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Niche sport finds its niche

High school football finds itself over television

Posted: Tuesday November 21, 2006 2:10PM; Updated: Tuesday November 21, 2006 2:10PM
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Kyle Chandler
Kyle Chandler plays Eric Taylor, the coach of the Dillon Panthers, on Friday Night Lights.
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This season's most over-praised and under-watched new TV show doesn't involve crime scene investigations or desperate housewives, but, of all things, high school football. Ostensibly a look at lost innocence and the psychology of team sports, Friday Night Lights (NBC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) chronicles a close-knit team as it strives to win its fifth straight state championship. The action unfolds in fictional Dillon, Texas, where the Panthers are a religion, and winning is all anyone believes in.

When the team loses its star quarterback to injury in the season opener, the morale of the players is punctured. They must raise their game and their new coach must endure the claptrap of advice and opinion of every Dillonian he encounters, at parties, in the principal's office and at booster gatherings. Faced with intolerable expectations, the Panthers struggle to carry the weight of the town on their padded shoulders. And their dedicated coach struggles to keep his feuding players from killing each other.

The network premier of this serialized drama was attended by an elephant caravan of blather. Friday Night Lights, gushed the Washington Post, is "extraordinary in just about every conceivable way." The pilot, burbled the New York Times was a "fiercely controlled and inventive work of art" that was "not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting." No doubt art critics will one day call Picasso's Guernica "not just painting great, but great in the way of a TV soap opera."

Inspired by the 1991 nonfiction book and the 2004 movie of the same title, Friday Night Lights is told in semi-documentary style with swirling, jittery camera work, and inhabited by all the customary characters: domineering dads, pig-headed alumni, mouthy showboats, pious meal-tickets and faint-hearted bench-warmers.

At times, the dialogue gets a little earnest, the acting a little cloying and the inspirational speeches more than a little cornball. And rather than inspiring awe, the bob-and-weave cinematography induces migraines. What's the point of it, anyway? When the camera follows characters into their bedrooms, are we supposed to think we're watching a reality show, a mock reality show or the work of a grip with St. Vitus Dance?

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