Matt Saracen is Back, Ya'll

Zach Gilford’s new show, “Midnight Mass,” isn’t very good. Luckily, “Friday Night Lights” still is! (Well, season 1.)

Warning: Light spoilers for “Friday Night Lights” and “Midnight Mass”

Last week, as my partner and I were scrolling through Netflix looking for something to watch, he suggested, to my horror, that we try something scary. Our relationship has included just two forays into the spooky genre, due to me being a bona fide scaredy cat. The first, a misguided viewing of “It Follows” in 2017, involved a spontaneous weeping intermission followed by a second half watching with the light on. The second went slightly better. After deeming its predecessor, “The Haunting of Hill House,” too scary, we watched “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” A genuinely chilling first few episodes were followed by just enough exposition to dilute both the show’s spookiness and tension that I got through it, nightmare-free, and overall, really liked it. 

So when my partner suggested Netflix’s latest offering from the team behind “The Haunting” shows, I was like, hmmm, maybe. I read this very useful article, “Is Midnight Mass on Netflix Scary?” and concluded I could handle it. Then I did a quick Google and saw the cast. Then I saw that Zach Gilford was in it.

Zach Gilford, AKA Matt Saracen, AKA the most lovable teen football player ever, from one of the early aughts TV’s greatest television offerings, “Friday Night Lights.” I hadn’t thought about the show, about a small town in Texas that lives and breathes high school football, in a while, though it played an embarrassingly formative role in my teen years. 

I was immediately onboard. And for the first few episodes, I thought “Midnight Mass” was great. Gilford plays Riley, a recovering alcoholic and prodigal son returning to his small, deeply religious hometown, Crockett Island, after spending four years in prison for a drunk driving accident that killed a young woman. Each night, Riley is haunted by the woman he killed, something he grapples with in conversations with the mysterious, charismatic new priest in town, even though Riley is adamantly not a believer. How can there be a God in a world that let Riley live and the innocent woman he crashed his car into die?  But these interesting and deep questions about religion, morality, and mortality grow plodding as the episodes wear on, and each approximately hour and five minute episode runs about 20 minutes too long. 

There’s also a miraculous recovery of a wheelchair-bound character, a pet peeve of mine, though this one was in the context of a show about actually supernatural events, making it slightly more forgivable. But that’s the first of many more missteps, and by episode 4, I was so tired of the endless unnatural monologues and there wasn’t much mystery left. As Yolanda Machado put it in the Observer:

“For a series that wants to examine zealotry, it sure is preachy! Not just in the Father’s sermons, either. Throughout the series, it felt like Oprah showed up on set one day and exclaimed to everyone, ‘And you get a monologue! And you get a monologue! And you, you get TWO monologues!!’”

After a promising set-up, the show pretty much went off the rails by the end. It was overall a disappointment, but did have some highlights. Beyond Gilford, the show also features Rahul Kohli, who I’ve been a fan of since his work on the criminally underrated CW show, “iZombie,” and also appears in “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” Though his American accent is questionable, his acting chops are not.

After finishing “Midnight Mass,” it was inevitable that I would return to the comforting salve of my adolescent years, FNL. At too many moments during “Midnight Mass,” I’d tried to explain to my partner my specific affection for Matt Saracen, which he, being a straight adult man, did Not Get. Matt is a shy, mumbling sophomore and second-string quarterback, who lives with his grandma, who he takes care of, while his dad is deployed in Iraq. After the superstar first-string quarterback, Jason Street, is paralyzed in a football injury, Matt is the unlikely candidate to fill his very large shoes. The show follows Coach Taylor, his wife Tami, their daughter Julie, and the players on the football team, and Matt’s crush on Julie is just so awkward and so cute.

As a teen, the first season of “Friday Night Lights” was meaningful not just to me, but also to my family, for its nuanced portrayal of its protagonist, Jason Street, the star quarterback who gets paralyzed from a football injury in the first episode. When the show came out in 2006, there were few disabled protagonists on television, especially in wheelchairs. The first season follows Jason as he comes to terms with what’s happened to him, and all the ways large and small he has to adapt to his new life. And so seeing his character not shunted to the sidelines or miraculously cured meant a lot, even though it’s by no means perfect. (I’ll write more about some of the best disability representation I’ve seen on television in shows like “Speechless” in another post.) 

There are a number of other ways that “Friday Night Lights” was ahead of its time in how it tackled political and interpersonal issues. Though it figures more so in the book it’s based on, much of the tension of the show is implicitly underpinned by the economic depression of Dillon, Texas, which used to be an oil town. In the wake of the oil boom, many of the characters in the show are struggling economically. To help support his family, Matt, for example, works at the Tastee-Freeze and is responsible for caring for his grandma in addition to going to school and playing football. 

There are also powerful plotlines that call out racism, sexism, and conservative and Christian hypocrisy throughout the series, elevated by the strong writing and acting on the show. There’s also the wonderful relationship between Coach and Tami Taylor, and the development of Matt’s crush on Julie. As a Guardian article put it, “The show presents characters and actions without fuss or judgment. Instead we are dropped into a small town and shown what it is like to live there. That trust in the audience and the writing pays off: when quarterback Matt Saracen struggles to cope with his ailing grandmother, or the cocky running back Brian Williams considers the price of making it in football, we truly fear for them.”

Of course, there are some annoying teen soap opera tropes (e.g. 26-year-olds playing high school students, a murder plotline), that are even more grating to watch now. Interestingly, as a teen I liked Matt but was obsessed with Tim Riggins, the sexy almost-30 year old bad boy alcoholic who sleeps with Jason’s girlfriend, Lyla, like three seconds after he gets paralyzed. I have no explanation or defense for this other than my raging teen hormones and that they are both very hot. 

But now I know better. So I guess I have “Midnight Mass” to thank for bringing me back to my one and only teen and forever crush, Matt Saracen, who Mashable calls “Just the sweetest boy, quite possibly the best grandson of all time” in its “definitive” ranking of FNL crushes. (I put definitive in air quotes because it ranked Tim higher than Matt, an abomination on par with when the Panthers lost state!)  And as recently as May 2021, EW published an article about why Matt was the best boyfriend on teen television ever, so no, I am not the only adult woman to write a post this dumb this year.

What I’m Watching/ Recommendation of the Week: I’ve been watching “The Other Two” on HBOMax, a hilarious celeb culture-skewering comedy that first aired in 2018 about what happens when your kid brother becomes an overnight pop sensation. It’s like a mix between “Difficult People” and “Broad City.”