I Like to Watch

Three cheers for ordinary people! "Friday Night Lights" shines on brilliantly in its third season, while the fifth season of "Grey's Anatomy" proves its staying power.

Published November 16, 2008 2:27PM (EST)

 I'm bored with secret agents and split personalities and pie makers who can talk to dead people. These days, our TVs are filled with kooky mad scientists and outrageous, scheming billionaires and gun-running motorcycle thugs and flamethrowing superheroes and villainous magazine editors and clairvoyant detectives on every channel, but I couldn't care less.

You know what I like? Ordinary people. I like divorced dads who take their sullen teenagers camping and old couples who tackle their health problems together and small-town principals who give insecure teenage boys pep talks and medical residents who stay up late reading their mothers' old diaries and injured former quarterbacks who are desperately searching for a way to pay for their kids' daycare.

Ordinary people and their ordinary problems are interesting. The best TV writers in the business know this. Their genuine fascination with regular people allows them to create real connections between viewers and the characters on the screen. Instead of marking time from one plot point to the next, these writers view every scene as an opportunity to dig up colorful little details and funny moments and conflicting emotions that can bring the heart and soul of their characters to life.

Family matters

Doesn't sound like the same TV you're watching, huh? Well, then, you'd better get ready for a spectacular third season of " Friday Night Lights" (9 p.m. Wednesdays), currently halfway through its 13-episode arc on DirecTV, thanks to an odd deal between the satellite company and NBC. For those who don't have DirecTV -- and that's probably most of you -- the third season will premiere on NBC this January, so don't miss it.

I'm sure you recall how everyone was falling all over themselves to praise this show during its debut season. But then, in its second season, the show stumbled on soapy, unrealistic story lines, thereby turning away a huge crowd of viewers who had resolved to start watching. I can't tell you the number of readers who wrote to tell me, "Oh well, I guess I don't have to catch up with this show after all."

I have some bad news: You really do have to catch up now, because compared to the countless channels of fantastical, empty tripe on your TV screens at the moment, "Friday Night Lights" is a show with an uncanny knack for reflecting real Americans and their challenges. And isn't that what we need, during these crazy, mixed-up times of hardship and hope? I have to believe that the mood has shifted, and suddenly people won't want to watch TV dramas about trillionaires and faux celebrities and bitchy housewives scheming and backstabbing and bickering endlessly. I have to think that the authenticity and humor in each and every scene of "Friday Night Lights" will shine through and win over a bunch of new, loyal fans.

Now, it's true, it took me about three episodes to get back into the swing of things this season. The coach's wife, Tami (Connie Britton), is the principal of the school now, and Brian "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) injured his knee and is having trouble finding a college where he might play football. Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) is struggling with his grandmother's dementia (although, strangely enough, she seems sharper than ever) and ends up accepting help from his estranged mother, while Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) is grappling with her feelings for Landry (Jesse Plemons).

I don't want to give too much away, of course, because the vast majority of you will have to wait until January to watch. But let me just say that football booster Buddy Garrity (Brad Leland) has always been one of my favorite characters on this show, because he's such a recognizable type: He's got that chuckling, back-slapping Southern-dad enthusiasm that's so lovable but also so completely short-sighted and bumbling and out of touch. Like a big, clumsy bear, he happily rallies the troops but then resorts to intimidating or throwing his weight around when things don't go his way. He often acts out selfishly and then pays so dearly for his big mistakes, you just want to cry for him. Buddy foolishly had an affair that ended his marriage, only to watch helplessly as his wife found another man and moved to Northern California, taking the two youngest kids with her. Their oldest daughter, Lyla (Minka Kelly), stayed behind, but Buddy's life is still pretty empty, leaving him even more time to meddle with the local high school football team.

On last week's episode, Buddy welcomes his estranged teenage son and daughter off the plane. His son immediately reveals that he plays soccer now and he thinks football is stupid, while his daughter grimaces when her father hugs her, and grumbles, "Dad, Dad, you're all sweaty!" Next stop: an ill-fated camping trip where Buddy cheerfully unpacks a bunch of grass-fed, hormone-free Angus steaks for the grill, extolling their virtues with relish, only to have his daughter announce that she's vegan now. Buddy keeps trying, offering to say a little prayer for the cow before they eat. Her daughter tells him, flatly, that her stepfather taught her that "meat is murder." Buddy looks crushed, but hesitantly explains that that's one man's opinion. "It's a fact!" his daughter counters, at which point Buddy realizes he no longer has the pull with these kids that he's always had. Unable to handle this huge disappointment, he hurls the steaks into the woods and storms off, leaving poor, protective Lyla furious at her two younger siblings. Later, when Lyla picks Buddy up, walking in the dark along the highway, and he tells her he's lost his kids, she responds, "You still got me." The whole sequence is so heartbreaking and true to life, it's almost too much to bear.

