Friday Night Lights: The First Season – DVD Review

Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 28, 2007
Number of Discs: 5
Number of Episodes: 22
Running Time: 955 Minutes
MSRP: $29.98 (Purchase it at Amazon.com)

Executive Producers: Brian Grazer, Peter Berg and David Hudgins

Cast:

Kyle Chandler .Coach Eric Taylor
Connie Britton .Tami Taylor
Zach Gilford .Matt Saracen
Aimee Teegarden .Julie Taylor
Scott Porter .Jason Street
Minka Kelly .Lyla Garrity
Taylor Kitsch .Tim Riggins
Adrianne Pallcki Tyra Collette
Gaius Charles .Brian “Smash” Williams
Jesse Plemons Landry Clarke


The Show

Hopes and dreams live and die with the pigskin. Sounds hard to believe. Sadly, such a misconception is an all-too-real reality for those who reside in a small town. You know the ones. Where taboos and indiscretions are hard to keep under wraps. Where the closest thing to a town square is a fast-food burger joint succeeded by the words “King” or “Queen.” High school football is sometimes all there is to hold a community together. Games on a Friday night, the lights shining, the townspeople in a lather.

H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger wrote the book on high school football. Friday Night Lights, his Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the town of Odessa, Texas, and its Permian Panthers, is more than just a written account of the pigskin classic; it is an examination of how a team can shape the attitudes of a community. Football may only be a game of inches, but to a town of hundreds, a few thousand maybe, inches is all they’ve got.

Years after its publication producer Brian Grazer tried ad nauseam to get a movie project off the ground. Budget difficulties and changing directors made it difficult to bring the national bestseller to the big screen. When Peter Berg took the reigns it must have been destiny. He and Buzz are second cousins. Facts and details may have been altered for the 2004 feature starring Billy Bob Thornton, but the film is still a testament to the game of football and the single-minded devotion by a small town.

Now Bissinger’s novel has inspired a one-hour drama series. Also titled Friday Night Lights, the series is set in the fictional Texas town of Dillon. When it premiered on NBC, some TV insiders believed it would be one of the first to get the ax by network suits. But something magical happened. Like a team that overcomes adversity on its way to an undefeated season, this became a program that made skeptics into believers.

In the town of Dillon high school football is followed like a religion a playbook could easily be misconstrued as the Bible itself. The Panthers are one of the best teams in the state. But such acclaim comes at a price. Living up to what is expected and what is acceptable is the pressure faced by new coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). His decisions are second-guessed by others, some of who are but mere phantoms. The radio call-in guests in armchair quarterback mode, fellow residents, but most of all the boosters, those devoted followers of the Dillon Panthers. Chief among them is Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland). With such scrutiny Coach Taylor must weigh his options carefully. A single loss and he could find himself out of a job.

The constant pressure he faces also befalls his varsity team. The stress they endure, the starters particularly, is overpowering to say the least.

On the surface, Friday Night Lights looks like a teen soap, one that could easily mimic Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. Thankfully, this is a series that rises above soap opera status and all the baggage contained therein to become the best scripted program on television. The personal lives of the coach and his players are the heart of the story. The games on Friday nights and the on-field action may have lingering influences on how the story plays out, but this is clearly a series driven by its great cast.

Kyle Chandler is the glue, the man who makes the team and the series as a whole. Realistic in his portrayal of coach Eric Taylor, Chandler just has that look. The way he talks, the way he moves and accessorizes teal-blue windbreaker, sunglasses and whistle, all a must. Away from the field, however, the whistle will do him no good, especially when interacting with his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), and teenage daughter. Their conversations ring so true to life, with petty squabbling and ill-fated attempts at comedy when human drama is supposedly at play.

The emphasis on the family dynamic is clearly felt in other households where a player may only have one parent. This is a commonality felt by the likes of quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who lives with his dementia-stricken grandmother while his father serves in Iraq, and fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who lives with absentee parents. His father figure is his older brother. Without the support of a nuclear family, yes, hardships are to be expected. For some players it makes them stronger, more driven to succeed. Others handle the situation differently, sometimes with devastating results.

