Why Matt Saracen on Friday Night Lights is the best boyfriend on teen TV
QB 1 forever.
The world of teen TV is littered with bad boyfriends (even when we love them, they're often needy man-children — hi, Dawson ugly cry). But there's one guy with clear eyes and a full heart who just can't lose.
I'm talking, of course, about QB 1, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the greatest high school boyfriend to ever grace the small screen.
I know what you're thinking — but aren't Tami (Connie Britton) and Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) #relationshipgoals? Unequivocally, yes. And what about Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), the man who elevated peering out from behind a curtain of hair into high art? But while we'll love Riggins forever, that bad boy with a heart of gold is not exactly ideal dating material.
High school relationships, as a rule, are imperfect. We're all figuring out who we are, what we like, dealing with the anxieties and pressures of being a teen and trying to decide what to do with the rest of our lives. But that's what makes Matt Saracen so great. He conveys the weight and challenges of that authentically, while still always striving to do the best he can.
From the first snap, he's not your typical teen heartthrob. He's shy and nervous, artistic and sensitive, but in a way that feels genuine rather than carefully cultivated to make you want him. When he first strikes up conversations with Julie (Aimee Teegarden), he references Jackson Pollock as one of his favorite painters (and yet, this man is a star high school quarterback).
He's written this way, of course, but Zach Gilford, who portrayed Matt for five seasons, is also an essential part of Matt's appeal. Gilford plays Matt as a bit of a mumbler, understated and always slightly unsure — especially when it comes to girls. He lends Matt a mellow energy that underscores his big heart and the abundant love he has to give. In a less skilled actor's hands, Matt could read as standoffish or painfully shy and awkward, but Gilford grants him a quiet, gentle non-toxic masculinity.
Perhaps Julie sums up his appeal best herself: "He's Matt; he's not a football player." No shade to football players, but that's what makes him dreamy — his refusal to buy in to jock culture or believe his position on the team should entitle him to a hot cheerleader. Ninety-eight percent of the time.
Take, for example, his first attempt to have sex with Julie in season 1. It's Julie's idea, one of those "all the cool kids are doing it" things. How many times have we seen that play out poorly on television? Or turn in to an after-school special? Here, Matt assents because he wants to make Julie happy, and, well, he's also a teenage boy.
But as it becomes evident how uncomfortable Julie is with the prospect of actually doing the deed, he tells her, "Let's not do this. We don't have to." That's a level of emotional maturity, respect, and consent we rarely see from teen TV boyfriends. Particularly because it also shows the complexities of Matt's desire — how he wants her but is also really not ready either. When so much teen TV fixates on teens obsessed with sex, it's a refreshing take.
That emotional maturity is, in part, because Matt has had to grow up a lot quicker than other kids. Abandoned by his parents, he's been raised predominantly by his grandmother — but by the time we meet him, he's more of the caretaker than she is.
Matt's first date with Julie is interrupted by a crisis with his grandma (Louanne Stephens), prompting him to return home and sing an adorable, off-key rendition of "Mr. Sandman" to her through her bedroom door. This is the moment Julie first falls for him (and if you haven't yet either by this moment, it will seal the deal); it's the first time she sees what she calls "the real Matt Saracen."
This is the core of who Matt is and what makes him a fantastic boyfriend. He puts everyone but himself first. Even in later seasons, when he briefly buys in to the QB myth or lashes out by getting drunk with Riggins, it's out of a sense of abandonment, rather than ego or narcissism.
Sure, Matt's not perfect. Who is? He makes the boneheaded choice to date his grandma's nurse for a spell. Worst of all, in season 4, he leaves Julie for Chicago without saying goodbye. But even that is complicated — he decides to stay in Dillon for Julie, which only makes him miserable and when she confronts him about it, it prompts his exit. Later, he admits to her that he knows he never could have left if he tried to say goodbye. Romantic as hell? Yes. Still totally not cool? Also yes.
But when Julie goes to Matt in Chicago, he prioritizes making room for her in his life again. Typically, I hate shows that end with high school characters getting married or engaged (LIVE SOME LIFE FIRST, KIDS, GEEZ), but in the case of Matt and Julie, it makes sense. It's the perfect button on the story of a kid just looking for someone to choose him, to love him, to stay.
Because he took the time to figure out who he is and what he wants and how Julie fits in with that — and even before that, he was kind and thoughtful, the type of boyfriend you never expect to see on a high school show. He's believably clueless (like when he tries to make Julie a CD mix as an apology and Tyra advises him to step up his game), but puts the effort in where it counts. While Riggins is drinking more beer than any high schooler has ever consumed in history, Matt is working at Alamo Freeze and making his grandma dinner.
He's the guy who shows up for you no matter what. He might be a little awkward about it, rubbing the back of his head as a nervous tic, but he's got your back. Even if it's going to run the risk of pissing off Coach. He's not afraid to tell you he loves you, to admit to his mistakes, to support you through a rollercoaster of ups and downs even when you're making life choices that make the viewing audience hate you (cough, Julie, cough).
In a TV landscape littered with teen TV boyfriends complaining about the friend zone, lusting after manic pixie dream girls, and foisting their expectations on others, Matt Saracen is a Hail Mary pass. Uncommon in general, even more rare for it to work.
He's a nice guy who doesn't require quotation marks around the words. Gilford's shyly sweet performance makes Matt heartbreakingly real, a down-on-his-luck kid just trying to do right by the people he loves — and rarely taking it out on others.
While it's fun to lust after Riggins (how can you not?), Matt Saracen really should get more love for being the best boyfriend on teen television.
QB 1, yes, but also, No. 1 in our hearts — and Texas — forever.
Read more from I Want My Teen TV, EW's summerlong celebration of teen shows past and present.