Lights On or Off?

The fight for a TV show about truth, justice and high school football

What does it feel like to be under those lights? What does it feel like to have everyone watching you and expecting gold? At Kuempel Stadium outside Austin, dreams are either realized or crushed. This football field usually belongs to Pflugerville High School. But last February, a different team walked onto the grass in the same blue jerseys and helmets glaring under the lights. They had aspirations and expectations, too -- but not the same ones.

The Dillon Panthers are the fictional team on NBC's Friday Night Lights. The actors are from New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Canada. But when they step onto the field to film their game scenes, they look exactly like their Pflugerville counterparts. Their cheerleaders match Pflugerville's, too. This is not a coincidence; the show's producers use Pflugerville's uniforms and tape Pflugerville's games, splicing in the real footage with shots of the actors doing choreographed plays.

Pflugerville's ninth grade principal, David Wuest, says that the show's actors seem exactly like the kids in his school.

Lights On or Off? The fight for a TV show about truth, justice and high school football
Lights On or Off? The fight for a TV show about truth, justice and high school football
In the center are real-life principals Larry Bradley and David Wuest -- surrounded by (left to right) actors Scott Porter, Aimee Teegarden, Jesse Plemons and Taylor Kitsch (#33).
Courtesy Pflugerville High School
In the center are real-life principals Larry Bradley and David Wuest -- surrounded by (left to right) actors Scott Porter, Aimee Teegarden, Jesse Plemons and Taylor Kitsch (#33).

"It's almost like they could pick any high school, walk down the hallways and just fit in."

After producers shot the pilot last February, NBC picked up the show, ordering 13 episodes to run this fall. The first season follows Coach Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler, during his first year as the leader of a high school football team somewhere in West Texas -- but not Odessa. Unlike the 1990 book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. 'Buzz' Bissinger, and the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights, directed by Peter Berg, the television series does not follow the Permian High School Panthers through their 1988 season. The show takes place today. One character has a father in Iraq; another is a Katrina refugee who shops around for a team and eventually settles at Dillon High School. Topics and themes from the original work -- racism, the local oil economy and educational issues -- permeate the show. The series has also retained another crucial element: Peter Berg, who developed the show for TV and remains an executive producer, visiting Austin between other projects.

Exuberance, passion, pride and fear of failure abound in Friday Night Lights and not just in the scripted drama. On the set, feelings are the same. Fall pilot television seasons, like fall football seasons, last a matter of weeks. The show's got to find an audience right away or it's off the air.

"It's similar to my job as a coach and coming here and winning this game with the best quarterback in the state," Kyle Chandler said, promoting the show before the first episode aired. "We're starting a pilot and I think we got one of the best pilots you've ever had, so the bar is set high for us going from here. And everyone's aware of that, too. Everyone's aware, from the top all the way down, how good the pilot is."

But in the end, potential doesn't matter. On Tuesday, October 3, the show debuted at 7 p.m. By this point, most reviews were already out.

USA Today called the show "heartfelt and sometimes heart-piercing." The Washington Post's Tom Shales called Lights "extraordinary in just about every conceivable way." But perhaps the most enthusiastic review came from The New York Times.

"Lord, is 'Friday Night Lights' good," critic Virginia Heffernan proclaimed -- and that was just the first line. Heffernan effusively commended the show's acting, authenticity and attention to detail. She spent four paragraphs explaining the significance of the sound of a surgeon cutting a player's helmet.

Okay. But the show's about Texas, and it's filmed in Texas -- so what did Texans think? The Austin American-Statesman said it was "one of the season's best new series." And Mike McDaniel of the Houston Chronicle gave it a B+. "We suspect the show will get a big sampling tonight," he wrote.

For $2.6 million an episode, Lights is working hard to convey real Texas life. There are no sound stages or traditional studios. Besides using Pflugerville High School and other local schools, producers have rented homes around Austin for filming. That means, on many days, that some quiet, normal neighborhood with election signs, Halloween decorations and neat lawns has roughly a dozen huge white trailers lining its sidewalks. For a few hours, 125 people swarm in and out of one house. Then, everyone is gone.

Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the sweet cheerleader whose quarterback boyfriend is paralyzed in the pilot episode, "lives" in this nice suburban world. On TV, Lyla's bedroom looks rather small and cramped. In actuality, it is. On a recent Wednesday, the cast and crew met at this location from 1-6 p.m. to film several scenes.

As the director films Lyla on her bed upstairs, at least 40 people tiptoe around downstairs. In a room on the first floor, Peter Berg sits behind three television monitors watching live filming. Today the show is shooting its tenth episode. Berg says he tries not to get "too caught up" in the great reviews. The New York Times review got passed around the set, though.

"I've never written a letter to a critic before," he says. "But I wrote a letter to that woman. That was a review of someone who really watched the show closely."

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