Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “Pilot”

MSCL 2

by Emma Fraser and Julie Hammerle

My So-Called Life is probably one of the most talked about one-season shows and here at This Was TV we wanted to try and add something different to this conversation. Pop culture is constantly reusing and rebooting and the ’90s is on trend right now. With this is mind, Julie and Emma are going to have a bi-monthly look at MSCL and, as both went to high school in the 90s, we will be using this nostalgia test to see how the show stands up now. Emma watched MSCL around the time it first aired and has strong positive feelings towards Angela Chase and this is Julie’s first watch; this is another aspect we want to incorporate into our discussion. We will also be looking at how MSCL fits into the high school show pantheon and watching the show as adults vs. teens. 

My So-Called Life
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
Original airdate: Aug. 25, 1994

Background/Previously on…  

Julie: I’ve had some kind of mental barrier when it comes to MSCL. The show aired during my sophomore year of high school and I didn’t watch it then. I’m not sure why, because my friends all watched the show. I distinctly remember my best friend Erin crushing hard on Jared Leto. Or maybe it wasn’t her. Whatever, somebody had his picture in her locker.

I also remember having this inexplicable distaste for Claire Danes that was born out of jealousy. I spent a lot of time reading YM and Seventeen and People Magazine, sneering at celebrities around my age who got a lot of love from critics. I don’t know what my problem was. Maybe I thought it should’ve been me getting all the Hollywood love because I played the Queen of Spain that one time in my junior high’s performance of A Quest for Columbus? I felt the same way about Keri Russell when Felicity started. But I eventually watched Felicity, and now Keri Russell can do no wrong (Running Wilde excepted).

A few years ago, I found the MSCL DVD box set on sale and I bought it because, why not? And then one day I brought it out to watch it and I just couldn’t. It was never the right time. And I even had a hard time getting motivated to watch the show for this post. My inner self was afraid to cross the barrier into knowing what this show was all about.

But I’m glad I did. It brought me back to a lot of things—flannel shirts and maroon hair and moody girls with deep thoughts and shows that dealt with Real Issues. I mean, this episode had a near date rape and a daughter catching her father cheating on her mother. That’s some heavy stuff for one hour.

My biggest disappointment with MSCL (so far) is Jordan Catalano. He does nothing for me. The character is a wet blanket, and Jared Leto is… not so good with the acting, methinks. He is no Ben or Noel [Ed.'s note — Noel is an excellent actor.]. He’s not even Dylan McKay. But I have only watched the pilot, so by mid-season I could be decorating my closet door with Leto pics. Stranger things have happened.

Emma: I didn’t watch it when it first aired on UK TV in 1996; instead I saw it during the summer holidays in 1997 when they reran it every morning on Channel 4. This is at a time when we only had four channels to chose from (you could get expensive satellite TV at this point, we just didn’t have it) and Channel 4 was the one that had the best daytime TV over the summer holidays for teenagers. At this point it had been shows like The Secret World of Alex Mack, Eerie Indiana, Saved by the Bell, Hang Time, Sister, Sister. So mostly comedies or sci-fi/mystery and so the appearance of MSCL if the schedule was a revelation to me as while I enjoyed these other shows they didn’t seem very real to me.

I was 14 and wrote in my journal (giant cliché sign warning) about how much I loved this show and how it felt like the most important thing I had seen on TV (incidentally this wasn’t the first hard hitting teen export show I had seen, there was also an Australian show called Heartbreak High that had Real Issues front and center but for some reason MSCL resonated more), there was a lot of hyperbole. This was also at a time when I was having issues with the friendship group I was in and as it was the summer holidays it meant there were lots of days to be filled with hanging out with friends. The issues I was having (if my memory serves me well) were similar transition ones that Angela has in the pilot, going from friends that you’d had forever to new ones and trying to figure out who you are and if you’re happy with that (some seriously deep stuff I know, haha).

