In pigskin-crazy Texas, a coach saying “It’s only football” is strictly a joke, recalling the old line about a big game not being life or death, “It’s more important than that.” Peter Berg directed the feature “Friday Night Lights” and has brought its ethos to TV mostly intact, crafting a serialized soap around the local high school team, whose first-year coach labors under an entire town’s expectations. Earnest, beautifully shot and perhaps more organically religious than anything else in primetime, the series will have its fans but doesn’t initially possess the addictive pull required to become a Tuesday-night game-changer.
“With expectations like this, the only place you can go is down,” an assistant tells Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), who with golden-armed quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) and fleet-footed running back “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) has a duo ordained to lead the Dillon Panthers to the state championship.
As in the movie based on H.G. Bissinger’s book about a real Texas squad, adversity will intervene on those dreams of glory, thrusting a bench-warmer into the spotlight. Even that loss, however, doesn’t prevent the rural community’s residents from demanding victories everywhere the coach goes, from Tuesday-night quarterbacking at a gathering of boosters to the book club his wife (Connie Britton, reprising her role) attends in the second hour, where she’s inundated with questions about football strategy.
As developed for TV by Berg, the show’s football remains extremely well choreographed if occasionally improbable in its pursuit of drama — a factor likely to be lost on the soap audience while irking sports-savvy viewers, assuming that NBC’s promo campaign, leveraging its acquisition of NFL football, can entice them to watch in the first place.
In the premiere, Berg uses a documentary crew as a clever means to help bring out the characters. As for newer beats vis-a-vis the film, racial tensions on the team are dealt with sensitively, while a predatory high school girl (Adrianne Palicki) proves a bit too “Beverly Hills, 90210” for the small-town environs.
Both hours come filled with emotional flourishes, such as Chandler’s stern-jawed Taylor telling a player, “You’re what makes guys like me want to coach.” The town’s abiding religious faith, meanwhile, is casually incorporated into the narrative, from pre-game prayers to Sunday services — a trait that by itself distinguishes the series from most of television.
From a blimp’s-eye-view, though, “Friday Night Lights” ultimately feels like one of those family programs middle America and conservatives pine for that too few of them actually bother to watch — a portrait of decent, God-fearing folks wringing joy from America’s game as an escape from their hardscrabble lives. NBC can’t harbor huge expectations in a timeslot populated by “House” and “Dancing With the Stars,” but the network needs these characters’ aspirations to engage women while saying a little prayer that some men huddle up as well.
Otherwise, it’s game over.