Peter Berg and Kyle Chandler on the restructuring of 'Friday Night Lights'
The series, which touches on the political, social and familial impacts of a football-obsessed but beleaguered town, carries with it a small but dedicated audience. Last year, it also became somewhat of a network experiment.
Now a partnership between DirecTV and NBC, “Friday Night Lights” had been trimmed last season from a full 22-episode run to one that capped at 13-episodes. Chandler was convinced that number would soon become zero.
“It was fatigue,” Chandler says, explaining the reason for the negativity. “The first year we were up against ‘American Idol.’ The second year was the writers strike. The third year we get cut down to 13 episodes. I just assumed that while we had a solid base, the numbers wouldn’t go out the roof. … I just didn’t expect that we would overcome a network’s desire for something fresh.”
With “Friday Night Lights” set to begin its fourth season Wednesday night on DirecTV’s 101 Network, Chandler is experiencing something he’s never had on the show before: stability. NBC and DirecTV renewed their partnership for a two-season run of 13-episodes apiece, bringing to an end -- at least for now -- the annual stress over a last-minute renewal.
Yet a sense of uncertainty surrounds practically everything else in the world of “Friday Night Lights.” Set in the fictional Texas town of Dillon, Season 4 serves as a major restructuring of the series.
A plot line involving a town redistricting has provided an opportunity to introduce a host of new characters, as well as disrupt the heart of the show. Chandler’s Eric Taylor, fired as the coach of the Dillon Panthers, is now heading the East Dillon Lions, a team representing a school made up of kids from the wrong (read: poorer, more ethnically diverse) side of town. His wife, Connie Britton’s Tami, remains principal of Dillon High, and its glorious, well-funded football program.
“It’s a little bit of a Horatio Alger story. He’s going from rags to riches, at least he hopefully is,” Chandler says.
Chandler says he called the writers and personally thanked them after reading Season 3’s finale. “If it were to come back, there was a whole new show,” he says. “If the show didn’t come back, they ended it really nicely. I don’t want to say it’s more fun to play, but it’s more fun playing this guy now than still playing the other guy.”
Executive producer Peter Berg, who directed Season 4’s first episode, as well as the 2004 film that was inspired by Buzz Bissinger book, plans to have a bigger input the next two seasons. No longer a "cheerleader" on the sidelines, he says, Berg is eager to see "Friday Night Lights" explore such timely issues as job security.
“On a macro level, what’s great about the new direction of the show is we’ve completely pulled the rug out from underneath this family,” Berg said. “They’re displaced and they’re on entirely unfamiliar turf. They’re going to have to rebuild and reinvent themselves. We’ve sort of destroyed everything that was familiar to this family. That’s very true to the culture. Three or four years is considered a long run as a head coach. It’s not uncommon for these coaches to have to pick up and relocate their families.”
Show-runner Jason Katims, meanwhile, has his hands full developing “Parenthood” for NBC (look for Stephanie Hunt, who plays indie-rock bass player Devin on “Friday Night Lights,” to appear on that series as well). Yet fans may remember that the last time Katims juggled two shows – in 2007 with “Bionic Woman” – “Friday Night Lights” suffered, getting off its realistic course with a murderous subplot.
Berg, however, says he has stepped up his involvement. He speaks of wanting to help define the course of the show over the next two seasons, and had a hand in casting the new characters. Among the newcomers in the first episode are Madison Burge, whose Becky Sproles is said to get close with Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), and Russell DeGrazier’s assistant coach Stan, who Chandler’s character meets in a dead-end job at Sears. DeGrazier is relegated to little more than comic relief in the first episode, but Berg teases that there’s “a big surprise with Stan later in the season.”
Like last season, some favorites will be leaving.
Chandler spoke to Show Tracker in the midst of filming Season 4’s seventh episode, and relayed that he had just finished shooting his final scene with Zach Gilford’s Matt Saracen. Gilford’s character had turned down enrollment at the Art Institute of Chicago to stay in Dillon and care for his ailing grandmother, as well as continue to date the coach’s daughter, Aimee Teegarden’s Julie.
Fans shouldn’t get too attached to the relationship between Matt and Julie. Says Berg: “Young love doesn’t always last, right? It feels great in the moment, but you have two very young people here. … I always say to all the young actors when they sign up for the show that they should look at this as a temporary gig. You don’t want to be playing a high school football player for 12 years.”
Of course, a decade-plus probably run isn’t in the cards for “Friday Night Lights,” but few expected the series, one that typically averaged somewhere between 4 million and 6 million viewers on NBC, to make it to five seasons.
“The DirecTV deal was a quite success for us,” Berg says. “It speaks to the potential for any show like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ which has a strong fan base but is struggling to put up big numbers. That’s about 99% of the dramas right now.”
Photo: Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton. Credit: NBC / DirecTV
At least I didn't call them the Giraffes.