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'Friday Night Lights': Zach Gilford on the future of Matt Saracen, the series

October 14, 2008 |  4:47 pm


After having a starring role for two seasons on “Friday Night Lights,” Zach Gilford has grown accustomed to being on a television series that doesn’t exactly promise job security. But now, even if “Friday Night Lights” is able to score another season, Gilford may have an even longer wait to find out if he still has a spot on the roster.

His character, the shy, hardworking, midlevel talent Matt Saracen, is a senior. In its third season, and first as a partnership between DirecTV and NBC, “Friday Night Lights” has started to transition some of its gradating class off the show.

Former high school star Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles) only has a couple of episodes left. Jason Street (Scott Porter), the once can’t-miss quarterback who became paralyzed in the series opener, has yet to be seen in Season 3.

But if this, the shortened 13-episode season of “Friday Night Lights,” ends up being Gilford’s last with a major role -- Gilford says he hasn’t gotten a straight answer from the show's producers -- it’s at least one that’s giving his Saracen prominent placement. One of this year’s key story lines, in which a freshman quarterback wins the hearts of the fictional Texas town of Dillon, subsequently stealing a bit of Saracen’s confidence, gets some much-needed tension in the this year’s third episode.

Gilford’s character, thrust into the spotlight when Street was injured, gradually became the coach’s pet. But all the coddling in the world doesn’t mean a thing when the entire town starts demanding that Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) give the untested natural, J.D. McCoy (Jeremy Sumpter), the starting role.

Although this is one of the show’s more football-focused subplots, “Friday Night Lights” manages to bring in larger issues of class. McCoy comes from an obscenely rich family, one that hires him a personal quarterback tutor, whereas Saracen is scraping by. Saracen rapidly has to become a parent to his grandmother, who is drifting into dementia. (And previously on "Friday Night Lights": In this season’s second episode, Saracen was forced to seek out his estranged mother to get a signature granting him emancipation.)

One might also be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the series than Gilford. He’s a tough critic, openly talking about his least-favorite storyline (the one in which Saracen dated his grandmother’s nurse, Carlotta Alonso, played by Daniella Alonso). Yet moments later, the Midwest-born sports fan is also eager to report that "Friday Night Lights" is no longer all about "murder and sex," and starts comparing his character to the Chicago Bears’ hit-and-miss Kyle Orton.

The Evanston, Ill.-native, and Northwestern University grad, took some time last week to chat with Show Tracker about the third season of “Friday Night Lights.” He offered some hints of what to expect in coming episodes, and a plea for the series, which is being shown now on DirecTV and will air in 2009 on NBC, to be renewed. His argument: The “Friday Night Lights” average of 6.2 million viewers last season, according to Nielsen Media Research, doesn’t look all that bad in the face of declining television viewership.

So a plot question first. We saw your character seek out his estranged mother in the second episode, but that was a rather quick scene. Does Saracen's mother return, or was that it?

No, she’s going to be there throughout the season. I sought her out, and later she kind of shows up in town, and we go from there ... She tries to come back and tries to help out a little in my life, but I’m a little hesitant. It’s not like she shows up and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a mom now.’  I never really quite accept it.

That's good to hear. Characters have a way of creeping back in on "Friday Night Lights," and that seemed like an odd story line to not revisit.

That was something that was kind of interesting. I talked to the directors and the writers about that. We shot that first scene, and I said, ‘So what happens? Why did she leave?’ I didn’t know anything.

As the scripts have been coming in, I’ve started to learn a little more what the story was. That’s something that’s difficult with a show like this. It’s not like they have the whole season written. They have ideas in their heads, but they haven’t figured out every little detail. ... When I first saw that script for when I go to see her, I didn’t know how present she was going to be this season. She’s fairly present. She’s in a fair amount of episodes.

What about the nurse, Carlotta, do we see her again?

She never comes back. At least that I’ve seen.

I have to confess -- that was my least favorite "Friday Night Lights" sub-plot.

Yeah, that was totally lame. It was interesting for a minute -- kind of, maybe, for a little. All the shows about high school kids are about who’s having sex with who, and yadda yadda yadda. That’s not very interesting.

How did you feel going into this season? Were you worried that so much would be crammed into just 13 episodes?

There definitely has been. You worry that you’re not going to be able to flush story lines out as much, where they’ll just kind of happen and you’ll be done with it. With 22 episodes, it gives you a chance to really get into things. But the scripts have been good. I think they’ve been way better than last year.

What makes you say that?

For a show that prides itself on being very authentic and real life, all it was [last season] was murder and sex, which you can see on pretty much every show on TV. But a lot of the characters are seniors this year, so a huge thought on their mind is college. Then with Mrs. Taylor [Connia Britton] as principal, there’s the issue of having no money for education, but having plenty of money to give the football team a $1-million stadium, and that is a problem in many of these Texas schools. So these are real-life things that actually go on, and I think it makes the show a little better.

When you talk about being disappointed in last season, was that something you were aware of while the show was filmed, or something you came to later, after hearing people's reactions?

I could tell. I was a big fan of the show the first year. I, ultimately, was disappointed with the story lines last year. Season 1, we were critically acclaimed but we didn’t have the ratings we would have liked, so it seemed like they were trying to make it sexier and flashier and draw in a bigger audience. That didn’t work. Our numbers didn’t change at all. I think they kind of realized that.

This season has definitely brought back a focus to football and community issues. One plot point, with you and and J.D. McCoy, hasn't really heated up yet. I imagine there will be more tension there as the season progresses.

The thing is, and I think it’s interesting, is that Saracen got the job not because he was the best man for the job, but because Jason Street got hurt. He was the only option. He wasn’t God’s gift to football, but he worked hard and was serviceable. He’s a good quarterback, but he’s not the kind of guy who you think, ‘He’s going to win the game for us.’

I’m from Chicago, so I kind of liken him a bit to Kyle Orten, someone who works hard and probably won’t lose a game for you, but is no Brett Favre. Then we’ve got this new kid who is like that, who is Tom Brady. He’s just this amazing quarterback. So it kind of rattles Saracen a little bit. The whole town is pushing the coach to throw this kid in.

With the DirecTV deal, "Friday Night Lights" is kind of an experiment this year. Have you gotten a sense of what will be considered a success with this new deal?

I don’t know. ... No one has really explained to me what makes it a good investment for DirecTV, or what we would need to do in the spring for NBC to feel we’re worth keeping around. But NBC is not doing well this year, and all of a sudden one of their biggest shows, ‘Heroes,’ is coming in third or whatever. That’s a show with a huge budget. We cost them very close to nothing, since we’re an inexpensive show to produce, and we’re splitting the budget with DirecTV.

Hopefully our ratings can stay around what they’ve been the past two years. Honestly, if they do, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to bring us back again.

And NBC will wait till the shows is rebroadcast on the network in 2009 to decide whether to bring it back.

They’re going to wait till May. Every year we find out the week-before upfronts. We’re done the week before Thanksgiving. I’m going to go home and enjoy the holidays with my family, and hopefully get some other work to concentrate on while I wait to find out what’s going on with the show.

But even if the show is picked up, will you be back? Your character is a senior.

They’ve talked to me very generally about their ideas. I don’t want to say I was worried, but I was curious, with the Street character and the Smash character leaving the show.

So does that mean I’m leaving? I’ve never really gotten a straight answer. If nothing else, I’ll hopefully have one of those arcs like they did. But it’s a show about high school football. Once we’re out of high school, it’s going to have to transition somewhere.

--Todd Martens

Photo: NBC