'Friday Night Lights' Goes to State

Critics love it, a small core group of dedicated fans loves it, and reportedly NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly is a supporter, but the larger audience has yet to discover NBC's small-town drama "Friday Night Lights."

With the first-season finale, entitled "State," coming up on Wednesday, April 11, newcomers have one last chance to check in -- and the show has saved the biggest moment for the end.

With a rousing victory in the hard-fought "Mud Bowl," played on a hastily constructed field in a former cow pasture, the show's fictional Texas high-school football team, the Dillon Panthers, earned a berth in the state playoffs. The series films on location in and around Austin (home of the University of Texas Longhorns).

Leading the Panthers to ultimate glory or disappointment is first-string quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a sophomore who was thrust unexpectedly into the limelight when star QB Jason Street (Scott Porter) suffered an injury in the pilot episode that left him in a wheelchair.

Shy, bright but sometimes inarticulate, and the sole caregiver of a grandmother suffering from senile dementia, Matt is hardly the model of a teen football hero. But that suits Gilford just fine.

"That's been the most fun," he says, "especially in a show about Texas high-school football, playing the this kid who's nothing you would ever expect from a starting quarterback on a high-school team, especially one that's doing well and where football's a big deal.

"You expect this cocky, arrogant superstar, basically the all-American boy like Jason Street. Matt's this kid who's stumbling through. He's a reluctant leader. He knows he's supposed to take charge and lead his team, but he's second-guessing his leadership skills. He's nervous about doing so.

"He's not riding his teammates, but relying on them to step up and take charge of the team while he gets down to doing what he has to, skills-wise. He's not that superstar who can step up, and people will naturally follow him."

Challenging TV conventions has become a hallmark of "Friday Night Lights," under the supervision of executive producers Peter Berg, co-writer and director of the 2004 movie of the same name (based on H.G. Bissinger's best-selling nonfiction book), and Jason Katims ("Roswell," "My So-Called Life").

Shot documentary-style in real homes, schools and businesses instead of on soundstages, the show strives for authenticity in its portrayal of small-town dynamics and personalities.

"That's one of the things I love about our show," Gilford says, "and why people have been so drawn to it, that it shows all the different types of people. It's not just one-dimensional; a bunch of rich, snobby kids from Orange County or something like that.

"It's a small town. It's got the bad-boy sexy guy; then it's got the earnest, good kid who doesn't really know how to handle himself around girls; it's got the all-American boy like Jason Street."

Speaking of Street, he's gone through a dark passage of emotions during recuperation and rehabilitation. He found a temporary outlet playing wheelchair rugby (or "quad rugby") but has recently returned to his original love as an assistant to Panther Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). But along the way, he lost longtime love Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly).

"As great a guy and every mother's dream child that he was," Gilford says, "he lost his legs and lost everything. He's going to have problems dealing with that. He's not going to immediately be the kid that he was and just be, 'That's OK, I'm paralyzed, I'm just going to be this great guy again.'

"I'm glad they kept the anger, instead of him being just this martyr what goes, 'OK, well, that's the hand God dealt me.' It's been fun to watch."

The storylines of some shows focusing on teens go for easy hook-ups and break-ups, but high-school romance is a little more complicated on "Friday Night Lights." Included in that is Matt's relationship with Coach Taylor's 15-year-old daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden).

She proposed having sex to Matt, which precipitated a parenting crisis and a hard talk with her mother (Connie Britton). In the end, the teens decided against it.

"I really like that we avoided having sex," Gilford says, "that we second-guessed it. We're basically these two kids who are becoming adults together. We have so much comfort and trust in one another, that in rough times, we lean on each other.

"So much of the time, all you see are these relationships that have this hot sex and there's this physical attraction and desire. Yeah, there's that in there, but it's not what it's based on, and it's not what it's going to become.

"Again, we have all the different types of relationships going on. You look at the marriage between the coach and his wife. It's awesome."

Right now, fans don't know whether the Panthers will take the title, or whether the show will be back next season (media reports say that NBC has asked for six extra scripts of the show, which falls short of a pickup but is generally a positive sign). Gilford keeps his counsel on the final score, but he's hopeful about renewal.

"We've gotten a good impression we're going to be back."

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