 But then, there are so many great, funny details sprinkled into every scene on this show. I love watching coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) being forced to interact with the overbearing, loaded parents of the new star quarterback, J.D. McCoy. The disconnect between Eric and Tami and the McCoys is captured so perfectly when, after their dinner together at the couple's enormous house, Katie McCoy confides to Tami, "Guess what I have upstairs? The California Closet guy has been here, and I have a brand-new bedroom! You've got to come see it, it has just totally changed my life." Tami grins but looks like she's thinking that Katie's bedroom is likely to be bigger than her entire house, while Eric looks ready to punch the woman right in the face.

While there haven't been that many big twists or revelations this season, "Friday Night Lights" has returned to its first-season roots by focusing on unexpected connections between unlikely characters. Whether it's Billy Riggins enlisting wheelchair-bound fallen quarterback Jason Street to help him get Riggins' little brother into college or Tami stepping in and convincing the reluctant, unenthusiastic parents of a football player to come and watch one of their son's games, characters on this show so often grow beyond their former limitations right before our eyes. It makes the series incredibly satisfying to watch, far more satisfying than any arbitrary plot twists could ever be.

But loyal fans don't watch "Friday Night Lights" for big, flashy, high-stakes plots, they watch it because they want to see what Tami will say to poor, depressed Landry when she runs into him in the school library. Landry, the classic good guy who wears his heart on his sleeve (a trait that most high school girls are utterly allergic to), can't help but confess to Tami that he's worried that he's always going to scare girls away. Her response, and the graceful, goofy way Connie Britton delivers it, is unforgettable:

"Here's the thing, and I know it's probably not very easy to see this here, in Dillon, but you are at the beginning of your life. A lot of these football heroes around here, they're not going to get much further than this. But you are going to go to some great college, you're going to have a career that you love, and I'm telling you right now that women are going to flock to you. I know that's hard to believe but that's the way it's going to work. You are a good person, and this is just the beginning. I'm right 100 percent of the time. You can ask my husband."

Suffice it to say that "Friday Night Lights" is a show for ordinary people who are touched by the wisdom and sweetness of other ordinary people. I just can't think of any show I'd rather watch right now.

Soaping up

OK, except " Grey's Anatomy " (9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC). Yes, it's much more flashy and manipulative and ridiculous than "Friday Night Lights." In fact, it's not inaccurate to call this show fluffy, heartstrings-plucking doctor-stud porn for the thinking girl.

But sweet Lord on high, it's just so well-written and dynamic and funny and moving. Sure, this is a nighttime soap, but only because there are lots of new crushes and love triangles, plus big, heavy plot twists and weeping, confessional, dying people everywhere.

Oh, man. How do I explain this without sounding like a chump? Let's see. The lead couple McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) and Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) aren't all that fascinating. But Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) has always held our attention, and right now she's falling in love with Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd, see also: Lucius Vorenus from HBO's "Rome"), a guy who's much more dynamic and appealing than her former fiancé Burke (Isaiah Washington). If anyone handles the long-smoldering love-fire well, it's the writers of this show, particularly when it comes to Yang. Watching someone break through Yang's "I can barely speak about emotions without snickering" demeanor really gets us by the throat. This is your unbearable perfectionist doctor friend, the one whom you want to see shake off her tightly wound exterior thanks to the love of a good ... Roman soldier!

Meanwhile, Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) are discovering that they might just be gay and might just be in love, a story that should be dorky and hopelessly clichéd but that's somehow handled gracefully. The scene when Hahn sat up in bed and proclaimed that she was most definitely gay, no doubt about it, was so beautifully acted, it really sticks in the memory. Of course we got the paint-by-numbers "Grey's Anatomy" monologue, with its particular cadence and rhythm and repetitions, but those words still managed to sound entirely authentic and believable coming out of Brooke Smith's mouth.

I really try to resist "Grey's Anatomy." I do. But while its spinoff "Private Practice" flails with unlikable characters and uninteresting, unrealistic story lines, "Grey's Anatomy" continues to excel at what it does. This show obviously stands on the shoulders of "ER," but it's taken that show's strengths and built on them and created something that's more entertaining, more poignant, more believable, better paced and much more addictive. Damn them!

So before the return of "24" transforms me into a popcorn-snarfing, suspense-addled worm once again, I want to raise a glass to the writers of "Grey's Anatomy" and "Friday Night Lights" for bringing us familiar, lovable, odd, funny but most of all ordinary people. Very few TV shows dig into rich emotional territory so accurately and with such reckless abandon. Ratings and controversies and hype and disappointments aside, the writers of these two shows should know one thing: You're great at what you do.

Next week: Enough with earnest, heartfelt tales! Jack is back, saving orphan boys and thwarting corrupt military regimes, in Fox's "24: Redemption"!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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