THROUGH ITSstunning first season (out on DVD) and now a Season 2, which has overcome ashaky start to regain its narrative footing, Friday Night Lights hasestablished itself as nothing short of the best sports drama in televisionhistory. (The late-1970s high school hoops series The White Shadow could arguefor a place in the pantheon; others, such as 1993's high school football showAgainst the Grain, could not.) But Lights, which airs at 9 p.m. on Fridays onNBC, 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 asimple archetype: sport as a metaphor for life. In Friday Night Lights, itturns out, life is a metaphor for football.
It's not thatthere's a preponderance of football action (some episodes include only a fewminutes on the practice field); Lights skillfully takes us deep into thetrying, though hardly joyless, lives of its characters as they grapple withthings like alcoholism and parental neglect. But the quotidian pressures ofplaying high school football in small town Texas color virtually every scene.And plotlines built far from the field are most sharply defined after the gamesbegin. When a son clashes with his father, who has returned, discontented, fromIraq, the impact is revealed by the boy's terrible play. Another character'seffort to transform himself into a social force in the student body—his name isLandry, Cowboys fans—doesn't get off the ground until he makes his first bigtackle.
The challenge ofdrawing audiences to sports dramas has always been that when people want towatch sports (men, mainly), they watch sports. And when they want to watch adrama about relationships (women, usually), they don't want a bunch of jocksrunning interference. The two ideas don't mix. "That's what they said aboutpolitics, but then you got The West Wing," says Lights executive producerJason Katims. "You hope you can be the one to break out."
That hasn'thappened yet for Lights, which draws subpar Nielsen ratings. Yet the showcontinues to win praise from nonsports publications like The New Yorker andfrom athletes like former high school (in Florence, Ky.) phenom Shaun Alexanderof the Seahawks, who visited with Katims last month and told him, as Katimsrelates, that he was "getting all the guys on the team to watchit."
The White Shadowalso impressed critics and battled for ratings in its three-season run, andit's hard not to think of Shadow when watching Lights, both for theirsimilarities (the father-figure coach, the interracial byplay) and theirdifferences, which illuminate how much sports have changed. Shadow (also out onDVD) debuted in an era before Scott Boras or Chris Berman, and while it tackledserious issues, it was a jokier, more innocent show than Lights. When DillonPanthers running back Smash Williams wants to impress a scout in Lights, heshoots 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: Heorders a Rolls Royce, setting up that episode's closing gag.
A gooddramatization 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 andthe 2004 movie—does it by staying anchored. In this season's first episode, TimRiggins, the Panthers' fullback, lies in a hospital after fainting from heatexhaustion. Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is parentless (he lives with his olderbrother). His best friend is recently paralyzed. He drinks beer at all times ofday. He's a smart, savvy teenage playboy, vulnerable to girls with a maternalinstinct. All that comes down to one thing in Dillon. As a doctor ends hisexamination of Riggins, he can't help asking, "Will you be ready for Fridaynight?"
The Brow Beat
It's reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, but the Sundance Channel's miniseriesNimrod Nation is a documentary, lending further urgency to its exploration ofsocial issues—and to the hoops team's quest to win.
A star was born at Nathan's July 4 hot dog eating contest on ESPN, and JoeyChestnut's winning battle with Takeru Kobayashi, complete with the Japanesegreat's costly "reversal," was as gripping as it was disgusting.
Rating the Rookies
NBC's Football Night in America
ESPN's Sunday and Monday NFL Countdowns
FROM THE SET
[Tiki Barber]After characterizing former teammate andGiants QB Eli Manning's leadership as "comical," says Barber, "theamount of criticism I got ... I couldn't believe it." Even Eli shot back,saying that Tiki's NBC work "seemed rehearsed, kind of like his pregamespeeches."
[Keyshawn Johnson]"Once I couldn't recall whatteam Dallas had played," Johnson says. "I had to ask [on air], 'Whatwas that team?'" He did, he says, "work on my timing." And whenMike Ditka picked the Bears to lose in Week 12, Keyshawn ad-libbed, "Youjust lost money at your [Chicago steak] restaurant."
[Tiki Barber]"I'd tell my former colleagues, 'Beprepared [if you do this]. It's hard work. You don't actually just show up andtalk about whatever you want.'"
