By Ken Tucker
Updated January 05, 2008 at 06:53 PM EST

In a new strike-era TV landscape littered with trash like The Biggest Loser and American Gladiators, it’s good to know NBC is still forced to show something excellent on its air: Welcome back, Friday Night Lights!

The return of FNL got off to a bumpy start, what with the mini-tornado that probably used up the struggling series’ special-effects budget for a full season and proved to be just a silly excuse to get Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch, pictured) to shelter Julie (Aimee Teegarden) in his arms. And as far as those flirty scenes of Tami’s sister Shelley (Jessalyn Gilsig) making goo-goo eyes at Tim go, I agree with Tami (Connie Britton) — ewwww.

But, hey, you put a lanky-haired, downright affable Riggins in a house with women, and at least a couple of them are bound to start fantasizing, I suppose. (And did you see him playing with the baby in the opening seconds? A great touch: a hard-case like Riggins makes a thoroughly convincing softie for a cute infant.) Riggins’ new living-arrangement in the Taylor household was a blessing early in the hour, when Coach Eric (Kyle Chandler) was feeling that it “evens out the gender teams” a little. Later, of course, Riggins’ presence would become a curse.

But before we get to that, there was a lot of good stuff. Icompletely enjoyed all the rough rivalry between the Dillon Panthersand the Laribee Lions team, especially when Eric slammed the Lions’coach against the wall. (And, come on, you have to admit it —”Smashhole” is a believably adolescent insult to make against GaiusCharles’ beloved Smash.)

More crucially, I really liked how the push and pull of theattraction between Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki)is playing out. It made dramatic sense to me that, now that Landry’srole as protector and keeper of the Death Subplot We’re All Relieved IsOver has come to an end, Tyra would be reevaluating her feelings abouther witty dork-turned-boyfriend. Her line, “You make me feel too much,Landry,” delivered by Palicki with perfect delicacy, was right on theemotional money for a girl like Tyra, as was Landry’s shrewd speechabout Tyra’s self-esteem problems, problems he’s become frustrated inhelping her solve. This is FNL working at full power, with tender complexity.

(May I also add that I admired the regional authenticity of ahigh-school “formal” dance at which both hip-hop and Charlie Rich‘s1973 country hit “The Most Beautiful Girl” would so be played?)

As for the final scenes involving Tim and Julie: man, what aterrific series of reactions that provoked. I nearly cheered my TVscreen when Riggins, acting like a surrogate big brother in noticingJulie was getting drunk and hit-on, took the kid aside and said simply,devastatingly, “I’ll end you.” You almost saw the blood drain from thatlittle punk’s face.

But then, of course, it was a real heartbreaker when Tim broughtdrunk Julie home, and as he was putting her to bed, Eric came in andmisunderstood what he was seeing. The father’s rage was totallyunderstandable, yet I’ll bet most of you felt as I did — damn, Rigginscannot catch a break. And the bad luck that haunts the Tim Rigginscharacter is one element that makes Friday Night Lights the opposite of its network’s higher-rated fare — FNL is really NBC’s biggest winner.