(This review appears at Wonders in the Dark on their Top 80 Television Series of all time countdown at #49)
“It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something..... for no reason......just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it.....how do you even know it’s you?”
- Angela Chase
It’s hard to overstate the impact of My So-Called Life and the long shelf-life it has had, considering it only had one truncated season. No other show has ever captured the daily angst and passions of teenage life with as much honesty and intensity as this one. It is both a time-capsule piece and a progressive, universal kind of work. Had it played on premium cable, no doubt it would have survived long past its initial year. It has thus inspired an obsessive cult following since its initial run with strongly devoted followers and critics often labeling it as one of the 10 greatest cult shows of all time and/or the greatest teen drama in all of television. It inspired a whole generation of fans that have continued to keep the show alive and relevant through (indulge me here) the creation of binge-watching guides, revelatory sexual awakening GIFs, fashion tributes, fashion analysis with the costume designer- including an outfit-by-outfit breakdown of everything Angela wore during the show, a book of critical analysis and essays, a breakdown of the show’s use of music, fantasy reunions, rumors of reunions, actual reunions, continued discussions with Winnie Holzman (writer), and re-watch analysis as an adult, among many other things. There is simply no end to the insatiable passion the show has inspired and continues to inspire.
Much of the appeal of the show is credited to the solid acting by the entire cast and the excellent writing by Winnie Holzman, who was tapped to write by executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick (Thirtysomething). Airing only 19 of an originally intended 22 episode season, the show aired on ABC from August 25th, 1994 to January 26th, 1995. Amazingly, before airing the final episode, Claire Danes had already won the Best Actress Golden Globe Award for Television Drama! Following the 19th episode, the series went into purgatory for a few months as ABC tried to determine what to do with it due to its low ratings and allegedly it was during this time that Claire Danes began to have doubts about continuing on as well. I didn’t catch it during its initial run, but like many others I caught onto it during MTV’s re-airings, which started on April 10th, 1995, even before the show was officially cancelled. It was a unique scenario for a show after its first year. During this time, there was also a significant fan campaign push to try to save the show. One can begin to understand the scenario more clearly by watching this clip from MTV News which aired in April 1995….
It was during this run on MTV that I became aware of the show and began religiously watching and recording each episode on VHS. I continued to watch and rewatch and rewatch them. It felt like I was part of something special. I wasn’t the only one. From 1995 through the rest of the 90’s, My So-Called Life was one of MTV’s most watched programs where it built a following based on its relatable themes, characters, and sharp writing. MSCL was progressive in its portrayal of teens, handling disaffection, learning disabilities, sex and sexual identity, drugs/alcohol with respect and empathy. It also didn't use these topics as "special episodes" the way other shows traditionally did but instead weaved them throughout the narrative. Additionally, the show’s intentions and attitude towards the first openly gay teenage character on television was further proof of the show’s warmth and generosity. At the time, it also felt like the only show where the conversations between the characters sounded just like the conversations I would have in real life, with a heavy inclusion of filler talk (“like” is used often) lending a relaxed and natural tone to the show. (I honestly can't think of another show that has ever done that, so if anyone else can, I'd like to hear about it.) Its young stars like Claire Danes and Jared Leto soon entered into film careers which further solidified the interest and clamor for syndication and subsequent releases on video and DVD. Founded in 1997, https://www.mscl.com/ became the go-to place on the net for fans to collaborate, share information and passion on the show. It’s still the place to go for a plethora of details and minutia, including full transcripts of each episode.
