It's a pleasant spring afternoon, and football is in the air at Texas Stadium. Not the usual time of year for it, but this isn't the usual practice session. It's the set of the season finale of "Friday Night Lights," and the vibe is laid-back.
Taylor Kitsch and Zach Gilford, two of the show's Dillon Panthers, toss a football around with director Jeffrey Reiner. Scott Porter, who plays a paralyzed former quarterback, is showing just how ambulatory he really is by doing cartwheels on the sidelines. Extras mill about, many of them playing reporters.
Watching the action is T.J. Griffin, a former player for Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. Griffin says "Friday Night Lights" gets it exactly right, especially in the interaction between Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his players.
"That's where it's at - having that trust," says Griffin, who's now a salesman for IBM and a motivational speaker. "It's way better than any other sports show I've seen, because it's not really about sports. It's about the relationships. Football just has to be there."
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Oh, yeah - Griffin is in a wheelchair. Has been since 1990, when he broke his neck during a game. His brother, Tony, is a production assistant on the show and helped snag T.J. a visit to the set. His story is eerily similar to Porter's character, Jason Street, who was paralyzed making a tackle in the first episode.
"That first episode, I called all my friends and said, 'You gotta watch this. It's like a documentary of what happened that night,'" Griffin says. Even Street's rehabilitation process, while accelerated for dramatic effect, hit home.
"I used to call Tony and say, 'Tony, did you have a microphone in the rehab room for some of the conversations we used to have? Because y'all are nailing this,'" Griffin says. "They completely did it the right way."
You could hardly find a more forceful endorsement of a show, especially one with a fragile future.
"Friday Night Lights" is about a bunch of scrappy underdogs trying to end their season on a strong note and come back as contenders next season. It's also about football.
Despite critical acclaim and a loyal fan base, the show's fate is as unclear now as it was when the cast and crew came to Texas Stadium in March to film the season finale, which airs Wednesday.
Most of the "FNL" folks are optimistic about the show's chances for renewal, and it got a boost last week when it won a Peabody Award. But renewal hasn't happened yet, and Wednesday's episode could be a finale - period.
"Everybody who watches it seems to love it and be so into it, and our viewers have held steady through the entire season," says Gilford, who's a lot more talkative than Matt Saracen, the shy quarterback he plays on the show. "So it's frustrating. It's basically not knowing whether or not you're going to be unemployed. Also, since it's a job everybody loves and cares about, it's like the show NEEDS to be back. It's a quality show."
When it debuted in October, "FNL" already had the odds stacked against it. It stood in the shadow of a good movie and an even better book, but was not a replication of either, moving the locale from the real Odessa to the fictional Dillon and updating the story from the late `80s to the present. It benefits from the involvement of executive producer Peter Berg, who directed the "FNL" movie - and happens to be a cousin of H.W. "Buzz" Bissinger, who wrote the book. But except for Chandler, the cast was made up of mostly unknowns, and the 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday time slot put the show up against established hits "Dancing With the Stars" and "NCIS."
NBC did what it could to keep the show alive, moving it to Wednesday nights to get it out of the way of "American Idol" and at one point posting every episode for free download at NBC.com. The ratings held steady, but the show wasn't exactly doing "Grey's Anatomy" numbers.
"Friday Night Lights" is the kind of show that deserves a few chances. It can take several episodes to get used to its slow-burn plot lines, and its documentary-style shaky-cam look isn't for all tastes. The football players and their families sometimes seem to have enough problems to fill two seasons of "ER."
But "FNL" often finds new twists on familiar situations and has developed into one of the best-acted shows on television. As paralyzed quarterback Jason, Porter (who had a notable role of a very different sort as Hugh Grant's `80s pop partner in "Music and Lyrics)" has gone on a journey of self-pity, anger, defiance and resolve. Minka Kelly, as his cheerleader girlfriend Lyla, has a second-nature chemistry with Porter - which she needs, because Lyla is both long- suffering and supportive, as well as haunted by guilt after a brief fling with Jason's best friend, brooding running back Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch).
