Must-see TV unseen by Emmy voters

'Friday Night Lights,' 'The Wire' ignored by Acad

As “Friday Night Lights” nears the conclusion of another winning season — little seen, but enormously satisfying — the parallels keep growing to another program that ranks among TV’s best of the past decade, “The Wire.”

A cursory glance wouldn’t suggest any obvious connections between the two, other than perhaps enthusiastic critical acclaim that didn’t translate into viewers — a trait that, alas, hardly qualifies either for membership in an exclusive primetime fraternity.

“FNL” is at its core a family drama, with high-school football and the yearning to escape small-town Texas life as its poignant backdrop. “The Wire” represents the great American novel for television, using the hopelessness of the drug war to chart the decline of a major U.S. city — in this case Baltimore — as eroding institutions break down and fail citizens, from the cops to city hall, the schools to local media.

At first, “FNL’s” Dillon, Texas, was a place where residents could still find plenty of happy endings. By contrast, the latest season has taken on a more trenchant tone, exposing a system where even those youths who want to do the right thing face troubling choices and limited options, leading to drug dealing and crime out of desperation.

While neither series speaks specifically to the financial crisis that has jolted America and indeed the world, both reflect a darkening sense that faith in societal foundations has been shaken.

As for other areas of overlap, the fact that the two series have been largely ignored by Emmy voters speaks to a kind of myopia within that organization. While it’s impossible to collectively put members on the couch, the TV academy has historically had trouble identifying stand-out work by younger or minority performers — two categories represented in abundance on each of these shows.

Aside from large ensemble casts that make it difficult to single out individual players, these programs are so sharply executed by the casts and writing staffs as to make the characterizations look almost too easy, as if the performers must be barely acting at all.

Notably, critics have had no trouble identifying such quality, and both programs share another rare attribute — namely, that such adulation played a significant part in keeping them alive. After awhile, each series became the sort of prestige commodity that’s not expected to generate big ratings, which proved creatively liberating and made them even better.

“Friday Night Lights” was renewed thanks to a shared arrangement in which NBC ceded the first exhibition window to DirecTV, and the series has clearly improved since the broadcast network’s role was diminished. Writers have been allowed to tackle more complicated and thorny subjects — such as race and abortion — without fear of narrowing its already-limited appeal. The same was true of “The Wire,” which HBO sustained as much because of the glowing reviews (peaking with a staggering 98 out of 100 average on as anything else.

The main frustration vis-a-vis “FNL” has been that the series has garnered scant attention for an element that should be universal: quite simply, the best marriage ever featured within a TV show. The central couple played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are loving, playful and sexy, yet also not immune to sparring about everything from child-rearing to money issues. Lip service is often paid to “family values,” but here’s a program that genuinely captures the value of family — frequently by bringing the Taylors and other caring adults into the lives of teens lacking such role models.

“Lights'” fourth season will soon flicker out on DirecTV, with NBC to begin airing the episodes in late April. And yes, the network will return the show to Fridays, where audience levels will doubtless remain at best modest.

This has rightfully been dubbed TV drama’s Golden Age, but the barely-concealed secret is that some of the period’s most glittering baubles have toiled in relative obscurity. Yet when historians peruse cultural archives seeking clues about the 2000s, they can start their course of study with “The Wire,” followed by “Friday Night Lights.” And then they can turn out the lights, surely feeling richer for the experience.

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