boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
Fall TV

It looks like a winning season for 'Friday Night'

Kyle Chandler plays Eric Taylor, who is coaching college football in Austin this season, on 'Friday Night Lights.' Kyle Chandler plays Eric Taylor, who is coaching college football in Austin this season, on "Friday Night Lights." (Bill records/abc universal via ap)

Tonight, when "Friday Night Lights" returns for a second season, it will ask viewers a simple question: How forgiving are you? Does your loyalty extend beyond one stumble?

Because the season premiere, at 9 on Channel 7, contains a plot development that belongs in a far lesser teen drama such as "One Tree Hill." I won't describe the botch in this review, nor will I ponder out loud how a group of excellent TV writers could so clearly lose their heads. But I know you'll recognize the twist when it occurs. In a series built on realism and intimate moments of pain and joy, the event has the subtlety of an offensive tackle. And it arrives during an hour that's already straining slightly to reestablish the characters - now eight months further along than last season - by making them a shade more obvious than usual.

Otherwise, though, "Friday Night Lights" is back in top form. I've seen the first three episodes of the season, and, after tonight's hour, they are alive with the kind of emotional honesty that has made the show both a critical darling and an underdog beloved by fans. The new layout of the action - Coach Eric Taylor lives in Austin, coaching college football, while Tami Taylor is at home in Dillon on maternity leave - doesn't make the story any less cohesive or satisfying.

Indeed, the strains of a long-distance marriage give Connie Britton an opportunity to draw us even further inside Tami as an individual, without her support system. We know Tami is a powerhouse as a wife, ruled by the instincts of her good heart; now we get to see the excruciating sensitivity of her emotional compass. She is at extremes holding down the fort alone, faced with both an infant's needs and the alienation of her 15-year-old daughter, Julie, who hungers for something more than small-town life. Britton's the kind of actress who has a wide range of emotions in her arsenal, and they are all readily available in any given scene.

This season also promises to showcase a number of supporting actors, including Jesse Plemons as Landry. Initially deployed mostly for comic relief, Plemons's Landry is becoming one of the show's most unexpectedly heroic characters. I love the fact that the "Friday Night Lights" producers are astute enough to see Plemons's potential, because he doesn't fit into any obvious categories. Zach Gilford also shows different facets of quarterback Matt Saracen, whose slow-motion response to life is tested by a teammate's ego, as well as his own ego.

And then Brad Leland turns Buddy Garrity into a tragic small-town figure, a guy who is responsible for ruining his life and fully aware of it. Leland doesn't soft-sell Buddy's awful drunkenness, but, like every actor on the show, he makes his character human. It's rare to find such a cast of living, breathing dramatic characters on network TV, and that's largely thanks to the peripheral work done by the likes of Leland. Even the smallest recurring performances - Louanne Stephens as Matt's fading grandmother and Liz Mikel as Smash's passionate mother, for example - are indelible.

Anyone who has watched "Friday Night Lights" knows that it is about football and yet it is so not about football. I can't imagine what stopped Emmy voters from lavishing this series with nominations this year, unless they failed to realize that it's not, strictly speaking, a sports drama. I also can't imagine why "Friday Night Lights" isn't a ratings success, except for the same confusion. Perhaps locating the series on Fridays will help draw in more viewers, since the title doubles as a schedule reminder. And a quality reminder, too, since "Friday Night Lights" is without a doubt one of TV's brightest lights.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

More from Boston.com

'Related'

Friday Night Lights

Starring: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Aimee Teegarden, Zach Gilford, Jesse Plemons

On: NBC, Channel 7

Tonight, 9-10

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES