TV Club

Week 5: It’s Official—Matt Saracen Has Broken My Heart

Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.
Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights 

Smart mail from a reader named Josh about FNL’s popularity, or lack thereof: He points out that the show got not a single ad spot during the Super Bowl, when NBC had a captive audience of many millions of football fans. If you’re right, Meghan and Hanna, that on-screen complexity and the taking of hard lumps explain why FNL hasn’t found a mass audience, then the character who is most to blame is Matt Saracen. Watching him in this last episode nearly broke my heart. The QB baby-splitting went poorly, as threatened. Dillon won the game, but barely, and when Matt walks off the field and the world around him goes silent, as if he were underwater, we know that he’s done.

Coach Taylor drives to Matt’s house (plenty of peeling paint here, to contrast with the McCoy mansion) on the painful errand of demoting him. Coach doesn’t say much, and nothing at all of comfort: For all the ways this show adores Eric, he regularly comes up short on words and compassion at crucial moments. (Another bitter, not-for-everyone layer of complexity.) Matt doesn’t say much, either. He just looks stricken. When his grandma and Shelby ask Matt whether he’s OK, he tells them yes. Then we watch him stand by the door outside, 17, alone, lonely, and cut up inside. It’s a scene that makes me want to wall off my own smaller boys from adolescence.

As I muttered curses at Coach Taylor, my husband reminded me that players don’t have a right to their spots. J.D. has the magic arm. Matt just has heart and a work ethic. State championship or not, he’s been revealed as the kid who only made QB 1 because of Jason Street’s accident. Matt sees it this way himself: He tells Shelby as much in a later scene. What kills me about this narrative is that it’s too harsh. Matt has been a smart, clutch quarterback. And yet his self-doubt is inevitable. By stripping Matt of his leadership role in the middle of his senior year, Coach has called into question the whole arc of Matt’s rise. (Even as Coach knows as well as we do that this is a kid who’s got no one to help see him through the disappointment.) Ann, I love your points about Eric and Tami over on XX Factor, but though Eric is prepared to lose the JumboTron fight, he sure isn’t prepared to risk his season. Or, more accurately perhaps, the Wrath of the Boosters that would come with benching J.D., win or lose.

The big question now is whether Matt has lost his job for good or whether there’s a cinematic comeback in his future. The realistic plot line would be for J.D. to succeed at QB 1—or succeed well enough to keep the job. That would make Matt’s story that much more painful but also pretty singular. I am trying to think of a sports icon from movie or TV who falls and stays fallen so that the drama isn’t about redemption on the field but the quotidian small moments of going on with life. The Wrestler might be such a movie, though I doubt a grown up Matt Saracen will have much in common with Randy “The Ram” Robinson. At least I hope not. A parlor game: Who are these FNL teenagers going to be when they grow up, if the show’s ratings were ever to let them? Does Tim stop drinking long enough to open his own construction company? (He’s got Buddy’s sales line down, anyway.) Does Lyla leave Dillon for college and become a radio host? And what about Matt, whom I mostly picture as a gentle father throwing a football to his own boys?

If I’m being sentimental—and I realize I’m so absorbed by Matt’s troubles that I’ve ignored Julie’s tattoo and the four stooges’ house-buying—the show this time isn’t. After Eric’s visit, we see Matt and Landry pulling up to school in the morning, just as they did when they were sophomore losers in the beginning of the first season. Matt looks out his window and sees J.D. Landry looks out and sees Tyra with Cash. They’re back where they started two years ago.