“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and… that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Cheryl explores a show that is close to many of our hearts: My So-Called Life.
My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying “how was that drive-by shooting?” You don’t care how it was. You’re lucky to get out alive.
1994 was a year that changed a generation. Music and culture experienced a shift toward the DIY attitude. Teens were feeling empowered and able to express themselves more. Grunge music and fashion, low budget films and internet chat rooms were infiltrating the mainstream. And the one ground-breaking, beautiful season of My So-Called Life was there to document it all.
From that first whisper of “go, now, go” before the opening credits, we were whisked along with Angela Chase and her friends as they found themselves careening through the transition from childhood to young adulthood, negotiating their way through drama, heartbreak, and the social hunger games that is high school.
Angela is shy, awkward, and clearly very beautiful under the boyish ill-fitting clothes and plaid shirts she wears. But the way her rucksack straps always fall down her arms, and her baby-pheasant-legged run down the school corridors, remind us she is still in many ways a child. During her first real meeting with Jordan, she unknowingly has a splash of mud on her face, and we all related.
I’m in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. Once I almost touched his shoulder… He’s always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things.
If you were around in the 90s and you were a girl who liked boys, or a boy who liked boys, then you’ll know the name Jordan Catalano. Unlike other high school shows at the time, where the popular boys were rich, well dressed and high achieving, Jordan was beautiful, but vapid. He was a slacker, in a band, he wore a choker, he was a little bit dumb. He was one of those infuriating people who are popular and universally accepted, simply by being.
Angela’s responses capture perfectly that euphoric feeling when the person you like even glances at you in you corridor, and you float on the joy of it all day. Or you see them with someone else and crash to the lowest low there ever was. It beautifully details the exhausting rollercoaster that is first love.
So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun, just because it seemed like if I didn’t I would die or something. Things were getting to me, just how people are, how they always expect you to be a certain way, even your best friend.
Angela and her nice-girl childhood friend Sharon have grown apart as she drifts toward the misfits and the loners. We all recognise the hurt and guilt that goes along with a best friend break-up, and the bathroom scene where they yell and cry it out is the real turning point in Angela’s transition. Her new friends give her a cool-girl makeover and dye her hair pillarbox red. It is less a cry for attention, and more a vivid expression of the passionate girl trapped inside the repressed and shy exterior. Angela is feeling her way to being her real, true self in the world
Rayanne has a bad reputation. She drinks, takes drugs and fights, but she lavishes Angela with attention and love. She is a neglected puppy just craving care and security. She is clearly attracted to Angela’s calm and steady nature, and her conventional home life. Angela loves Rayanne’s wildness and freedom. On their first night out together, they exchange shoes. Later, after Rayanne is attacked and they receive a police escort home, Angela sighs, “these aren’t my shoes.” Much as she craves adventure, she still hasn’t found her place in the world.
She relates more to Rickie, Rayanne’s sidekick. He is a gentle soul, openly gay, always hurt. He clings to Rayanne for protection, but has a sweet nature that Angela responds to. It is a connection that Rayanne will never understand and which is bound to always cause friction.
The only real constant in Angela’s life is her geeky neighbour Brian, who is clearly completely in love with her, but hides it behind a veneer of sarcasm, insults and disdain. Typically, she is completely blind to the fact that he is always there when the world comes crashing down.
My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us.
For a teen show, My So-Called Life spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the parents. This for me is not a plus, but maybe it is why fans of my age go back to it now. Unfortunately we relate more to the adults than the teens these days.
Still, many of us went through experiences similar to Angela’s, coming from perfectly nice families that we could never fit into. Her parents are the last wave of the Baby Boomers, giving up their own hopes and dreams for nice jobs and a nice house and a nice life, with no fun to get in the way. Both are discontent and trapped in a conventional life that stops them from personal self-expression. They have no idea how to deal with the frustrated young woman who is suddenly in place of their little girl.
Angela’s mother is an ex high school cheerleader and beauty queen, who can’t understand why Angela just can’t be normal.
It’s just so hard to look at her. She looks like a stranger.
Her dad is a little down-trodden and affection-starved and has started an affair.
My dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him.
Her little sister is the little girl she still half-wishes she could be, before boys and zits and teen dramas.
Angela’s home life is becoming more and more repressive, as she longs to be her own person and be independent.
School is a battlefield for your heart.
So much about this show was glorious. Even the Pilot episode is stunning to look at. The scene between Angela and Brian in the street where they are silhouetted with the light behind them perfectly captures the awkward affection between them.
The script is perfect, the visuals gorgeous, and the pacing is just right. Every glance, every awkward pause, every sigh is captured beautifully.
The clothes are wonderfully 90s, with oversized plaid shirts, babydoll dresses, clanky jewellery and bright makeup. “She used to wear her eyeliner pointy like catwoman. Now she wears it smudged,” says Rayanne, summing up the tiny changes that make up the look and attitude of a whole cultural movement.
And the music! Juliana Hatfield, Sonic Youth, The Lemonheads. It’s a small-screen Lollapalooza. Is there a more teenage moment than Angela dancing in her bedroom to “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes?
It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality, for no reason, just to make things easier for everyone. But if you think about it, how do you know it’s even you?
My So-Called Life bridged the gap between glossy rich-kid teen shows and real gritty drama. Having been cancelled so early, it still resides in a dreamy half-world between childhood innocence and the heartache of adulthood. Visiting it again, we can all recapture the bittersweet hopes of finding love and light once the dark days of high school are over.