My So-Called Life is mainly set at the fictional Liberty High School near Pittsburgh, PA and follows a group of students but also contains plot lines involving Angela’s parents and a few teachers. It tackles many of the usual topics of life as a teen but does so with sobering conviction and intense feeling: young love, friendships, drugs and alcohol, sex, parents. It’s amazing how perfectly The Pilot episode lays out the themes. (Winnie Holzman said “It was kind of magical, that pilot. I remember people like the sound person, or the grip, or the makeup artist, turning to me and just being really touched by a scene that had just shot. People were really responding to it intensely.”) Right from the beginning, The Pilot sets up all of the key characters and the key elements: Angela’s search for identity and all-consuming obsession with Jordan Catalano; Brian’s yearning for Angela; Angela and Sharon’s fractured friendship; Rayanne’s drinking problems; Graham and Patty’s fractured marriage and parenting challenges; Ricky’s search for comfort and home. Throughout the season, Angela and Jordan’s on-again/off-again relationship rides a roller coaster, from passionate love to intense betrayal. All of the supporting characters have their own revolving dramas, but the show maintains a sparkling, clear trajectory throughout. Here are the cast of characters and their general synopsis:
Angela Chase (Claire Danes)– Our lead character and heart and soul of the show. She is a 15 year-old who lives with her parents and younger sister Danielle. She is finding her identity, searching for independence, and is obsessed with Jordan Catalano, a fellow student who was held back a few years. She’s at a key time in her life where she is coming to grips with the disappointments and realities of life while building key friendships and coming into her own voice. Most of the episodes contain a narration by Angela Chase. Her commentary is a significant appeal to the show. These narrated gems from just the pilot episode give pointed insights into Angela’s character:
“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her.”
“Lately I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her. Repeatedly.”
“My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like asking “how was that drive-by shooting?””
“My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is….my breasts have come between us.”
(This link to an oral history of the show has an absolute treasure-trove of quotes from the cast and crew on character and plot details including this gem on Angela’s character from Hair Stylist Candy Walken – “When I interviewed for the show, Ed Zwick said, "Our lead actress, who's 13 and will turn 14 during the pilot, will bleach her hair platinum blonde in the first episode. How are you going to deal with that?" And I said, "I wouldn't. That color is going to age her, it's going to harden her. And it's not believable. Bleaching your hair platinum blonde is not something you can do in your bathroom. You're going to get all kinds of weird colors if you try to do it yourself. It will [also] destroy this poor child's hair and change the texture, and it will not be an easy thing to remedy if the pilot doesn't go." So Winnie says, "What would you do then?" And I said, "I would do bright red.")
Graham (Tom Irwin) and Patty Chase (Bess Armstrong) – Angela’s parents who both work in Patty’s family printing company. Graham works for Patty at the company, even though he wants to be a chef and start a restaurant. Patty is challenged by Angela’s rebellion and also by Graham’s potential cheating. There are signs of fracture in their relationship but the love for their children is paramount.
Rayanne Graf (A.J. Langer)– A bundle of energy, Rayanne is the school bad-girl. She lives with her mother and struggles with self-destructive behaviors involving drugs, alcohol and sex. She is Angela’s new best friend and is very close friends with Rickie who is nearly always with her.
Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) – Angela’s neighbor friend and fellow student is the brains of the school but is socially inept. He’s hopelessly in love with Angela and can’t bring himself to let her know it. He’s artistic, awkward, uptight, and painfully jealous of Jordan and Angela’s relationship. Brian gets to narrate one episode entitled “Life of Brian”.
Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) – Rayanne’s best friend and soon to be Angela’s close friend as they turn into a group of “Three Musketeers”, continually having conversations about love and life together in the girls bathroom. Ricky is gay and lives with his aunt and uncle until later in the series when Ricky is abused and winds up homeless.
Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa) – Angela’s former best friend with whom she has a strong shared history. Their relationship is filled with friction due to Angela spending more time with Rayanne. Sharon is pretty, is involved, and tends to toe-the-line at school and in her life, but as the season goes on she begins to adapt and change
Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) – He’s incredibly handsome, has a poor school record, and he’s in a band with his friend Tino called Frozen Embryos. He's every parent's worst nightmare but he’s Angela’s love interest and soon enters into an angst-filled relationship with her that forms the backbone of the show’s storyline.(To display the show’s lasting reach, recently those born between 1977-1983 have been dubbed “Xennials” , AKA Generation Catalano.)
Danielle Chase (Lisa Wilhoit) – Angela’s little sister is almost constantly ignored yet forms a comparative counterpoint to Angela’s complications. She is a relatively minor character, yet does get to narrate one episode entitled “Weekend.”
Tino – Much mentioned but never seen Tino “appears” in almost every show due to the fact that people are always bringing him up, as in “Tino’s going to pick us up” or “Tino can get us in”. He’s mostly Jordan and Rayanne’s friend and is the lead singer of Frozen Embryos.
As a way of analyzing the show and providing context I’ve collected several effective short clips to provide examples of the greatness of the show as I think dissecting small scenes can be really insightful. I provide short commentary with each link.
