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Inspired by dad: How the Detroit Lions made it into 'Ozark'

Ryan Farley needs to get away as part of his writing process. Sometimes it's as easy as pulling up his Detroit Lions hoodie and getting to work. Other times he needs a full escape, going from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe when he's on deadline to finish his script.

He'll sit in bed, notebook out, and start to write. Which is where the idea of mentioning his lifelong favorite team in a script came to be.

Farley, 41, was writing on the Netflix show "Ozark," penning the fourth episode of Season 2. One of the characters, Buddy Dieker, is a former union rep from Detroit who settled into the Ozarks late in his life. It's there, in the life of the show, where he met the Byrdes -- the series' main characters -- and allowed them to live in his house as long as he could remain in the basement until he died. He became close with the Byrdes on the show, and when Buddy was close to death, Farley happened to be writing the episode.

That gave him an opportunity to mention the Lions in one of Netflix's most popular shows. As Dieker, played by actor Harris Yulin, is preparing to die from heart failure, he has a conversation with Marty Byrde, Jason Bateman's character, talking frankly about death.

"It is what it is," Buddy Dieker says on the show. "It's like watching the Detroit Lions sucking."

The line hit. Farley, who grew up in metro Detroit, didn't know if it would make it into the show. He had seen lines cut before -- it's part of the process of writing and editing and then video editing -- but he was hopeful. The showrunner, Chris Mundy, liked the idea. The editing process continued. The line remained.

Then Farley received a text from a friend while the scene was shot. The line was read. Farley had managed to get the Lions into the show in a way that felt very authentic to his own feelings of Lions fandom.

"I feel like Lions fans feel that," Farley said of his "Ozark" line. "I feel like as a group we feel like that. That goes back to when I was a kid growing up and me and my dad would watch the Lions every Sunday. And my dad would say things like, ‘I wouldn't let [former Lions coach] Wayne Fontes walk my dog.'

"S--- like that. Just this idea of they are going to blow it, they are going to f---ing blow it. So you just kind of grow up in this culture of one playoff win in 60 years or whatever it is now and I'm glad people are like, ‘Yes, we feel that way.' Because I just want them to stop sucking so bad."

This isn't the first time Farley has worked Lions references into his scripts. He mentioned them in the "One Fall" episode of "Cold Case" in 2010 -- when he had Danny Pino's character, Scotty Valens, tell a former pro wrestler "it must have sucked being the Detroit Lions of wrestling" -- and "The Way Things Are" episode of "Low Winter Sun" in 2013.

"If it works, it works," Farley said. "But it's not like if I'm writing a show set in Oklahoma, the characters aren't going to be talking about the Lions."

It worked here, too, because of the connection between Farley and his father. While the Lions line receives the attention in the scene between Bateman and Yulin, it's what happens after, when Buddy complains about his beard itching, which was the real sentimental point of the scene for Farley.

It's because he lived almost the exact same scene -- minus the Lions advice -- with his father, who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. The night before his father died in 1997, Farley shaved him. They talked. And it was Farley's father who got him into the Lions in the first place, so the symmetry seemed to fit.

"That was such a profound moment in my life that I already had familiarity already working through some of that stuff," Farley said. "And so you know, my dad was a huge Lions fan and would say things like that. There was very much that sentiment of that. So, I'm almost certain that's the inspiration. Like my dad didn't say that the day before he died, but so much of my love of the Lions and my exasperation of how much they suck comes from watching them with my father.

"So to transpose that relationship on to that scene was just straight out of a literal moment in my life. That's probably the most important part of it from an emotional standpoint. But I don't talk about it a lot because I really am super flattered and think it's great that everyone is like, ‘Yeah, he said what Lions fans feel.' I'm like, ‘Oh, that's cool.' But it's also this other thing, too."

The family had season tickets for years, until Barry Sanders retired in 1999. Farley was in the crowd in 1993, during the Lions' most recent home playoff game, sitting in the upper deck of the Pontiac Silverdome when Sterling Sharpe caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre to give the Packers a 28-24 victory over the Lions.

When Farley moved to Los Angeles after college in 2005 to try to become a writer, he went to pubs to watch the Lions play. He now watches them every week on DirecTV and calls following them "a 365-day-a-year sport." He planned to go to Las Vegas for the NFL draft until the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans.

It is COVID-19 -- and the world looking to binge-watch television shows while people are stuck at home -- that helped bring "Ozark" more into the national consciousness. So people got to watch Farley's episode again, along with a second Lions reference in Season 3, Episode 2 -- a script Farley didn't write because he's not part of the show this season.

When the character Ben Davis, played by Tom Pelphrey, said, "Detroit Lions, I thought Marty had better sense than that," while picking up a piece of paraphernalia, it was somewhat of an homage to the character of Buddy, who died in Season 2, and also to Farley. The script was written by Farley's friend Martin Zimmerman, and it gave the show's writers a chance to shout out their former colleague.

It also came as a surprise to Farley, who didn't know the line was coming.

"They were like, ‘Oh, that's for you. That's a shoutout for you,'" Farley said. "That was awesome. It was really sweet, actually."