The second season of “Friday Night Lights” began last Friday in the dense haze of the Texas summer, and it busily reintroduced the characters, mainly by sending them back into the archetypes it spent last season breaking apart.
Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), the coach that led the Dillon Panthers to the Texas State Championship last season, has moved away to coach in Austin. But as his new daughter is born, he returns to his postcard-perfect wife and daughter as if nothing has changed. His older daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), continues her causal rebellion, and her boyfriend, Matt (Zach Gilford), the Panthers’ unlikely quarterback, still isn’t too savvy at completing sentences. Tim (Taylor Kitsch) is his obvious foil on the team, and the complex role he took on as a near-surrogate father last season has regressed back into roguish indifference and indiscriminate sex. Lyla (Minka Kelly), the ostensible cheerleader princess whose family split apart as quickly as her personal life last season, has been baptized and is ready to spread the word.
Nice as it is to have it back, especially after the generally low-rated show’s brush with cancellation last spring, the breakneck early scenes of its second season premiere get away from the textures that make it so magnetic. “Friday Night Lights,” modeled by Peter Berg (“The Kingdom”) on his hit movie and H.G. Bissinger’s book, became a breakthrough in its first season because it so insistently defied lines of genre and convention. It’s not a sports show, not really, because what happens on the field is never as important as the people on it. It’s not a family drama, either, at least not in the traditional sense, since many of these kids have hardly any parents at all. Each episode, bookended by an invisible radio voice that discusses the team’s possibilities, is framed as a commentary on this insular town and the forces behind its football dreams.
As the team goes, so goes the town? Not quite. Dylan is on the map after it won the Texas championship last season, but as the second-season premiere gets fully underway, it’s clear the triumph hasn’t held over. After the initial late-summer veneer of lightness, new seams are revealed. The addition to the Taylor family only highlights Jim’s absence, and Julie channels her anger at him into boys who aren’t Matt (who, in turn, seems to be where he started with her). Lyla’s new religious front is a transparent coping device destined to break before long, and Tim will no doubt soon fall back into his vaguely existential quests.
Still, there’s a sense of a new direction, and it’s not necessarily the one NBC announced earlier this year – namely, that it intends to gear the show toward women since men are a given (are they?). A contrived return to a violent past storyline toward the end of this episode is an obvious catalyst to some new narrative end, but it’s not clear what that is. If this episode is indicative of the season, “Friday Night Lights” may become interested in drama (and trauma) that affects the characters outside of the organic conflicts of everyday life that anchored it last season. (Tonight’s episode, titled “Bad Decisions,” seems suggestive of this.)
Fortunately, the show’s uncommonly invested actors and the world the writers forged for them in the first season are uniquely suited to navigate this melodrama. This first episode goes back to where the show first began to contrast the excitement and expectation of a new school year with the new conflicts that insure it will be a very different one. Remember, last season began as the town’s quarterback lost his ability to walk, then proceeded to make his character one of its most surprising and complex. It may feel like “Friday Night Lights” is too bluntly forging new niches for its characters, but that’s only its means. Its ends are why it remains on the air.
Friday Night Lights
Fridays at 9 p.m.