Defining Moments: Friday Night Lights
Television has a rich history of shows which have entertained, thrilled, and moved us. Some of the very best shows in television history have singular moments that crystallize that which makes them unique into a single scene. Defining Moments is a series that catalogues those scenes.
The Series: Friday Night Lights
In spite of the reputation that the NBC series Friday Night Lights has built as a cult classic, it’s actually part of a highly successful franchise (“cult classic” is just what we like to call great things that nobody watches). Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream was a 1990 non-fiction book by journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger that centered on the Permian High Panthers football team from Odessa, Texas as they made a run for the state championship. The book went far beyond the game, exploring the personal lives of the players and coaches, and the intense pressure they faced in a town obsessed with high school football and little else.
In 2004 a film adaptation was produced by Universal Pictures, starring Billy Bob Thornton as head coach Gary Gaines and Connie Britton as his wife Sharon. The film was a critical success, and director Peter Berg hoped that a television series would allow him to explore the aspects of the book that he’d had to drop to accommodate the short running time of a feature film. Neither Bissinger’s book nor the film had bothered to change the names of the people or town depicted, but on the series Gary and Sharon Gaines became Eric and Tami Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, reprising her role from the film), and Odessa became Dillon.
The series debuted on NBC in fall of 2006. Berg directed the pilot episode and served as producer (even appearing in an episode during Season Two), but the creative direction of the series was largely handled by head writer and executive producer Jason Katims. With its hand-held camerawork and natural (sometimes even awkward) performances, the show was unlike anything else on network TV. Continuing in the manner of the book and film before it, the series focused more on the relationships between the characters, building quietly powerful dynamics between them.
Which is not to say that the show wasn’t about football—Friday Night Lights featured some of the most realistic, thrilling depictions of the sport, a game that Hollywood so often gets hilariously wrong (not every block sends defenders flying across the field)—but the series used the game as a story tool to reveal the courage, toughness, and weakness of the team and the town itself.
The Episode: Season Four, Episode Five: “The Son”
Coach Eric Taylor may have been the rock-solid center of the show but, from the very first episode, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) was its stammering, humble heart. Thrown into the spotlight following the sudden loss of star quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter), who suffered a spine injury that would leave him paralyzed, Saracen managed to help lead the Dilllon Panthers to the state title. But as hard as life was for Matt on the field, it was even more challenging at home. He served as caretaker for his grandmother, who suffered from dementia, and he managed her health and household bills all by himself—his mother had split years before, and his father was serving in the Army, stationed in Iraq. His father made a brief attempt to return home and help Matt bear his burdens, but it was too much for him, and he reenlisted, leaving Matt alone again.
In the episode before “The Son” Matt learns that his father, Henry (Brent Smiga), has been killed in Iraq. As “The Son” opens, Matt watches a video Christmas card that his father recorded overseas. “We’re doing good work here” he tells his son, but offers no real affection. Matt stares intently at the screen, twirling a pen in his hand—a bundle of exposed nerves. He remains twitchy throughout the episode as he deals with how to mourn a man he didn’t know well or understand, and who left him to deal with his responsibilities.
An Army recruiter stops by the house to give his condolences, and tells Matt that, while he never knew his father, Henry had a reputation in his unit as a “joker”. Matt nearly snaps, telling the man that he never saw his father smile. Later, Matt takes Tami Taylor along with him to meet with the funeral director, and is preoccupied with seeing his father’s body. Matt asks if he can see his father, and the director advises against it. Matt begins to scan the room, looking at the coffins on the wall behind him, and asks if he can wait in the car. His girlfriend, Julie (Aimee Teegarden), the Taylor’s daughter, tries to console him, but he remains distracted. “This stuff happens,” he says, “right now it’s happening to me, someday it’ll happen to you”.
Like the series itself, its defining moment both is and is not about football. Matt’s best friend, Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Matt’s former teammate, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) take Matt to the Panthers football field to throw the ball around and get drunk. Friday Night Lights set many scenes on the field late at night, as the players either tried to forget their worries or got in some extra practice before the big game. Some of the series most light-hearted moments came on the field after hours. This moment begins with that same casual vibe, as Billy Riggins (Derek Phillips), Tim’s older brother, waxes poetic about a state championship we wasn’t even a part of. “Hey, you guys remember the state finals game from three years ago?” he asks. “There was, like two seconds left on the clock, and we had Matt “Mayday” Saracen…”
“Never has he been called “Mayday”,” Tim corrects, and offers up the nickname “Cobra”.
Billy throws the ball to Matt, yelling, “Hey “Cobra”, think fast!”, and knocking Matt’s beer out of his hand. “Why would you kill Cobra’s beer?” asks Tim.
The scene captures the random feel of small town life, where you never quite know who you’ll end up hanging out with. In past seasons, surely Jason Street or Smash Williams (Gaius Charles) would have been at the field. But now they’re off to new opportunities in other, bigger cities, and all that’s left to do is get drunk and remember the good times. But even with his friends there, even with the alcohol, Matt can’t let go. He finally unloads all he’s held inside all episode, telling his friends:
“You guys know i have to give the eulogy at this thing tomorrow? I gotta get up there in front of everyone and say good stuff about this man. And all I really want to say is, here lies Henry Saracen. His mother annoyed him, his wife couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t want to be a dad so he took off to be in the Army because that was the only way to get out of here and ditch your responsibilities that no one could call you out.”
He’s drunk and raw. His friends quiet down and watch him, concerned.
“Even if I finally did say that to him I don’t even know if I’d be saying that to him, because I don’t even know if he’s in that damn box.”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Tim says, and takes his friend to the funeral home (as usual, Tim Riggins is acting with his gut rather than his head, a strategy that will end up disastrous for him later in the season).
As they break in, they are met by the funeral director. Matt demands to see his father, and the funeral director asks if he’s sure. Matt says, “I know what we decided earlier, but now, I want to see my dad.” The director takes the boys down to the basement, a room as spartan and industrial as the upstairs is homey. Matt steps toward the casket with determination, but as he reaches for the casket he quickly pulls back.
“Is that him?”
“Yup,” the funeral director says, and protests again against Matt seeing his father. Matt cuts him short, “I appreciate that,” he says, “but please just open it.”
The camera switches to a shot from just beyond the coffin as the lid opens. It zooms in steadily on Matt’s face as it changes from determination to confusion to black terror. Here the shaky camerawork and the naturalistic performances combine to make the scene all the more real, and Matt’s terror all the more visceral. We’ve seen scenes like this before, but there has never been anything on television like the fear in Matt’s eyes. Zach Gilford in this scene, and this entire episode, is remarkable. His entire body shakes as he catches deep, gasping breaths, but his eyes remain wide open, focused on the empty void that was his father’s face. He tries to compose himself, and we see him in profile, eyes still wide. His friends are behind him, motionless and out of focus, but they are there.
Matt never finds the closure he seeks, because there is no true closure on a relationship that complicated—at least not closure that can be delivered in one big cathartic moment. Other shows would have forced that moment, or given us a cliché scene with Matt addressing his father’s coffin. But that wouldn’t be true to the show or to Matt’s character. Later in the episode Matt will break down at the Taylors’ home, and Eric will be there to walk him home and offer him the support he’s been begging for all of his life.
Friday Night Lights the franchise started with a book that tried to be as true to its subjects as possible, portraying them as people rather than heroes, and the television series held to that example. The series was written, directed, and acted in a style that made these characters feel more vibrant and alive than any ensemble in the medium’s history. This moment swings from humor to horror, packs in huge character moments, and still feels intimate.