Much like an acclaimed film moving from exclusive engagements to wide release, the excellent melodrama “Friday Night Lights” (8 p.m., NBC) begins its third season on network television after a stint on Direct TV.
Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) enters a new football season under pressure from his sports-obsessed community. Many worry about his reliance on the unspectacular Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) as quarterback, particularly when a rich figure has moved into town to lobby to put his boy J.D. McCoy (guest star Jeremy Sumpter), a freshman star, in that position.
“Friday Night Lights” has always explored the town’s disproportionate emphasis on football through the foibles and the excesses of players, fans, fathers and patrons. But this season, Coach Taylor’s wife Tami (Connie Britton) finds herself on the front lines in her role as the new principal of Dillon High School. Forced to fire four teachers and faced with the complaints of a staff who regularly buy their own school supplies, Tami also entertains an offer for a giant new video screen for the football stadium, a gift from a local fan who may or may not be lobbying for a certain quarterback.
As smart, well-produced and rewarding as any program on any network, “Friday Night Lights” proves that a tightly focused look at a small town can be as entertaining and illuminating as any subject. Its documentary approach and cinematic style may leave many viewers wondering, “Wow, am I really watching something this great on network TV?” And despite some melodramatic moments, “Lights” never resorts to the lurid, or the graphic, or the gimmicky as do so many series on HBO and Showtime.
Like its subject matter — teenage angst and narcissistic jockdom — “Friday Night Lights” can take itself a little too seriously. And the show is not immune to the most common flaw of teen drama — casting actors who look far too old to be fumbling with their locker combinations. But these are minor quibbles about a show that rates amongst the best, a series that renews one’s faith in the power of television.
• “Battlestar Galactica” (9 p.m., Sci Fi) enters its final season with an episode that breaks new ground in the series’ operatic story and pushes boundaries in the depiction of adult despair in sci-fi programming. Not to give too much away here, but imagine if everything you’ve lived for, fought for and saw your colleagues die for turned out to be false, or at the very least, a fruitless venture. TV adventures tend to be about triumph over adversity and beating the odds. “Battlestar” — for this episode at least — appears to concentrate on the bitter, soul-churning taste of disillusionment. It’s a memorable experience.
Tonight’s other highlightsM
• A road trip into yesteryear hits a couple of spectral potholes on “Ghost Whisperer” (7 p.m., CBS).
• Cesar confronts two wolf-hybrid dogs with serious aggression issues on “The Dog Whisperer” (7 p.m., National Geographic).
• “True Hollywood Stories: Rock Wives” (7 p.m., E!) looks at the lives of the women who said “I Do” to members of Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Anthrax, Sevendust and Foreigner.
• Scheduled on “20/20” (9 p.m., ABC): What are you worth?