Now and Then: Jordan Catalano Vs. Tim Riggins

Posted by Nona Willis Aronowitz


In our week-long series, Now and Then, GOOD writers each choose a beloved piece of pop culture from back in the day and pit it against its modern-day equivalent, with a fresh pair of adult eyes. May the best zeitgeist win.

My tenth grade boyfriend was a lot like Jordan Catalano. Which is to say, he was a strong silent type, he was really attractive, and he lived mostly in my head. In 1999, when MTV started airing episodes of the gone-too-soon teen drama My So-Called Life, I had just started to pine after a guy a year older than me. I barely knew this boy; he wasn’t mature enough to have long, interesting conversations with girls, and I wasn’t mature enough to admit that I just wanted to fuck him and not necessarily have a scintillating chat. (Our conversations were definitely divided into “kissing” and “not kissing.”)

Like Angela Chase, I would sit there straining to think of things to say, until the ice was broken with an awkward but passionate make-out session. I’d be crushed when he didn’t call and thrilled with a modicum of PDA. I got into the music he listened to and thought it was sexy that he played the bass. But really, I had no idea why I liked him.

The reason we all had a crush on Jordan wasn’t because we thought he was cool, or funny, or charismatic in any way. It wasn’t the fact that he was a gorgeous, olive-skinned version of the grungy 90s dude. (Ok, maybe it was a little bit of that.) It was really because Angela was obsessed with him, and we saw things the way she saw them. I squealed along with my friends when Jordan finally held Angela’s hand in the hallway, while that Buffalo Tom song blared in the background. I got butterflies along with Angela when Jordan pulled up to her door in that clunky red convertible. She wanted to be the one to “change” him. She wanted to understand why he couldn’t read, she wanted to feel special to an enigmatic guy, she wanted to channel her budding feelings of lust and affection into a beautiful vessel of a person.

It’s been a big joke with my friends since the 1990s that nobody could shake my undying love for Jordan Catalano. But once I started watching Friday Night Lights, the final episode of which just aired last Friday, another fictional high school bad boy stole my affection. Somewhere between “Texas Forever” and “I had a threeway with the Straton sisters,” I realized the world’s hottest fullback, Tim Riggins, was edging out my longtime TV crush.

Like Jordan, he's irresistible to girls, has long hair, does terribly in school, and has a shitty father. He’s also prone to screwing the pain away without any regard for how it affects others. But that’s where the similarities end. Tim actually has a personality, one that can be both magnetic and utterly repulsive. We alternately winced and swooned when Tim walked out of practice with a raging hangover, took the fall for his brother’s illegal chop shop, threw his college future out a car window, and helped a terrified pregnant teen find the help she needed. We also watched him play his heart out—we saw him running and pushing, getting dirty and sweaty and flushed and nauseated, feeling emotional and teary and ecstatic and fucking angry. (The most physical thing we ever watched Jordan do was lean into a locker and squeeze some Visine into his eyes.) Tim manages to be nuanced within the confines of a cliché. He’s a guy with layers—for a fictional heartthrob, anyway.

The fact that Tim Riggins has replaced Jordan Catalano doesn’t diminish my love for My So-Called Life, but it does put in stark relief the difference between TV shows about high school and TV shows set in high school. Back in the day, some of us just wanted to project our fantasies about relationships onto a blank slate. Our crushes were less about the person than they were about deciding who we were and what we wanted as sexual and romantic humans. Angela said when she contemplated hooking up with Jordan for the first time: “My obsession keeps me going or something, like I need it just to get through the day…And if you make it real, it's not the same. It's not yours anymore…Maybe I’d rather have the fantasy, than even him.”

Nowadays, I’m with Rayanne, who retorts, “I totally and completely disagree.” Tim is a more grown-up bad boy; he may still grace the covers of Teen Beat, but there’s a reason why teenagers aren’t crazy about Friday Night Lights. Tim is hardly the cipher Jordan was. He’d never stand for a girl treating him like a generic love object; he’d notice she was doing it, and call her out on it. (In fact, that’s exactly what he did when Becky propositioned him in Season Four.) When we watch Tim Riggins, we’re identifying with him, not the women who lust after him.

If I’m really honest, I’m getting old enough to start comparing the merits of Coach Taylor and Graham Chase. But first, I'll take one more cue from my tenth grade relationship. My longtime love definitely looks good in flannel, but I've realized I have nothing to say to him anymore. It's time to crawl out from under those bleachers and move onto greener football fields.