Friday Night Lights does the slow burn so well.
That's the best stab at a segue into what makes FNL so "critically adored." (Its return to network TV was last week, after the full season ran on DirecTV.) Characters' emotions come out the same way you would expect it to in real life. It's the iceberg analogy: The show keeps seven-eighths of the emotion hidden until an appropriate time.
A slow burn is tough to bring across on TV. No doubt Mad Men pulls it off, but that's for someone else to say. Friends who are FNL devotees have often said they can relate Dillon, Texas, to any number of small Canadian towns where everything rotates around junior hockey (a subculture which has never been fictionalized particularly well).
A great case in point of how in the season opener came when a mortified Tyra Collette, the femme fatale played by Adrianne Palicki, watches her mom and older sister Mindy, a stripper, dance closely with some questionable dudes at a questionable bar. It ends with Mindy's boyfriend, Billy Riggins -- older brother of Tim Riggins (the Taylor Kitsch character), getting up on stage so he can drunkenly propose marriage.
It was supposed to represent trivial people, but there was no gawking or look-down-the-nose judgment. Watching it, as someone who grew up in the country, there was the sense that someone who works on the show gets that vibe. They've seen the desperation of a dive bar at closing time. They might have attended the Texas equivalent to a buck-and-doe, which in rural Canada is a party that's held to raise money for a couple who's getting married. (Generally, they tend to be all-time pissups.)
Any other show would have had Tyra make a face and stomp off on those long legs of hers. In the FNL universe, she stayed put, but you could read her like a book, the sense of someone seeing her future if she didn't get the hell out of Dillon.
Someone who grew up in a major city, which is most of us (especially in Canada, a country of big cites) might not fully understand. Those who have that background might not want a reminder of that decrepit Hooterville where they were raised.
Obviously, there is more to FNL. Others who write professionally about entertainment can better talk about its acting, how its characters don't come from affluence or wealth, unlike most popular prime-time dramas and how there are real consequences for bad decisions. One gets the sense that Smash Williams' situation, a former all-everything running back with a bum knee working at an ice cream parlour, is more commonplace than the media would ever care to let you know.
For a fan, the show is on such a level that reading the plot summaries on IGN.com (not to mention the spoiler for Season 4 hinted at by Variety, assuming there is a Season 4) before the series came back on network TV was practically a requirement.
For one thing, it allows one to zero in on how the actors and writers are going to pull it off. Secondly, it opens up awareness to the show's subtleties. Like The Simpsons, one is rewarded for paying attention.
For instance, in the season debut, Riggins/Kitsch goes to the ice-cream parlour to talk Smash/Gaius Charles into not giving up football. There's no hints dropped that in Season 1, there was tension between the white fullback and black running back(mostly personal, perhaps somewhat racial). Viewers are expected to know.
During the scene, there's a close-up on Smash standing behind the corner, and in front of him is a placeholder with the number 20 on it -- his jersey number. It was there, if you cared to notice.
It happened again in the final scene. The Panthers had just won their opening game. There was a postgame party, drinks flowing, band playing (both kinds: country and western). Riggins was telling Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly's character) that he didn't mind if she didn't want to come out as a couple. Prim, proper Lyla, the one-time one-half of the school's power couple going out with Riggins, who was best friends with her ex, Jason Street? It would not do.
Lyla, won over by Riggins playing the role of the concerned guy, moves in for a kiss. The shot switches to an overhead view and as the band twangs, "help me find my daughter," there's Buddy Garrity, Lyla's dad, standing there slack-jawed because he's been watching the entire drama unfold.
That alone is not going to make you check out the show. Most people make up their mind about a show in its first season, although thankfully advances have meant that's no longer possible. For a fanboy type, though, it illustrates FNL's appeal -- you want to know what's coming, just to be able to notice the little nuances.
And you're waiting for the next slow burn to hit its boiling point.
Why Matt Saracen got surly (Slate)