Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“I Think We Should Have Sex” (Friday Night Lights, season 1, episode 17; originally aired 2/21/2007)
In which Julie Taylor thinks she and Matt Saracen should have sex…
Todd VanDerWerff: When I was in high school, I had a girlfriend I got fairly serious with. It wasn’t to the level where we were picking out china patterns or anything, but there were those moments when you’d allow your mind to drift and think about, hey, it might be fun to be with this person for the rest of time. And once that starts happening, then you also start to think about taking the physical relationship to another level. I don’t know if my mom sensed this or knew what we were up to or overheard one of our phone conversations or what, but one day, on the way back from some appointment, she told me at length how TV and movies wanted me to think having sex was “just like having a sandwich,” but it wasn’t. It was more serious than that. It could mess you up.
And, yeah, that’s true of a lot of entertainment. Sex is often the destination in our romantic storylines, and every teen drama is expected to do a big storyline about a character losing their virginity, often in soft mood lighting with lots of emotional buildup and a gentle denouement. And there’s nothing wrong with this, really. The less sex seems like a weird, closed-off thing for “adults,” the easier it will be for teenagers thinking about having it to get actual good advice from adults they trust, instead of their peers. (Lord knows if I’d been turning to my high-school friends for advice, things could have ended very differently.) But I also like the idea that losing your virginity shouldn’t just be this casual thing, as it’s so often depicted on TV. There are a million ways to lose your virginity, but for most people, it carries some sort of resonance, I should hope.
What I like best about this episode of Friday Night Lights is the way that Julie Taylor keeps trying to talk herself into having sex, and everybody around her can sort of see that’s what she’s doing, but they also don’t know how to back her away from the decision she’s come to. She’s decided it’s time to have sex, and, hey, Matt’s not going to say no, even if he’s as uncertain as she is. There’s a wrenching, desperate quality to much of the episode, something that goes along with the show’s overall tone. My friend Matt Zoller Seitz once described the show as the television equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen song, and it remains my favorite description of the show to this day.
I really enjoyed losing myself in Dillon, Texas again for this installment. I hadn’t seen this episode since it originally aired, and while I had some solid memories of individual scenes—like Tami raising her voice at her daughter’s oh-so-casual attitude about sex or Julie asking Matt to cover up the deer so it wouldn’t stare at her—I didn’t remember how it was all put together. I had forgotten that Tami’s outburst comes so early in the episode, so her attitude hangs over everything that comes after, and I had forgotten the other subplots here, including Tim Riggins coming to realize his old man is no good all over again and Buddy Garrity’s relationship with Tyra’s mother crashing and burning in a way that tears two families into pieces.
But there’s good reason Julie and Matt’s relationship is the centerpiece of my memories. For one thing, it’s the centerpiece of the episode, with the most time given over to the two dancing around the question of having sex. For another thing, much of the emotional weight of the episode—and this is a series that’s able to conjure emotional weight out of thin air at times—is centered right on top of these two. And it also helps that the story is a rare one where two teens decide not to have sex. There have been others like this in the past, but since the late ’80s, teenagers usually end up in bed together. That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, kids just decide to wait. (And it’s worth pointing out that Matt and Julie do eventually consummate their relationship. It just takes another two seasons to do so.)
What I liked best about all of this, though, is how seriously it takes the emotions of the parents as well as the kids. It correctly sizes up Julie’s bluster and Matt’s uncertainty, but it also gets that for as much as Tami is telling her daughter what she believes to be the truth about how sex can leave her bitter and cynical, it’s also Tami shouting because she, herself, isn’t ready to be the mother of a daughter who’s sexually active. It’s a giant bridge into adulthood, and it’s somewhere that Tami can’t control the variables. Letting Julie go means letting her make her own calls—good and bad—and that could mean horrible, crushing failure as easily as it means success. Tami’s not just vocalizing the worst-case scenario for Julie; she’s vocalizing the worst-case scenario for herself.
I was somewhat surprised to find how prominent the parents were here, even as the teenage storylines were just as important as I’d remembered. Or maybe I should phrase that another way: I was surprised to find how much more I empathized with the parents than the teens this time. Must be getting older.
