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TV Series Review

The folks in Dillon, Texas, have a severe problem. Namely that football is god and their house of worship is artificially illuminated. NBC's Friday Night Lights exposes small-town pigskin obsessions, much as H.G. Bissinger's book and the subsequent film version have. And while this series gives the town's fictional characters more depth, it also steps out of bounds.

New Dillon Panthers coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has inherited a high school team burdened by high expectations. That's what happens when you have a winning tradition and find yourself ranked first in the state. Which means Taylor is on the hot seat each week. It doesn't help his job security when he loses star quarterback Jason Street to a life-threatening injury in the season opener.

There's more to Taylor's players than their athletic achievements, however. Besides the pressure to step in and play like a pro, backup QB Matt Saracen cares for his aging grandma while Dad fights in Iraq. Other characters escaping the broad-stroke treatment include Jason's cheerleader girlfriend, Lyla, who, despite making some really big mistakes, isn't reduced to a ditzy stereotype. Holding the hand of her now-paralyzed sweetheart, she prays, "Thank You, Lord, for all You have given to Jason and myself. We don't know why You are putting us through this test, but I know that You'll find a way to show us. And we will pull through this test, whatever it takes."

Mature words. Sadly, they don't protect her when her emotions pull her away from Jason into the passionate embrace of his buddy, who also appears to be an alcoholic. Sex is implied. On one occasion, Lyla (shown in her bra and panties) dresses afterward. She's just one of several Christian characters set up to betray their moral convictions. As for Matt and the rest of the team, their downfall comes in the form of hard-core vandalism when some of them take baseball bats and crowbars to a rival player's car.

You'd hope that, in the midst of all this, Coach Taylor would prove to be a stabilizing influence. For the most part he is. His heartfelt concern for the Panthers is inspirational. And it's easy to respect his efforts to strike a healthy balance in a community fixated on winning. However, halftime locker-room speeches include abusive language, and yellow flags fly when Taylor advises Matt to do whatever it takes to loosen up and improve his game—even if that means getting a girl into the backseat of his car.

Such lapses may be one reason the show has hit a ratings skid (third in its time slot with just 6 million viewers). It's also possible that a glut of football-themed films (Invincible, Gridiron Gang, Facing the Giants) and no lack of the real thing have left this drama staring at third and long. Friday Night Lights' authentic tone and young, convincing cast aren't enough to overcome bad timing and unnecessary roughness.

Episodes Reviewed: Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24, 30, 2006


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