One way to praise NBC's ``Friday Night Lights" would be to say, ``It's a stand-up-and-cheer drama about football!" And then to use football metaphors such as ``Catch this TV forward pass." Because, as the show's Dillon High Panthers wrestle for a Texas state championship on the field, you'll want to stand up, cheer, and program the series onto your DVR.
But ``Friday Night Lights," which premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 7, is more than a football drama for ESPN types about whether the Panthers' offense can score. It's a drama about small-town Texas, adolescence, adolescent adults, Americana, religion, racism, family, gender roles, and, oh yes, football, too. Based on the 2004 movie that was based on H.G. Bissinger's nonfiction book, and adapted by the movie's director, Peter Berg, this rich series is the new season's true underdog.
In the town of Dillon, football isn't a sport, it's an identity -- a way for people to distract themselves from desolation, and to distinguish themselves. All the adults and radio talk hosts in ``Friday Night Lights" are obsessed with the game, and they put acute pressure on the players and new coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) not just to play well, but to win. You'd think these kids were preparing for a tour of duty in Iraq. Coach Taylor feels the heat, and so does his wife, Tami (Connie Britton, who also starred in the movie), when her weekly book group becomes a Panthers strategy session.
Berg has done a fine job of lifting his series above familiar teen melodrama and making it into a group portrait of a town. ``Friday Night Lights" is radically different from the movie ``Dazed and Confused" in its themes, but the two are similarly unglossy snapshots of local Texas culture. There's nothing corny or precious about Dillon -- none of the soapy romanticism of the towns in ``One Tree Hill" or ``Dawson's Creek." It doesn't feel like a quaint L A fantasy of the sticks. You can see hard living and depression on many of the adult faces, and you can see unworldliness and big dreams on the kids' faces. There aren't any characters who are too smart to be real -- those people who exist only on TV.
The documentary feel of ``Friday Night Lights" is strengthened by the use of a hand-held camera and quick-cut editing. Unlike the stylized realism of ``NYPD Blue," which turned the jitters into an artistic tic, the show's shaky camerawork brings vitality and intimacy to the drama. Even when the camera holds still and isn't swerving or zooming in, it nonetheless pulses with energy. MTV has a reality version of ``Friday Night Lights" called ``Two- A-Days," and even that unrehearsed footage doesn't feel quite as alive as this show.
As a multigenerational melodrama, ``Friday Night Lights" winds in and out of the lives of Coach Taylor and the players' parents, but it spends most of its time with the teens. There's the star quarterback, Jason (Scott Porter), who's in love with his cheerleader girlfriend, even while another girl makes a play for him. His life will change radically in tonight's premiere. There's a long-haired brooder and a black boaster, and their friction has racial undertones. And there's a quiet backup quarterback, Matt (Zach Gilford), who has artsy leanings. In the show's recurring diner scenes, the town's teen hierarchy becomes crystal clear. And yet, on Friday nights, those tensions are subsumed by the game.
You know ``Friday Night Lights" is unusual and not ``One Tree Hill" when it shows religious characters such as Jason praying, and yet doesn't treat their faithfulness with either irony or reverence. The women on the series, too, are not shaped to fit a point of view or to be role models. They are obviously submissive to the men, and on game day, an army of cheerleaders brings baked goods to their favorite players. You may feel strong admiration for Chandler's Coach Taylor, but he's still a guy who flinches when his wife says she wants a job.
For Chandler, this is a breakout performance, despite his appealing TV work on ``Early Edition." He brings grace and restraint to a role that practically begs for grandstand acting. The script gives him a number of opportunities to wring tears out of guy-on-guy schmaltz, as he plays father to his players; and still Chandler holds back, making the scenes even more memorable. Next week, in the strong second episode, Coach Taylor visits Matt at home and you can see him tiptoeing carefully into the boy's life, hoping to mobilize him.
``Friday Night Lights" is facing a ratings struggle, both because of its formidable competition and because sports dramas aren't an easy sell on prime time. Alas, this is the kind of show TV viewers often ask for -- it's family entertainment, it deals with relevant themes, it has heart -- but then fail to watch.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.