Who knew that it would be “Friday Night Lights” that would have television viewers talking football long after the Super Bowl?
When NBC's high-school football drama first premiered on Oct. 3, there was no reason to believe this was going to be anything memorable. This was a third-generation format, not exactly a ringing endorsement of quality. Born from Buzz Bissinger’s bestselling book about the 1988 Permian Panthers of Odessa,Texas, the concept had a worthwhile movie adaptation, starring Billy Bob Thornton as the coach, before director Peter Berg (Bissinger's cousin) brought the TV version to NBC last fall.
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But after kickoff, the show kept on marching downfield. A cult following developed, and though ratings weren't massive, “Friday Night Lights” came to be labeled by many viewers and critics as the best new series of the year.
But it’s moved way beyond that now. Forget "new," it’s now the best show on TV, bar none.
Now NBC president Kevin Reilly has to balance mediocre ratings against a wildly loyal fan base to decide whether he’s going to renew the show for the 2007-08 season.
The series is based in the fictional small town of Dillon, Texas, a tiny place whose identity is wrapped up in its Panther football team. When the team does well, the townsfolk have a spring in their step. When they lose, it's as if there’s a great injustice in the world, and Dillon is paying the ultimate price.
It's not just about footballBut what makes “Lights” such a delight is that football actually only plays a small part in each week’s episodes. It’s the characters on the team — and living in the town — with whom viewers have developed such an intense bond, one that would be devastating if broken prematurely by one-season-and-out cancellation.
While viewers of “Grey’s Anatomy” might know Kyle Chandler as Dylan, the blown-up bomb squad guy, as head football coach Eric Taylor, Chandler has found his calling. The actor can express both frustation and adulation in a twitch of an eyebrow. Chandler has meandered around on TV a bit, but now, with rich writing, he’s successfully delivered what Berg saw in him when casting the series.
While there’s little doubt that the only reason Coach Taylor has landed in Dillon is to bring glory to his team and town, winning and losing are far from his only concerns.
His gorgeous wife, Tami, is a school guidance counselor and relates to him the successes and failures of his players in both classroom and social settings. Daughter Julie makes sure his school and family worlds are further intertwined by dating starting quarterback Matt Saracen. And Taylor can't escape the drivel of football boosters such as Buddy Garrity, a car-dealership owner who stated that, even beheaded and with his noggin on a stick, he’d still find a way to give his heart and soul to the Panthers.
Saracen doesn't have it easy, either. He only became the starting QB when Jason Street, a likeable chap with a strong and accurate arm, model good looks and an adoring girlfriend, was paralyzed in the pilot episode and forced to rethink his life. Before Street's accident, the quiet and modest Saracen lacked confidence but afterwards, as his team crept toward the playoffs, he's developed an unidentifiable sense of what it takes to win.
While throwing touchdown passes certainly helped nurture his growth, it was off-the-field developments that have quickly turned Saracen into a man — even though it’s evident he remains a kid at heart. With his father serving in Iraq, he's been forced to care for his ailing grandmother. Involved with his first girlfriend, he’s confronted tricky relationship issues such as fidelity, male posturing and teenage sex. Yet, no matter how sticky the situation, the young couple seems comfortably happy in each other’s company.
“Friday Night Lights” also hasn’t been afraid to deal with questions of small-town racism, absentee fathers now seeking redemption, abused mothers who think getting smacked around is better than loneliness, and steroid-taking players dreaming of high-paying futures.
TV hits are hard to come by. No matter how much a network spends on marketing, viewers ultimately decide what’s best. You can lead an audience to a show, but you can’t make them watch.
“Friday Night Lights” has constructed a masterful winning strategy, but the game still hangs in the balance. It’s now up to NBC to make the right move.
If the series is canceled, I’ll feel for all those who have spoken out about how TV can still inspire, how it can still connect; but, worse, I’ll grieve for those fictional residents of Dillon. To them, a Hail Mary pass will have dropped in the end zone, just out of reach.
Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.