The “kids” on “Friday Night Lights” continue to look less and less believable as teenagers, but by every other creative stat, this high-school football drama remains near the top of its game. Only a satellite-first deal with DirecTV kept this struggling NBC hour alive for a third season, and odds are the series has run out of last-second comebacks. Even so, it remains that rarest of TV programs — one that centers on a strong nuclear family and depicts teens as something more than sex-crazed buffoons.
Year three finds Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler, in the role of a lifetime) back coaching the small-town Dillon Panthers in football-mad Texas, juggling a wife (the fabulous Connie Britton) who has new responsibilities at school, a teenage daughter (Aimee Teegarden) and their newborn baby, along with his onfield duties.
The Panthers are in what should be a rebuilding year, trying to get the most out of undersized quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) and party-boy halfback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). Meanwhile, there’s a new hotshot QB on the roster, and Coach Taylor is preoccupied with salvaging the college career of one-time star Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), who is grappling with the possibility of squandered dreams as he seeks to rebound from a knee injury.
Of course, that list of challenges barely breaks the line of scrimmage. Like few other series, “Lights” casts a sympathetic eye on small-town America, with all its hopes, ambitions and fears — including those of Tyra (Adrianne Palicki), an under-achiever academically who fears she’ll wind up like her boozy mother and stripper sister if she can’t escape to college.
For a series ostensibly driven by football, the show always looks least convincing when game-time rolls around. The real magic resides in the smart, loving, adorably quick-witted relationship between Eric and Britton’s Tami, as well as the likability of Kitsch as brooding bad-boy Riggins or Gilford as the shy, stammering quarterback that Taylor has taken under his wing.
Even though the series is relatively inexpensive to produce (thank you, Texas), “Friday Night Lights” has never lit up the Nielsen scoreboard the way it should. Barring a dramatic move — like graduating most of the kids and starting over — it’s hard to imagine the program hanging on much longer, even with this season’s creative shared-broadcast-window financing scheme to lighten NBC’s load.
Nevertheless, “Lights” proves not only that it’s possible to produce a smart drama with teenage characters, but that a series can be better than the movie (itself inspired by a bestselling book) that spawned it. For that reason and others, this remains an hour to savor until the final pistol sounds.