The players with their different stereotypes, over the course of year it gives way to depth of personality. Much like how first impressions can be tainted by looks; realistically differences are minimal by comparison. As the season progresses, we see the characters grow. Foes become friends, friends become embittered, and disappointment leads to optimism.

And upon viewing Friday Night Lights, an air of optimism can be sensed; this is definitely a series that if you watch long enough it will grow on you. I myself am a testament to this. Feeling the premiere episode last fall was too much like Varsity Blues the star quarterback who goes down to an injury, and the backup who engineers that last ditch effort to pull out a win I quickly disregarded this as anything worth the adage of “must see TV.” It wasn’t until I caught a marathon viewing on Bravo that I started to see that there was more going on here than just football.

This is a story about life and small town values. This is a drama, and a damn fine one at that.


The DVD

A/V QUALITY CONTROL

From the fade to black onto a Monday morning, the sunrise giving way to a picturesque setting, Friday Night Lights is a visual knockout. The Pilot, directed by Peter Berg, and the twenty-one that follow maintain the same docu-drama aesthetic that was prevalent in the 2004 feature film. Handheld cameras make for a herky-jerky image but seem stable when compared to Paul Grengrass’s frenzied shooting and editing style as seen in The Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum. The only drawback comes from the transfer. The filmmaking is striking; it just doesn’t pop like it did when it aired on NBC. Anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) is retained, but issues like grain are noticeable.

Sporting a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, the presentation is solid. From the helmet-popping impacts during a game to the subdued, quiet conversations, the sound track conveys all the effects, dialogue and music into one great production.

SPECIAL FEATURES

For this 5-disc collection, besides a great piece of television we get some deleted scenes and a featurette on the creation of the first season. On paper this isn’t much. The material included is strong, however. With films, there is typically a good reason why scenes don’t make it out of editing process. But for television, deletions are oftentimes a matter of time constraints, not content. Here, nineteen of the twenty-two episodes have deleted scenes. And instead of having the scenes play out in one large montage, the scenes are available for the episodes on their respective discs. Little character touches here and there and close-up interactions help to bolster the personalities of the Friday Night Lights cast, strengthening an already stellar program.

The featurette entitled Behind the Lights: Creating the First Season of Friday Night Lights is atypical in that it doesn’t have a pre-fab feel about it. Produced during the season finale, I take it that the Documentarians had an all-access pass as we see the read-through of the script, the production and the final day. There are few talking heads or sit down interviews with cast and crew; most of what is obtained is done so on location. The style seems to work, as the filmmakers seem to imitate the show and its shooting style. Unfortunately at twenty-two minutes, the feature doesn’t seem long enough. What we have is good: the cast goofing off, poignant moments like actor Zach Gilford and his fictional grandma hugging in Texas Stadium or writer/producer David Hudgins educating us about the characters and their motivations.

A lack of commentary tracks also takes away from supplemental enjoyment. Upon viewing the featurette, how great it would have been to listen to Peter Berg chatting with Brian Grazer or some of the crew involved with the Pilot episode. And David Hudgins comments in the making-of could have been expanded upon to the nth degree in commentary track form for any of the episodes he executively produced or scripted. Especially “Homecoming” and “Mud Bowl.”

I should also point out that NBC/Universal has made a genius marketing decision in pricing the first season at a very respectable $19.99. Furthermore, the studio heads are so confident you will enjoy FNL, they have tagged it with a money back guarantee. A bold testament, but the studio is confident that curiosity and admiration will put fans in the stands or in this case, in front of their television sets this fall.

THE INSIDE PULSE

Friday Night Lights is the best show on network television, maybe the entire TV landscape. With an engrossing story, you will lose track of the time watching episode after episode. Its strength lies with the cast, a great ensemble of different age groups, and their ties to the community. The DVD set is light when it comes to special features but its low price, and being positioned next to the release of Heroes in many outlets, could help attract viewers who may have missed this critical darling. Do yourself a favor and pick this up.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for
Friday Night Lights: The First Season
CATEGORY
RATING
(OUT OF 10)
THE SHOW

10
THE VIDEO

6
THE AUDIO

8
THE EXTRAS

5
REPLAY VALUE

9
OVERALL
9
(NOT AN AVERAGE)

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