Several years ago, I visited Rome, a trip I’d been dreaming about for over a decade. I built an itinerary around seeing the city’s best ancient shit, true to my brand.
That’s how I found myself in a small underground room, part of a warren of ancient streets preserved underneath a church. I was alone with a painting of personified Pietas. Face to face. Just the two of us.
“Friday Night Lights is a TV show about you,” I whispered to it reverently.
Take Jason Street: A man who radically reorients his life around showing up for the child he conceived with a one night stand. I think often of the scene when he sings to his infant son over the phone. His macho buddies (Herc, the Riggins brothers) are eavesdropping. Street, unembarrassed, ignores them, singing both parts of a duet in alternating normal and falsetto voices. It’s so pure and dorky that you feel rude even to be watching it.
That moment doesn’t tie into anything else later. It’s just a point in a constellation: Jason Street adoring his child.
Of course, the primary locus of pietas in Friday Night Lights is Eric and Tami Taylor. Their constancy compels sincere devotion. There’s something inexorably compelling about their earnest commitment to doing good. Over time, the Taylors’ numerous mentees all begin to mimic the Taylors’ pietas. Ultimately, almost every major character arc on Friday Night Lights is an arc about learning pietas.
I could have written this essay about Jason Street. I could have written about Tyra Colette, or even Mindy Colette. I could have written about Smash Williams.
I’m writing this essay about Matt Saracen.
I would defend Matthew Saracen in a knife fight. Matthew Saracen would defend anyone in a knife fight, but most especially his grandma. He’d also prefer no knives be involved.
If you haven’t seen Friday Night Lights in a while, here’s a recap of Matty’s character beats. When we meet Matt, he’s a high school sophomore and backup quarterback for the Dillon Panthers. Football isn’t his favorite hobby, and he isn’t particularly talented, but he likes being part of a team. He’s definitely not in it for the glory – there’s no upstaging QB1 Jason Street, a bona fide star.
At home, Matt’s the sole caretaker for his grandmother, whose Alzheimer’s is rapidly worsening. His dad is part of the U.S. military deployed in Afghanistan, and his mom left when he was a kid. While Matt at different times confronts each of his parents about the ways they’ve neglected him, he doesn’t reject the burdens placed on him by that neglect. Like Aeneas carrying his father away from the ruins of Troy, Matt makes Lorraine breakfast every morning and does his best to keep her healthy.
After Jason Street gets injured, Matt suddenly becomes QB1 mid-game. This kid who signed up to be a vaguely helpful backup option is suddenly the leader of the team. Coach Taylor believes in him, even when the rest of Dillon is skeptical. Yes, of course Matt helps bring home that state championship.
Matt does all this while falling in love with Julie Taylor, much to Coach’s chagrin. Julie doesn’t date football players as a rule, but Matt gives her a necklace and it’s extremely cute. The point of it isn’t the fairly inexpensive necklace, which Julie wears devotedly. The point of it is the fumbling but determined way in which Matt sets out to acquire it, eager to give Julie tangible proof of his affection. There are five seasons of this show, and Matt and Julie have their ups and downs, but I love Matt and Julie, and Matt and Julie love each other, and that’s that.
In season two, Matt makes the briefest attempt at Being Bad. It is, honestly, adorable. He hangs out with Tim Riggins and tries to soak up the negative influence. If I were to give Matt Saracen a report card, it would look something like this:
Performance as a friend/teammate/boyfriend/grandson A+
He can’t do it. After about a week and a half of living life 20% as recklessly as Tim Riggins, Matt attracts the ire of Coach Taylor, who is (understandably) just about maxed out on the number of Rigginses he wants in his life. Coach pushes a hungover, clothed Matt into a cold shower while he yells a moving speech about pietas (not explicitly named) at Matt. It’s fantastic television. Matt cries and talks about feeling like everyone abandons him. Coach tells Matt there’s nothing wrong with him, and henceforth Matt is basically never again rude or inconsiderate.
In season 3, Matt’s senior year, freshman star J.D. McCoy takes over Matt’s QB1 slot on the Panthers’ roster. This is distressing for Matt, not because he enjoyed being the star of a popular football team, but because he wants to continue being useful. And Matty basically only knows the one way to solve problems, i.e. Work Really Hard and Care So Much.
After a few weeks on the bench, Matt asks Coach to put him in as wide receiver. But Matt wouldn’t dream of just asking; he’s already learned all the plays. After dinner at the Taylors’, Julie convinces her dad to give Matt a chance to prove himself. Matt misses the last pass Coach calls, but come on – the moxie, the dedication! Matt gets to be wide receiver.
Unlike Smash or Jason, Matt never even comes close to getting recruited to play college football, nor does he pursue it. After graduation he delivers pizza and interns with a local artist, staying in Dillon for Julie and his grandma. Only when Matt’s mom steps in to care for Lorraine does Matt leave to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. He comes back a year later, in the series finale, to propose to Julie. In a final scene eight months later, we see Matt and Julie happily living together in Chicago.
I would like to state for the record that I’d normally balk at teenagers agreeing to get married. But seeing these fictional teenagers agree to get married brings me real, non-fictional joy. Of course Matt Saracen will never love anyone as much as his first love. And listen, even if they split up later, can you imagine Matt Saracen being anything other than the nicest ex-husband? I get it. Lock him down, Julie.
Honestly, just writing this out has filled me with enough adrenaline to overturn a car. I am so proud of Matt Saracen.
So much of popular media is about disillusionment. Over and over again, we watch protagonists learn to live in moral gray areas. But while Matt grows and evolves over the course of five seasons, his heart never wavers. At the end of the show, as at the beginning, he’s still looking out for his grandma, he’s still in love with Julie, and he’s still approaching every obstacle with the faith that hard work will win the day.
Matt isn’t particularly talented or charismatic. What makes him special is that he finds a way to bring his youthful ideals into adulthood intact. He doesn’t jockey for some future position; he simply invests in what he already loves. He signs up to be a part of a team, and he works as hard as he can in whatever role he’s given. And as it turns out, that is enough.
Featured image from the pilot of Friday Night Lights, © NBC