It’s a slow-developing play

Special to The Times

This IS how new characters make their way onto “Friday Night Lights”: They creep. The producers and writers of this finely whittled show know this: There are few truly grand entrances in life. And so when a fresh face needs introduction, it’s in neatly doled-out dabs -- seen from a distance, barely sniffable at first. After a little while, when that person becomes central to a plot line, it’s with a heavy inevitability. They’ve been there all the while, it seems, waiting for a change in tide.

In last week’s third-season premiere, you first glimpse Joe McCoy (D.W. Moffett) in the empty bleachers, talking with Dillon Panthers booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) while getting the once-over from Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). No one crosses his arms quite like Coach Taylor: right palm tucked into left pit, left arm on top of right, hand wrapped around the right bicep. They never intertwine. From the outside, it appears hard and impenetrable. But try it: It’s like hugging yourself.

Coach Taylor’s body never betrays him. His quiet certainty is the center of “Friday Night Lights,” the perennially underwatched show about football and its fallout in the small town of Dillon, Texas. Easily among the most nuanced, felt and emotionally incisive shows on television, it still felt distant on NBC, an apparition that was more talked about than seen. Now on DirecTV (9 p.m. Wednesday), it will likely feel even more so. (NBC will air this season beginning in February.)


How much longer can material this strong vaporize into ether? Though the first two episodes of this season are slightly denser than those that preceded it -- space has always been one of this show’s great virtues -- the basics remain, slightly tweaked. Coach Taylor’s wife, Tami (Connie Britton), has progressed from guidance counselor to principal, setting up a host of future conflicts. The ever-drunk layabout Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) has become a team leader, after the graduation of Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), who is still hovering around Dillon, having lost his college scholarship after an injury. Tim has also finally worn down Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the churchgoing good girl who was formerly his best friend’s girlfriend, and made her something like his own. School flirt Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) has ended her relationship with the warm brainiac Landry (Jesse Plemons), though they spend more time together than ever before.

And as ever, predatory family members remain -- Tim’s older brother Billy (Derek Phillips), who views him as a prize stallion; Tyra’s mother, Angela (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), resentful of her daughter’s independence; and the absentee parents of beleaguered quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), who have abandoned him to deal with his grandmother, who is fading into dementia.

The greasy Joe McCoy, father of the highly touted freshman quarterback J.D. (Jeremy Sumpter), is but one agent of change this season. But in true “Friday Night Lights” fashion, his disruptive potential is stymied, at least for now, by Coach Taylor. On a show where things move deliberately, it’s not surprising that a resistor is at the center.

Coach Taylor is notable for his defiance. He’s undeniably serious, without being a hulking presence; it’s an impressive feat of manhood (for the record, all his feeling is in the brow, which sometimes twitches.) One of the show’s great pleasures is watching him transmit those values to his charges. In this week’s episode, he reunites Smash with the team for a workout to boost his confidence, and it’s just one of those gestures that, when strung together, have made this show transcendent. Life, the show argues, is the sum of small things.

In its premiere episode two years ago, “Friday Night Lights” announced itself as an immolator of cliche, taking its obvious hero, quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), and paralyzing him in a game injury. To the show’s credit, it has never played his injury for cheap feeling, and the final scene of last season found Jason trying to persuade Erin (Tamara Jolaine), with whom he’d had a one-night stand, to carry to term the child they’d conceived, a medical miracle in his mind.

But with the writers strike, the threat of cancellation, and a switch of networks, certain plot jolts are inevitable, and sadly, Jason doesn’t appear in the flesh in either of the first two episodes of this season. But just as the new folk never really weren’t there, the old ones never really go away. He’s there, briefly, on a highlight reel Buddy Garrity played at a team party last week.


But more tellingly, his name is invoked by Joe McCoy, who is trying to persuade Coach Taylor to play his son over Saracen. “You are looking at the next Jason Street,” he says. “You got a franchise sitting right under your nose. All you gotta do is sniff.” Or wait for the scent to waft up, as it surely will.