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The cheerleaders' uniforms aren't back from the cleaners yet, and they're still working on the Lite Beer ads, but even though it's only July, football season seems to be upon us - at least a harbinger, in YES Stars 1's new Friday Night Lights, a recent addition on Thursdays at 10 p.m.
While we're not huge gridiron fans - we stopped paying attention after the New York Giants' last Super Bowl game - we are fans of this NBC series, which combines some fine acting, a great script, and the grunts and groans of the turf in an entertaining, classy program.
Based on a movie of the same name and written by cousins Peter Berg and Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the movie screenplay as well, Friday Night Lights tells the story of the Dillon Panthers of Dillon, Texas, where on Friday night the entire town eschews kiddush for its own religious rite: closing early and heading to the Panthers' game, the veritable heartbeat of this otherwise typical small town.
The townsfolk have huge hopes for the Panthers and their ace quarterback, Jason Street, who can throw a ball a country mile and is being scouted for the pros already. In fact, in a clever introduction to the challenge facing new coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler of Early Edition), we get the local radio station hosts explaining how "he has stepped into the No. 1 team in Texas" - just the beginning of this Greek chorus used by the writers to set their story.
Soon enough we meet Jason's girl Lyla, who's already got their perfect lives all mapped out, Jason's undisciplined friend and fullback Tim (the excellent Taylor Kitsch), who'd rather drink and hang out with his girlfriend than get to practice on time, and the flashy Smash, the black star running back with the Ali-like mouth who tells adoring fans that the Panthers "are going to get diabolical/like Tom Cruise gets Scientological."
There's also back-up quarterback Matthew, whose dad's in Iraq and who lives with his grandma. Matthew hangs with his goofy friend Jesse, who dreams of forming a Born Again rock band and leaving the town he compares to "a big old, out-of-tune guitar."
So everyone's hyped for the big game, including the town's mayor, who in a pre-game pep session remarks to QB Jason about his good manners.
"You're a nice boy, Jason."
"Thank you, ma'am," he answers.
"You've got great manners," she adds.
"Thank you, ma'am," he replies.
"Knock it off - you can't go into the game like that!" she admonishes him.
That kind of sharp writing runs throughout the program, which reportedly has been nominated for an Emmy. And while the situation is somewhat predictable - starting QB and Mr. Perfect Jason is knocked out of the game making a tackle, forcing inexperienced Matt into the big game at the crucial moment - the script, acting and sense of place offered by little gems like the prayers for the team on the side of the local church make the town come alive before us.
It's also hard not to love a program that offers such insights as when a realtor, trying to sell the new coach a house and noting its big bathroom, observes: "Room in the bathroom is what has saved more marriages than Oprah and Dr. Phil combined."
Sure there are some minuses - the scene in which Coach Taylor reminds his team, after Jason's injury, that "we will all fall" and that when that which we have is taken from us, "we will be tested, tested to our very souls" was a bit much. But more often than not, the rah-rah stuff of high-school football is handled well, and the overall atmosphere rivals that of The Last Picture Show, which was also about a small-town Texas football team, albeit a failing one.
Besides Chandler, Connie Britton (The Brothers McMullen, Spin City and The West Wing) is also fine as his wife Tammy, who lets herself get drawn into attending the local book club meeting against her daughter's advice, and discovers that those who attend never discuss a book, but just gossip, and that she's become a member of more committees than she can remember.
As for Matt, with Jason paralyzed he's the new No. 1 QB, with all the privileges that go with it, including his very own "Rally Girl," who's more than happy to provide anything he needs - initially, his favorite cake. For the shy, introverted kid there's a long road ahead, and Friday Night Lights is sharp enough to draw even those who don't like football down that road.
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