Sports have provided an endless wellspring for metaphors about life in print and on video. Winning and loosing, the value of hard work, how teamwork makes everyone better, and how luck plays a role in just about everything – are the stuff of sports and life. Sports dramas when well executed do a crazy thing; provide a respite from the world while simultaneously offering insights into that world at the same time.

Friday Night Lights, a book about West Texas High School Football, became an excellent film, and is now one of the best series on Television. IMDB gives it an 8.8 out of 10 making one of the highest rated series of all time. Season Four begins Wednesday on DirecTV repeated on NBC in early 2010.

Sports, High School, and small town Texas living could combine to be one train wreck of a TV show. Let’s face it, the track record is less MASH and more Dangerous Minds in terms of movie/TV adaptation. In the hands of writer/producer Peter Berg, however, his movie-turned-series has defied all the cliches to become one of the finest series ever exploring those topics.

More than anything, FNL has an uncanny ability to communicate serious and authentic emotion. Anyone watching can’t help but feel for the characters of Dillon. While much of the emotion is intrinsic to the setting – where locals vacillate between staying in Dillon or reaching beyond themselves for something better -most of the empathy arises from the terrific cast of characters.

The writers do a great a job providing situations that explore these tensions and resolutions that go beyond the ordinary. With a high school football game on the line each week for a town whose religion is high school football, the temptation is to wrap every show up with a winning touchdown in the final seconds. Not the case for this show.

FNL has tackled spinal injury, Alzheimer’s, Gulf War shock, accidental homicide, rape, race, cultural differences, business failure, steroid use, and what has become its bread and butter, personal decision making by conflicted teens. All played out with tact, insight, and a grace  providing an almost faultless ring of honestly.

Teens decide who to date, when to break up, and whether or not to engage in premarital sex. These teens also decide if they should study or have fun, and if they should pursue eduction beyond high school. Some of the best episodes explore one of these issues from all sides. The journey of Smash Williams from injured superstar, to rehabilitated walk-on is one of the shows finest arcs that brings all these struggles into focus through one character.

While much of the credit has to go to Berg and his writers, it is the actors – mainly through their eyes – that the story is told.  Every look, pause, and glance matters. Snuffy Walden’s atmospheric score adds just enough background for the actors to achieve their pathos.

There are too many excellent characters in this series. Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Buddy (Brad Leland) are two you’ve never seen before – rich supporting characters portrayals that never cease to surprise (and delight) the viewer.

The moral center of the show flips between too-talented-for-his-own-good Riggins (Taylor Kitch)  and the Taylor’s; Coach (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton) are a town force to be reckoned with. Chandler and Britton also provide the most realistic marriage seen in any drama. They struggle, have different opinions on important topics, work too much, don’t talk to each other for days at a time, but in the end always make up. It’s obvious they love each other. It’s both a revelation and an inspiration — much like the whole show. Meanwhile Riggins struggles to escape his small town roots that have left his older brother uneducated and riddled with problems. You root for him to grow up.

You really need to see this show.

Go out and rent/buy season one on DVD and watch at least four episodes.  You will be hooked, and find yourself plowing through the other two seasons, also available on DVD.

In the meantime be sure to set your DVR to record season 4 which begins tonight on DirecTV.

Go Panthers!