'Friday Night Lights' Season 3 premiere: 'Have you ever seen two people engaged on a JumboTron?'
Perhaps to herald the move to DirecTV, the third-season premiere of NBC drama "Friday Night Lights" clocked in with a slightly longer run time than is the norm for hourlong network dramas. And tonight's broadcast needed every one of its 50 minutes (most network shows finish at about 42 minutes).* For longtime viewers, "Friday Night Lights" made its DirecTV debut by opening with a blitz of revelations and surprises.
But this wasn't a show only for the in-crowd. "Friday Night Light's" third-season premiere was a starting-over of sorts, even referencing the very first episode of the series with its day-by-day format that leads to the big game.
It's a presentation that works well for the show and one the series should employ more often. It keeps "Friday Night Lights" on point, more directly revealing how football influences every aspect of the fictional working-class town of Dillon, Texas.
It's also a presentation that's beneficial to newcomers, bringing potential first-time viewers into the action by more easily defining everyone's place. And as Season 3 began, some key characters had their roles re-defined. The coach's wife was now his professional opposite as well, having been unexpectedly promoted to principal at Dillon High. The star football player, Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles), has now graduated, but he's entering adult life with a nasty knee injury and a lack of a football scholarship.
Oh, and Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Trya (Adrianne Palicki)? Who spent much of last season wrapped up in an overly dramatic murder plot that was designed largely to bring the pair together as a couple? They're now separated, or "on a break," and "Friday Night Lights" is better for it. Don't groan, as anyone who's spent any time in public school would know that a popular bad girl such as Trya would have little to do with a heavy metal-digging, math-obsessed and marginally athletic geek such as Landry, and no self-defense killing was going to change that. One can only stretch the bounds of believability so far.
While the second season left open a host of cliffhangers, finishing with a strike-shortened 15 episodes, tonight's episode fast-forwarded a few months to the following school year and gave returning viewers answers to most of their questions within the first 10 to 20 minutes. The aforementioned revelations came quick, and before returning viewers could question just how Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) went for guidance counselor to principal, "Friday Night Lights" was thankfully onto more pressing matters, and this plot-heavy premiere is on its way to potentially setting up the show's deepest season yet.
If naming Tami principal seemed a bit of stretch as well as a conflict of interest, the payoff was immediate. Britton's character has always been the emotional backbone of the series, an overwhelming force of reason and ambition in an easily distracted small town. She's a character who earns the respect and fear of her daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) by showing her equal amounts of respect and fear. When Julie needs a parent to sign off on her high school classes, there's a reason she goes to Dad rather than Mom, and the squabble it inspires is such an easy-to-relate honesty that some families may cringe.
So as coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) deals with getting "Smash" some college tryouts and also juggles the overbearing parent of a freshman stud, Tami is being pitched by the Panthers' No. 1 cheerleader, Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland), on installing a JumboTron on the football field. It sounds great, and Garrity is armed with a fancy check from the booster club, but Dillion High has history books that are two wars out of date and is losing teachers -- the ones it can still afford -- to rival schools.
"Friday Night Lights" is smart enough not to play the principal versus coach rivalry for marriage strife, at least in the season's early episodes. Instead, it turns the issue of what to do with the JumboTron funds into a larger academics versus athletics debate that looks to take center stage this season. If the writers and producers play it right, it could be one of the show's most-rewarding plots, one with even class and racial implications.
In the depressed town of Dillon, football is a symbol of hope and sometimes all its residents have to hang onto. When high school senior Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) drinks, he's drowning out the pressures placed on him by his older brother, who's counting on Tim's skills for a check.
When Landry says to buddy Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) early in the episode, "This is your senior year, and after this it's all downhill," he speaks not from youthful idealism but by glimpsing those around him. Buddy himself may run a successful car dealership, but his heart belongs to the years he starred for the Panthers.
So when Tami hesitates with the JumboTron funds, Buddy makes an emotional pitch: "Have you ever seen two people engaged on a JumboTron?" He may be trying to show Tami his warmer side, but the line isn't played for laughs. This passes for true love in Buddy's heart.
This is when "Friday Night Lights" is at its best. It does not judge, nor look down upon, the football-obsessed inhabits of Dillon, even when they're acting at their most irresponsible in the name of Panther football. Ultimately, "Friday Night Lights" has nothing but respect for the sport. If many of the residents of Dillon are flawed -- or trapped -- they share a common bond worth envying. Indeed, "Friday Night Lights" views the sense of community the sport provides with the requisite reverence and romanticism.
Thus, when Tami tells her husband that she's reallocated the football funds to academics, he says nothing, and that says enough. The anxiously blank look on Eric Taylor's face foretells the trouble that this decision will bring upon the town, and he escapes, persuading instead for "Smash" to test his knee in a game of racquetball ("the whitest sport ever," says Smash).
It's here where "Friday Night Lights" reveals its mission, the one that fans and the media have been preaching since Day One. All together now: This is not a show about football at all.
As Smash questions his coach, asking why he cares so much about his life, Eric responds, "Because I need something good to happen." And whether that something good is scoring a touchdown, staying sober, holding down a job, getting into college or just making sure Grandma takes her pills, it's all about the quest for a better life.
A winning season sometimes makes the seemingly insurmountable objective a little easier to take.
Other highlights from the "Friday Night Lights" season premiere:
Best line: Julie, when begging her mom for her own car, points out that most of her driving is to and from church. "So technically, they're all Christian miles," she says. It doesn't work.
Best line, runner-up: When Eric makes eggs for Julie for breakfast, she rejects them, saying, "I only eat free-range eggs." The coach? "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Eat your eggs."
Biggest reality stretch: Tami, being named principal. But if the posting inspires a thoughtful debate about academic funding, all is forgiven.
Skipping over: That the Panthers look like a bunch of scrubs in midweek practice -- a team more interested in smoothies than practicing its field goals -- but were suddenly dominant A-listers Friday night.
Tim and Lyla: Yes, they're together. The season premiere brings the expected arguments between the two. Hopefully Lyla's quest to find God in Season 2 ultimately reveals itself to have a lasting change on her personality. Their relationship issues deepen in the second episode, with Lyla forced to confront some of her own fears and stereotypes.
Upcoming Show Trackers: Probably will be shorter.
* When the show debuts on NBC in 2009, I've been told the first episode will also carry a 50-minute run-time.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: DirecTV / NBC