May 18, 2009

friday night lights.jpgWhen last we saw the cast of “Friday Night Lights,” they were suffering from a particularly brutal version of the sophomore jinx. Barely renewed for a second season after a low-rated (but critically praised) initial run, “FNL” added “bad timing” to its list of problems upon its return; thanks to the 2007-08 writers’ strike, production halted after 15 episodes, and despite the fact that the show was one of the only scripted series on NBC’s schedule during the strike, it continued to languish in the lower reaches of the Nielsens. The closing moments of the season’s final episode – which saw the Dillon Panthers on the verge of the playoffs, and star running back Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) dealing with the aftermath of a brawl that cost him a scholarship – seemed likely to wind up going down as a terribly unsatisfying conclusion to a series that never had a chance to really hit its stride.

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Thanks to an unusual last-minute deal, however, “Friday Night Lights” gained a reprieve, earning a 13-episode third season that premiered on DirecTV last fall and aired as part of NBC’s mid-season schedule in the winter and spring. Though it didn’t substantially improve the show’s ratings, Season Three did manage to repair the creative mistakes made during Season Two – and provide a satisfying conclusion that worked not only as the season’s final episode, but perhaps the end of the series. (Fortunately for “FNL” fans, the show has received a two-season pickup that extends the NBC/DirecTV partnership.)

First, the good news: The second-season storylines that took the show away from its “plain folks” vibe – most notably the ridiculous plot that found Landry (Jesse Plemons) accidentally murdering the would-be rapist who’d been stalking Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) and covering it up by dumping the body in a river – have been papered over in Season Three; these arcs are much more in line with the good old-fashioned honest drama that created the show’s passionate fanbase in the first place. Even better, despite the cuts in the show’s budget that went along with the new co-branding deal, it looks and feels the same; the only visible concessions come in the form of a pair of casting changes: Smash and Jason Street (Scott Porter) both ride into the sunset during Season Three, a pair of subtractions that, though painful, serve to underscore the fact that this isn’t a “90210”-style high school series, and characters are bound to move on and off the canvas, just like in real life.

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With last season’s misguided excursions into soapier territory wrapped up, the show is free to get back down to basics, and despite only having 13 episodes to work with, the creative team managed to serve up arcs for each of the main characters that either repair damage done during Season Two – as with Matt (Zach Gilford), Lyla (Minka Kelly), and Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) – or take them in new and potentially exciting directions, as with Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife (Connie Britton). By the time the finale fades to black, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a full-season ride with the characters; though it would have been decidedly bittersweet if the show hadn’t received a fourth season pickup, there would at least have been some closure.

If there’s a “bad news” part of the equation, it’s simply that, as with Season Two, NBC/Universal hasn’t added much in the way of bonus features to this set; aside from a handful of deleted scenes and a commentary track on the finale, what’s already aired is pretty much what you get – and for the same $29.98 MSRP as the first two sets, both of which featured more bang for the buck. For a series that’s perpetually trying to wean itself off life support, a DVD package that included enough extra content to make itself a can’t-miss purchase for hardcore fans should have been a no-brainer. Still, if any show is worth the investment, it’s “Friday Night Lights” – and if you’ve somehow missed the many opportunities to live among the residents of Dillon, Texas, now’s as good a time as any to make the move.

Jeff Giles is the editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as a frequent contributor to Bullz-Eye and an associate editor at Rotten Tomatoes.

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