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, Episodes 3 & 4: “Guns and Gossip” and “Father Figures”
Original Air Dates: Sept. 8 & 15, 1994
Julie: Hi, everyone! This week you get two MSCL episodes for the price of one (i.e., FREE!) because we’d like the Halloween episode to coincide with Halloween. Synergy.
Episodes three and four of MSCL dealt with, respectively, guns in school and dads. Rickie took center stage in “Guns and Gossip,” while Paul Dooley showed up in “Father Figures” to pooh-pooh healthy eating.
Emma: “Guns and Gossip” is the first time Rickie really gets to shine beyond the friend role. It is sadly not surprising that a kid who dresses like Rickie is the subject of intimidation and bullying on a daily basis (though the “kids” who are bullying him look like they’re pushing 40).
Julie: Par for the course in 1990s teen dramas.
Emma: So far we have only really seen Rickie in environments where he is mostly comfortable and free from this fear, such as the girl’s bathroom, but we got to see how horrible it can be for Rickie when he is by himself—and no matter how annoying Rayanne sometimes is, at least she always has Rickie’s back. Despite the fear and intimidation, I’m glad that Rickie hasn’t altered how he looks or behaves, even if it might make his days at school easier. So Rickie is somewhat of a paradox in that he seems like he has the least amount of confidence and self-belief, but he also rocks up to school in make-up and the most fabulous of outfits (he is the king of waistcoats). I love Rickie so I’m glad that he starts to become his own character rather than just an add-on in this episode.
He has the sanctuary of his car and it breaks my heart when he tells Angela that he can’t make a day without retreating to this place.
The whole plot with the gun feels slightly ahead of the guns-in-schools curve, though I’m sure this storyline is a common one for teen shows. The actual reason the gun went off is way more innocuous than Patty and all the parents are imagining, and even though it is a serious issue they still manage to bring a comedic element to it: Rickie’s cousin peeing himself, the overreaction of the girl whose locker (and soda) got shot, how Rayanne uses the situation to scam a few days off school by faking emotional distress. Angela uses the counselling sessions to work through her own Issues (yeah, they require the capital I), though she does come through for Rickie in their car bonding session, and the feeling of going from acquaintances to friends is captured rather well. Despite the kids’ mostly nonchalant attitude toward the gun incident, there is a concern when Rickie gives his argument as to why he would have a gun and that it really is a serious issue—they just don’t freak out in the same way Patty does.
Julie: I also found it interesting that Rickie was involved in the whole “gun going off” situation and even wanted people to think he was armed and dangerous. There is a lot of concern these days about people like Rickie—i.e., people who are “different” and feel like outsiders in their school, taking violent action against their bullies. And I definitely think the show was ahead of its time in addressing that sort of situation. Maybe the show got its inspiration from Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.”
I don’t know. I just wanted to mention Pearl Jam. Just be happy I didn’t mention the time Scott shot himself on 90210. Oops.
I give Rickie tons of props for being who he is, despite the fact that he’s a little insecure about it.
Parents Still Just Don’t Understand
Emma: Moving on to Angela and sex, how wonderfully awkward is Patty’s sex chat with her?! It’s also kind of sweet the way that Patty initiates it by complimenting her music (The Cranberries, natch), and I find it hard to remember why I thought Patty was so awful. The relief from Patty when she realizes that Angela is telling the truth is hilarious, though I love that she refers to Jordan as a “male pal.” That this conversation happens because of something that Rayanne’s mother has said also highlights, once again, that other teenage daughters share stuff with their mothers. Rayanne’s mother is of course like Rayanne, though she’s not as much of a ‘deadbeat mom’ as the pilot would suggest she is—scattered, yes, and not traditionally parental, but at this moment she seems like a “Cool Mom” (I’m now thinking about Amy Poehler in Mean Girls). Patty is fascinated, jealous, and I’m guessing a tad appalled by her, but we get a glimpse into how insecure Rayanne actually is when her mother says that Rayanne wants to be Angela (and yeah, I totally get the thing about that one friend whose hair, clothes, and house you wished were yours, in a non-creepy way).
