‘Friday Night Lights’ back on course after a flighty second season

Posted Jan. 15, 2009, at 7:32 p.m.

There are only two words to describe the new season of “Friday Night Lights” — JumboTron.

Yes, Dillon Panther fans, after a long, and I do mean long, dry spell, football is back where it belongs at 9 p.m. Fridays on NBC. And it is obvious from the third season opener that the show about a small Texas town’s championship high school football team is back on course after a second season that seemed to veer off into la-la land and mercifully was cut short by last year’s writers strike.

Things have changed for Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton). She’s now the high school principal and his boss. Every department at the school is underfunded except the football team, and everybody wants something from her all the time.

Coach Taylor is facing a hole in his starting lineup since Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) graduated shortly after getting hurt late last season. He’s working at the local Alamo Freeze instead of playing college ball as he and his mama had always dreamed. Taylor believes the kid can still get a “walk on” for a Texas team but Smash has stopped believing in himself, which is about as unbelievable as new daddy Jason Street (Scott Porter) getting up out of his wheelchair and walking again.

Quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) has got to be looking over his shoulder at the freshman phenom whose beer distributor daddy, known as the “Stud of Suds,” moved his family from the Big D to the Little d just so his only child could play for the Panthers and be mentored by Taylor. While working for his former teammate at the Alamo Freeze, poor Matty also is dealing with his grandma’s escalating dementia, applications to colleges and his long-lost mama. In whose arms will this beleaguered boy find a little solace? Maybe the coach’s daughter Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden) could offer him some relief.

Bad-boy Tim Riggins is unhappy on the field but ecstatic off it as he enjoys the unclothed company of Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), daughter to chief booster and Mr. JumboTron himself, Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland). Riggins is ignoring recruiting letters from college and his classes while trying to school the young QB in the wild ways of a Dillon Panther. Of the field, he only has eyes for Lyla, who just may be on the rebound from Jesus.

United last season by death and body dumping, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and her unappreciated hero Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) this season are either taking a break from each other (his version) or broke up (hers). This odd couple seems destined for something, but Tyra just cannot seem to get out of her own or say no to cowboys riding through town on the rodeo circuit long enough for them to find out. Landry’s band, Crucifictorius, is a providing him with some distraction but how often he’ll come like a loyal dog every time Miss Collette wags her tail at him remains to be seen.

As this season unfurls on network television, the question “Friday Night Lights” fans, including this one, will be asking is not will there be a fourth season, but should there be one. It’s doubtful that executive producer Peter Berg and his creative team, as good as they are, can strike gold twice.

Members of this Dillon Panthers’ team can and must move on to college, jobs and careers just as football players do in real life. The actors who portray them already have, with Kitsch set to co-star this summer with Hugh Jackman in the X-Men spinoff “Wolverine.”

For fans who discovered this show and loyally stuck with it through too many time-slot changes to name, repeated threats of cancellation, the writers’ strike and the DIRECTV deal, no new boys will be able to replace these boys on or off the field.

Perhaps Coach Taylor and his creator Peter Berg should take this team out at the end of this season so fans can remember them as exceptional underdogs who made football fascinating for viewers who can’t tell a first down from a three-point conversion and proved that the quality of shows produced by what used to be the “big three” networks still can set the bar for everybody else.

Until tonight, remember, Panther fans — Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

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