Kyle Chandler

Few rites of passage are more heart-rending than preparing to say goodbye to a loved one — and naturally, I'm referring to a TV show here. Specifically, Friday Night Lights, a miracle of a series about big-hearted people in small-town America. Each chance to visit feels like an emotionally wrought homecoming.

Never more so than now, as the fifth and final season gets underway on DirecTV, which rescued the show from the NBC ratings dumpster and gave us three extra seasons to savor life in Dillon, Texas. (NBC will air these 13 episodes sometime in 2011.)

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Things aren't so much winding down as winding up, as the quietly inspirational football coach Eric Taylor (the charismatic Kyle Chandler) and his spitfire wife Tami (Connie Britton, warm and witty), now a guidance counselor again, continue adjusting to the challenge of shaping futures and earning respect for an underfunded Underdog High called East Dillon. (Their tenures at the relatively plush Dillon High didn't end well.)

Life goes on with poignant realism, meaning that endearing characters like the Taylors' daughter Julie and the lovably quirky Landry are college-bound, each farewell weighted with a sense of promise but also an aching loss for what's being left behind. In their wake, a new generation of Dillon youth takes center stage with a fresh agenda of hopes, burdens and seemingly insurmountable personal hurdles.

One of the newer newbies, recruited as he displays his (uh oh) basketball prowess, dares to dismiss football as "stupid," something that celebrates "the worst instincts in American culture." (Has he seen the ratings for NFL games lately?) Coach Taylor wastes no time in setting him straight. "What football celebrates is teamwork and character if executed properly. ... You live in Texas now. You love the game of football and you just don't know it yet."

What's not to love in Friday Night Lights? This is a place, and a show, I will never want to leave. It feels like family. But we're lucky to have been given this much of their story. Underdogs to the end, these are my TV heroes.

Friday Night Lights premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on DirecTV's 101 Network

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