Basically I was having the kind of confidence issues that you have as a teenager when a friend you’ve known forever starts being cold to you (so I was kind of the Sharon in this situation but identified with Angela weirdly, I know dumb).

I had seen Romeo + Juliet before I saw MSCL so was already crushing hard on Claire Danes. I LOVED Jordan Catalano when I first watched but now after rewatching the pilot I don’t understand really what I was thinking. He’s dreamy, yes, but totally vacant. Also Jared Leto’s musical career may have killed the quiver.This isn’t the first time that I have rewatched the show since that summer 15 years ago (I shuddered typing that, can’t believe it was that long ago) and my boyfriend bought the boxset for me a few years ago as he knew how much I loved the show and I rewatched it then, but this is the first time that I have seen the pilot in quite some time. I have a (super nerdy) Christmas ritual where I wrap presents to Christmas episodes of TV shows and MSCL is always featured in that playlist so that is the one I have seen the most.

Julie: I was also totally the Sharon! Though I was ditched for the cool, rich kids instead of the moody artists. Probably because I was one of the moody artists. I even dyed my hair maroon at one point. And I wore a lot of ill-advised flannel.

’90s Nostalgia

Emma: It’s all about the ’90s at the moment right? In terms of bands like No Doubt reforming and potential Dawson’s Creek reunions on Don’t Trust the B—- (fingers crossed), Mulder & Scully maybe doing it, it seems like a ’90s love in and so it feels like a brilliant time to look back on MSCL. The plaid and the maroon hair, with everything still being grunge inspired really stuck out as being SO ’90s and even though the clothes, music and hairstyles are identifiable with the era, the relationships and Real Issues could easily apply to now. You’re right in the heavy content of the hour with drinking, near rape and parental infidelity all featuring; though at no point does it feel crammed in. The brief mentions of Rickie’s sexuality and make-up wearing are not heavy handed and show that while Patty and Graham try not to show prejudice towards him, they’re also concerned with what they maybe don’t understand.

Julie: I hope you’re right about the ’90s coming back. I have a closet full of Doc Martens and flannel shirts, ready for duty.


Emma: I totally think it’s all about ’90s nostalgia at the moment, the ’80s have had their time to re-shine (or not depending on how you feel about that decade) and now it is time for the ’90s. Everyone loves nostalgia and particularly when all you can remember is the good stuff and re-watching stuff like MSCL taps into this, but because of the teen stuff it can also remind you of the less than fun times of adolescent misery (I’m being over-dramatic in the best teen way that I can imagine).

MSCL 1

Watching Now vs. Then or the Portrayal of the Parents

Emma: I think one of the highlights of the pilot is the humanizing of Graham and Patty, that they aren’t just there as background parents but have their own personalities and fears for themselves and for their children. They talk about their own respective teen years and that Patty is striving not to be hated by her daughter even though she is clearly the disciplinarian of the pair, these seem like real conversations. It hints at the problems that come with a couple working together, especially with Patty effectively being Graham’s boss and that he has unfulfilled dreams of his own to be a chef and that Patty being the super popular one in high school is mentioned in a light-hearted manner here but could leave Graham feeling resentful toward his wife. Danielle being used as a comedic device by trying to get her parents attention is something that breaks the tension wonderfully.

Julie:I think MSCL definitely straddles the chasm between the early ’90s teen shows, like 90210, and the newer crop, like Gossip Girl. Yes, you have the Big Issues, but some of them, like sexuality, have become less big issues. And I do appreciate that the parents are allowed to have complex characters. Jim and Cindy Walsh on 90210 were basically just there to serve as obstacles for Brandon and Brenda to hurdle. The other parents were all clichés. Graham and Patty Chase have their own Big Issues to grapple with. (So do the parents on Gossip Girl, but their problems have swung all the way over to “soap opera cray.”)

