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Tackle Bait

September 28, 2006 By:
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Talkin' football: From left are real-life coach Mack Brown; Peter Berg, exec producer of "Friday Night Lights"; and star Kyle Chandler, the onscreen coach
Are ya ready for some Shabbat football?

Well, it is called "Friday Night Lights." But if the lights of this ever-so-shining NBC series aren't candlesticks, it still sticks out as one of the season's best.

Not that tales of pigskin would ever complete a forward pass for acceptance in halachah. But there are elements of the Tuesday-night series of a small Texas town with a big heart trying to latch on to the spiral of success that is its football team, which make for some touching touchdown passes at pathos.

And if Peter Berg shows some surgical precision here as exec producer, well, he did play a surgeon on "Chicago Hope." But, surprisingly, it is his cardio-care that matters here, as Dillon -- the Texas town that is more lower case than Big D -- is a microcosm for the mishmash that is this nation's nexus of mind and matter.

Based on the best-selling book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger and adapted into a popular film by Berg -- Bissinger's cousin -- "Friday Night Lights" is all about the pom-pom and circumstance that make football a fiefdom all its own in the South and Southwest.

The series, premiering Oct. 3, at 8 p.m., on NBC10, shows why the small towns of America's turf wars are not always fought over by gangs of street toughs but by heroes with helmets.

In a way, high school football is the last seduction of American teens before they unstrap their jocks and don their dress denim or suits after suiting up for some rough-and-tumble tackle.

Directing and writing the pilot, Berg is in more ways than one team quarterback here. He is also its center.

Complex Issues
"I was a huge fan of the book," says the star of such films as "The Last Seduction" and "Collateral."

"But Bissinger [in the book] was able to take a deep, comprehensive look at the culture of athletics, not just Texas football, but athletics. And he was able to hit upon pretty complex issues -- racism, education, parent-child relationships, celebrity. And in the film, we were limited."

There's room to run on this TV field, where the goals are more accessible over a season's run.

And run with the ball Berg and the others do: "If we're lucky, we'll have the opportunity [here] to go deep."

There are millions of eligible receivers sitting by the TV set awaiting Berg's audible. And the director is audibly relieved to tell what he learned from his year spent in Texas, where he "went to dozens of football games."

Some serious issues are fielded for those switching on "Friday Night Lights." Football is more than an excuse for cold beer and hot cursin' down Texas way: It's a religion, believes Berg, whose sense of Jewishness shows through in his compassion for the competitive nature of a game/job hoisted on the padded shoulders of kids by parents and tradition.

That aura of religion doesn't have to be a shema in the end zone -- chances are, in Texas, it wouldn't be -- but "a moment of silence in which people are asked by their coaches to reach into whatever aspect of faith that they want to."

If God is in the details, he has four downs to show his divine spirit here. The game itself is as exciting a fictional forum as ever portrayed on TV. Tight-end shots, quarterback close-ups, scoreboard scans, crowd frenzy ... oh, those "Friday Night Lights."

But Berg is also game to shed insight into inner workings that can make people, and not just the center, snap. Sure, football is "at the core of the show, but it is a springboard."

If Berg does spring for "the big game" during the pilot, he has also scrambled to assure that subtlety isn't lost in the huddle, which may be why each episode won't necessarily climax in a fourth-and-down.

There will be down time for emotional fumbles and Statue of Liberty plays, too -- scenes where the huddled masses are depicted as being the salt of the earth.

But when they do have the big game, they go for big names. Some of those high-fiving high-schoolers depicted on field have already fielded their college degrees in real life. Though producers mix scenes from real high school games, when it comes to the big plays, "They're ex-pros," concedes Berg.

High school football, by far, is no prosaic matter for Texans. Indeed, when the book came out, a number of Odessa residents -- where the book is set -- came out, claws out, unflattered by being what they considered sacked and stereotyped by the writer.

Flag for roughing the writer? "The book was very controversial when it came out. Bissinger received death threats. And the city of Odessa felt that he betrayed them."

But in the end zone, money talks. And, ultimately, Odessa opened their gates if not their hearts to Berg for filming in the town that had felt besmirched by Bissinger. The TV series has lassoed Pflugerville for its site.

Will they steer clear of the portrayals of racism and prejudice that made for an Odessa complex with questions of democracy as a blood sport? Where those behind rodeo drives shop for crowds who can't hold their slurs to themselves? TV as whistle-blower?

"It's interesting," says Berg. "I've never met a guy that walks around talking about what a racist he is. And nobody seems to be racist. Yet clearly, there are some issues going on."

Bias as tackle bait? Kinky Friedman may be running for governor of the state, but Jews running the world is a stereotype that still has life amid some of the less sagacious thinkers in sagebrush country.

Racism "is definitely a theme we want to explore," states Berg. But ... "We're not going to be singling out Texas. It's our feeling that this is an issue that's universal, [and not] in any way unique to Texas."

"Friday Night Lights"? Pass the challah, it's going to be an interesting season. 

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