Universal // 2007 // 685 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // May 7th, 2008
Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
Friday Night Lights is one of those TV shows that has an enthusiastically loyal fan base but unspectacular ratings. After a 22-episode first season, the show found its second season run trimmed to 15 episodes by the WGA strike; however, it still secured a renewal from NBC for a third season. However, these third season episodes will only be available to DirecTV customers initially (with everyone else getting to see them in the winter), so in the meantime, fans of the show will have to content themselves with Universal's four disc set of Friday Night Lights: The Second Season.
The world of the small town of Dillon, Texas, revolves around the town's high school football team, the Panthers. Each week, the show chronicles the lives (both on and off the football field) of Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, Early Edition), his wife Tami (Connie Britton, Spin City), and their teenaged daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), along with team members Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), and students Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), disabled quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter, Music and Lyrics), and football booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland).
The 15 episodes contained in Friday Night Lights: The Second Season are spread out across four discs as follows (* denotes that deleted scenes are included for that episode):
* "Last Days of Summer"*
* "Bad Ideas"*
* "Are You Ready for Friday Night?"
* "Let's Get It On"*
* "How Did I Get Here?"*
* "Seeing Other People"*
* "The Confession"*
* "There Goes the Neighborhood"*
* "Jumping the Gun"*
* "Who Do You Think You Are?"*
* "Humble Pie"*
* "Leave No One Behind"*
* "May the Best Man Win"
To begin with, I have not read H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream, which led to Peter Berg's 2004 film Friday Night Lights and, of course, this series. I did see Berg's film, which I thought was good, if not great. It did not leave enough of an impression on me to seek out the T.V. show when it premiered in 2006. My reasoning was that my interest in football was enough to sit through a two-hour movie, but not enough to commit to a weekly T.V. series.
As I began watching the episodes contained in Friday Night Lights: The Second Season, however, I began to see what the show's hardcore fans already know: football is not the main focus. Instead, the sport serves as a backdrop to the show's plots and subplots, and a way to connect its large ensemble cast. Make no mistake, the series' chief concern is character, which is what led me to enjoy this set as much as I did.
Friday Night Lights is a compelling T.V. show because its writers are constantly placing characters in difficult (if not always realistic) situations. None of the characters has an easy ride here. Take the Taylor family, for example. The first few episodes are dominated by Eric's difficulty in spending long periods of time in Austin for his college coaching job, while Tami and Julie remain in Dillon. The petulant, argumentative Julie offers Tami no help in taking care of the latest member of the Taylor family, baby Gracie. Even when Eric returns to Dillon to again coach the Panthers, things don't just return to the status quo. Eric's hiring is prompted by the dismissal of Bill MacGregor, Dillon's new head coach (Chris Mulkey), whom the show portrays as essentially a good guy whose no-nonsense attitude and outsider status put him at odds with the locals, particularly top booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), who trumps up mostly flimsy and childish reasons to fire MacGregor. There's a great scene where MacGregor stops by Eric's house on his way out of Dillon, reminding him that while Eric might have made his decision for his family, MacGregor has a family too. In addition, because the school district paid the rest of MacGregor's salary, Eric's pay is diminished. In an effort to offset that, he is made athletic director of the school, which causes additional complications for him.
The troubles don't end there for the Taylors. In order to help with Gracie, Tami has her wild, unpredictable sister Shelly (Jessalyn Gilsig, Boston Public) move in with the family. Shelly begins exerting a bad influence on Julie, putting her at odds with Tami. Julie clashes with both of her parents (especially Tami) for almost the entire season. Even with this conflict, however, the writers are careful not to make things too one-sided; yes, Julie frequently acts childishly, but her parents aren't perfect either.
Eric and Tami Taylor also constitute two of my favorite characters on the show, largely because of their excellent portrayals by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. The two have a very believable, lived-in kind of chemistry, and oftentimes, the best scene(s) in a given episode involves a conversation between them. Neither Chandler nor Britton has to overact to bring emotion to a scene; in fact, just a line or two of dialogue is often enough, or a telling facial expression. There's a wonderful moment when Eric has just told Tami he has to return to Austin earlier than anticipated. She tells him she'll be fine, but when he leaves the house, the camera lingers by Tami and observes her breaking out in sobs.
Chandler also does remarkable work in his coaching scenes. Whether he's speaking one-on-one with a player with a quietly focused intensity, or he's yelling at the team on the practice field, Chandler proves that he is just as believable in his character's professional role as he is in his character's domestic milieu. As a coach, Eric is arguably under more pressure during this season than he was during the previous one, when his team won the state championship. Not only did he not start this season with the team, but he's also got that championship to live up to. It's a testament to Chandler's skill as an actor that he can convey that kind of pressure without resorting to theatrics.
