Network Benchwarmers

by Published on
photo by Bill Records/courtesy NBC Photo
Coach Taylor's East Dillon team

Friday Night Lights has been the underappreciated little brother of NBC’s primetime lineup for four years now. Even as that once-great network has tumbled from the rarefied heights of Seinfeld and Friends into this year’s late-night morass and the bottom of the network pile, NBC’s excellent weekly drama about high school football in the fictional West Texas town of Dillon has remained unloved by the network and largely unwatched. After a debut season that earned the show critical favor and resounding viewer indifference, NBC moved it to Friday night—a decision with a certain poetry to it, but nonetheless a signal that the network had given up its hopes for the show. Dump it in the graveyard, they figured, where ad time is cheap since no one’s watching anyway, and hope for good DVD sales.

The show’s producers and stars can thank NBC’s 2008 cost-sharing deal with the satellite service DirectTV for their continued employment. Under the terms of that agreement, DirecTV gets to broadcast Friday Night Lights’ full season before episodes begin airing on NBC. The show’s fourth, and best, season has already aired on DirecTV, and is now being rebroadcast on NBC, even as season five (reportedly the last) is filming in Austin.

In other words, this emotional, intelligent, wonderfully acted show, which should be the centerpiece of any major network’s lineup, debuts every week on a channel most people don’t even know broadcasts original material. FNL is effectively backwater television: unwanted, unloved, unwatched, surviving only by the skin of its devoted, if tiny, fan base. Like so many great shows before it, Friday Night Lights is on the outside looking in. Prime time’s not ready for it.

How appropriate, then, that season four takes the series’ heroes—coach Eric Taylor and his firecracker wife Tami; perpetual romantic also-ran and class clown Landry Clarke; post-graduation rebel without a cause Tim Riggins—and drags them from the comfort of suburban Dillon High School, where state championships and community adulation were theirs for the taking, and unceremoniously drops them into the slums of East Dillon, where poverty, crime, athletic failure and racial mistrust assert their presence at every turn. Like the show itself, FNL’s lead characters have been banished to a bad neighborhood.

And thank god Taylor had to take the head coaching job at impoverished East Dillon High, the most prominent victim of a too-sinister redistricting plan that ended a weakening season three. Just when I was tiring of the adolescent soap opera clichés and lazy arch-villainy, the writers took off in an entirely different direction, reviving the show by tackling the sociology of a poorer, darker West Texas. Leaving behind the melodramatic and well-trod troubles of suburbia for the headier difficulties of life in the ghetto, the producers are now daring to take on drug addiction, teenage violence, absentee parents, racism, and white paternalism, and taking them on well.

I guess there’s a certain freedom that comes with network indifference. When nobody’s watching, you can get away with things that wouldn’t fly with advertising executives breathing down your neck and marking up your scripts. You can even turn your already worthwhile show into something truly substantial, something worthy of a place on the dais alongside HBO shows like The Wire, Deadwood and Oz. Something too good, in other words, for network TV.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.