A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
I still remember the night, more than 15 years ago, when I heard that my father had died. My brother called, and got straight to the point: “Dad’s dead.” Heart attack, 60 years old. We briefly talked logistics, and then the next morning I got up early and made the six-hour drive from my new home in Arkansas to my old home in Tennessee. And somewhere around West Memphis, it started to hit me. Not the tears—those would come later, at the funeral, when I touched the box holding his ashes, as it passed down the aisle of the Episcopal church in Clarksville where he’d been the priest for the previous few years. No, what hit me was the weight. In the decade-plus since, I’ve talked to other people who lost a parent, and they’ve described a similar sensation. It’s like someone places 20-pound barbells each shoulder, pressing down, for days on end. The loss feels physical. And unshakeable.
There’s a moment early in Friday Night Lights’ fourth season episode “The Son” that captures a little of that feeling. Matt Saracen’s father Henry—a career soldier—has been killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, and family and friends have gathered in the small house Matt shares with grandmother. They just keep coming, casseroles in hand, telling Matt that his dad was a good guy, who served his country honorably, and kept his buddies overseas entertained. These people knew the public Henry, who seemed affable, and looked good in uniform. But Matt knew the guy who could barely stand to be home for more than a day, and who complained every time he was on leave. As he watches people he barely knows share hugs and food, Matt turns to his girlfriend Julie and quietly asks, “How long do these things go for?”
So much about this scene rings true, from the makeshift buffet thrown together from all the meals neighbors have brought, to the way Matt senses that everyone expects something from him that he’s too stunned and exhausted to give. In “The Son,” director Allison Liddi-Brown follows the stylistic blueprint laid out by the series’ creator Peter Berg in the first Friday Night Lights episode, employing multiple handheld cameras, all capturing the moment documentary-style—with the operators encouraged to move in closer on faces and hands if there’s something going on there. And credited writer Rolin Jones holds close to what the show’s head writer Jason Katims prefers, keeping a loose enough structure to allow for improvisation, but making sure the scene has a focal point, and a least a few lines of dialogue essential to the actual story.
In the case of “The Son,” the story is about how death gets processed in our culture, at a macro and micro level. I wouldn’t presume that what happens in the Saracen home is more specific to Texas or to the American South than it is to any other part of the country (or the world). But as somebody who’s lived in Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia for most of my life, a lot about this episode felt familiar to me the first time I saw it back in 2010, and it still seems spot-on now. One of the advantages to Friday Night Lights’ doc-realism is that it holds up to multiple viewings, because there’s always something else to see through all the quick cuts and roaming cameras. Each time I watch “The Son” I feel like I’m peeking through a window—which occasionally turns into a mirror.
This episode is particularly attuned to the performative aspect of mourning. The Dillon, Texas community knows what to do. Coach Eric Taylor gathers his East Dillon football players after a game and has Matt’s friend Landry lead them all in the Lord’s Prayer. Tami “Mrs. Coach” Taylor keeps reminding Matt that it’s okay for him not to have it all together right now. But Julie suffers because she can’t make her boyfriend feel better—and, maybe, because she’s thinking about Coach, her father. (At the least, that’s what he assumes when he hugs her tight and says, “I’m not going anywhere.”)
And Matt? He tries watching an old Christmas video his dad sent, and pokes at the sympathy dinner that Tami cooks for him, but he can’t yet let go of how he really feels about his father. He strongly disliked the man—for almost never being around, and for being gruff and distant whenever he was. Matt’s sensitive and sweet by nature, so hating a person is way out of character for him. The whole experience is messing with his head—especially because he doesn’t know what he’ll do with those feelings now that Henry’s not around to loathe, even from a distance.
The Saracen funeral isn’t the only plotline in “The Son.” Three of the fourth season’s new characters—all students at the newly re-opened East Dillon High School, where Coach Taylor takes a job at the end of season three—go through crises ranging from piddly to major. Luke Cafferty realizes he needs to stop hanging out with his old Dillon High football pals, who rag on him for going to the town’s poorer school. Becky Sproles competes in a local beauty pageant, but is disappointed when her father doesn’t show up. And Vince Howard helps out some of his car-thieving buddies, so that he can make enough money to pay the bills that his junkie mother can’t. These stories could all be read as variations on this episode’s main theme, given that they’re all about family legacies and public expectations. But that’s only true inasmuch as every episode of Friday Night Lights works these veins.
Really, the most on-point non-Saracen scene in “The Son” is the one that seems most unrelated to the rest: It’s a sequence where Vince receives a player-of-the-week award at a pancake breakfast. Besides some typically fine Friday Night Lights touches—like Vince scoffing when Coach Taylor asks him if he’s seen the newspaper that morning, and Vince asking why a pancake breakfast is being held at 1 p.m.—the award scene also contrasts a football player from a rough part of town with a slicker Dillon quarterback who’s been groomed his whole life for these moments. A big part of this show has to do with young people learning what’s expected of them as they grow into young Texan men and women. It’s about learning how to say the right words at the right time.
