I’m convinced that 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. I mean, the way the camera would achingly linger on the tender 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 dog would always bark whenever a scene at Angela’s home commenced…the gloriously effective way in which we never meet Tino…the way Delia said this line about one of my other favourite shows of all time:
Sharon: Seriously, you had a dream about Rickie Vasquez?My So-Called Life – Episode 19
Delia: Well, it wasn’t, you know, that type of dream. We were just
dancing. In this big vegetable garden. I was wearing this dress
I saw on “The Nanny”. So, how much do you, like, know about him?
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 uncondescending 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’ endless yearning. They are constantly grappling for the right words, or in Jordan’s case, struggling to say anything at all. As a commenter on Youtube stated under a MSCL fan video ‘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 understand their suffering completely.
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 socially introspective 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, the games played in order to stay in one’s comfort zone and appear cool are probably what hurt the most.
I re-watched My So-Called Life during New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown, and I felt totally crushed by the ending all over again. I wanted to kill Brian for potentially derailing Angela and Jordan’s reconciliation, but I also desperately wanted Brian and Angela to start passionately making out…which I actually believe was the writer’s desired effect. This show emphasises the grey areas in teenage life; how nothing is black and white, decisions are never simple and no question has one answer. Angela and Jordan had immediate tension and undeniable physical chemistry. She wanted to open Jordan up so badly, but he felt intellectually inferior to her, and was too preoccupied by his reputation and fear to properly express himself. To Angela, Jordan embodied sexiness and mystery, and Brian was an asexual annoyance, always hovering in her vicinity and questioning her actions.
Jordan, who struggles with a learning disability and is unable to read, best conveys his emotions through music. He isn’t a what you’d call a talker.
Even though he has true feelings for Angela, he feels great social pressure to casually sleep with her like he’s done with every other girl. So when she Angela says she isn’t ready to sleep with him, he does whatever the 90s equivalent of 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 somewhat elated to accidentally spot Jordan and Rayanne sleeping together in Jordan’s car out of mutual sadness, and does what any normal person would do: films it. Angela is disgusted and ends her friendship with Rayanne. Unfortunately for Brian, she doesn’t come running into his arms. Jordan, however, realises he loves Angela a little too late, and wants to win her back. Defeated Brian just wants Angela to be happy at the end of the day, with or without him, and offers to ghost-write a love letter for Jordan to give to her.
Angela is deeply moved by Jordan’s (Brian’s) letter, and they get back together. But what we see in the ending, is Brian accidentally admitting 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, intimate moment is possibly Clare Danes’ finest acting in the entire show.
Winnie Holzman (who also wrote the original book-turned-hit-broadway-musical Wicked!) set out to write a realistic teenage girl who didn’t conform to any specific 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’. Her ex-best friend Sharon and her nerdy neighbour Brian (a childhood friend of sorts who is in love with her) feels left behind as she befriends wild Rayanne and tortured Rickie. In the first episode, she dies her hair red, symbolic of this new social chapter. Paralleling Angela’s appearance change, is her mother Patti cutting her hair in an attempt to reignite passion with Angela’s dad Graham. 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 make mistakes and struggle with their identity, just like her. The way this show cared for it’s adult characters, and paid equal attention to the parents as it did to the teenagers, is another thing that’s unique and special about it. After all, the way the our elders behave informs how we interact with those our own age.
My So-Called Life also has one of my favourite gay characters on television to date: Rickie Vasquez. Due to his abusive and homophobic parents, Rickie was forced into homelessness, and Rayanne and Angela are his only true family. Rickie is hispanic-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, which is just a huge injustice!
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 sexuality. The show does a great job in frankly representing how tough it is to be your authentic yourself in a homophobic world, even if you have a loving, accepting circle of close friends…wider society is inescapable.
This scene shows Rickie letting loose at the school dance to Haddaway’s What Is Love with Delia, the girl Brian had just brutally rejected. 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 fully and 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 that was way too ahead of it’s time. The fact we had to put up 6 wallowing 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 immense. It is timeless. It is a trailblazer. It a bastion of televised adolescent angst. It is art. It is peak teen drama.
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