`Friday Night Lights' shines, but ratings may dim future

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Commentary

October 10, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Television has searched long and hard over the years for a solid way to portray high school athletics. Unless you count The Waverly Wonders, a 1978 sitcom starring Joe Namath - and why on Earth would you? - the medium has mostly has failed.

The latest attempt, Friday Night Lights, a one-hour drama airing Tuesdays on NBC (locally, channels 11 and 4) is a noble effort that largely does well and should do better, given time.

Alas, based on the ratings from last week's premiere, Friday Night Lights, a heavily promoted and critically acclaimed look at Texas high school football, may not be given the chance.

The show was seen by about 7.1 million viewers and ran third in its 8 p.m. time slot, behind Dancing With the Stars on ABC and NCIS on CBS. The good news is that FNL won its time slot among men 18 to 34, the most difficult demographic to reach, but with that small of an overall viewership, it may not last long enough for anyone else to discover it.

And that would be a shame, for, with the notable exception of The White Shadow, the 1978-1981 basketball drama that was far and away the best depiction of high school sports on television, FNL comes closer to getting it right than any other series has.

The show - loosely based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author H.G. Bissinger's book that brilliantly chronicled a year in the life of the Permian High School Panthers football team and examined the social fabric of the West Texas town - is slightly different from the book and the 2004 movie, which starred Billy Bob Thornton.

The television show is inferior to the nuanced book but superior to the movie, which smelled more of Hollywood than reality. That the television version is so much better is odd considering that Peter Berg, who directed the film, is the show's executive producer and wrote and directed the pilot.

Berg, who is a cousin of Bissinger's, casted wisely with the show, particularly in the lead roles, Kyle Chandler as head coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his wife, Tami.

As Taylor, who is a head coach for the first time, Chandler is a fine study in stoicism, calling to mind a young Tom Landry, the former Dallas Cowboys coach.

Through Chandler's eyes, you see determination and bewilderment, as if he can't believe how important this football team is to the town. His mini pep talk to the backup quarterback thrust into a late-game situation was full of compassion and confidence, stamping him as the kind of coach for whom you'd want your kid to play.

Britton, who also played the coach's wife in the film, is terrific in what could be a thankless role, that of the supporting, adoring spouse. Tami Taylor is that, but she's also brassy and smart.

That's not to say there aren't sizable flaws in Friday Night Lights. The dialogue among the teenagers of Dillon High is too wise for high schoolers, unless conversations in hallways have gotten considerably smarter over the years.

And Berg and the writers have made a bad decision, if the plot line in the pilot holds through, to make running back Brian "Smash" Williams, the lone prominent black character, a Terrell Owens knockoff. The casting plays to a nasty stereotype, that every African-American skill-position player is an egomaniac.

And where is it written that every show set in a high school has to have actors who look old enough to be ordering drinks at a trendy bar? With the exception of Zach Gilford, who plays the aforementioned backup quarterback, this cast looks more like 25 years old than 15.

Even with those flaws, Friday Night Lights, as fiction, is infinitely preferable to the reality trash that is MTV's Two-A-Days: Hoover High, a look behind the scenes of an Alabama team that presents the worst of high school athletics with the soap-opera quality of The O.C. thrown in.

None of that may matter, though, if Friday Night Lights doesn't start scoring ratings touchdowns soon. In today's hypercompetitive ratings landscape, FNL might be allowed one or two more subpar performances before it hits the bench permanently.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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