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Fourth down for Friday Night Lights

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People just love underdog stories, so you'd think that NBC's Friday Night Lights would be getting Glee ratings by now. But no.

When calling Friday Night Lights an underdog story, we're not just talking storyline—we're talking about the show itself. It's been shuttled around on NBC's schedule, and Seasons 3 and 4 were shown exclusively on DirecTV before having their proper network runs. The fact that it's even back for a 13-episode fourth season (its second-to-last, apparently) just shows that, as effed-up as NBC is these days, somebody up there on 30 Rockefeller has decent taste.

Hailed by critics when it debuted in 2006, the TV series about high school football fever in fictional Dillon, Texas (based on the book and film of the same name) didn't catch on with the public, even though its appeal seemed universal. The grown-up characters on Friday Night Lights cling to football as they watch their hometown die slowly. Industries are gone, and those who boost the state-champion Dillon Panthers the hardest know damn well their own kids won't likely be raising their own families in Dillon, unless they've already peaked or failed at 17. It's the stuff of a good Springsteen song.

The show's failure to gain a wide audience is an unsolved mystery. Critics and television aesthetes love the show for its unique feel; the wide-open-sky cinematography combined with the intimate, sometimes jerky single-cam shots; the shimmering guitar themes by Explosions in the Sky; and mainly, for presenting a vision of God-fearing, pigskin-loving Red State America that we can all relate to on some level. On the other hand, maybe it undermines certain cherished images we have of Texas as an awesome place for shit-kicking white men and small towns and oil wells and football. Maybe it's just too arty.

In Season 1, new Dillon Panthers coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) arrives in town, with his wife, Tami (Connie Britton), and their sulky teenage daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden). Right away, he's pressured by everyone from the boosters, the school board and every bigmouth he meets at the local burger joint to whip his motley team into a winning machine. Then his star sustains a spinal injury that leaves him paralyzed. From the get-go, it was devastating, deeply human and very believable drama.

As Season 4 begins, Tami is the only person less popular on the west side of Dillon than Eric. She's now the principal of Dillon, while her husband has been reassigned to coach at East Dillon High, located on the even less privileged side of town—thanks to some dirty politicking by a star quarterback recruit's dad, who now coaches the Panthers himself. Determined to follow the rules, Tami makes sure the Panthers' new star player, Luke Cafferty (Matt Lauria), adheres to redistricting guidelines and plays for Eric's woefully underresourced East Dillon Lions. Hey kids: TP party at the Taylors' house tonight!

Residents of Wake County may find the show's school board scenes regarding the redistricting issue (angry white parents shouting about "that element" at mostly black East Dillon) eerily familiar. Despite the loss of some grads (Matt and Tim stuck around, but Smash, Lyla and Jason have split) and a One Tree Hill feel to some of the newer kids, Friday Night Lights still has a keen eye on America. So while it's not as great as it once was—some of the recent attempts at tear-jerking leave me dry—I'll stick with it to the end, because I love this crappy little town.

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