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FALL TV PREVIEW: NBC promos take the football out of Friday Night Lights, but the series is better than ever

Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler keep Friday Night Lights glowing.

"Finally on Friday" say NBC's rebooted promotions for its ratings-challenged Friday Night Lights.

Whatever the night or approach, what we have here is broadcast TV's very best drama series. Its second season kickoff, at 8 p.m. (central) on Oct. 5, comes on a night filled with real-life high school football games. But NBC's sales pitches make no mention or depiction of helmets, cleats or any other pigskin paraphernalia.

Austin-made FNL indeed still answers to the beat of the fictional Dillon Panthers and their carnival atmosphere game nights. It's just that NBC would much rather have you ready for anything but the series' football motif. Network research and lowly Nielsen numbers have shown that most women viewers are repelled by any talk of first downs, goals to go. So let's put that out of mind as much as possible.

FNL's opening scene Friday is emblematic. An airborne football ends up on an entirely different field of play -- the community swimming pool. That's where the defending state champs and their girlfriends are lazing their way through the last days of summer. Better to show a little tanning oil applied to a bikinied beauty than liniment to a banged-up shoulder. The practice field can wait a while.

Childbirth helps, too, and this is where FNL's most valuable player comes in. She's Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), wife of former Panthers coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). He's mostly been away in Austin for the past eight months, commuting on weekends from his new job as an assistant college coach. Now Tami's ready to deliver while Eric scrambles to catch a flight back to Dillon.

Britton's performances remain a wonderment. She's simply stupendous as Tami Taylor, a blunt-spoken but hurtin' inside football widow who achingly misses her husband. What woman wouldn't relate to her? What man couldn't learn from her?

Chandler is less effusive but likewise rock-solid as a do-the-right-thing coach/spouse/father. Together they illuminate FNL with prime-time's most appealing and interesting married couple. Tami and Eric Chandler set the show's table, whether together or apart. And their blossoming, newly rebellious teen daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), isn't handling her father's long absences very well.

Lots more goes on in the sophomore season's first three episodes.

The Panthers' new coach, dubbed "The Tennessee Tyrant," is a stone cold disciplinarian who quickly puts the team's fate in the hands of brash running back "Smash" Williams (Gaius Charles) rather than still introverted quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford).

Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), whose parents are newly separated, is baptized in the name of Christ's Teen Messengers. This doesn't impress hard-drinking, chip-on-the-shoulder fullback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who sneers, "Enjoy your Jesus."

"Yeah, enjoy your depraved hedonism," she retorts.

Former star QB Jason Street (Scott Porter) is still wheelchair-bound, but intent on working a medical miracle. Nubile Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki) and awkward Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) are drawn much closer together by a shared criminal act.

The first actual football game isn't played until near the end of this fall's third episode. But you won't be missing a thing, regardless of gender. FNL is filled with terrifically played off-the-field scenes by all of its principal characters. So far it scrimps only on "Smash's" personal life, which needs to be fleshed out more in future episodes.

FNL already has succeeded -- and continues to do so -- in portraying Texas as anything but a long, tall bumpkin patch. There's really not a stereotype in sight, a remarkable feat given the networks' collective track records.

All that's needed now is you. Spread the word if you're already a fan. Get on board if you haven't been. This series already is almost too good to be true -- and it's only getting better. A few first downs are needed in the ratings, though. Otherwise NBC will be punting FNL out of its lineup, and there'll be no chance for further review.

Grade: A