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Everybody who's ever been a parent, or a teen, or

especially a parent of a teen, can relate to the restrained insight of "Friday

Night Lights." In the acclaimed NBC series' second-season return, Kyle

Chandler's character is stunned when his crush-riven daughter resists his

inquiring about her life during the months he's been halfway across Texas

coaching his new college football team.

"What does this have to do with you?" she answers flatly, with teen

logic/obstinacy, and some justification. And things get worse. After she's been

out half the night chasing some bar-band stud, dad arrives to retrieve his

teary girl, and she finally pours forth in the car. Turns out she's just

mortified that if she makes nice in this podunk town, she'll end up like, yes,

her parents.

Now tonight's episode presents her admission a bit too easily, and

eloquently, but that's not the point. The miracle here is, as they say about

the frog singing off-key, not how well it's done but that it's done at all.

Television doesn't deal with the heart anymore as acutely as this show

does. Maybe TV never did. The way Chandler and long-distance wife Connie

Britton look into each other's eyes, with innate knowing and bedrock devotion.

The awkwardness of those desperate-to-mature high-schoolers, whether it's how

to touch a girl's arm the first time or how to rebuild trust after they've

stupidly slept together. And there are the adults they grow into, without in

some ways growing at all. "Friday Night Lights" boldly lets its characters

screw up unspeakably or stew in silence, revealing volumes more than all the

apt words in the world could.

This is that rare case where the spin-off surpasses the original,

writer-director Peter Berg weaving thicker webs here than he could in his 2004

feature film. That one really was about high school football dominating its

dusty Texas town. This one is about the people who devote themselves to the

team's dream, which becomes theirs, because they so desperately need one. NBC's

first season fulfilled it on the surface: Chandler's team won state. But the

star quarterback was paralyzed in action, and his sweet girlfriend fell in with

his drunken fullback with the shattered home life, and the coach's daughter

took up with the awkward second-string QB caring for his senile grandmother.

This fall, coach Chandler has moved up and away, miles from his pregnant

wife and sulking daughter, hard-headed successor coach (Chris Mulkey) and

floundering team. Everything his steady presence had pulled together now

threatens to rip apart. And all of this, busy as it may be, is fine. Life is

complicated, and Berg's creation zooms close-up on that knottiness in urgent

cinema-verite style.

The problem comes when the premiere unduly escalates the melodrama. Coach's

wife goes into labor early when he's far away. A horrific crime is committed,

and covered up beyond any reason the show has established. The troubled car

salesman being supplanted as the team's biggest booster actually calls somebody

a "hippie communist." Life/death and other dovetailing ironies feel way


But "Friday Night Lights" gets its groove back next week, when the script

more shrewdly portrays the ways in which exiting one's comfort zone can

motivate growth, whether it's the cockily entitled college football star or a

grandmother with an evaporating mind. This show captures a distinct culture,

and the people jockeying for places in it, trying to prove, mostly to

themselves, that their lives have value. And so "Friday Night Lights" has more

than almost any network show today.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. The affecting family/community drama begins its second

season a bit too-affected, then gets its heartwrenching groove back. Tonight at

9 on NBC/4.


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