Friday Night Lights: Touchdown at last for a scorching sporting saga

It may be based around a high-school American football team, but this TV series is no saccharine teen drama: it's a vivid, very human treatise on small-town US life

As tough pitches for a British television audience go, a drama about high-school American football in small-town Texas must be up there. Yet Friday Night Lights is among the top dramas to come out of the US in recent years with an emotional intensity that hits harder than legendary Chicago Bears player The Fridge.

Tonight, Sky Atlantic will start screening the show that The Washington Post dubbed "extraordinary in just about every conceivable way" and "great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV" when it first aired in the US in 2006. Many will have missed its brief appearance on these shores the first time round, but the strength of the writing and performances mean that viewers who take a chance on the pilot episode on Valentine's Day will find love at first sight. To quote the clarion call of the high-school team at the centre of the show: "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose."

Friday Night Lights follows the lives of an American football-obsessed community split by social and racial divides. What marks it out from being another saccharine teen drama is the unflinching realism of its portrayal of life in a small town, of how teenagers speak and act as they face the realisation that the best years of their lives may already be behind them. Dawson's Creek this ain't.

The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin summed up the attitude of many critics after the first season aired in the US, when she wrote: "It's hard to say what's great about Friday Night Lights, without feeling that you're emphasising the wrong thing," adding: "In short, it feels like life."

Channel 4 sparked interest in gridiron football in the UK some three decades ago and, as viewing figures for last week's Super Bowl attest, the sport still has a core audience in the country. The dramatisations that have emerged so far – from The Waterboy and Any Given Sunday to Leatherheads and Air Bud: Golden Receiver – have failed to spark similar interest.

ITV first brought Friday Night Lights to the UK in 2007, but it was farmed out to the graveyard shift on ITV4 and the ratings were pitiful. Now, with the appropriate backing of a primetime 8pm slot on Sky Atlantic, and a decent marketing drive, it should build the sort of obsessive audience in the UK that other sleeper hits like The Wire and The Killing have enjoyed.

Jason Katims, executive producer and head writer, was one of those who needed winning over after the pilot. "I didn't know if this show was going to be for me; I wasn't a huge football fan," he says. "Yet, what got to me was how real it felt. The biggest marketing challenge we had was getting the message out that you don't have to be a guy, or a teenager, or even a football fan to like this show."

There is plenty of drama on the field but most of it comes away from the floodlights and the jumbotron. "The breakthrough episode was the eighth, as there wasn't much football", recalls Katims. "It was character-driven and powerful. We realised it was possible not to rely on the sport."

FNL started life as a book by HG "Buzz" Bissinger, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in the Philadelphia court system. In 1988, he moved to Odessa, Texas to explore how American football held the community together. Odessa was a town built on the fortunes of the oil trade, which had dried up by the time Bissinger had arrived. It was a town riven by social problems, and in the bad times the murder rate soared.

Yet all differences were put aside every Friday night as the townsfolk loaded their hopes and dreams on to the shoulders of the local high-school football team, the Panthers. Bissinger writes in the book, which has sold more than two million copies: "Football stood at the very core of what the town was about, not on the outskirts, not on the periphery. It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves."

Bissinger's cousin is the film actor and director Peter Berg, whose movies include Hancock and The Kingdom. He directed a film based on the book and its real life characters in 2004, featuring Billy Bob Thornton as the head coach. Berg felt the constraints of the movie format keenly, and talked to NBC about creating a TV series that could deal with some of the wider themes thrown up by the book with fictional characters in a fictional town called Dillon.

The first season introduces the all-American star quarterback Jason Street and his cheerleader girlfriend, Lyla Garrity; the brash Brian "Smash" Williams and the boozing heartthrob Tim Riggins. If the characters sound stock, the writing and performances are anything but. The writing, as well as the ad-libbing, is striking. In the pilot, one of the lead characters suffers a severe injury that lands him in hospital. The coach, played by Kyle Chandler, who picked up an Emmy for his performance last year, is left trying to pick up his stricken players.

Coach Eric Taylor is only half of the couple who form the heart and soul of the show. The coach's wife, Tami, played by Connie Britton, who also starred in the film, has received similar acclaim for her performance. Katims says that part of the reason Berg pitched the show was to develop the female characters who were limited by the running time of the movie. Britton's pitch-perfect performance is encapsulated by a scene in which she tries to convince her daughter not to have sex for the first time.

As well as standout performances, the show is marked out by its look. "The way we filmed it was also a huge factor," says Katims. "We shot it on three cameras running all the time. We wound up with that vérité feeling. It's not just cinematic. It was woven into the fabric of how the show was made."

The show was never afraid to take risks. "We didn't know how many seasons there would be, it was always on the verge of cancellation. We never knew how long we'd get. We never ran out of story," says Katims.

Cancellation came after its fifth season despite acclaim and awards. It was given an American Film Institute Television Programme of the Year, and two Emmys – Outstanding Writing on a Drama Series for Katims, and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Chandler.

There may now be life beyond television for the show. Berg is in talks to bring the characters back to the big screen. Before that, British audiences have at least two seasons, and hopefully the full five, to look forward to. Take the leap of faith and just remember: Clear eyes, full hearts... You can find out the rest.

'Friday Night Lights' starts tonight at 8pm on Sky Atlantic

 

Winning moves: What the 'FNL' stars did next

Kyle Chandler

Chandler started his career after he was discovered in a talent search. He appeared in the Vietnam drama 'Tour of Duty' before bagging the lead in 'Early Edition' and a guest appearance in 'Grey's Anatomy'. Since 'Friday Night Lights', he has appeared in 'Super 8' and will star in Ben Affleck's forthcoming film 'Argo'.

 

Connie Britton

Britton made her debut in 'The Brothers McMullen' and became a regular on 'Spin City', with guest appearances in 'The West Wing' and '24'. In between, she starred in the 'Friday Night Lights' movie. After 'FNL', she appeared in the 'Nightmare on Elm Street' reboot and is in the forthcoming 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World', with Keira Knightley and Steve Carell.

 

Taylor Kitsch

Kitsch plays the heartthrob Tim Riggins, and is set to break out with the lead role in the upcoming Hollywood blockbuster 'John Carter'. He will follow it up with a new film from 'FNL' director Peter Berg called 'Battleship' and Oliver Stone's 'Savages'.

 

Michael B Jordan

Jordan doesn't appear in 'FNL' until season four, but he will be familiar to fans of 'The Wire', in which he played young banger Wallace. He has since made appearances on the TV series 'Parenthood' and is a lead in the recently released movie 'Chronicle'.

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