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March 20, 2008

'Friday Night Lights'

Kelly_minka_278x150 By Daniel Carlson

It's unfair to judge the "Friday Night Lights" panel at Paley by the standard set by the Judd Apatow panel two nights earlier, but I still find myself doing it. In part it's because the Apatow group was predictably and consistently entertaining, never really letting the laughter or energy die down. And you realize how special that is when you attend other panels that, for all their highlights, still come across more as a series of mumbled speeches than a nonstop party. But like I said, that's unfair, and the "Friday Night Lights" panel was still a solid one, with insight from the producers and some enjoyable stories from the cast.

I had the worst kind of deja vu as I stood in line outside the ArcLight's Cinerama Dome, and the knot in my gut tightened when I entered the theater and confronted the sad knowledge that yes, I would once again have to sit through more than an hour of TV theme songs and deal with the vaguely skeevy characters sitting next to me before things would even really get going. I'm mainly thinking of the guy in the long leather trench coat, whom I made sure to avoid on principle.

Reitner One of the Paley Center execs got up and again gave a spiel to plug for the center, and there was also the litany of ads and commercials. Perhaps the most telling thing about the audience and the Paleyfest in general was the brief clip promoting this year's line-up. When "Friday Night Lights" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or Judd Apatow or a few others appeared on screen, the audience would clap or cheer. But most of the featured shows were met with silence. Watching the thing for the second time, I was struck by the fact that of all the shows featured in this year's Paleyfest, six of them are freshmen, and some of those -- I'm looking at you, "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Gossip Girl" -- are barely worth the energy it takes to rightly dismiss them. Is the Paley Center hoping to reach a wider or younger audience by including these new and unproven shows, especially given their lack of critical acceptance? This is the festival's 25th anniversary; they couldn't come up with something more exciting than Blake Lively? (Jeffrey Reiner, left, Connie Britton and Scott Porter on the panel. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media)

Anyway: Panel moderator Mike Ausiello from TV Guide took the stage to briefly praise the show before turning it over to executive producer/writer Jason Katims, who thanked everyone for coming out and cued up the episode.

These screenings are a mixed bag: It's nice to see the action play out in the Dome, especially with other fans, but it also underscores that anyone willing to buy a ticket and show up for the event is obviously going to be familiar with the show, so much so that the episode isn't a special treat so much as it is just another good hour of TV. The real (potential) meat of the evening is the panel discussion itself. The episode screened was "Leave No One Behind," from the series' just ended and deeply flawed second season. Still, it was nice to see Tyra and Landry inevitably reconcile all over again, and Matt and Tim had some good moments, too. And the locker-room finale that features Smash offering one of the season's increasingly rare calls of "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!" still gave me chills.

After the screening, Ausiello returned and called up the members of the panel: Series stars Adrianne Palicki, Zach Gilford, Aimee Teagarden, Scott Porter, Minka Kelly and Connie Britton, as well as Katims and producer Jeffrey Reiner. Actor Jesse Plemons wasn't in attendance, despite being billed in Paleyfest literature as part of the panel, and Kyle Chandler, whose performance as Coach Eric Taylor is the center of the show's moral universe, also wasn't there. Britton apologized on his behalf, saying that Chandler had been delayed on a film shoot in Canada and wasn't able to make it back for the evening. It was hard not to feel the sad parallel between Chandler's absence and the show's struggle for survival and the body blow it took when the strike hit: The panel was everything it could be, but still shy of the crucial element that would take it all the way.

Guygirlfriday Ausiello wasted no time in calling out Katims and asking him if the show will be back for a third season. Speaking of the possible deal with DirecTV that would allow NBC to bring the series back while sharing production costs and distribution windows, Katims said the deal hasn't been set in stone but that he remains "incredibly optimistic," later joking that he was "legally required" to discuss Season 3 as a speculative and not given opportunity. (Zach Gilford, left, and Adrianne Palicki. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media)

"We're two or three weeks away from knowing what's going to happen," he said.

If this means that "Friday Night Lights" does indeed live to see another season, I'll be happy. Katims also said that some of the mistakes of Season 2 -- namely the inexplicable and foolhardy decision to downplay the football -- were about to be rectified before the strike brought the season to a premature end, though he stated that a third season, if it happens, would return some focus to the game. I was glad to hear him say that, since the wins and losses of the Dillon Panthers were the driving force behind the narrative of Season 1, and their absence was a big part of what made Season 2 often feel aimless. Without the football team acting as a common thread tying the stories and characters together, it's not quite the special drama it started out to be, and this is coming from a guy who barely cares about televised sports.

The rest of the panel's brief discussion covered all the bases you'd expect -- on-set antics, how happy everyone is to have found such a good show to work on -- though the energy in the room was considerably lower than what I'd felt at the Apatow show. Part of it was the nature of the moderated discussion: Ausiello would throw out a question, get a brief joke response from one of the younger actors, and then receive a longer and more thoughtful answer from Katims or Reiner or Britton. I couldn't help but notice that some of the stars looked, if not bored, then at least used to having to seem interested while someone else talked. The best moments were Gilford or Porter -- men who are clearly enjoying their 20s -- would screw around or joke about the also-absent Taylor Kitsch. Gilford even grinningly took credit for coining "What Would Riggins Do?" a nod to Kitsch's bad-boy character that's become a bit of a catchphrase among fans.

Groupfriday_2 The topic they kept returning to was the quality of the writing and producing, and what it's like to be able to work on such a respected show. Palicki said she loved shooting in Austin, away from a more typical L.A. set, and the rest of the cast agreed. Speaking of the creatives, Porter said, "What makes this show so successful is the trust we have in each other." Katims and Reiner turned that right back around and praised the young actors for constantly stepping up their game, which prompted the writers to keep bringing challenging material. Katims even used the fan backlash against Season 2's murder story line as evidence not only of the work the cast is doing but the devotion and loyalty of the audience, as well as further proof that maybe the writers knew what they were doing all along. "In order to get to (where we needed to go), we had to start somewhere," Katims said. But his love for the cast remained absolute: "This is the most incredible cast I've ever seen assembled in network television," he said. (Minka Kelly, left, Connie Britton, Adrianne Palicki and Aimee Teegarden. Photo courtesy of Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media)

The panel took a few questions from the audience that ranged from the group's thoughts on being ignored by the Emmys (Reiner said the show is its own reward; Teagarden said their day is coming) to the relationship between the coach and his wife as portrayed by Chandler and Britton (the marriage is rooted in a deep friendship that allows for emotional growth).

It was somehow fitting that the final questions were about the show's music, often provided by Explosions in the Sky. The Texas-born post-rock band's catalog is peppered throughout the series, and their soaring guitar instrumentals are the perfect emotional counterpoint for the show. But for all the epic sweep of the score, "Friday Night Lights" remains rooted in the human drama of small-town families and real-life emotions. "What we're trying to do," Katims said, "is talk about the moral complexities of life." As long as they stay true to that, the fans will keep watching, with clear eyes and full hearts.

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Comments

If you hate TV so much, Communist homosexual, why are you writing about it? Even better, if you hate America so much, why are you still here? Why don't you get the hell out and go have oral sex with your buddies in France?

And oh yes, Communist homosexual--you still haven't answered my question--HOW BIG WAS YOUR CELEBRATION ON SEPT. 11, 2001?

I apologize for all of my previous ranting comments. I've been on a series of anti-hallucinatory drugs for some time, and they periodically cause temporary breaks from rational thought. If you could just delete all similar comments in the future I'd appreciate it. Keep up the great writing!

Good write up.

Congrats on having a truly dedicated stalker/hater. You've officially arrived.

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