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Catching Up With "Friday Night Lights"

By admin Published: November 12, 2008

As you most likely know, "Friday Night Lights" survived for this season through a deal with DirecTV. Under that agreement, the satellite-program service has gotten the first telecast of "FNL's" current-season episodes, with the episodes showing up on NBC in 2009. I wrote a post back when the season premiere aired, but recently I had a chance to see the six subsequent episodes, including tonight's. I will post specifics about tonight's episode later, after it airs, and may offer some more detailed thoughts about episodes 2-6 over the weekend. For now, though, after the jump I'll have some thoughts about the season so far; it's spoiler-ish if you haven't been watching, but I'm trying to keep it somewhat general.

It's good.

It's very good.

"Friday Night Lights" has made an admirable recovery from a rocky second season, one that found it often mired in the ludicrous Landry/Tyra murder story, not to mention the muddle of what to do about Street and other wrong turns. I won't argue that it was always realistic in the first season; "FNL" is still in many ways a soap opera, albeit a well-executed one. But the murder story in particular threw the show off balance, indicating an extreme in the writing that made me look all that more skeptically at some other storylines.

This season has been back to basics, although with some complicated storytelling challenges. Chief among those was what to do about Smash and Street, two characters who had been major in the show but who, having graduated from high school, were outside the show's core narrative. The show's solution has been to focus on each character for a limited number of episodes -- Smash first and more recently Street -- to get them to a place in their lives where the audience has a broad sense of where they are headed, even if they are no longer weekly presences.

We could argue about some of the specifics in Smash's storyline (which will save for a post with more spoiler warnings) but it was pretty satisfying. Street's, which continues in tonight's telecast has not felt as sure-handed, not least because it requires yet another Street epiphany, and not a terribly impressive one.

While those characters have had their time in front of the camera, though, the show has also tried to move forward with the regular characters. Tami Taylor is now principal of the high school, which has both pushed her out of her comfort zone and created some conflicts with her coach husband, Eric. Matt Saracen, long QB1, has had to deal with a challenger to his domain, the new-on-the-scene freshman, J.D. McCoy, as well as caring for his grandmother and having an old family member re-enter his life. Eric, meanwhile, has had to consider not only J.D.'s abilities, but the need to keep winning to keep his job, and what to do about J.D.'s rich, hyper-aggressive father. Saracen's seemingly dead relationship with Julie Taylor has found new life. Tyra and Landry have embarked on new relationship journeys. Riggins and Tyra are thinking about college; Riggins and Lyla have their issues, and Lyla's father, the ever-watchable Buddy Garrity, has had to deal with being divorced -- and with keeping a hold on Dillon football.

With all that going on, you don't need a murder.

You especially don't need it when the show is going about its business in an intelligent and endearing way. If there is a better married couple than the Taylors currently in prime time, I don't know who it is. Eric's quarterback dilemma has forced him to make decisions that the audience may not like, but which make sense in real terms. Tami's battle over the funding for a jumbotron highlighted issues of sports, education and real-life budgets, and didn't sugarcoat the resolution. Even the dealings between the Taylors and the McCoys are complicated, with Tami growing fond of J.D.'s mother even as Eric is increasingly uneasy about J.D.'s father.

As I said, there are flaws here and there. But even those can often be forgiven because of the high level of acting being offered, starting with Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton as Eric and Tami, but spreading out to Gaius Charles (Smash), Scott Porter (Street), Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins), Zach Gilford (Saracen), Adrianne Palicki (Tyra), Jesse Plemons (Landry) and the guest stars. Among my favorites are Plemons, who can make Landry's most boneheaded moves seem plausible (including one tonight); Gilford, for the way he shows Saracen's emotional hurt while saying so little -- which makes it all the more powerful when he does say what's on his mind -- and Palicki, who understands that Tyra is smart but not about everything (even if Palicki in particular looks way to old for her character).

In sum, I am ready for the rest of this season, and longing for a fourth. "Friday Night Lights" has demonstrated this season that it has many stories to tell, and that it has found its way to telling them well again.

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