The shift in parental focus from mothers to fathers in “Father Figures” is definitely required after Angela witnessed her dad with another women in the pilot, then caught him on the phone calling his illicit booty call in the second episode. Graham’s response to this disdain and lack of love from Angela is somewhat childlike: he’s confused, and when he sees her rifling through his stuff he reacts with his own petulance and ignores her. Patty is the wise one here, as she has been putting up with Angela’s “silent contempt” for sometime now. She schools Graham on his parenting methods, but I like that she lets him makes his own mistakes first before giving him the sage advice of letting Angela push him away. It’s also sweet that Patty tells Graham that she thought he would make a good father when they first got together (though with all things Patty and Graham, I still get skeezed out when they have moments of intimacy), and it’s sweet that this story runs parallel to Patty’s own father/daughter conflict.
Also how great is the music discussion between Angela and Graham at the end?! With every older generation little understanding of new music is born…
Julie: As far as the music conversation at the end of the episode—loved it. I remember being about Angela’s age when I found my dad’s music collection (cassette tapes) and it was full of R.E.M. and Midnight Oil and Talking Heads. And I was like, “My father is a New Age badass.” There’s nothing like perusing what somebody listens to, to get a real sense of who they are. (And my dad even took me to see Pearl Jam once.)
Emma: In terms of music, I remember actively not wanting to like what my parents did. But like you, when I discovered what awesome stuff my dad had, I had to change my mind. Though it’s always funny listing off band names that they’ve never heard of and realizing how dumb some of those names actually sound out of context. It’s great when Angela, after mentioning all these contemporary artists, then throws in Billie Holiday and Graham is both super-psyched and surprised by this inclusion. It’s moments like these that make MSCL not just a high school show but one about family. I think it’s why it has endured as a popular show (and because it got cancelled, of course).
Julie: Is it just me, or does Angela and Graham’s relationship give you the willies? Ever since the first episode when he sees her in the towel. I know it’s probably innocent and I’m sure all dads go through that “holy crap, my daughter’s a woman now” phase, but… ew. There’s something just too potentially sexual for me.
Emma: With Graham and Angela I don’t really see the “ew” factor of their relationship, but definitely the whole awkward, “oh, my daughter is becoming a woman and I don’t know how to react” response. Patty wants to know if Angela is sleeping with Jordan and Graham wants to live in blissful ignorance—he doesn’t want to think about that kind of thing, it would seem. Though I also love that when he asks Brian for help with the gutter, he mutters about Brian blatantly wanting to sleep with Angela. (Plus the fact that Brain is on roller blades kills me.)
It’s slightly awkward when Rayanne is flirting with Graham and so maybe Angela is punishing her for this. Also, I don’t think Rayanne has an interest in Graham, I just think that this behavior is part of her character to mask her insecurity. As another example, when Angela sees Rayanne talking to Jordan, she instantly becomes mistrusting. Once again it is good to see that the school’s bathroom set is getting some good use with Rayanne and Angela having their heart-to-heart in there. And when Rayanne talks about her mother and the Grateful Dead, I’m totally picturing Almost Famous and her being a Band Aid.
Julie: I don’t know what’s making me squirm exactly about Graham and Angela. And it’s only sometimes. I loved the scene between them on the ladder. Graham is a dad who just has daughters, and I love that he’s putting his girl to work at such a manly task as fixing the gutter. And I love that he asked Brian for help. And that he called him out (under his breath, at least) for wanting to hook up with Angela but not wanting to assist her father.
As far as the Patty goes, I still do not get all the hate. She’s a pretty Awesome Mom Character. She’s trying to understand her daughter. Sure, she’s a little protective and sometimes goes about things the wrong way (as any mom of a teenage girl is wont to do—you’re fighting a losing battle there). Plus she’s a legitimate businesswoman, who took over her family’s company and is looking to bring it into the ’90s, Mr. Bahnks. And when you consider the father she’s dealing with… impressive.
Emma: I like that the stuff with Patty and her dad wasn’t properly resolved either, because he’s clearly an old-fashioned sexist who is stuck in his ways; despite Patty’s best efforts to meet on her terms, he will always insist on getting pie (this sounds way dirtier than I intended). It is still his business in his eyes, even if Patty has been doing all the heavy lifting over the last few years. It seems like his own personal rebellion against Patty, change, and age to be dismissive of her ideas. I’m happy that Patty stood up to him though—even if it seemed to fall on deaf ears, they both know that there is an important shift in their father/daughter relationship.
