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THROUGH ITS stunning first season (out on DVD) and now a Season 2, which has overcome a shaky start to regain its narrative footing, Friday Night Lights has established itself as nothing short of the best sports drama in television history. (The late-1970s high school hoops series The White Shadow could argue for a place in the pantheon; others, such as 1993's high school football show Against the Grain, could not.) But Lights, which airs at 9 p.m. on Fridays on NBC, is more than that—a series that has at last broken ground for the genre. Sports shows, like much of sports literature, have by and large traded on a simple archetype: sport as a metaphor for life. In Friday Night Lights, it turns out, life is a metaphor for football.
It's not that there's a preponderance of football action (some episodes include only a few minutes on the practice field); Lights skillfully takes us deep into the trying, though hardly joyless, lives of its characters as they grapple with things like alcoholism and parental neglect. But the quotidian pressures of playing high school football in small town Texas color virtually every scene. And plotlines built far from the field are most sharply defined after the games begin. When a son clashes with his father, who has returned, discontented, from Iraq, the impact is revealed by the boy's terrible play. Another character's effort to transform himself into a social force in the student body—his name is Landry, Cowboys fans—doesn't get off the ground until he makes his first big tackle.
The challenge of drawing audiences to sports dramas has always been that when people want to watch sports (men, mainly), they watch sports. And when they want to watch a drama about relationships (women, usually), they don't want a bunch of jocks running interference. The two ideas don't mix. "That's what they said about politics, but then you got The West Wing," says Lights executive producer Jason Katims. "You hope you can be the one to break out."
That hasn't happened yet for Lights, which draws subpar Nielsen ratings. Yet the show continues to win praise from nonsports publications like The New Yorker and from athletes like former high school (in Florence, Ky.) phenom Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks, who visited with Katims last month and told him, as Katims relates, that he was "getting all the guys on the team to watch it."
The White Shadow also impressed critics and battled for ratings in its three-season run, and it's hard not to think of Shadow when watching Lights, both for their similarities (the father-figure coach, the interracial byplay) and their differences, which illuminate how much sports have changed. Shadow (also out on DVD) debuted in an era before Scott Boras or Chris Berman, and while it tackled serious issues, it was a jokier, more innocent show than Lights. When Dillon Panthers running back Smash Williams wants to impress a scout in Lights, he shoots up with steroids. When Coolidge, Carver High's Afroed center in Shadow, gets a sniff from a sports agent, his response borders on the burlesque: He orders a Rolls Royce, setting up that episode's closing gag.
A good dramatization can get to the truth of things more powerfully than nonfiction, and Friday Night Lights—inspired of course by H.G. Bissinger's 2000 book and the 2004 movie—does it by staying anchored. In this season's first episode, Tim Riggins, the Panthers' fullback, lies in a hospital after fainting from heat exhaustion. Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is parentless (he lives with his older brother). His best friend is recently paralyzed. He drinks beer at all times of day. He's a smart, savvy teenage playboy, vulnerable to girls with a maternal instinct. All that comes down to one thing in Dillon. As a doctor ends his examination of Riggins, he can't help asking, "Will you be ready for Friday night?"
Says Riggins, "Always."