What about you guys? Did you think the show took the easy way out of this storyline? And were you more interested in Julie’s side of the story, or Coach and Mrs. Coach’s? And do any of you have more to say about all of the subplots?
Ryan McGee: I was one of those terrible, awful people that didn’t watch this show when it originally aired on NBC, instead only catching up in a wild burst between seasons four and five. While I loved the pilot dearly, it wasn’t until this particular episode we’re discussing today that I got what everyone else I knew had been praising. I enjoyed the interplay between its various characters, but there was something ham-fisted about its plots that got in the way of its interactions. (Smash’s steroid use and the lawsuit against Coach Taylor were both things I chose to surgically remove from my memory.)
For me, this episode is all about that outburst you describe, Todd, even if I once again felt protective of No. 7 to a degree some might describe as “unhealthy.” But given how much the fifth and final season turns Friday Night Lights as a whole into the story of how Tami Taylor found her own voice in this football-crazy world gives an episode like this retroactive weight. The outburst in question starts nine minutes into the episode, which is Friday Night Lights in a nutshell: Rather than put off the conversation until just before the final act break, it puts Tami and Julie in a room immediately after Tami sees Matt buying condoms in the supermarket. As much as the camerawork helps sell the illusion that we’re watching a documentary rather than a scripted drama, the ways that the denizens of Dillon converse also helps makes us forget we’re watching actors. Every pause, every choked syllable, every restart of a sentence pulls us further into this show.
We’ve already seen a gorgeous father-daughter scene by this point in the show’s run, in which Coach and Julie have a chat about boys while playing a game of ping-pong in their garage. Here’s the counterpoint to that scene, one that demonstrates how two parents can love a child equally yet have very different roles to play in raising them. Tami couldn’t have that ping-pong scene any more than Coach could have this one. Both have important parts to play, but each has a time to shine. Tami gets hers most prominently near the end of the show’s run. But she also has a glorious burst here in the show’s first season.
Erik Adams: Dillon’s a perfect place to wrap up this particular theme, because it’s a town that’s ruled by adolescents; the mood and self-worth of the West Texas town is determined by the victories and defeats of a group of teenage boys. In that regard, it’s refreshing that Julie, not Matt, is the character who delivers the episode’s titular line. “I Think We Should Have Sex” flips the teen-drama script by having the female half of the relationship broach the topic at hand (and, given Julie’s pragmatic, “It’s just one body part going into another” logic, I think “broach the topic” is exactly how she’d put it.)
Elsewhere, there are other kids playing adults and adults acting like kids; though they’re parts of longer serialized plots, the material with Riggins and Buddy ties in nicely to Julie’s feint toward adult situations. (Billy Riggins’ refrain as he rescues his brother from the pool sharks: “He just a kid, man.”) Yet it’s a definitively mature statement from Matt that serves as capper and bookend to “I Think We Should Have Sex”—the episode and the statement in its title alike. There are no signs of strain in Zach Gilford’s voice as Matt tells Julie that he loves her, and the reply comes much easier from Aimee Teegarden as well. To pivot off of that observation from Zoller Seitz, if Friday Night Lights was a John Mellencamp song, the quarterback and the coach’s daughter wouldn’t be Jack and Diane. They’re not hanging on to 16 (or 15) for as long as they can, and the final, crucial choice of the episode cements that.
Noel Murray: As the father of two children who are edging closer to adolescence than infancy, the thought of what happens when their hormones take hold is terrifying. I remember being a teen, and I remember fooling around with my first girlfriends. And while I also remember that jumping into sex isn’t a decision that teenagers take as lightly as adults seem to think they do—that step from heavy petting to the actual act is a really, really big one—I also know that being in the heat of passion with another person is one of those rites of passage into adulthood, and away from the parental pod.
