TV Club

Week 9: Is Matt Saracen’s Grandma Like Tony Soprano’s Mom?

Derek Phillips as Billy Riggins in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.
Derek Phillips as Billy Riggins in Friday Night Lights 

There is rock bottom, and then there is drunk and half-naked on the couch with only the cardboard beer fraulein as his companion. Yes, Mindy dumped him, so Billy was forced to fold beer lady in half and seat her at the coffee table, no doubt having poured out his heart to her before he fell asleep. This episode features a few such postcards from the underside. The saddest is Tyra as Lolita, trapped in the Tropicana Motel in Dallas, sitting poolside in the rain, trying not to cry on the phone with Landry.

Back at Dillon High, Buddy has announced some good news: a national TV network (NBC—ha!) has chosen to broadcast the game on Friday night. The development allows for some nice comparisons between life on TV and life lived in Dillon. The TV type who shows up at Dillon High has slicked-back hair and speaks in a sportscaster patter, even when the cameras are turned off. Meanwhile, Lorraine Saracen’s house is looking especially like the set of a Horton Foote play. Matt falls asleep on the couch watching a cooking show that could not possibly be aired in the year 2009. The screen shot shows some flat dull brownies baked in the kind of dented pan I sometimes borrow from my mother-in-law. The camera lingers on the tinfoil holding together the antennae on Lorraine’s wood-paneled TV.

We’ve discussed before how the show intentionally locks Dillon out of pop culture or any TV references. This episode plays that up. Coach is annoyed the network is showing up, because he knows it will make the fans act like baboons and his players lose focus. Of course, they pull through in the end, only because of the commitment and fortitude of the honorable Matt Saracen.

The life in Dillon/life on TV contrast reminded me of a point Susan Faludi makes in Stiffed, her 1999 book about American manhood. The men of the World War II generation were raised in what she calls the “Ernie Pyle ideal of heroically selfless manhood.” They were taught to be brave and heroic and take one for the team. But for various reasons, they failed to pass these lessons on to their baby boomer sons. Instead they got their models from “ornamental culture”—TV, movies, and celebrity culture, which peddle a primping cartoon of manhood, unmoored from the old patriarchy.

In this episode, the Dillon Panthers and especially Matt represent the prelapsarian age, when men knew how to be men. Matt, who knows how to sacrifice, takes hit after hit, and it pays off. Those TV trucks parked outside the school and the slick newscaster represent the world outside, where everyone just wants to be famous. Eric sees them, and he rolls his eyes.

Overall, this episode was a little soap operatic and heavy on relationship drama (Tyra and Cash, Billy and Mindy, Lyla and Tim). But what saves it, as always, are the small moments—Tyra walking out the back door of that saloon, Mindy teaching Lyla how to dance. In an interview with the AV Club, Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins, talks about how much the actors improvise. This gives a certain spontaneity to the show, so that even when the soap plot veers into its happy ending, the show can breathe.

Buddy hears the knock at the door: “Let’s see. It’s not your mother, and I don’t have any friends,” he says to a hidden Lyla. “I bet I know.” Then Riggins apologizes to Lyla, sweetly, wholeheartedly, four times (most women would have buckled after three). Whether or not these particular lines were improvised I have no idea. But they pass in such a funny, lighthearted way that we let Tim’s dubious redemption slide.

The one character I’m having increasing trouble with is Lorraine. What are we supposed to make of her? Is she selfish? Manipulative like Tony Soprano’s mom? Really losing it?