Friday Night Lights opens with the same stadium lights and jerky camera movements as the 2004 movie that it’s based on, but by the second scene, it’s clear that these characters play high school football in a completely different universe. Gone are the racial diversity and the gritty poverty of the film (and the H.G. Bissinger book it sprung from). Even the name of the Texas town has been changed from Odessa — a word itself that came to embody desperation — to Dillon, which sounds like a more suitable appellation for a 2-year-old toddler in Greenwich, Conn.
In transforming his hit film into a TV series, executive producer Peter Berg (who directed both the movie and the pilot episode) has kept the thrust — it’s a short trip from top dog to underdog — but has repopulated his sports-obsessed town. Kyle Chandler picks up Billy Bob Thornton’s playbook as Eric Taylor, the first-year head coach of a powerhouse team that includes golden-boy quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), quiet sophomore Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), running back Tim (Taylor Kitsch), and his rival Smash, played by Gaius Charles. (Another name change: In the movie this character’s called Boobie. Way to dodge the FCC’s mammary phobia!) Sturdy TV presence Connie Britton (24) is the only big-screen holdover as the coach’s wife.
Unlike One Tree Hill, which is ostensibly about basketball but is really about Chad Michael Murray’s pectoral muscles, Lights’ universe is steeped in high school football, no matter how many cheerleaders have been added as frosting. The sport infiltrates every corner of Dillon, from the diners to the women’s book club (yet another sign we’re dealing with middle-class purple-staters). So when an accident befalls Street, the event takes on the urgency of a Code Red terror alert.
Between its cinematography, setting, and subject matter, Lights doesn’t look a whole lot like anything else on television right now. These unfamiliar elements — plus an overstuffed pilot and a poor track record for sports dramas (Clubhouse, anyone?) — could be the show’s undoing. But do stick around for episode 2, even if you’re not quite sure what a ”Cover 2” defense is. It’s blissful to hear TV teens speak without the meta self-awareness that has permeated young-adult dramas for the better part of the past decade. And while Chandler receives top billing, the writers have — in a twist that reflects what’s occurring on screen — maneuvered Gilford’s Saracen into the pivotal role. Playing the newly minted QB grappling with an ailing grandmother and the pull of fame long before he’s ready for the limelight, the newcomer is good. As his character comes of age, it’ll be awfully intriguing to watch this challenging series do the same.