Todd, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that Tami doesn’t want to be the mother of a sexually active daughter. It’s not a matter of social embarrassment necessarily, or of all those fears she outlines to her daughter about pregnancy or being hurt. All of that is partly the cause of her anger, sure—as is Julie’s flippant attitude when Tami uses the phrase “making love”—but all of that is also symptomatic of a loss of control, as Tami later puts it to Coach. Whether Julie has sex or not, she’s already begun her journey out the door, toward looking to other people for guidance, comfort, and joy. If anything, the tentative exchange of “I love you”s between Julie and Matt is a more profoundly intimate moment than any coitus could’ve been.
I hadn’t watched this episode since I roared through the first season on DVD to get ready for the second, and like the rest of you, I enjoyed coming back to Dillon. (I even liked the trips to Applebee’s, a piece of product-placement that I never minded, since it seemed true to the town and its people. Also, I’m an ex-Applebee’s server myself. Bourbon Street Steak 4 Life!) It was interesting to remember those days when Coach Taylor had resources, and to see the Riggins’-dad storyline play out, just as so many other “prodigal papa returns” would in the FNL seasons to come. And of course it’s always a treat to see the realistic interactions of Coach and Mrs. Coach, two people with strong values and codes of behavior, who in some ways try to play parent to an entire town full of teenagers, but find it hard to raise their own daughter.
Donna Bowman: God, it’s good to be back in Dillon. This show tears my heart out, it’s so beautiful. And a lot of it is that peculiar beauty of adolescence, of awkward in-between-ness, of potential and infinite import and go-for-broke insouciance. Viewed through the lens of our theme, this episode seems to show how much of that spirit (and those problems) persist well past our high-school years. Just look at the way Jason Street and Lyla Garrity handle a touch of the ol’ long-distance relationship, with Lyla wanting to lie on her couch for hours with the phone murmuring in her ear, and Street being dragged to a “par-tay!” while assuring her that “it’s no big deal, just some of the guys getting together.” Just look at Buddy begging Eric for help with his infidelity situation, explaining that he might have mentioned being unsatisfied in his marriage “in the heat of passion,” you know how it is.
And then there’s the impotence of parents forced to wait and see what their children choose to do. I love the way Coach hauls off and starts calling around to find Julie, the same way that he marched up to the Riggins’ door to find the missing camera. Some problems are not susceptible to the direct approach, but we use the tools we have in our toolbox. When we run out of options, we stew and steam and try to figure out whom to blame. But that’s the thing about children. Nobody gets the blame or the credit for them, much as we’d like it to be different. The question turns out to be the same as the one about turning the corner into a sexually active world: the question of trust.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: To expand on something Todd wrote: A big part of the charm of Friday Night Lights is the way it manages to straddle the generational divide, treating the emotions of both the kids and the parents with equal respect, and sometimes with equal degrees of (affectionate) mockery. When we talked about The Wonder Years, I mentioned that it’s a show I was never crazy about, despite the general consensus that it was one of the best shows of its era. (For most of its run, it might well have been. We’re talking about a period when the face of original series programming on HBO was Brian Benben.) A big part of my problem with it was summed up by the way that the actors who played Kevin Arnold’s parents seemed a good bit older than they needed to be and seemed cartoonish in a way that flattered viewers’ memories of their own parents having been sexless and middle-aged since the day they were born. A trace of that persisted even in a show as smart as Freaks And Geeks, as if part of the point of having a show about teenagers was to pick a side and see the rest of humanity as not quite fully human. But a Martian who’d never seen FNL before could have trouble figuring out whether this show is about the grown-ups’ point of view or the kids’. It sees them all as more or less equal members of the community, and taking part in this TV roundtable has brought home for me how unusual that is in series TV.
Eric and Tami Taylor are the closest thing Dillon has to JFK and Jackie, circa 1962. They’re a sexy couple, and they’re smart and sensitive, but they occasionally come unhinged when their kids are concerned. (At this point in the series, Julie is an only child, but given their position in the community and the limitations of some of the other adults, both Eric and Tami are always playing surrogate parent to somebody, which helps explain why Coach can never feel completely comfortable about the romance between Matt and Julie; on top of everything else, don’t they know they’re practically siblings?) It’s a measure of how comfortable Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton were in their roles—and how well the writers understood how to use them—that the show could make fun of them in a parental-crisis situation like this and not totally undercut their authority. The expression on Britton’s face when she’s just sitting there waiting to see what her daughter looks like after being defiled is up there with the scene in the final season when Matt sashays into Coach’s office and gives him the good news that he isn’t losing a daughter so much as gaining a son. (Chandler looks as if he’s trying to decide whether the heart attack he can feel coming on will kill him before he can make it to the other side of that desk with the letter opener.)