Episode 12 - Self-Esteem: This clip displays the absolute perfection of the voice-over and how Angela’s internal thoughts connect to her outward behavior. There’s this perfect moment where Claire Danes sort of rolls her eyes away in disgust in the most subtle way while she lies on the couch. I know I’ve had times in my life where Sunday nights felt like the most depressing moment of the week.
Episode 5 - The Zit: This scene shows an almost unbearable level of conflict between Patty and Angela. The way that Angela reluctantly comes to what’s really on her mind feels incredibly authentic. Also, the way Claire Danes turns her back to the camera and her mother when she comes to the most emphatic moment of the discussion makes it all the more impactful.
Episode 5 - The Zit: This is a very charming and personal favorite moment of interaction between Jordan and Brian as they are discussing Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the homework related to it. It’s also a good example of the humorous undercurrent of the show as Jordan and Brian just do not speak the same language. Additionally, there is beautiful interplay in the scene as Rickie, Sharon, and Rayanne all enter into the conversation at different times. This is one of Jared Leto’s best and most subtle moments of the series.
Episode 7 - Why Jordan Can't Read: I think this is a really strong scene for Angela and Jordan as they begin to learn more about each other in ways they aren’t expecting. Angela’s stammering explanation of her letter is a sly, comedic take from Claire Danes. Jordan’s nervous way of acknowledging his reading disability and then coyly moving on afterward are really strong moments for Jared Leto.
Episode 1 - The Pilot: A classic moment from the pilot as Angela, Rayanne and Rickie are discussing what they want another person to say romantically right before you would “do it”. Also, this is one of the best moments showing the chemistry between these three characters as they wait for Tino to arrive at the club.
Episode 3 - Guns and Gossip: Another scene that displays how important the internal monologue and the voice-over is important to the show. It’s also a really moving scene because of how conflicted Angela and Jordan are and how they struggle to communicate effectively. Claire Danes can switch her emotions on a dime and the way she looks away from Jordan when she is about to cry shows a great actress at work here.
Episode 17 - Betrayal: This is a beautiful moment where Angela is truly happy and jubilant and it occurs during a period when Angela and Jordan are on the outs. Another example of the show’s use of music to good effect with the Violent Femmes "Blister in the Sun" playing and Angela rocking out and lip syncing along. Claire Danes easily gives the biggest smile of the entire series as she rolls over in bed.
Episode 7 - Why Jordan Can't Read: Brian and Angela interacting over the topic of Jordan while playing catch. Brian’s questions are embarrassingly obvious as he tries to probe into Angela’s psyche on the topic of love. Angela hurls the ball at Brian when he asks a question she doesn’t want to be asked and I love the way Devon Gummersall says “Why Not?” as if he can’t help himself and he adds in a pause just before he says it.
Episode 12 - Self Esteem: Many people consider “the Hallway Scene” to be the best scene in the entire series. It’s important to note as you watch this scene that this is a moment in Jordan and Angela’s relationship where Jordan has been trying to keep their relationship a private one and Angela has become very frustrated by his unwillingness to acknowledge it in public. This is the moment when he crosses the hallway in front of her friends to show his intentions to everyone. Brian’s angst on the sidelines presents it’s own drama. Buffalo Tom’s “Late at Night” gets put to great use during this scene. The entire thing has perfect editing and says so much even though there isn’t much dialogue. I love the way Brian looks over his shoulder at Jordan and also the way that Angela looks away from Jordan as he approaches.
If I had to make a top 10 favorite TV characters list, Angela Chase would be my number 1 without a doubt if you haven’t caught on to that already. There is so much about her that I identify(-fied) with: personality and outlook on life, sense of humor, her search for authenticity and the real self. What's been a pleasant surprise on re-viewings though, has been how relatable the show is from the parent’s standpoint. As a teen, I never cared much for the scenes involving the parents but now that I have two girls of my own at home and have daily parenting responsibilities, I am as captivated by the parenting challenges and concerns almost as much as Angela’s storylines, proving to me the lasting depth and quality of the show. For everyone’s viewing pleasure, every episode is available for free streaming on ABC online. Despite the fact I would have loved to have seen more from these characters in further seasons, the show maintains it’s aura and freshness due to its having only one extremely satisfying season. It maintains a kind of perfection or something…… like, in my humble opinion.