Fancy lighting and camera angles are making TV dramas look more and more like big-screen movies every week, but it’s still startling to encounter a series as thoroughly cinematic as Friday Night Lights. Actor-director Peter Berg’s 2004 adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s nonfiction best-seller about Texas high-school football defied sports-movie conventions, drawing heavily on Steven Soderbergh for inspiration, and the Berg-produced TV spin-off’s use of similar techniques—moody handheld shots accompanied by ambient piano music and dialogue from scenes taking place elsewhere—is just as contrarian and refreshing.
The series replaces the real-life team from Bissinger’s book with a fictional analog: the Dillon Panthers, a small-town West Texas squad burdened with ulcer-inducing championship expectations of success by the community as it begins its first year with Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) as head coach. Taylor can’t turn around without 50 people offering him unwanted advice, and the early episodes focus on him shoring up relationships—with his wife (Connie Britton) and with 160-pound second-string quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford)—that let the coach tune out the hectoring. It’s soon clear that the principals are all hiding behind facades that conceal their fears, and the tension is conveyed through telling images and the actors’ body language rather than expository dialogue. The technique demands a lot of the cast, but it allows familiar story lines to take on an unexpected emotional subtlety that, while rewarding, may alienate viewers craving the melodramatic raunch of Varsity Blues. Bone-crunching tackles aside, nothing else on the fall schedule is as intimate or introspective. — Andrew Johnston