That’s why I always balk a bit when Friday Night Lights fans try to persuade people to watch by saying, “It’s not really about football.” I mean, it’s not, to the extent even folks who hate sports can and do love this show. But at the same time… It is about football. And not in a “metaphor for life” kind of way either, but in the sense that Friday Night Lights looks at how the mentality of a football-mad culture pervades every aspect, from the fetish for militarization to the premium put on discipline and submitting to authority. The entire town of Dillon thrives on the ideal of “playing the right way.” A lot of the drama on the show has to do with how someone like Coach Taylor can believe in the fundamental truths of that way of life—and can try to instill a deeper idea of right and wrong—even as he’s smart enough to see that the system is cruel, inflexible, and even stagnant.
One of the best scenes in “The Son”—and one of the series highs for Connie Britton—illustrates how the Taylors both work with and stand up to flawed institutions. When Matt goes to make the funeral arrangements for his dad, Tami tags along, and listens patiently while the mortician runs through all the line-items in his contract, explaining that there’s no reason to worry because the Army will cover the costs. When Matt gets distracted by the thought that his father’s body is somewhere in that building, Tami sends him back to the car to look after his grandmother, then turns to the funeral director and says, “With all due respect, does that boy look like he can pay $9,000 to bury his father? You look me in the eye you tell me Veterans Affairs is going to pick up a $9,000 bill. We need to start over from the beginning.” This is something that Tami Taylor did often on Friday Night Lights: smiling politely while men try to make plans (and line pockets), and then stepping in to say, “Nope.”
In an interview with Alan Sepinwall after Friday Night Lights wrapped, Katims talked a little about how he and his team were able to capture performances like Britton’s in that scene—and Zach Gilford’s as Matt, for that matter.
The vocabulary of how we shot really allowed us as an audience to really get inside this world in a way that sometimes you don’t. Sometimes a lot of filmmaking doesn’t allow you to be as intimately there in the space with these characters as our show did. And also the filmmaking style allowed the actors to expand on what was in the script and improvise and live in these moments, and never know when the camera was on them for the close-up, or whether it was on them at all. They never knew, and that was really a part of it. They were able to exist in the moment and not have to think about the artifice of what they were doing. They didn’t have to worry about the technical part of being an actor at times and free themselves to be inside the moment.
Even though Friday Night Lights always does feel very much like a television show—full of melodrama and artificial plot twists—it also comes across like something the actors are still doing out in Texas, whether the cameras are on or not. Gilford, not long after “The Son” aired, told Movieline that the longer he worked on the show, the easier it was to fall into that rhythm of life/not-life.
I’ll never forget this weird experience when I was giving the speech at [Saracen’s] father’s funeral, and I looked out over the crowd and it was all the cast, all the people I’ve worked with for so long. It just struck a chord… Those relationships that we have with each other are so established that it’s just second nature now.
The scene Gilford’s referring to comes at the end of “The Son,” when Matt has to deliver a eulogy for his father. Earlier in the episode, while getting drunk with his buddies on their old football field, Matt breaks through the usual funny Friday Night Lights improvised banter and gives the eulogy he says he’d like to give, about a crappy dad who was never around. But on the day, he stands up and does just fine, telling an amusing little anecdote about Henry getting mad a grocery store, and then closing by talking about his service. It’s almost like Matt falls back on instinct, repeating words he’s heard other people say, that he knows are appropriate enough.
What’s clever too about Matt’s eulogy is that, in a way, he does give the speech he talked about on the football field. He tells a story about his dad acting like a petulant jerk to his family about something trivial, and then he says that Henry spent most of his life out of the country, abandoning his son. Matt just spins those details so that they sound warmer than they’re actually meant.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, Rolin Jones said that a lot of what he wrote in “The Son” came from his own life. His father died after they hadn’t spoken to each other in about 15 years, and while everyone at the funeral was offering fond reminiscences, Jones could only think about all the negative things he wanted to say. He couldn’t deny his personal reaction to the situation, even though he knew it wasn’t anything anyone wanted to hear about in that moment.
It can be a very strange time, when a parent dies. Acquaintances rush to tick off all the boxes on the sympathy list, but for family members who live on, there’s a sudden, intense awareness that time is short, and that every bit of unfinished business can’t possibly be wrapped up before the last shovelful of dirt goes into the hole. But “The Son” ends on a shot of Matt with a shovel anyway, putting the last public touch on this particular chapter of his life. Once everyone disperses, he’ll still have a lot to carry. That’s a common experience. And it’s something all his own.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Sanford And Son, “The Piano Movers”