Friday Night Lights isn't a glamorous show. It's filmed as if it's a documentary. None of the characters have lives that are so picturesque or removed from reality to the point where viewers cannot relate to them. Even the most central characters have been given raw deals in life. Riggins was practically raised by his brother. Becky's mom is clueless, and her dad is out of her life. Vince's dad is not present and he is the one who often has to take care of his mother, who has a substance abuse problem and forgets to pay the electricity and water bills. And they deal with their situations in real, believable ways.
It's also a show that fearlessly tackles complex subjects such as race, disability, and even war, in ways that are neither maudlin nor conventional nor clichéd. This week's episode epitomized both the show's grittiness and its realness.
As critics and fans alike have noted, no one has had life throw more screwballs at him than Matt Saracen. He's been the one character whose life didn't revolve around football—in part because he's been busy growing up and figuring out life on his own. His father and mother weren't around and he has had to grow up and learn life's lessons on his own while also being the man of the household and taking care of his grandmother, who has dementia. Saracen often walks around as if he has the world on his shoulders because he so often does.
So when Saracen learns that his father he latently despised passed away in Iraq while serving his country, he just does not know how to deal with it. He's confused, as he should be. You wonder if you should feel sorry for him because his father died—or because he is placed in the unenviable position of eulogizing a man he did not like and thus potentially being phony, which is antithetical to Saracen's very being.
When a uniformed officer describes his father as being "humorous," Saracen lashes out because such a description is inconsistent with his image of his father. He jokingly wonders whether he should give his father a mock eulogy and later admits to the Taylors how much he hated his dad (see clips below). He feels compelled to peek inside the casket and is horrified at what was most likely an unrecognizable visage of his father.
Ultimately, he comes to see in his dad what those who may have known his father better saw. He finds meaning and honor in his service. His eulogy is perfectly and maturely delivered, lacking not only the bitterness that he felt towards his dad but also the false and phony sincerity that is often a staple of such speeches. Long after the funeral is over and the guests have left, Saracen works up the courage, grabs a shovel, and cathartically heaps dirt on his father's grave.
Life doesn't always work out for these characters in Dillon, Texas. But we root for these characters because of their imperfections. We identify with them because of their struggles. We empathize with them because they don't have all the answers and are often confused by the tumult in their lives. And it's all believable. And in this sense, this show is more realistic than so-called reality shows, and that is its ultimate appeal and draw. This episode symbolized this unlike any other episode in the series.
Friday Night Lights recently started a campaign to get noticed by EMMY voters. They should just send voters these three Zach Gilford clips from this week's episode. His performance was raw, riveting, real, and powerful, with extreme range and depth. It was one of the better performances I have seen on the small screen in some time:
Saracen mocks his dad in this scene, sarcastically saying if he should say in his eulogy that "his mother annoyed him, his wife couldn't stand him, and he didn't wanna be a dad so he took off to be in the Army...and all he left behind is a mother with dementia, a divorced wife and a son who delivers pizza."
When the Taylors invite Saracen to dinner, he has an emotional breakdown and confesses to the Taylors that he hated his dad and part of why he hated his dad was so he didn't have to hate anyone else and be a good person to everyone else in his life.
In his eulogy, Saracen recounts some funny moments between his dad and his grandmother. He tells the audience that though his dad left his family to serve his country, missed his birthdays, and missed him growing up, Saracen ultimately grew up (Matt has always seemed more mature and different than his peers. He's that character who realizes, unlike many in his town, that there is life outside of Dillon and beyond football).
He then finds the ultimate meaning in his dad's life: even if he hated his father for not being there, that his dad was paying the price for the freedom everyone gets to enjoy—and often take for granted—when he says that because of servicemen like his father, "we all get to grow up and have our birthdays, and that's something to be proud of."