On the Ball 

Will Friday Night Lights win the ratings game?

Some of us who have discovered Friday Night Lights, NBC's tense and sensitive drama about sports and religion in a Texas high school, are as passionate about the fictitious Dillon Panthers as other folks are about the real Washington Redskins or the Detroit Tigers or any other non-fictitious sports team, whatever the game may be.

For the Panthers, the game is football, but for Friday Night Lights, the game is ratings, and so far, the Nielsen scores have been lagging, even as the Panthers' star quarterback, paralyzed from an injury, bides his time bitterly in a rehabilitation clinic. As the season -- the TV season and the football season -- progresses, actors such as Scott Porter (as quarterback Jason Street) and Zach Gilford (as Matt Saracen, his perhaps temporary replacement) get to show increasing range and depth.

They and the rest of a dazzlingly perfect cast -- including Kyle "Apology Eyes" Chandler as Coach Taylor (his first name does seem to be just "Coach'') -- are working their hearts out, as are the writers, producers, and directors. Their labor of love is the best new drama series of the season, but the ratings have been so threatening that there's cause for worry if the Panthers will still be there in the spring when the TV season ends.

Friday Night Lights is the Platoon of high school football, the story of the embattled infantry and the indignities it endures -- a setting and a story reverberant with metaphorical and microcosmic echoes. Thus it's actually possible to come off a long weekend of football game after football game and still find fascination in producer-creator Peter Berg's saga of how The Game affects life in a Texas town -- not just affects, but overwhelms it -- and American life generally.

The local color is shrewdly observed, but most of what happens in Friday Night Lights could be happening in the Midwest or California or suburban Washington -- could be, and probably is.

In a recently aired episode, the coach and the team prepared for one of the biggest games of the year against a ruthless arch rival, so arch that there's a tradition, nastily upheld, of staging raids and attacks on the other team's territory. In no time, the Panthers were tail-deep in a quagmire -- a word used often to describe America's long-ago war in Vietnam and current war in Iraq.

The Panthers were Pearl Harbor'd, and though Coach Taylor cautions against retaliation, he knows the plea is futile. Soon a squad of Panthers laid waste to an understandably treasured '02 red Mustang that belonged to the captain of the other team. Of all people, it was the innocent Saracen who was the only one caught at the scene of the crime, but good soldier that he is, he refused to name names.

Berg introduced the haunting war cry "Clear eyes, full hearts" in a previous episode. It's elegant, even if keeping a clear eye while enduring the show's herky-jerky camera work is no easy feat. In an online question-and-answer session on the NBC Web site, Berg addressed the camera problem without conceding it's a problem. "It's definitely not our intention to make anyone dizzy or sick," Berg said of the twirly, whirly shooting; he thinks it fosters a "realistic visual look."

Beneath that look, Friday Night Lights has plenty of deeper realism -- as well as the kind of passion, angst, and heart that are rare in episodic TV.

Even as the earnest and upright Saracen, meanwhile, tries desperately to fill the fallen quarterback's shoes -- and to watch over his own slightly demented granny -- cold-blooded plans are afoot to replace him with a brassier, sassier quarterback who has just transferred to Dillon from out of town. Hurricane Katrina washed away the new guy's house -- one of the topical details that helps keep the show contemporary. The kid has the kind of intimidating confidence that Saracen, his DNA full of decency, lacks.

Sadly, in some cases, new fall shows are already drifting to earth like crinkled dead leaves; NBC just killed Twenty Good Years, an endearingly poignant farce with John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. Network programming, like football, is full of confounding complications.

Even so, and whatever it takes, a place just has to be found in the lineup for Friday Night Lights. Because it's already found a place in millions of viewers' hearts.

Tom Shales is with the Washington Post Writers Group.


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