The teen drama genre will never witness something as pure and understated as My So-Called Life ever again.
I feel fuzzy just thinking about this show. The way the camera would tenderly, achingly linger on the inertness of it’s characters…the way Brian Krakow would skulk outside Angela’s house on his bike…the way Jordan Catalano was only addressed by his full name…the cruisey 90’s background bongo music…the way a random ambiguous neighbourhood dog would bark whenever a scene at Angela’s home commenced…the fact we never actually meet Tino…
My So-Called Life was down to earth, an incredibly relatable slice of 90s American life, but it was also a very compelling dramatic story, where menial events that seemed insignificant on the surface were treated with non-condescending intensity. Something like Jordan glancing at Angela in the hallway would completely debilitate her. The viewer would be on the absolute edge of their seats, waiting for him to finally give in to their silent attraction. I will forever be in awe of the way it balanced drama and realism.
It’s a painfully beautiful experience, watching the characters endlessly yearning. They are constantly grappling for the right words, or in Jordan’s case, struggling to say anything at all. Teenage conversations make my brain turn to mush. I will never understand why it was so hard to just…speak. The acting is so great, that while they may not be saying much, you can see their minds constantly ticking over, and you feel the suffering completely, even if you find the source of it menial or silly.
Angela is both profound and inarticulate, transparent and incoherent.Hollywood Reporter
It makes you frustrated and sometimes angry…if only they had just communicated, none of this shit would have happened! But that’s the most accurate thing about this show to me, the way it perfectly illustrates how hard it is to be open, honest and have those really difficult conversations, especially at an age where outwardly projected image is so important. It feels horrible to secretly pine for someone and never act on it, but it’s lame to confess that you’re into them, and deeply embarrassing if you’re rejected. It’s upsetting to not know where you stand, but half the adrenaline comes from the chase itself. While the act of commitment is scary and often ends in heartbreak, the games played in order to appear cool and uninterested are probably what hurt the most.
I re-watched My So-Called Life during New Zealand’s first COVID lockdown, and I felt totally crushed by the ending all over again. I wanted to kill Brian for derailing Angela and Jordan’s reconciliation, but I also desperately wanted Brian and Angela to start making out or something…which I actually believe was probably the writers’ desired effect. This show emphasises the grey areas in teenage life; how nothing is black and white, decisions are never simple and no question ever has just one answer. Angela and Jordan had immediate romantic tension and undeniable physical chemistry. She wanted to open Jordan up so badly, but he felt intellectually inferior to her and he feared expressing himself. To Angela, Jordan embodied sexiness and mystery. Brian, on the other hand, felt like an asexual annoyance, always hovering around and judging her.
Jordan struggled with a learning disability and was unable to read. He best conveyed his emotions through music. He isn’t a what you’d call a talker.
Even though he had true feelings for Angela, he felt social pressure to casually sleep with her like he did with every other girl he’d been with. So when Angela said she wasn’t ready to sleep with him, he did whatever the 90s equivalent of partial ghosting is, and just like that, they’re over, even though they both wish it wasn’t…you almost have to laugh at the unnecessary torture of it all.
Soon after the break up, Brian is elated to accidentally spot Jordan and Rayanne sleeping together in Jordan’s car . Yes. They had sex during a brief moment of mutual sadness, and Brian did what any normal, non-creepy person would do: films it. Completely normal behaviour. Angela is disgusted and ends her friendship with Rayanne. Unfortunately for Brian, she doesn’t come running into his arms. The whole ordeal actually causes to Jordan realise he loves Angela, and he decides to win her back. At this point, Brian is defeated and just wants Angela to be happy, with or without him. He offers to ghost-write a love letter for Jordan to give to Angela.
Angela is deeply moved by Jordan’s (Brian’s) letter, and they get back together. But in the final scene, as Angela is about to get into Jordan’s car, Brian accidentally admits that he wrote the letter. This revelation rocks Angela’s entire fucking world. Brian is a much deeper, more complex individual than she ever realised. He may have even been the right guy for her all along. This raw moment is possibly Clare Danes’ finest acting in the entire show.
Winnie Holzman (who also wrote Wicked) set out to write a realistic teenage girl who didn’t conform to stereotypes. Angela, while very stubborn and opinionated, has no idea who she wants to be and is always trying to transform herself into someone more socially acceptable or desirable. Brian and her ex-best friend Sharon were left behind when she befriended wild Rayanne and tortured Rickie. In the first episode, she dies her hair red, symbolic of this new social chapter.
Her mother Patti also changes her hair in episode 1, an attempt to reignite passion with Angela’s dad. The slow unravelling of Patti and Graham’s marriage is given a lot of screen time and attention, and greatly affects Angela’s disillusionment with love. By the end of the series, she has realised her parents, who she held to near impossible standards, are flawed human beings who also make mistakes and struggle with their identity, just like her. The way this show cared for its adult characters is another thing that’s unique and special about it. After all, the way our parents behave informs how we interact with those our own age.
My So-Called Life also has one of my favourite queer characters on television to date: Rickie Vasquez. Due to his abusive and homophobic parents, Rickie was homeless, and Rayanne and Angela are his only true family. Rickie is hispanic and black. He believes he is bisexual, and later comes out as gay, but he doesn’t have any experience with guys. The one guy he actively tries to date turns out to have a thing for Rayanne.
Rickie’s home life is pretty horrific. For a large part of the series, he stays on people’s couches and frequents homeless shelters. While Angela’s mother develops a soft spot Rickie and tries to look out for him, he has nowhere secure to live until English teacher Mr. Katimski (who is gay himself) invites him into his home at the end of the series (with no shortage of judgement from teachers and parents at the school). While this is good news for Rickie, and life seems to be improving for him, none of his storylines are tied up neatly with a bow and it’s clear he will continue to face societal obstacles due to his race and sexuality. The show does a great job in frankly representing how tough it is to be your authentic self in a homophobic world. Even if you have a loving, accepting circle of close friends, society’s restraints are inescapable.
This scene shows Rickie letting loose at the school dance to Haddaway’s What Is Love. Aside from this being one of the best songs ever made, it is one of my favourite scenes in the show, as it’s the first time we see Rickie start to unapologetically come into his own.
Jordan’s band Frozen Embryos…sorry, Between Names…sorry, Residue, singing I Wanna Be Sedated perfectly sums up how I feel not being able to truly know what happens next in this glorious series. It was way too ahead of its time to be successful. The fact we had to put up 6 seasons of Dawson’s Creek just because it’s iconic predecessor My So-Called Life was too powerful to be appreciated is a criminal offence (like, I don’t mind Dawson’s Creek, it’s got a place in my heart, but if the only remaining copies of these two shows were stuck in a burning building, you know which one I’d be saving first…). Anyway. I will find whoever cancelled My So-Called Life after one season, and I will kill them.
My So-Called Life is timeless, a trailblazer, a bastion of adolescent angst.
It is peak teen drama.
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