Same game, other side of the tracks


Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 at 2:56 p.m.

Austin, Texas

A high school football field has a majesty, even when empty, all the more so in Texas, where the weekly game is a religious rite in which youthful striving collides with pride of place. Last November a lone worker was preparing one of those fields for battle, patrolling the pristine artificial turf of the Dillon Panthers with a can of weed killer for any strays sticking through the carpet. With its waiting, expectant stands, the field looked like almost like a television set.

Which of course it is, situated on a lot in an industrial part of Austin, near the airport. For four seasons this place has sprung to life not only with squads of players, but also with camera crews, production trailers and cast members of "Friday Night Lights," a series that has become a fetish object for critics but has yet to have a winning season in the ratings. The show, about the fictional Texas town of Dillon, has survived only because of a novel business arrangement: DirectTV shares the production costs and in return gets first crack at showing the episodes before NBC. In a time of stagnating, even declining audiences, it's the kind of partnership that could win favor among television executives looking to finance serious drama.

"Friday Night Lights," back for its fourth season on NBC beginning Friday, is based on Buzz Bissinger's 1990 nonfiction book of the same name about Odessa, Texas, and a 2004 movie directed by Peter Berg. And like the book and the movie, the TV series is only nominally about football. Friday night games are a narrative device, but the guts of the show juxtapose the soaring joys and hurts of family with the brutal, intimate charms of small-town life. While the network schedules are full of cops, doctors and lawyers, the people on "Friday Night Lights" teach, deliver pizza, sell cars, or if they aren't so lucky, collect welfare.

That mix of triumph and struggle is apparent when you walk behind the magnificent bleachers of the Dillon Panthers and find another field, one that is just so much dirt interrupted by the occasional tuft of grass. The scoreboard for the East Dillon Lions is silent and hopelessly tattered, a totem of neglect that connotes defeat no matter what numbers go up on it.

On Season 4 of "Friday Night Lights," this will be home field for Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who along with his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), a guidance counselor turned principal, is in a for a rugged year. Chandler and Britton have served as an anchor for a series in which the younger characters fight their way through academic and romantic travails but, as happens in life, eventually graduate. Season 3 ended with Taylor's ouster as coach of the Panthers and an offer for him to take over the Lions when the school district reopens East Dillon High, a school on the other side of the tracks, where making the team seems the least of a young man's worries.

Though the nation has supposedly gone beyond race with the election of a black president, the series's new season, as conceived by the show runner, Jason Katims, acknowledges that it continues to drive much of American civic life. Economic recovery may be in the air, but doesn't often knock on the doors of East Dillon. And the war in Iraq, rarely seen on television news, is very much a fact of life here, as Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the Panthers' former quarterback, struggles to look after his grandmother while his father serves yet another tour.

By putting the other side of town in the mix, Berg, who created the series after making the movie, said: "I think we all understood by making this move we could move deeper into issues that manifest themselves in high schools all over the country. By really looking into things like race and financial status, it brought us closer to the center of some important arguments."

While many have bemoaned that "Friday Night Lights" has had to struggle with bad time slots and a tenuous hold on survival, Bissinger, whose book provides the series with its DNA, sees it differently: "I give NBC credit for staying with it. This is not a souped-up show, a show that doesn't spoof small-town life, that gets at the nuances, and it's shooting its fifth season. If you look at most of the rest of television, it's kind of amazing when you think about it."

Brian Grazer, an executive producer of the series and a partner in Imagine Entertainment, said the hybrid schedule for "Friday Night Lights" was a decent solution to the challenges of the television business: reining in rising production costs even as ratings and advertising dollars show little, if any growth.

"It is a model that has worked for us and probably one that might make sense for other shows," he said. "It's a weird sort of algorithm. The ratings are not that high, but they are steady and it just made economic sense for NBC and DirecTV to go this route."

Last season 4.6 million people viewed "Friday Night Lights" either on NBC or on their DVRs within a week of the show's broadcast. Another critically lauded show with a small but dedicated audience, "Damages" on FX, was reported by Entertainment Weekly's Web site, ew.com, to be considering a similar deal: DirecTV would split costs with Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show.

As "Friday Night Lights" has progressed, characters have evolved. Jesse Plemons plays Landry, the quarterback who moves with Coach Taylor to East Dillon. He was originally just a sidekick to the team's quarterback, but he has gone from geek to love interest for the show's hottie Tyra to accused murderer (long story, that, but it involves Tyra) to new kid in school. As happens on a show about high school, soon enough he will be gone.

"It's a weird thing on so many levels and yet not that different than what happens to the characters on the show," Plemons said recently on the phone. "You are here with everyone, and it becomes family, you make friends and grow to love it. We all sort of grew up on this show and then eventually, it's time to move on."

The leave-takings are tough to watch, because for some, small towns are great places to be from, but best taken in from the rear-view mirror. In fact, for a show with a football motif, there is a whole lot of emotion going on. Growing up, which the show is really about, is never easy on the people doing the growing and often lands hard on the people around them.

And for all of the show's hotheaded teen romances, it is the chronic love affair called marriage that gets the most air time. The relationship between the Taylors reminds many of the best parts of marriage, in which the injury to the one is felt by both, and victories, sweet and fleeting, are held in common.

This season Coach Taylor is trying to make football magic out at a school with no tradition and no resources, while his wife is principal at a moneyed school, where she ends up in the gun sights of prerogative and boosterism. For a few episodes it seems as if it might break apart Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, the real team at the center of "Friday Night Lights." People who know the show know that won't happen, that it will end in a hug of some kind. It just won't be the kind of neat little hug audiences were expecting.

What: "Friday Night Lights"

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: NBC

nbc

What: "Friday Night Lights"

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: NBC

nbc

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Taylor Kitsch stars as Tim Riggins in "Friday Night Lights," which is back Friday for its fourth season on NBC.

Taylor Kitsch stars as Tim Riggins in "Friday Night Lights," which is back Friday for its fourth season on NBC.

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