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New players fill set of 'Friday Night Lights'

Dale Roe

I walk onto the "Friday Night Lights" set on reporter day. All over the dilapidated East Dillon High football field, actors dressed as reporters wait to film scenes in which they will interview coaches and players. Meanwhile, I interview the actors portraying those coaches and players. It's a little meta, but what the heck — we all get to eat off of the same craft service cart.

I'm talking with "Lipstick Jungle's" Matt Lauria, drafted by "FNL" to play Luke, East Dillon's new heartthrob, when an official-looking guy holding a clipboard and wearing a headset walks up. Is he real or is he an actor? Your guess is as good as mine.a

"What's your name?" he asks me.

"I'm Dale."

"Who are you playing?" he inquires.

"He's playing a reporter," Lauria jokes.

It actually takes a short while to explain to him that I really am a reporter and I don't play one on TV.

"That guy," Lauria says, pointing to clipboard headset fellow, "he's fired." He laughs, and someone guarding the door to the locker room set — filming is taking place inside — tells us to quiet down. "You can see just how serious things are around here," Lauria laughs.

Actually, I can see how serious things are on the "FNL" compound ... when the camera is rolling. In between shots, though, when star Kyle Chandler (Coach Eric Taylor) is discussing a scene with the episode's director, or when filming has to stop to wait for a commercial jet to roar out of earshot (non-location filming takes place right across the highway from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport) it's all fun and games. These team players really are team players.

Filming a television show, it turns out, is not that different from working in a newsroom. Smart, creative, dedicated people surround you; you're working under tight, stressful deadlines. I'm trying to remember, though, the last day I spent in the newsroom where everybody was so darned happy.

"This is great. This is the best crew," Chandler tells me. He's a good actor, but I can tell that he means it. "That'll be the hardest thing about the ending of this show — saying goodbye to the people. I mean, you don't really say goodbye, but it's just been great. So I don't even think about it too much. I'll wait until the 25th episode and start worrying about it."

Chandler's got a while to wait. Thanks to a bargain with satellite provider DirecTV — whose 101 Network gets to air the episodes in advance of NBC, which will not air the show until late spring or early summer — the show is guaranteed two more 13-epsiode seasons (the first of these started Wednesday night).

Big changes are in store for the show this season, especially for Chandler's Coach Taylor, who was maneuvered out of his dream job leading the near-champion Dillon Panthers and plopped into a far less glorious East Dillon coaching gig.

"Yeah, he's going from riches to rags, " Chandler explains. "It's the phoenix out of the ashes. And, let's see ... my wife is still at the other school, my daughter's getting older — that's trauma enough for any man. So there's lots going on."

Though his character begins the fourth season angry and frustrated, the actor couldn't be more thrilled about the changes.

"Well, it's fantastic because you love obstacles. You don't like to go to your job and everything's the same and simple everyday, and for actors it's the obstacles. This has presented a whole new world of obstacles to the character. He's almost a whole new character. He has to re-establish a whole new system of getting things done," Chandler says.

He enjoys the opportunity to perform with the show's new actors in spite of — or, probably, because of — the challenges that opportunity presents.

"It's like a marriage, if you will. When you start working with someone, everyone works differently," Chandler explains. "So it's interesting to get to know someone's inner workings and how their cogs all work and go together, especially when you're doing it within these new scenes. It's like a brand-new show."

Jesse Plemons, who plays Landry Clarke, the former Panthers benchwarmer who now sees playing time on the upstart East Dillon squad, agrees.

"Man, everything's kind of turned upside down this year," he admits. "I end up going to East Dillon and, so, I'm kind of trying to figure out, you know, where Landry fits in there. It's his senior year this year and Tyra's at school, Matt is now not in school anymore, so it's kind of interesting, trying to, you know, kind of figure out where you're going to go."

Plemons says it took him a few weeks to get used to the changes (they're shooting this season's seventh episode as I visit). But, he says, "the new guys are great, and it's been fun kind of getting to do something different this year, for sure."

The new guys. That brings us back to Lauria, ostensibly brought in to be "the new Tim Riggins" (don't worry, though, Taylor Kitsch is back— and already shirtless — in Season 4). Lauria begs to differ with the generic "cocky" description his character, Luke, has been tagged with in online chatter.

"I think that Luke is confident; his talent isn't lost on him," Lauria says. "I think at the heart of it all he really wants to — he knows that this is his ticket. And, so, I think that as it's his only option, he believes in it 100 percent. I don't think there's ever any kind of apologizing about it or backing off of it. But at the core of it all he's a sweet kid with a good heart and a good moral compass." Lauria pauses and smiles. "He's not afraid to scuff it up, though."

He talks about the differences between "Lipstick Jungle" (he played Lindsay Price's gay assistant on the prime-time soap) and "FNL," comparing the football field to the battlefield. "The thing that I love so much about this that's different is that when you're fighting for something — when your character wants something — there's something so much more visceral and active about going for it on the football field. It's kind of like a war movie."

Another thing the actors share a love of is Austin. Plemons, seen strumming a guitar on a porch in the artsy Season 4 "Friday Night Lights" promo, talks about going to hear live music at Momo's and the Saxon Pub. Chandler? "I love it." Lauria, new to the city, is enamored, just as we all were when we first arrived. "I've been drinking it up," he says. Then, realizing the implications of that statement, he quickly revises. "I don't mean like that," he laughs.

Cheers, football fans! "Friday Night Lights" is back.