What would happen if a studio was so confident in a show that it offered the DVD’s at a reduced price and slapped on a money back guarantee? Universal has done just that with Friday Night Lights. There is a rebate program where you can turn your discs back in for a full refund if you’re not completely satisfied with the show. Couple that with the fact I picked up this entire season for only 20 bucks, and I’d say somebody is either really stupid, or they’ve got a hell of a television series. Friday Night Lights is the latter.
I taught at a Florida high school that took two state championships in seven years, and believe me, I know how seriously these schools take their football. I’m told Texas treats high school football as something sacred to be worshipped, and church meets every Friday night during the Fall season. If that’s the case, I can’t imagine a series capturing the emotion that goes into one of these programs as well as Friday Night Lights has. Taken from the film of the same name, the series is even better. So many things about this freshman show impressed me throughout its season run. The cast of relative unknowns, except for Kyle Chandler and perhaps Connie Britton, morph into their characters so well you might never know that a good many of them are performing in their first show. This cast gives new meaning to the term ensemble cast. To pick out any one or two examples would be so unfair to the rest of this talented group. The stories are also well written enough that combined with these wonderful performances you quickly believe what you see. The fictional community of Dillon, Texas comes alive in ways even well known metropolises never do on far more seasoned programs. The stories don’t shy away from the controversies of programs like Dillon’s. Issues of race, drugs, teenage sex, and even life changing paralysis of a young talent are dealt with, not as simple inferences, but as major plot arcs that dominate several episodes and then never go away. Certainly we’re invited to cheer along with Dillon, but we’re openly shown the flaws of each of these people we’re called on to support. Friday Night Lights is about so much more than a high school football team under pressure to succeed at a state level. It’s about facing our shortcomings and overcoming them along with whatever other obstacles might be thrown our way. If you’re looking for an emotional show, this is about as good as they get.
There are several important story arcs that dominate this first season. The obvious story concerns a young coach Taylor (Chandler) given the chance of a life time to coach a hugely successful high school football team. He gets the break because he has been a coach and mentor to the team’s expected NFL star in quarterback Jason Street (Porter). When Jason suffers permanent paralysis in the first game, Taylor must trust in an unproven and unconfident Matt Saracen (Gilford). Matt’s story of maturity becomes another important cog in this giant wheel of Friday Night Lights. Taylor begins to feel a stranglehold of pressure, not helped any when another star player running back Smash Williams (Charles) makes accusations of racial bigotry about one of the assistant coaches while all the while using steroids to impress college scouts. And in case you think this is just a guy-heavy series, there are plenty of strong women with impressive story arcs as well. Jason’s girlfriend, Lyla (Kelly) is trying to cope with his condition and falls to temptation with his best friend Tim (Kitsch). Taylor also has a wife and daughter who have prominent story lines as well. If this is all sounding a little too soap opera for you, trust me, there is nothing of the sort to be found on Friday Night Lights. The show handles these problems with a gritty realism, allowing them to progress naturally around the main story of playing football.
Each episode of Friday Night Lights is presented in its original 1.78:1 broadcast format. The video quality is rather sweet. Colors are always natural, sporting reference flesh tones. The football scenes produce some of the more colorful moments of the show, and these uniform and crowd color reproductions are spot on realistic. Black levels are superb, offering tremendous detail even under the lowest of lighting conditions. The condition of this transfer is near hi-def even without an up convert DVD player. In up convert all I can say is WOW!
The Dolby 5.1 track is also quite impressive. This is a dialog heavy series, so it is to be expected that a lot of the spatial placing would be the front speakers. During the football game, just enough ambient sound is utilized to bring you that much closer to the action. Everything is clean. The often used musical numbers come through as well as any CD could provide. I wouldn’t really call this a dynamic audio, but I would say it is as crisp and clear as any I’ve heard from even the most sound conscious television programs.
Almost every episode sports at least a deleted scene or two. Many of them do little to add to the story, but there are a few that help to flesh out a few of the B stories. They can be found on each disc.
Behind The Lights: Creating The First Season Of Friday Night Lights: This 22 minute feature is pretty inclusive. Just about all of the cast and crew participate to provide plenty of candid moments. There’s too much of the love fest that is all too common on these things, but I guess it is forgivable here. The big problem is that this feature needed to occupy the traditional spot of the sixth disc and not the first where it is located. The piece provides major late season spoilers, including the result of the last episode’s climax.
If you haven’t seen the entire show hold off on watching this until the very end of the season.
Friday Night Lights was one of the best in a pretty good season for new shows last year. It’s been a while since I found 3 or 4 new shows in a year that were truly standout efforts. This is also one of those shows that will play out better on DVD than it did in broadcast. The intricate threads of the story play out in such a way that if you missed an episode you could have quickly felt too much like an outsider and given up on the show. DVDs allow you to experience the entire season at your own pace (mine is pretty accelerated) without fear of missing one because your Tivo messed up or the network changed the day and time on you again. You won’t need that refund information, because win or lose on the field, Friday Night Lights is a winner you won’t be sending back. “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Never Lose.”
Gino Sassani is a member of the Southeastern Film Critic's Association (SEFCA). He is a film and television critic based in Tampa, Florida. He's also the Senior Editor here at Upcomingdiscs. Gino started reviewing films in the early 1990's as a segment of his local television show Focus. He's an award-winning recording artist for Omega Records. Gino is currently working on his 8th album Merchants & Mercenaries. Gino took over Upcomingdiscs Dec 1, 2008. He works out of a home theater he calls The Reel World. Favorite films: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Body Snatcher (Val Lewton film with Karloff and Lugosi, not the pod people film), Unforgiven, Gladiator, The Lion King, Jaws, Son Of Frankenstein, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and Monsters, Inc.