FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Tyra’s College Essay
This is one of those moments that make me sure in my belief that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is the single best television series I have ever seen. I know others have their favorites, but for me this is it.
A little background for those of you who don’t watch the show, but are considering it. Tyra Collete, the narrator, has had a tough life. She’s a beautiful girl who until about two years ago thought that her looks were her only ticket to something more. Her well meaning mother never gave her daughter hope she could be more than she was. Her sister, a stripper, represented everything Tyra didn’t want out of life. But thhen she had people come into her life that believed in her and she started to believe in herself. Tyra’s past mistakes put college at arms length. She was determined to make it happen despite the odds. Everything was riding on the all important college essay. After many failed attempts, her best friend Landry urged to dig deeper and speak from the heart…this was the result.
I cringed when Tyra began reading her final essay out loud: It was a little cheesy, cheesier, at least, than her fabulous outburst in the car with Landry, where she surprisingly says, "Two years ago I had enough hate in my heart to start a freakin' car." (Emily, I think she says "start," not "stop.") That sentence conveyed that power of ignition so many teenagers carry in their hearts but have no clue how to use. By contrast, her finished essay seemed more stylized, written, and less authentic. (Hmm, note to self—was Kerouac right about revision?) But I gave in, as you suggest we must, Emily. For one thing, she is 18, for God's sake. For another, for Tyra to let herself say these things is itself a development, a surprise. The language becomes surprising in her mouth. Just think back to the mouthy, sassy girl she was when the show started.
This exchange between Landry and Tyra underscores one of the strengths of the show: character development. Too often, characters on network TV change suddenly (and unbelievably) as writers search for plot twists. But on FNL, as one of our readers pointed out in a recent e-mail, there is a "fictional authenticity," an internal narrative coherence. Tyra might have started out as a slightly different character—a bad girl casually sleeping with Riggins, not valuing herself highly—but, as she points out, she evolved, and the evolution was the result of events like Street's injury and how they affected her. We could've presumed this, but we never quite knew it, and it's satisfying to come into contact with Tyra's own sense of her inner world.
I can't help feeling that Tami and Eric made the wrong decision, but I recognize they were in a bind. Here's where the show allows a pleasing complexity by not making a lesson out of the dilemma. Or if there is a lesson, I guess we could say it's this: You're screwed either way. As a public educator, if you do what the law requires you to do, a kid who should be with his family could get taken away. If you don't do it, you could lose your job (and, perhaps worse, find out you made the wrong call). I left this episode feeling that it's Katie McCoy who's in part not doing what she should be doing. Joe is a jerk and ultimately to blame, but she does not stand up to him, which has given him a sense of increased permission.
But it was the sounds and sights that touched me in this episode. Saracen and Riggins standing alone on the field in Austin being interviewed by sportscasters, empty seats looming around them like promises that can be broken. Later, the two of them walking past the Capitol building in the dark, flipping a wet Frisbee back and forth, Riggins' voice deepening as he says, "You know what I mean?" to Matt, who's asked him if he's "excited" about going to San Antonio State. (Riggins' answer: He's just trying to think about the game. He's trying not to get that far ahead of himself. What he doesn't say but we hear anyway: He's not excited. This time is one of the most important of his life. And it's almost over. He's never going to play football with such personal need again. He's going to grow apart from the girl he loves. He'll become someone who's lost the promise that's currently folded around him, promise designed to bloom briefly and fall away.)
Or J.D. bouncing off the field in pique at halftime, acting like the spoiled, privileged kid he still is. All season, I kept wondering: How on earth can J.D. become a leader—as quarterbacks must be—if he is still such a prissy poppa's boy? The downside of being told you're talented your whole life—the downside of private coaches and tutelage—can be that you have no sense of generosity. J.D. believes the team is failing him and never pauses to ask whether he is failing the team. Stepping back for a moment, you could see J.D. as a timely critique of the CEO model of leadership—the idea that a leader is so important to a team he or she deserves outsize recompense and adulation. It doesn't work so well here on the field against the Titans.
Other moments: Eric's eyes moving as he watched the Titans' final kick pass through the goalposts. Tami waiting for Eric to come out to the bus after the game, kissing him, and then watching him as he walks away. You could see the whole history of their relationship there. The way they fell in love as teenagers and somehow toughed it out through their 20s. How uncertain they are about their own future, still, with one girl not far off from college and another not even in pre-K yet.
And yes, Hanna, that moment you already mentioned, when Riggins puts down his cleats on that field and walks away. The camera lingers on the open, empty field, leaving us with only the sound of passing traffic in our ears.