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Friday Night Lights

Sensing the decision could very easily be taken out of their hands, the folks at "Friday Night Lights" wrapped up season three on DirecTV's 101 Network cleanly with clear eyes and full hearts.

Sensing the decision could very easily be taken out of their hands, the folks at “Friday Night Lights” wrapped up season three on DirecTV’s 101 Network cleanly with clear eyes and full hearts. Many characters that have grown up both emotionally and physically from the pilot in 2006 are graduating from Dillon High School now, leaving town and forced to make it on their own: Panthers coach Eric Taylor and principal Tami Taylor won’t be around the corner anymore to lead them down the right path.

(Spoiler alert: Continue reading only if you have viewed the season three DirecTV broadcasts. NBC will begin airing season three Jan. 16.)

While the show has been earning respectable numbers for the satellite provider, with an average of 650,000 total viewers per episode (including those watching on DVRs), those numbers pale in comparison with the 6.2 million NBC earned each week for season two — and that was low enough for the Peacock to nearly expunge the show had not DirecTV stepped in to help defray production costs.

So with a possible cancellation on the horizon, head writer Jason Katims and his scribes gave this season-ender the feel of a series finale as well — just in case. The most poignant plotline centered on the relationship of Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly). The two were slated to go to a local college known for its partying ways, but after much thought, she opts instead for a grade-A education and the start of a career path without her beau.

Another plotline thread offered some tangible drama but felt somewhat like a stretch: Despite nearly winning the state title for the second time in three years, the school board is leaning toward not renewing Coach Taylor’s contract.

Quarterback J.D. McCoy’s father, Joe, has had it in for Taylor ever since the coach called Child Protective Services after witnessing dad beat up on J.D. He’s bent on taking over the team and seemingly has the board under his influence. Sure, he’s got money, but that, as Coach Taylor says, doesn’t translate into wins.

If this is, indeed, game over for “Friday Night Lights,” the series goes out with its legacy intact, no matter what Nielsen says.

For three seasons, the cast of little-known twentysomethings (only Aimee Teegarden is a teenager) played their respective students with exceptional clarity, charm and authenticity. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, two actors who had never worked together before, immediately formed an onscreen bond that served as the backbone of the show.

Location shooting in Austin, Texas, helped the small-town atmosphere infuse each episode. The writers were also on target, never making light of Dillon’s often overly enthusiastic support for its football team. That passion was embraced by nearly the entire townsfolk and it permeated the culture.

If there is a season four, certainly there will be enough story to be fleshed out: Taylor is now the coach of East Dillon High School, setting up a natural rivalry with the Panthers, and characters that were never given full attention in seasons past could be offered a worthy storyline.

Yet, if the series is to say goodbye now, it leaves without falling victim to the weight of network notes or dumbed-down plots for the sake of landing new eyeballs.

To paraphrase a football analogy, they left it all on the field.

Friday Night Lights

DirecTV 101 Network, Jan. 14, 2009

Production: Filmed in Austin, Texas, by Imagine Entertainment in association with DirecTV, Universal Media Studios and Film 44. Executive producers, Peter Berg, Jason Katims, David Nevins, Brian Grazer, Sarah Aubrey, Jeffrey Reiner; co-exec producers, John Cameron, Elizabeth Heldens, Patrick Massett, John Zinman, David Hudgins; producer, Nan Bernstein; consulting producer, Kerry Ehrin; supervising producer, Bridget Carpenter; co-producers, Michael Waxman, Chad Savage; director, Reiner; writer, Katims.

Crew: Camera, Todd McMullen; production designer, Cary White; editor, Peter B. Ellis; music, Snuffy Walden, Bennett Salvay; casting, Linda Lowy, John Brace, Will Stewart. RUNNING TIME: 60 MIN.

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