Finding A New ‘Friday Night Lights’

“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” Jason Katim shouted with tears in his eyes from the stage of the Emmy’s last month. It was moments after accepting the award for Best Writing in a Drama Series for Friday Night Lights, his tearjerker of a drama that for five rewarding seasons maintained a small but devoted audience who knew the show as the best of the bunch. It was wildly entertaining and packed pointed writing into a show that was never really about football.

But now it’s over, and rumors of a potential movie should be taken as lightly as those surrounding the supposed Arrested Development movie. Letting go has been harder than I thought it would; on Sunday night, possibly induced by stress and an interview with FNL star Connie Britton that I had just read, I dreamt that I was in the presence of Britton and her Emmy-winning costar Kyle Chandler. Overwhelmed with emotion, I started bawling (in the dream, of course) and they quickly swept me up in their arms like Coach and Mrs. Coach would do on the show.

When I woke up, I realized that I needed my spectacularly realistic and moving TV show fix. Starting on Wednesday night, I can find Britton again in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, but here she plays a wife ravaged by her husband’s infidelity and a seemingly haunted house. Murphy, in this weekend’s New York Times, mentioned that the show would focus on a character known only as “Rubber Man,” a shadow with whom Britton’s character would share a tryst, leaving the Alamo Freeze far in her past. Chandler was also picked up for an FX show (Powers) for early 2012.

For those looking for heartfelt parent-child talks paired with riveting, relatable, real-life stories, there’s no place better to look than NBC, the network that abandoned FNL in its third season. Here, Katim writes and executively produces the scantly watched Parenthood, a tragicomedy of sorts that has one of the most impressive casts (and most careful characterizations) on television. Very loosely based on the Ron Howard film of the same name from 1989, the series follows the Braverman family, a three generational clan that is set in Berkeley, Calif.

Possibly delivering her most convincing work ever (I hope Gilmore Girls fans don’t bite), Lauren Graham stars as Sarah, a single mother of two teenagers. Sarah truly represents the American dream, struggling from job to job to give her children the opportunities to succeed. This season, her daughter Amber decides to forge her own path by renting an apartment nearby rather than going to college. Played by Mae Whitman (Ann/Egg from Arrested Development), Amber is conflicted: gutsy yet still desperately in need of her mother, she sighs and screams with a crazy touch of Faye Dunaway.

The cast is filled with delightful surprises. Its child actors remain consistently on par with the adults, especially Max Burkholder. As 11-year-old Max Braverman, Burkholder must struggle with playing a child diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a tricky role that he never takes for granted. His Max is nuanced, a difficult to understand child whose heart is always in the right place.

Likewise, Dax Shepard takes his role and completely transforms himself as Crosby, a newly introduced father to Jabbar (who is five), struggling to make things work financially and emotionally with his son’s mother, Jasmine. Shepard has always been known for his nonsensical (read: generally stupid) roles in movies like Baby Mama and Without a Paddle, but he is utterly believable as Crosby. A very small-time record producer who lives on a houseboat in the Berkeley marina, Crosby is weak but lovable.

To get back to my FNL fans for a moment, it’s worth noting that the show has already featured two notable alumni of the football drama we all loved so much. Minka Kelly (you know her as Lyla Garrity, I’m sure) played Max’s aide for the greater part of two seasons, before stepping into a tempestuous affair with Crosby, then stepping out of the Braverman’s lives for good. Hers was a surprisingly layered performance, but it doesn’t come close to matching Michael B. Jordan’s Alex, one of the Braverman girls’ love interests. Fresh off playing star quarterback Vince Howard, Jordan continues to burrow into the most sacred depths of his character’s souls.

Parenthood is smart and warm, witty and compelling, all bundled together in a wonderful weekly package by Katim. It argues that normalcy isn’t entertaining, and who’s one to argue with that?


October 5, 2011

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