Friday Night Lights: The Fourth Season

Friday Night Lights is the little show that could. It could have been cancelled after NBC gave up on it early in its run due to low ratings. Now it could well go down in history as one of the greatest television shows of all time. Perhaps series creator Peter Berg summed it up best in one of his video introductions to the season when he said there are only two types of people in the world: those who have seen Friday Night Lights and loved it, and those who have never seen it. I'm proud to say I've transitioned from the latter group into the first. Season Four marks an era of big transitions in Dillon, Texas. Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has been deposed as the coach for the Dillon Panthers and relocated to East Dillon High, where he can head up -- or start up -- the East Dillon Lions football program. Whereas Dillon was a prestigious school of wealth and privilege, East Dillon struggles financially to a degree that it's surprising to think of these two schools in the same district. Nevertheless, the transition of Taylor, as well as the introduction of some new players and his new team, make this a great point for people to jump on board.

Berg was right. I don't have DirecTV and never got around to watching the show in its re-airings on NBC, but there is definitely something special about Friday Night Lights. For starters, everything feels more gritty and real, and that goes particularly for the characters and the actors. It's so easy to forget that this is a fictional story when faced with such effective performances week in and week out. And the beauty of the production is that the material is about these characters at its heart, which means even people who don't really care about football will have something they can relate to.

You couldn't have asked for a better jumping-on point, even if you're one of those who's reluctant to investigate a series in its fourth season. Like most high-school shows, if people are going to grow and age, then things are going to have to change. With most of Coach Taylor's dream team graduated and him off to establish a new team at a new school, this could very well be a new show. A few threads continue from previous seasons, but the creators do a great job of making it accessible to all viewers, which, considering how few of them they can get, isn't a bad idea at all.

Friday Night Lights is one of the most relevant and relatable shows on television. It's not filled with sexy crimes, car chases, villains, or action heroes. It's a simple show about high school, told from the perspectives of the students, alumni, and faculty. It's safe to say we can all relate to one or more of those experiences, whereas most of us aren't too familiar with all that other stuff. This season, with the addition of East Dillon, there's a backdrop of exploring the differences between affluent schools and those on the brink of poverty and despair. Sadly accurate in its depiction of the differences, Dillon High is filled with smiling white faces, while East Dillon has a much denser black population. It's an ugly reality of our country that many of the under-privileged regions of our proudest cities are predominantly black. What's refreshing to see is that the color of the skin is basically a non-issue. It's about the haves and the have-nots, and that stretches through to the Dillon alumni and the school board.

Having Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) as the principal of Dillon while Eric is working at East Dillon perfectly captures the tensions in the community between the two schools. When East Dillon is reopened, it starts with district lines being drawn, which forces some kids to switch to the less-desirable school. This creates an outrage in the community, as affluent parents feel their kids shouldn't have to go to such a poor school. This is just the backdrop to the character dramas that drive the show.

Eric has to find a way to build a team around a group of kids who have no real passion for the sport, many of whom are one step away from a life of crime on the streets. When he is able to connect with one of those kids, he finds the heart of something new, and with it he's able to do what he does best. Tami's struggles are less obvious, but the political maneuverings that she has to endure in response to her efforts to counsel students are painfully accurate. What's inspirational is the stance she takes in the face of those who would bring her down for doing what was in her heart the right thing to do. It's all too easy to point the finger of blame at someone else, and Tami finds herself at the end of that finger.

In some ways, I found myself worrying about the Taylors as a family unit, with Eric and Tami stressed and pulled in different directions. Both suffer through such difficulties at work, it begins spilling into their home life, and yet that marital unit never wavers. It is a beautiful thing to see a marriage so rock solid on a television show. I believed in their love, and that nothing could tear them asunder if they could survive the turmoil that their lives had become this year.

The show was never just about Eric and Tami, though. It is as much about the kids, and while only a few of them remain from that first-season team, it's always fun, if frustrating, to hang with Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). The former football star comes back to Dillon after a failed run at college, and falls back into many of the same trappings that marred his high school years. Struggling to make ends meet and find a place to live, Tim is nevertheless a man of character and honor. He finds himself living on the property of a young high school student named Becky, and while she's clearly smitten with him, he takes on a more brotherly role with her, providing her some guidance and tough love as she faces some challenging decisions of her own.

Matt (Zach Gilford) and Julie (Aimee Teegarden), the Taylors' daughter, are at a crossroads in their relationship as well. It's that moment when you realize that while you may have that intense "forever" love that youth bestows, your dreams are pulling you in different directions. In other words, they're growing up. And, as usual, rather than play with it in any clichéd ways, the writers let things play out naturally, and at times incredibly unpleasantly.

Thirteen episodes take us from the beginning of the school year to Thanksgiving, and yet there is so much beautiful drama packed in those few months. Whether this is your first trip to Dillon or your fourth, I guarantee you will enjoy your stay and want to come back for next season's final journey. Fans of other late, lamented shows may be whining that it's not fair DirecTV stepped in to save Friday Night Lights when their show got cancelled, but it's perfectly okay. No matter how great your show was, FNL is every bit as good and deserving of this intervention. As I said, it's not sexy or dynamic or dangerous in any way. It's raw and real and uncomfortably close at times, but that's what makes it such a visceral and powerful series. The quiet beats of this show will stay with you longer than any of the revelations on your procedurals, I guarantee you that. I can't quite put my finger on why, but Friday Night Lights is special. It's a high watermark for everyone involved, and television is a better place for having it. The disc is pretty lean when it comes to extras. There are deleted scenes for almost every episode, and they're great for expanding those character interactions that drive the show. Any additional moments within the show are always appreciated, but I wanted more of those "outside the show" moments.

I go to the extras to step outside of the narrative, meet the creative types that put a show or movie together, and see things I wouldn't otherwise get to see. "Friday Night Lights...Camera, Action!" gives a little bit of that, but only a little. Peter Berg talks about directing the first episode of the season, and a little bit about how this production is different from most. They often don't have a word-for-word script, instead relying on the actors to just talk as they would expect their characters to about whatever needs to be discussed. The filming is on location with three cameras, and seeing some of that allowed me to appreciate how that organic feel comes to the show.

But that's about it. We got some generic intros from Berg that looked like they were for the DirecTV audience when the season began there, and then we're done. Deleted scenes and about 12 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage isn't really enough to capture a show as special as Friday Night Lights. I think the loyal fans of this show deserve more on a show like this. The fans are more like your typical science fiction fans, and so the creators should honor that devotion and support by packing this thing with plenty of extras. We could have used some cast interviews, set visits, tours of the towns and locations we shoot at. Hopefully, the final season set will give the fans the extra love they deserve.