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NBC's backup plan for 'Lights' kicks in tonight

In the opening minutes of tonight's season premiere of "Friday Night Lights," a sports radio critic of Dillon High Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) chides him for not having a backup plan for an injury to a key player.

Fortunately, NBC did have a backup plan for fans of "Lights," the low-rated, critically acclaimed series about life in a small Texas town where high school football is king.

The network, which now lives off reality shows, faced the reality of the show's low ratings and made a financially beneficial deal to keep "Lights" on when cancellation appeared likely.

The series will start its post-strike season on DirecTV's entertainment channel 101, four months before it appears on NBC. Essentially, 17 million DirecTV subscribers get weekly special premieres for 13 weeks, starting at 9 tonight. The satellite audience is expected to be so small that it won't diminish the network audience much, if at all.

The deal with DirecTV also enables those football fans who feast on all the pro games on the carrier's NFL Sunday Ticket package to get a midweek dose of high school ball.

That isn't to say "Lights" is a football series. In its third season, the show spotlights the best marriage on television and uses high school football as a backdrop for stories about teenagers in a town so small that many of them dream of escaping it.

Those students are inspired by their coaches, principals and teachers - and the sight of parents, brothers and others who never left and aren't exactly living an ideal, fulfilling life.

Tonight's season opener highlights the drive young people need to make a better life for themselves, especially when things look difficult. You can almost hear the late legendary NFL Coach Vince Lombardi say "when the going gets tough, the tough get going."

NBC's backup plan has lead to some roster cuts and some staff realignments. Coach Taylor, his supportive wife Tami (Connie Britton) and their increasingly rebellious daughter (Aimee Teegarden) remain the foundation of the show. Tami has been promoted to school principal, which may puts her at odds with her husband's football goals at times.

Other players returning include bad boy Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly); Tyra (Adrienne Palicki), who may have learned too late about the importance of education; Landry (Jesse Plemons), the smart, sensitive boy who has had an unlikely romance with Tyra that has helped both their egos in different ways; and sensitive quarterback Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford).

Smash Williams (Gaius Charles), last year's star running back, is in tonight's episode and will be part of a four-episode arc dealing with his postgraduation plans. Jason Street (Scott Porter), the quarterback who was paralyzed in the first-year opener, doesn't appear in the premiere but also will be involved in a four-episode, post-graduation arc.

A new hotshot quarterback and his meddling father have been brought aboard to cause potential problems for Coach Taylor and Saracen, his veteran quarterback.

The episode also illustrates that DirecTV will have a bigger impact on the show's quantity than its quality. About eight minutes longer than an NBC episode, the opener follows the usual game plan superbly, drawing emotional moments from life situations in Dillon that ultimately are much more important than football. Along the way, it delivers lessons on the importance of having a dream even if you're being told it may be an impossible one.

If you have DirecTV, enjoy "Lights" now. If you don't, be assured the wait for it to hit NBC will be worth it.

In an interview in Los Angeles, executive producer Jason Katims said he was excited that the season would be 13 episodes instead of the usual 22.

"First of all, it sort of reflects very closely the amount of games in a season," said Katims. "While we don't see every game, the ebb and flow of that season is . . . the engine that kind of keeps you moving along, kind of keeps you going. I think to have that amount of episodes works really well just for this particular show for that reason."

He acknowledged the writers are using the senior year for several characters as one theme of the show.

"I think it's just a very powerful idea," said Katims. "It's both something that . . . would lend an urgency to the stories, but also lend sort of a nostalgia, a sense of, you know, this might be my last year in this town. It's also a time like when you're in high school, you think these are the people I'm always going to be with and these are the people I know.

"It's a time when you first get that first feeling of it's a big world out there and we might be going in such different directions and become such different people. It's also very much a time of coming of age. I think it's a really interesting thing for us to be exploring." Rating: 3 stars out of 4

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