If I had watched this show back in high school, I don’t think I really would’ve grasped what was going on with the parents. I mean, I’d get the Infidelity and how traumatizing that was for Angela. The website Forever Young Adult uses Patty Chase as their model for the “bad mother” archetype. I don’t know if her character gets worse and less sympathetic as she show goes on, but right now I totally feel for her (though I do think she should give Angela a break about the hair). As an Old, I really identify with Graham and Patty. I don’t automatically paint either of them as the villain. Graham probably feels somewhat emasculated, working for his wife. And Patty, whoa boy. As the mother of a tiny female person, I totally get the anxiety that comes with being a mother of a teenage girl. I was a complete wang hole to my mother, and I’m sure I’m in for it in 14 years’ time.

Emma: With Angela’s parents I know that I sympathize a lot more with Patty now then when I was 14, the bit with the ice skating suggestion made me feel really sad for Patty, whereas I would have been totally with Angela before. I don’t have kids yet, but whenever I see stuff like this I can totally get the desire to hold onto times that were less fraught with drama. Angela does get an A+ in the teen handbook of how to get to go to a party by giving a half convincing performance to the softer of the parents. Though with the police taking them home would they really leave Rayanne at home alone in the wasted state she was in and then just drop Angela off and not tell her parents? I wasn’t sure how realistic that was or whether it bending reality.

Julie: I, too, had to suspend disbelief at how they handled the cop taking the girls home. My one experience with being in the back of a police car (totally innocent, my BFF’s uncle was driving us home from a concert — to which I wore a flannel shirt) taught me that this probably wouldn’t have gone down this way.

MSCL 2

Angela Chase and Teen Narratives

Emma: The things that best sum up Angela and her melodramatic teen philosophy is the voiceover. Narration is one of those things that can either really work (such as in Gossip Girl) or can be quite cringey (Chicago Code springs to mind). It is a device that can be considered lazy and an easy way to understand how a character is feeling but in MSCL it works because of who Angela is and how she has all these ‘grand’ thoughts about her environment, who she is and the people around her. As this is the pilot it means that we learn about the supporting characters and how she feels pretty quickly, like we know that she probably isn’t going to stab her mother to death, but that her mother provokes this strong internal reaction.

I can’t remember if the VO continues for the rest of the show but as a device in the pilot it’s one I am on board with. Angela is the central character and so this is her world and the conflict that she is feeling between her ‘old life’ with Shannon and where she was probably nice to her mother vs. her ‘new life’ with friends like Rayanne and Rickie where she is trying to fit in with being in the cool, arty group are shown in this VO. One other point with this VO is how she talks about her teacher eating and how stuff like this humanizes teachers in a way that you don’t want when you’re a teenager and I remember it always feeling so awkward if you saw a teacher outside of school or doing something regular, they suddenly become people.

Julie: Voiceover is something that tends to annoy me in theory, but barely registers for me in practice. I hardly noticed its existence in the show. So maybe that says it was done well? I’ll keep an ear out for it in future episodes.

Emma: The thing with high school shows is that need to introduce a bunch of characters that represent different types of people and to do it without appearing clichéd, a tall task now that we have had so many high school movies/shows. I like that there is the cafeteria scene (“the embarrassment capital of the world, it’s like a prison movie”) and the standard locker/corridor scene with the cheerleaders, nerds and jocks.

A high school show wouldn’t be complete without at least one bathroom scene and their ones seems to be pretty grubby (would they get away with smoking in the toilets now?) and, yes, Rickie goes in with them. We know from this pilot that Angela is confused about who she is and who she wants to be, Rayanne is wild, reckless and would be considered a bad influence and, yes, she turns the bad things that happen into fun anecdotes to share and Rickie is sensitive and is willing to put up with Rayanne’s shit. The pilot is less obvious about Brian, we know he’s a nerd and judgmental about Angela’s life choices and Jordan likes to lean.

