“Friday Night Lights” (8 p.m. tonight, NBC) is a series that’s tough to label. It’s a football drama that’s not really about football. It’s a network series that owes its life to a satellite TV provider. And for a show so heartily beloved by those who follow it, it seems that almost no one watches it. It’s time for that last one to change.
You might have heard (perhaps even in this very blog), that “Friday Night Lights” is the best show you’re not watching. It’s true, and it’s a crying shame. But the series has gotten a complete reboot for this upcoming fourth season, with new characters, a new school and new problems. If you’ve never watched before, now’s the perfect time to start.
Here’s all you need to know to get current: The action is set in Dillon, Texas, a small town that’s crazy about its high school football. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) had great success over three seasons at Dillon High, but lost a power struggle and his job. He’s now coaching across town, at the newly opened East Dillon High; on the wrong side of the tracks, East Dillon is mostly poor and black, its district boundary gerrymandered by Dillon alumni who kept the best football players on their side of the city. The town is now divided down more-or-less racial and economic lines. Coach Taylor’s wife, Tami (Connie Britton), is the new principal at Dillon. Sense a conflict there? Their relationship — sometimes strained, always loving — is the emotional core of the series. The Taylor’s daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), is a senior at Dillon and dating the newly graduated Dillon quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zack Gillford), who’s putting off college to work a dead-end job to support his ailing grandmother while his Army father is off in Iraq. Julie’s being romantically wooed by cocky J.D. McCoy, Dillon’s hotshot new quarterback whose father was behind Coach Taylor’s ouster. And still lurking around town is self-destructive former Dillon High star Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). You could say he has a way with the ladies. And with booze.
Got it? Might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. You’ll catch on fast. The storylines are emotional, inspirational without being sappy, and feel utterly real. They have a way of immediately sucking you in and making you care. The characters are among the most well-developed on network TV, and again, force you to care. It’s largely a cliche-free zone (except for the soapy second season), willing to let its heroes lose, learn gut-wrenching lessons through adversity and pick themselves up and get back on the field.
Ratings for each season have been dismal for NBC. After two seasons of meager viewership and near-cancellation, DirecTV stepped in to rescue the series, getting the right to air future seasons before they hit NBC’s lineup. Season 4 first aired on DirecTV over this past winter, and debuts on NBC tonight. For all the (well-deserved) grief that network’s taken in the past year, it also should be applauded for finding a creative solution to keep the struggling show alive.
As far as I’m concerned, there are three current TV dramas that are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of quality. AMC has two: “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” “Friday Night Lights” is the other. Do yourself a favor tonight and discover this gem.