It’s funny, but because we’ve seen Tami get it together just enough to explain to Julie that what she’s really terrified of is that her daughter will be hurt, and because we’ve heard her say that the most important thing to her is that Julie always be able to talk to her, it’s sweet, too. So, in its way, is the eternal adolescent Buddy hearing Coach’s advice that he “take care” of his wife and family as an edict to dump his girlfriend and then go home and confuse and alarm everyone by molesting Mother Garrity while she’s attempting to make supper. And the scene of Matt and Julie collapsed on the floor together trying to decide whose feet are grosser may be the most romantic scene of two young people not having sex after all that’s ever been broadcast on network TV. What links the young lovers and the parents is what the wise man said about the movie business: Nobody really knows anything.
Meredith Blake: The thing that strikes me most about “I Think We Should Have Sex” (fair warning: I’m going to use that title as much as possible in the next few paragraphs) is how, as Erik put it, it flips the script on the usual teen-soap scenario by making Julie the one who’s eager to get rid of her virginity. I appreciate this willfully counterintuitive approach, and the blunt way Julie brings up the whole sex subject; instead of protracted scenes of Julie and Matt making out in a parked car somewhere until they finally have The Sex Talk, Julie drops the bomb just before dashing out the front door to meet her mom. (A nice little contrast, isn’t it? Julie’s too young to drive but is ready to have sex—or at least likes to think she is.) Julie’s information dump is funny, but it also rings entirely true. Adolescence isn’t just about experiencing new things, it’s also about learning how to talk about them, and God knows the second part of that equation is often harder than the first.
I’m also struck by Julie’s (feigned) sexual bravado, which, though something of a rarity for fictional teenage girls, seems very much in line with the deeply conflicting set of expectations young women are subjected to these days. Julie wants to seem like she wants to have sex even though she doesn’t actually want to. As a former teenage girl myself—albeit one who, unlike the fair Julie, rarely ever found herself the object of adolescent male lust—this confusion seems all too familiar.
Now, at the risk of being pilloried by this show’s passionate admirers, I must admit I find FNL’s signature visual flourishes—the handheld camerawork and all those extreme close-ups—a tad distracting. During Tami’s confrontation with Julie, for instance, I found my mind wandering to subjects like Connie Britton’s skincare routine and whether the eye shadow she was wearing was green or gold. But there are also moments when the show’s distinctive, verité style effectively glosses over some of the more writerly contrivances, like Tami’s rather too convenient run-in with Matt at the drug store. So I guess it’s a wash.
EA: In a wonderful bit of serendipity, my path crossed with Zach Gilford this week, thanks to the Television Critics Association Press Tour. (Gilford participated in Fox’s day of the tour, promoting his turn in the upcoming primetime drama The Mob Doctor). What did he remember about “I Think We Should Have Sex”? “So many times on TV and in films, it’ll look like someone has a Budweiser, but if you look close it says ‘Hudenheigen,’ or whatever,” Gilford said. “So all of the condoms looked like a LifeStyle box, and it was the funniest name: Inconceivable. So you get in there, and you see it for the first time, and you’re like, [Makes surprised face.] ‘Okay, okay.’ Aimee and I were really more like brother and sister than anything else, so it was almost like, ‘Oh, thank God we’re not having sex. Because that would be awful.’”
NM: “Inconceivable” is a great name for a condom brand, not just because of the birth-control pun but because, as I note above, that leap from “not having sex” to “having sex” can seem almost impossible to a virgin.
RM: Hearing this theme song again felt like… coming home. I can’t describe why it makes me feel that way. I’m from Boston. Lived in New England my whole life. Yet hearing those guitar strains sent me home again. Lord, I miss this show. (And somehow I hope the long-proposed movie never, ever happens. Am I alone on this?)