My So-Called Life

Julie: OK, let’s definitely talk about Rayanne. She is the archetypal ’90s wounded girl, and I find her character to be kind of annoying. Like, why did she have to have a deadbeat mother? Girls with “normal” families can be crazy too, speaking from personal experience. Right now there doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth to Rayanne, but hopefully she’ll grow over the course of the series. I’d love to see her fall for a Brandon Walsh type and start wearing pearls and Chanel suits.

I do enjoy Rickie and Brian at this point. I would’ve totally been a Brian/Angela (Briangela?) shipper back in the day. Nothing was hotter to high school me than a responsible nerd. I mean, way more than a slacker who leans.

Emma: Rayanne is definitely a steamroller/whirlwind of a character and totally engulfs the scene when she is on screen, which is why Rickie is the more interesting of the pair. You’re also right in bringing up the fact that the crazy girls are always the ones from the complicated families and I’m finding it hard to think of an example that isn’t like this. Angela talks about makes and personality and Rayanne comes across as the one who is hiding who she is the most; being loud, crazy and drunk.

I tend to gravitate towards the nerd characters too, though as I’ve said previously I was all about the leaning slacker when I watched it originally. Certain crushes stay the same (Joshua Jackson in the ’90s and now) and others definitely fade (I’m looking at you Jared Leto) and the scene while Jordan is watching TV made me cringe now, it really isn’t cute.

Claire Danes is one of the best criers on TV, back then and now, and she isn’t afraid to go to the full ‘ugly’ scrunched up crying face. Both the scene with Sharon in the bathroom and with Patty at the end kills me. Also the use of “Everybody Hurts” feels like Coldplay’s “Fix You” now but it totally works even if it seems somewhat emotionally manipulative, you will have my tears MSCL.

Angela’s interpretation of The Diary of Anne Frank (which I have somehow never read) seems so shocking in that she ignores all the horrors and focuses on the aspects that Angela finds to be liberating. To the teacher and the police officer the idea that Anne Frank is free are astounding but it’s that kind of reading that sums up Angela’s personal teen crisis. Angela is clearly smart and who has been a good student (and still is as she doesn’t cut class) and this shows that she can also think outside of what is expected.

MSCL 4

Sex

Emma: Sex is a big talking point and something that Rayanne doesn’t appear to take too seriously in the pilot, though this could be another way she puts emotional barriers up. Rayanne mocks the romantic ideas that Angela has about sex, though Rickie finds what Angela says to be beautiful. There is a lot of bravado when it comes to sex with Rayanne which is why she tries to seem unfazed by what could have happened in the parking lot and her declaration that she can take care of herself doesn’t really match with the reality of the situation. Sex and who is doing it and not doing it is a staple of these shows and the attention to it in the pilot is appropriate.

Julie: It definitely seems like sex is going to be a big deal in the show, which makes sense because sex was a big deal in the ’90s to high schoolers on television. Angela Chase and I are in that same limbo generation that was too young for Gen-X and too old for Gen-Y or the Millennials or whatever. We grew up with safe sex PSAs and AIDS talks and, I think, all of us pretty much believed that we would die if we ever even looked upon another person’s genitalia. So, I’m interested to see how they will handle the inevitable sex-having. I’m guessing an HIV test at a free clinic is in the offing.

Emma: I got instant Mean Girls flashes when you mentioned the sex ed and all the dangers that could come with touching each other. We got some pretty heavy drugs talks at school and even thought this episode showed that alcohol can be bad, it didn’t feel too preachy or like an after school special. Also I do find it funny that we don’t have some catchy zeitgeisty name for our generation.

Julie: We might as well accept that we are Generation Catalano ;)

Julie Hammerle is, according to Klout, an expert in the areas of both Morgan Freeman and glasses. Her writing can be found at chicagonow.com/hammervision and you can holler at her on Twitter as well.

Emma Fraser wanted to be Angela Chase when she grew up, but is sadly not a CIA Agent now. Her writing can be found at TVOvermind and you will find her on both Twitter and Tumblr.

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