Friday Night Lights

The return of Friday Night Lights marks a rare moment of network trust in TV audiences’ maturity. During its first season, the series abjured the usual primetime penchant for suburban gloss or metropolitan grit. Instead, it claimed as its territory lower middle class life in the America of vanishing jobs and diminishing horizons. There it forged some riveting dilemmas around the struggle of the Dillon Panthers, the fragile idols of a small Texas town, and their coach, Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), to win the state championship. Eight months after that victory, Series Two opens with a birth, a death, a new coach, and more than one family facing crisis.

Predictable plot turns and resolutions structured last season, too. But Friday Night Lights complicated such conventions. When, last season, assistant coach Mac (Blue Deckert) made a racist remark, he raised tensions across the entire town. He seemed to make amends and show his genuine goodness when he stood up for his African American players against two overtly racist cops. Yet, when he looked over at Smash (Gaius Charles) and admitted, “I made a mistake, son,” neither looked convinced. Mac might have learned to control his language, but he had not changed his thinking, and Smash’s wary nod indicated his awareness of the obstacle Mac embodied. The scene was discomforting, providing a glimpse of the America in which most of us live.

For the second season, the game, the Friday night party that lights up the town, remains at the show’s center. There the stories of yearning adolescents and abandoned middle-aged lovers come together. Racial tensions bristle and defuse and bristle again; skeptics become believers, find God or the bottle or the slap on the back of inarticulate male intimacy. Now, however, Eric’s acceptance of a university coaching job, hundreds of miles away in Austin, has changed the focus.

Last Friday’s first episode fudged the loss by staging an orgy of flashbulbs and congratulation on the football field for the awarding of state championship rings, with Coach Taylor at its center. But now, he and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) are no longer parenting an entire football team with the same irrational love and day-to-day exasperation they showered on their own daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden). This season, their story tangles only tangentially with the Friday night game and the town’s obsessions, through Julie’s shaky romance with quarterback Matt (Zach Gilford).

On the other hand, the new season has brought to its foreground the previously submerged tension between the teenagers’ Friday night thrills and the dawning realization that current glories might be the best that life will ever offer. Julie, whose passionate desire to stay in town sealed her parents’ decision to start a commuting marriage, skipped the pre-season team party to pursue her crush on the lead singer of a band playing in town. Instead of ending up as the girl with band, however, she was gently brushed off by the singer and his friendly but very in-charge girlfriend, and faced the ultimate humiliation of calling her dad for a ride home.

In the midst of hearing out Kyle’s whys and whats, she realized the irony of what she had wrought. The excitement of being one of the cool kids in town morphed into the toes-to-the-abyss awareness that she might never be anything else. In different ways, a similar coming to terms looms for all the kids, including Julie’s forsaken boyfriend Matt, tough girl Tyra (Adrianne Policki), newly Christian Lyla (Minka Kelly), and paraplegic Jason (Scott Porter).

The underlying sadness of a dead-end town at the end of yet another summer nags at their heels. The contemplation of such complex questions makes Friday Night Lights a consistently grown-up show, willing to confront fading dreams and rash decisions without quite losing faith in the unpredictable transcendence of everyday life.

RATING 9 / 10