Thursday, October 05, 2006

TV Review: Friday Night Lights - "Pilot"

The book and 2004 movie Friday Night Lights told the true story of a small town Texas high school football team and their quest for the state championship. Now, that story is the inspiration for NBC's new drama of the same name. Friday Night Lights the TV show also deals with a small town Texas high school football team as they strive to win a state championship and adopts a lot of the stylistic cues from the film. It certainly makes for compelling television, but it also runs the risk of becoming a movie stretched to season length.

Set in the present-day in the fictional small town of Dillon, Texas, Friday Night Lights begins at the start of the high school football season. The Dillon Panthers are considered the best high school team in Texas and we see the team getting treated almost like celebrities. A local NBC news crew follows the team in the days leading up to their first game of the season. The season is a pivotal one as it is the first for new head coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), the team's former offensive coordinator. He receives pressure from multiple sides from town leaders to ordinary people worried about his ability to lead the team to a state championship.

We're introduced to some of the key players on the team. Jason Street (Scott Porter), is the team's starting quarterback, a phenom being scouted by Notre Dame. He's in love with cheerleader Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), whose father is a town big shot with his own car dealership. In comparison, there is Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the team's backup quarterback, who lives with his grandmother and doesn't look to see one minute of playing time. Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is the team's premier fullback but he has issues both with alcohol and black teammate “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles).

It wouldn't be a drama if things went exactly as expected and when the Panthers finally play, they find that their opponents are tougher than they expected. After a brisk start, things go downhill as the Panthers' play gets sloppy. Just when they think they'll be able to bounce back, quarterback Jason Street gets badly injured. Matt, nervous as hell, comes into the game and somehow does enough for the Panthers to win. However, things are uncertain for the team as it looks like Street may not be playing again anytime soon...if ever.

This pilot episode was written and directed by Peter Berg, the director of the movie version. Overall, the episode feels exactly like the movie from the camera work to suffocating way it portrays small town life for a football coach. The dialogue feels realistic and I like that you get to see simple things absent from some dramas like people praying. Kyle Chandler, a solid TV veteran, does a very good job with the role and doesn't imitate Billy Bob Thornton. The young cast is also quite good. There are a lot of characters in this show, so it will take future episodes to really see how good all of them are.

If there is one problem with Friday Night Lights it is that it's a little too close to the movie. Anyone who has seen the film could've guessed that the star player would get injured since that also happened in the movie. I'm glad they decided to give one of the players an alcohol problem (instead of a player's father like in the movie), but it is still too similar to what was done before. I'm really hoping that in future episodes, the show takes steps to separate itself more from the movie. It is not going to be worth watching every week if it's just going to take a portion of the film and stretch it to an hour's worth of TV.

Friday Night Lights has the potential to become one of the best new drama series this season, and the best family drama on TV. As evidenced by MTV's popular (and acclaimed) documentary series Two-A-Days, high school football can be the backdrop for plenty of drama. If this show can step out of the shadow of the movie it's inspired by, it could be a staple of NBC's drama lineup for years to come.

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