Gilford and Aimee Teegarden have been charming as bumbling lovebirds Matt Saracen and Julie Taylor - the quarterback and the coach's daughter. They figured prominently in the series' best episode, in which the two virgins forgo a planned night of sex because they decide the time's not right - and wind up in a giggly game of leg-wrestling as her tormented parents wait up at home. Gaius Charles manages to be simultaneously charming and obnoxiously cocky as running back Brian "Smash" Williams, who went through a brief period of steroid use and now has a bipolar girlfriend.
Best of all are Chandler and Connie Britton as Coach Taylor and his wife, Tami, the school counselor who refuses to be shoved into the background as the coach's wife (Chandler was suffering from the flu during the Texas Stadium shoot and declined to do interviews). Britton is one of the few holdovers from the movie, in which she played Billy Bob Thornton's wife - she joined the series on the condition that her TV character be more forceful than her movie character. Britton doesn't have children herself, but she plays one of the few good mothers in a TV landscape overpopulated with smothering and/or self-absorbed neurotics.
"I've always been really maternal," Britton says. "I also had a great mom. So to me on some level, it's a dedication to my own mom in a way. It's one of those things where, in those situations, whether you're a mother or a daughter, it just resonates with you: 'Oh, I remember this moment. I remember the intensity of this moment.' It's really powerful."
In one of the season's most intense scenes, Tami tries to talk Julie out of having sex - and Julie isn't hearing any of it, although ultimately she does as her mother wishes.
Brad Leland, the Dallas-area character actor who plays car salesman and obsessive booster Buddy Garrity, says he believes scenes like that are what make the show so good.
"I love the decisions that the intelligent, smart characters on the show make," Leland says. "(The show has) things that are a bit far-fetched sometimes, but at the same time, it's got those real, genuine moments. Parents and kids can watch and say, `We oughta do that. We oughta be like them.'"
"Friday Night Lights" typically shoots around Austin: at an old stadium in Del Valle; at a stadium in Pflugerville; and in homes and locations in the area. Texas Stadium represents not just a change for the fictional players but for the real actors.
The first day of the shoot focuses on a practice session, and as usual with an "FNL" shoot, things look almost random to an observer, as the crew's hand-held cameras roam around the actors as they work. It's almost hard to believe that the end results are so coherent, but it's all in keeping with the show's loose structure.
"We walk in and we do not rehearse," Leland says. "We find out lots of times little gems of truth and real things about our characters by not doing that. By simply speaking to each other. ... You take the time to do that, and what we find ourselves doing is not only creating little edges to the words - they've given us great words, but then we find things around them by just sort of living in the moment."
The second day, however, is much more controlled. It's game day, and even the most casual bystander can look up at the scoreboard and tell where the story's going. A few thousand extras - many of them recruited from local charity groups - fill a couple of sections in the stands; they'll be digitally reproduced so that it looks like there's a full house when the episode airs.
It looks a lot like a real high-school game, with "Panther Power" banners hanging in the stands and the crowd, dressed in Dillon blue, screaming and waving whenever something goes right for the Panthers. Except that first assistant director Michael Waxman is on the public-address system, instructing the crowd on how to react.
At the center of the crowd are Britton and Teegarden, along with Fort Worth's Louanne Stephens and Libby Villari, who play Matt Saracen's grandmother and the town mayor, respectively. Even from a distance, you can see the looks of nail-biting concern on Britton's face as she's in character as Tami, rooting for her husband's team in the latest in a series of do-or-die games. "Friday Night Lights" seems to share that sense of do-or-die - the feeling that it could go out as a champ or just have that one bright season that ends with everyone's heads in their hands.
"The thing that's a little tricky about doing something that we love so much and that we're so passionate about is the idea that people aren't seeing it," Britton says during a break. "... Today's my last day of shooting, and I feel really strongly that we're going to come back. We have to come back. Because these characters are not over. I feel like all of our lives have just begun, really, with this season."