EA: Here’s a homecoming feeling of a much more literal sort: My time in Austin, Texas overlapped with four of Friday Night Lights’ five seasons—though I didn’t start watching the show until I was preparing to leave Austin. That timing and the many, many Austin landmarks that stand in for Dillon made my first viewing all the more poignant, and the fact that the capital city is allowed to play itself in “I Think We Should Have Sex” conjured plenty of Shiner Bock-clouded, Texas Chili Parlor-scented memories. Fun fact: As Herc introduces Jason to the grungy strip of bars that make up the city’s Sixth Street entertainment district, the camera just misses the Hannig Row Building, the home of The Onion and The A.V. Club’s original Austin outpost. (We later moved to a spot on South Lamar, just a cue ball’s throw away from the Broken Spoke, where Tim receives his cathartic beatdown in the final act.)
NM: Coach’s chilly glare at Matt in church is just perfect, especially given that we now know that their relationship will evolve toward something warmer, if never exactly a father-son kind of thing. I still remember Coach’s none-too-enthused reaction when Matt asks for Julie’s hand in marriage in the finale. Classic.
RM: My all-time Matt-Coach moment: The end of season two’s “Leave No One Behind.” It almost makes the season as a whole worth watching. Emphasis on almost.
NM: It’s a shame that the Friday Night Lights actors haven’t yet had as much post-show success as they should’ve. It looks like Jesse Plemons may end up being the biggest star to come out of FNL, judging by how awesome he was on the too-short-lived Bent, and how good he looks in the trailer for PT Anderson’s upcoming The Master. (Also, he’s going to be on Breaking Bad this season, which should be good.) But while I wasn’t a big Taylor Kitsch fan when I first started watching the show, he’d really won me over by this point in the series. That little “good luck to ya, 7” that he tosses off after Matt talks about crashing his grandma’s car the first time he drove is one of the funniest moments in a show that’s frequently funnier than it gets credit for being. If he’d been more like that in John Carter, that movie (which I very much like) might’ve been a bigger hit.
PDN: Thanks in no small part to the unchallenging nature of his movie roles so far, I’d almost forgotten about Taylor Kitsch’s special knack for making lostness and emotional devastation seem cocky. There’s a shot of him here, looking like a fallen angel as he smirks at the man he hopes will beat him up, where it occurred to me that it’s going to be one of the great lost opportunities of contemporary culture if somebody doesn’t throw together a remake of Midnight Cowboy, pronto, just so Kitsch can play Joe Buck. (“And Shia LaBeouf as Ratso.”)
PDN: I hadn’t seen this episode since it first aired, but now that I’ve looked at it again, I can see that Todd had good reason for selecting it besides the obvious appeal of using that title as the subject line in mass email to A.V. Club contributors. (Funnily enough, one thing that’s happened since “I Think We Should Have Sex” was originally broadcast is that I married my high-school sweetheart, or rather the woman who would have been my high-school sweetheart if she’d been willing to date the teenage version of me when we knew each other in high school, which, to her enormous credit, she was not.)
PDN: Maybe the best line ever spoken by a TV parent during an argument about who has or hasn’t fatally screwed the pooch where the offspring are concerned: Tami’s “You know, you and I have the exact same amount of experience being parents.”
MB: I am so with Julie when it comes to the term “make love,” which should be illegal for everyone who isn’t a character in a Woody Allen movie.
NM: I get what you’re saying, Meredith; “making love” is such a corny way to put it. But Tami clearly says that for a reason. Julie wants to pretend this is all clinical—not too different from jabbing a finger into someone else’s ear—but Tami knows that if Julie has sex with Matt, it’s not like screwing some guy she picked up in a bar. Matt’s her boyfriend, and there are feelings involved, no matter how Julie imagines it. This is Tami’s last-ditch effort to get Julie to understand what sex with Matt really means. I wonder if she’d use that phrase in everyday conversation; I kind of doubt it.
Next week: The Roundtable takes a seven-day rest before charging forward with its next theme: “Competition.” First up: Gilmore Girl’s heart-wrenching, pulse-quickening, foot-blistering dance-marathon episode, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?”