My So-Called Life premiered on ABC. The show's main character, Angela Chase, was supposed to be a 15-year-old on the verge of her sophomore year of high school in 1994--which means that, even though I was a couple years younger than Angela, I should have been both the show's intended audience, as well as its harshest critic. After all, who better to evaluate the authenticity of a teen drama set in the present day than a present-day teen? But there was nothing harsh about my reaction to My So-Called Life, unless total and complete fandom is harsh (It probably can be). From the first episode I watched of the series, I bought it Crimson Glow, little-moon cuticles, crumple-face cry, and all. And I wasn't the only one: Everyone in my class that year devotedly watched My So-Called Life: discussing how awesome (in general) Ricky was, how weird Angela's giant plaid tent dresses were, what the hell was up with that Christmas episode, and how pretty (there's no other word for it) Jordan Catalano was (If we only knew then, what we know now. Oh, how I wish I could time travel back to 1994 with a copy of Chapter 27 just to shock everyone in 4th period Civics).
That doesn't mean I thought the show was perfect. At the time, I had a few issues with it. I remember thinking that there was far too much of Patty, Angela's mom, which is the quintessential teen complaint about teen dramas, and the reason that Brenda & Brandon's parents were systematically weeded out of 90210. And there were times when I thought Angela was a bit much, like when Ricky asked her what she'd like the other person to say to her before they did, you know, it, and she replied that she'd like to hear the person say: "You're so beautiful, it hurts to look at you." I think I felt the country's entire population of teenage girls cringe as soon as the words, weighted down with icky, syrupy romance, fell from her mouth. But I never once questioned the reality of the high school or teenagers on the show: Even though they were fictional characters, Angela and her classmates could have been dropped into any high school in the country at the time and fit in--or, you know, not fit in--just as well as any of us.
Not many teen dramas attempt to capture what it's like to be a teenager without the filter of nostalgia (The Wonder Years, Freaks & Geeks), or exaggerated elements like excessive wealth (The OC, Gossip Girl), or cartoony, soapy elements (Beverly Hills: 90210). My So-Called Life, however, did, and it usually did it very well. No show could reflect the air of meaninglessness that is threaded through adolescence–that sense that you're just biding time, waiting for something to happen, getting through it so you can get out–as well as MSCL.
So in re-watching My So-Called Life, the question naturally is, "Will it all hold up?" I'm hoping the answer is yes (excluding, of course, the episode where Angela meets the teen angel in the gym on Halloween--that one didn't really hold up then.) Let's let the stomping on the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia begin!
"So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff. Just for fun, just cause if I didn't if seemed like I would die, or something. Things were getting to me. Just how people are. Like, how they always expect you to be a certain way, even your best friend."
For the first few minutes, watching the pilot episode of My So-Called Life is a bit like going back to your childhood bedroom for the first time since you moved out: everything seems slighter, smaller, different, but more than anything else it all seems distant. And MSCL is very distant. All you have to do is take one look at Rayanne's oversized flannel shirt, and you're very aware of just how 90s and far away this show is. But then, gradually, you start to get comfortable--not as comfortable there as you used to be, but you can relax and just let the 90s adolescent angst wash over you. And wash it does. Calling it a "deluge" wouldn't be far off. Still, it's not unpleasant.
It helps, of course, that Claire Danes as Angela has the best delivery for teen-speak of any actress in recent memory. When was the last time that you heard a fictional teenager pepper her speech with so many "likes" without sounding like a Valley girl? So when Angela starts every thought with "So," or when she muses in voiceover about the grossness of, like, mastication ("If you stop to think about, like, chewing. What it really is. How people just do it, like, in public.") it never feels forced. For a show that uses so much voiceover, the writer's hand is virtually invisible--except, of course, for that line about school being a battlefield for your heart, there I saw the hand of an American Greetings copywriter.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. None of those quotes are the first things Angela says to us, her audience. The first words she says to us are, "Excuse me. [giggles] Could you spare some change?" before she and Rayanne eventually crack up entirely and run off. It's all part of a weird panhandling scene I guess meant to establish the fact that Rayanne is a weird, new friend who makes Angela do weird things. Like panhandle. The scene marks the last time that Angela addresses the camera directly. From here on out, with few exceptions, it's Angela's Angela-isms, those endearing , occasionally profound (in the teenager sense) observations delivered usually in voiceover, but occasionally in person. My favorite this episode: "Like cheerleaders. Can't people just cheer on their own? Like, to themselves?"
In this episode we meet, well, virtually everyone: good-girl-gone-Crimson-Glow Angela; her boring, straight-laced childhood friend Sharon and her new, cool, hard-drinking, occasionally-dresses-like-Boy-George-circa-Culture-Club best friend, Rayanne; Ricky, the sweet, eyeliner-wearing, "bi" friend of Rayanne; Angela's spacey, good-leanin' crush Jordan Catalano; there's Tino, the mysterious social instigator who's always talked about but never seen; and, of course, there's Brian Krakow, the nerdy, kinda angry boy-next-door who apparently reads books in trees with a flashlight at night while waiting for his crush (Angela) to come home.
And Angela's relationship with her family is set up as well. Her little sister, Danielle is as annoying as she is ignored (in this episode she even gets permission to watch a movie that sounds like Lisa, cause no one is paying attention.) Angela clashes with her uptight mom, Patty over dyeing her hair, over "that Rayanne person," over going out on a school night (to a house party that featured...wait for it...a de facto mosh pit), and over going out on a weekend night. But Angela's relationship with her amateur chef dad, Graham, on the other hand, is almost conflict-free, until the night that Angela comes back from hanging out in the parking lot of Let's Bolt, and she sees him talking to a younger woman around the corner from her house.
So, like, nothing actually happened. Except, like, pretty much everything. And the show is so beautifully, dreamily shot--almost to a fault sometimes--that watching nothing happen to earnest, angsty, teenage philosopher Angela again was pretty fun.
Grade: B+ (I knocked off a few points for heavyhanded--is there any other kind?--use of "Everybody Hurts.")
--If you don't have the DVDs, you might be able to watch along here.
--Krakow has a tin can holster for his flashlight nailed to that tree branch where he does his night readin'. Just thought I'd mention that.
--Jordan is watching the video for "I Touch Myself" in the dark, alone, at the mosh pit house party and Angela can only swoon. That's devotion.
--"Seeing a teacher's actual lunch is, like, so depressing." I, like, actually still agree.