But I don't want to single Chandler and Britton out and risk giving the rest of the cast short shrift. Performances on this show are more or less universally strong. Yes, some of the actors look too old to be in high school (I'm thinking of you, Taylor Kitsch), which you either get used to or you don't. Zach Gilford and Jesse Plemons contribute amusing, naturalistic performances as Matt Saracen and Landry Clarke, respectively; Scott Porter deftly shows the difficulties his character, paralyzed in the first episode of the first season, has in adjusting to a new life outside of Dillon football; Gaius Charles imbues his initially arrogant, loudmouth character with surprising depth as the season progresses; and Aimee Teegarden accurately depicts the pitfalls of the average high school student. That doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the fine acting turned in by this large cast in each episode; they are truly one of the stronger T.V. ensembles in recent memory.
Another great thing about this show is that the actors are given the freedom to improv during scenes. In addition, scenes are filmed with three cameras, and camera operators follow them around within a given location (the show doesn't use any soundstages), which, along with the improv, gives the show more freshness and spontaneity. While the handheld camerawork sometimes gets on my nerves, more often not, it works.
Universal's DVD presentation of Friday Night Lights is strong in both the video and sound departments, although there's some graininess to the image at times. For extras, beyond the enjoyable deleted scenes included, there are three commentary tracks: one for "Last Days of Summer" with executive producer Jason Katims and co-executive producer/director Jeffrey Reiner; one for "Are You Ready for Friday Night?" with Britton and Teegarden, and one for "There Goes the Neighborhood" with Plemons and Palicki. Katims and Reiner's track is packed with lots of interesting information about how the show is produced and is definitely worth a listen, and the two actors' commentaries, while not as informative, are still enjoyable and handily demonstrate the rapport of the show's cast. Finally, there is a 36-minute interview with Berg, Katims, and several cast members at the William S. Paley Television Festival. Everybody praises everybody a little too much, but there's also some interesting information about the show's creative process.
While most of the character work in Season Two is solid, the writing is sometimes a bit wobbly. Sometime it's just a minor, one-episode plot point, like a depressingly clichéd revelation from an opposing coach who loses control during a game and tackles Riggins. Another example is the rivalry between Eric and Tami's ex-boyfriend Mo (played by Peter Berg) that erupts in a fistfight during the season's last episode. It's a pointless and uninvolving storyline, and it's a shame it was included in the season's last episode.
The other problems I have with story in Season Two are larger. The first is the saga of Santiago (Benny Ciaramello), a former juvie inmate whom Lyla steers in the direction of her dad. Buddy gives him a job at his dealership, lets him stay at his condo, and convinces him to join the football team. This plotline seems to be in place mainly to give Buddy -- who, frankly, isn't one of my favorite characters -- more to do. It's not that I don't find the story plausible; I guess I just don't care about these characters as much as I do the others on the show. Both Ciaramello and Leland, however, do a fine job in their scenes.
The next problem I have is the subplot of Riggins leaving the home he shares with his brother. He first imposes on Tyra, whom he stays with until she kicks him out, at which point he moves in with a meth dealer with a penchant for ferrets. Seriously. I have no doubt that there are meth dealers in Texas, but most of the scenes involving this guy are just absurd.
Finally, there is the Landry-Tyra murder subplot. In the season's first episode, Landry accidentally kills a rapist who had been stalking Tyra. This results in the two covering up the crime, and Landry struggles with his conscience over killing someone and then lying about it to everyone, especially his parents (which also means we get to see some great guest star work from Glenn Morshower as Landry's father). It's clear that the murder storyline is in place in order to steer Landry and Tyra into a relationship, but that could have been done in other, less drastic ways. Fortunately, both Plemons and Palicki are excellent in their roles throughout this storyline. Plemons is great at showing not only his character's guilt over the murder, but also his longing for Tyra, which is frequently frustrated by her indecisiveness. Palicki, for her part, clearly shows the maelstrom of emotions she's going through in the wake of the murder: She's concerned about what will happened to Landry if he's caught, and she feels affection for him but she also seems to be a little embarrassed at being involved with someone who is supposedly out of her league. I have to admit, even though I wouldn't have gone with the murder storyline if I was writing the show, the writers and actors handle it better than it would probably be dealt with in other, lesser shows. For more on the showrunners' motivations for including this subplot, be sure to listen to the Katims and Reiner commentary.
And if I may be allowed a quibble: Dillon High School must have the most liberal attendance policy in the history of high schools. Riggins, in particular, seems to cut school more often than she shows up, yet there doesn't seem to be any long-term consequences for him. Even when Eric kicks him off the team, he is eventually allowed to rejoin it. Also: Saracen cuts school at least once, and calls one of his teachers a "bitch." Where I go to school, just calling a teacher that name would result in a suspension, and probably some kind of punishment from the football coach. Maybe football players get more breaks in Texas.
Friday Night Lights is not the perfect, can-do-no-wrong show that its more enthusiastic supporters make it out be, but even with a few deficiencies in the story department, the care and commitment invested by its cast and crew are palpable in each episode, making the show an enjoyable and rewarding experience. If you want a serious-minded TV show with a strong focus on character, Friday Night Lights: The Second Season is for you.
Not guilty. Go Panthers!
Review content copyright © 2008 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 685 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted scenes
* Audio commentaries with executive producers and stars
* William S. Paley Television Festival: Interview with the Cast
* DVD Verdict Review - Original Film