[Keyshawn Johnson]"You can't worry about people'sfeelings. Many players [after being criticized on air by Keyshawn] have beenlike, 'Dawg, that's not cool; I thought we were boys.'"
He can be insightful but his wishy-washiness led co-analyst Cris Collinsworthto call him a "coward" on air.
He's poised. And he's more informed and more objective than predecessor MichaelIrvin.
HELIO CASTRONEVES, last month's winner of ABC'sDancing with the Stars, banked $1.7 million on the IndyCar circuit in 2007, sowhy would Castroneves (right), or any well-paid athlete, spend eight weekscha-cha-chaing on a show that pays a fraction of that? One word: exposure.
Within months of competing on Stars this summer, LailaAli, who'd never boxed in front of a network audience, landed gigs hosting TheView, a Nickelodeon show and NBC's American Gladiators revival. NowCastroneves—hardly a household name three months ago—says TV and film offersare pouring in. It all makes Dancing with the Stars an easy sell when courtingathletes as contestants, and Deena Katz, senior talent producer for Stars, saysyou can expect at least one athlete to compete each season. Says Katz, "Iwant a quarterback."
The Most ...
The game was dubbed Super Bowl 41 1/2, and it drew an audience almost worthy ofthe annual February TV-palooza. CBS had a 22.5 Nielsen rating (33.8 millionviewers) for the Patriots-Colts game on Nov. 4, the highest-ratedregular-season Sunday-afternoon NFL telecast on any network.
ILL-ADVISED ATTEMPT TO DISCUSS BRITNEY SPEARS
In a bizarre moment ESPN announcer Mike Patrick interrupted edge-of-the seatovertime action between Georgia and Alabama on Sept. 22 to ask partner ToddBlackledge an important question: "What is Britney doing with herlife?" Blackledge's incredulous response ("Britney who?... Why do wecare?") gave voice to every viewer, and the 54-second clip has since beenviewed on YouTube more than 400,000 times. Later explaining his Spearsdaydreaming, Patrick told USA Today, "I have a weird sense of humor andthought this was funny." Only to Kevin Federline, Mike.
The protruding prosthetic numbers worn by actor John Turturro (right) duringhis finely tuned and chillingly realistic portrayal of Yankees manager BillyMartin in ESPN's otherwise flat miniseries The Bronx Is Burning.
UNUSUAL TALK-SHOW APPEARANCE
Knicks guard Stephon Marbury's July 1 sit-down on New York's WNBC-TV devolvedinto absurdist theater. During a live, rambling interview with anchor BruceBeck, Marbury took a cellphone call ("That's my better half, my better ho,my wife," he stumbled), tried to teach Beck how to dance while Beck readhighlights, and generally appeared to be a three-point shot away from the funnyfarm.
DISSATISFYING MOMENT FOR HOCKEY FANS
At 4:40 p.m. EDT, on May 19, NBC left its overtime coverage of Game 5 of theSabres-Senators Eastern Conference finals to switch to the Preakness. Thatmeant puck lovers who didn't have the cable network Versus (it was then inabout 72 million homes) were shut out when Daniel Alfredsson scored to sendOttawa to the Stanley Cup finals.
UNPRODUCTIVE DEPLOYMENT OF TV EQUIPMENT
ESPN dedicated 19 cameras—one in the sky, two on the goalposts—to followingDavid Beckham (below) during his July 21 MLS debut, a friendly against Chelsea.Beckham spent all but 12 minutes on the Galaxy bench nursing a swollenankle.
¬© NBC UNIVERSAL (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS)
THE PLAY'S THE THING Even as they handle off-field crises, the characters are illuminated by game action.
PAUL MARTINKA/POLARIS (CHESTNUT)
SUNDANCE CHANNEL (NIMROD NATION)
AL TIELEMANS (BRADY/MANNING)
MICHAEL CAULFIELD/WIREIMAGE (SPEARS)
DAVID GIESBRECHT/ESPN (TURTURRO)
LOUIS LOPEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BECKHAM)
CAROL KAELSON/ABC (CASTRONEVES)
KEITH BEDFORD/ATLASPRESS (BARBER)
RICH ARDEN/ESPN/AP (JOHNSON)