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TV Review: ‘Friday Night Lights’ Shining Brightly

Seems like every weekend there’s a new movie based on a TV show (dating back to whatever the current ‘in’ retro decade is), but we rarely see it the other way around. Friday Night Lights might be starting a new trend.

It’s only Monday in a rural west Texas town called Dillon, and the radio stations are already counting down to Friday night, when the Panthers will play their next game. That’s life in Dillon: High school football. So in a very real way, recently promoted Head Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has lives at stake. The expectations for the new coach are naturally high, but it’s no cakewalk for him, especially with the team’s disparate personalities. Its superstar quarterback, Jason Street (Scott Porter), is in his senior year, so there’s a lot on the line for him, including potential scholarships to high-profile colleges–and a relationship with his equally popular cheerleader girlfriend (Minka Kelly). Meanwhile, his running back, Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), charismatically tries to steal the spotlight from the laid-back QB and other things from the team’s rough fullback, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). And on the sidelines is the back-up quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford). He doesn’t stand a chance at playing time. Right?

Friday Night Lights doesn’t succeed as much because of its acting–which is nonetheless strong, led by an appropriately even-tempered Chandler (Early Edition)–as it does its executive producer and overall ambassador Peter Berg. Berg, who also wrote and directed the series premiere (Tues., 8 p.m. ET, NBC) and its 2004 hit movie, would obviously have nothing to spearhead if not for the wildly popular book, written by Buzz Bissinger, but he brings it all together in a way that is both similar to and different (enough) from the movie. Gone, obviously, is the one-time storyline of the movie, with much more time and episodes to fill now. But there is also more of what made the movie fun to watch: The minutiae of a football-crazed town, shot documentary style, and the infinite consequences of life–in the form of high school football–not always going according to plan. Count on the typical ups and downs of a football season and TV season, but at least Berg doesn’t seem to fall victim to other pressures of network TV, like avoiding religion and racism–both of which are real and essential pieces of the story and are addressed.

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Bottom Line: NBC’s hard-hitting Friday Night Lights doesn’t quite take the movie of the same name, or TV in general, to new heights, but it shows a side of sports that won’t be seen anywhere else, including the concurrent NFL and college football seasons.

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