There is some terrific acting going on in this show, including the teen characters, but these two are the cream of a very fine crop. The naturalistic style fits them both like a glove … Chandler in particular is so on target, it's almost scary, and Britton is, if anything, even better. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest couples television has ever offered. Along with Aimee Teegarden as their daughter, these actors and the people who put them through their paces have created a family that is … I don't want to say "realistic" again, but damn, it's so accurate. Not to dis the rest of the cast … as in much great drama, the characters are multi-dimensional (another reason it squeezes past the clichés), and the actors are up to the challenges. Sometimes you get a complex character but the actor can't carry it, so the character just seems randomly inconsistent. But combine good actors with complexly-scripted characters, and you have depth.
All of the above is true for Season One, and as is usual when I come late to a show, I'm kicking myself now for passing on it before. Much of the Season Two premiere follows the pattern set by its predecessor. However, there is one plot twist that would barely pass muster in a Grade-D syndicated melodrama, and it's a flaw serious enough to make me worry about the show's direction. Alan Sepinwall has some interesting things to say about this (I largely agree with his take), and since he's an actual critic instead of just some guy with a blog, he's gone and interviewed the show's executive producer. That person, Jason Katims, says we need to trust them to take the show in a direction that will make sense for all of us. Sepinwall wants to be convinced … so far, he's not, and he's seen a coupla more episodes than the rest of us. So my advice would be to hunt down Season One … don't jump into the show with Season Two … and hopefully, by the time you're ready for Season Two, Katims will be proven right.
Grade for Season One: A
Grade for Season Two premiere: A- for most of the episode, D- for the crap