It’s only a small moment, but I also love how upset Patty is with having Jay Leno on TV instead of Johnny Carson. It kind of made me think of our own recent (or not so recent I guess, time flies) late night TV shift between Leno and Conan O’Brien. Some people have always been mad at Jay for being in that slot.
Also, even though I squirm at the intimate scenes between Graham and Patty, I like that we get to see the pair having regular conversations in bed.
Julie: I love that Graham and Patty seem to have a pretty solid marriage, save for all the “kissing trollops” business.
If You Believe They Put a Man on the Moon
Emma: For the parents, the gun is the symbol of the end of innocence and a fear that they can’t protect their children from the dangers of the big bad world. Of course, they view their own experience of growing up through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia; Patty talks about how they never had guns, AIDS, or serial killers, but I’m pretty sure they had two out of those three. This is the same with any generation: they forget the things that their parents freaked out about when they were younger and ignore that there will always be unseen dangers. Now, I’m sure it’s the Internet and sexual predators added to that list of parental worries (drugs, and particularly things like Ecstasy, were the major Evil when I was younger). This response to things that can harm your children is only natural, and I think this episode captures the hysteria without it becoming farcical. The metal detectors going up at the end scream symbolism, but I guess this kind of stuff happens when a gun is involved. I remember what a big deal it was when we got combination locks on the front door of our school after the Dunblane massacre. This really did feel like an end-of-innocence moment, but we never had any issues with weapons in my school.
Julie: I really loved how the episode started with Angela being kind of depressed that she didn’t have an event as big and as memorable as the JFK assassination in her life. I remember having a similar thought back in high school. We were part of this generation whose parents had seen so much—from the moon landing to the Vietnam War to The Beatles—and what did we have? Kurt Cobain dying and ironic American Gladiators lunch boxes. Little did we know that less than a decade later we’d have our JFK assassination. (I’m speaking of 9/11, in case that was unclear.) Oh, and the Columbine massacre, which happened when I was in college, and which I’m just about to start teaching.
I don’t know if they could’ve done a “gun” episode like this today. I mean, first of all, Rayanne talked about the fact that people in their school brought in guns all the time, which… what? I don’t remember that ever being okay. But today, when kids are getting suspended for having nail files in their lockers, it’s unthinkable.
Emma: The big event thing is a funny concept, in that you want to be part of a shared experience like this, but inevitably it is a tragic event (except for the moon landing). Or something sports related. September 11 happened the week before I started university and automatically became a “where were you” conversation starter, which is a lot more morbid than “where are you from?” Before 9/11, the big news “where were you” moments for me would be Princess Diana dying (I was in bed and heard my mum on the phone; she was super upset and I couldn’t tell what had gone on) and the TV presenter Jill Dando getting shot on her doorstep (we found out about it at school and thought it was a random hoax, long before Twitter death hoaxes were a regular thing).
Julie: It’s timely to be talking about Big Events around the anniversary of 9/11. Even though I tend to avoid all of the memorials and sadness, I still think about where I was that day and how it felt to be driving home from work down the Edens Expressway from the north suburbs of Chicago, seeing the Sears Tower appear as if out of nowhere, and thinking, “What if it just weren’t there one day?” As far as Princess Diana’s death, that happened during my first week of college and that time was already so surreal that it barely registered for me. I do remember Chris Farley’s death later that year, though. That one touched a nerve (also, it happened on my birthday).
Emma: The timing of monumental events is indeed very apt. Hard to believe it happened 11 years ago. It also shows that, like JFK, these moments don’t become any less clear even when a significant amount of time has passed.
Emma: The note and Angela’s new reputation made me realize that these type of everyday high school rumors probably aren’t written with pen and paper nowadays but are splashed all over various websites (and this makes me glad that social media sites didn’t exist while I was at school… I’m sounding old now). Rumors are hard to stop from spreading even when they are not true, so even if the method is pen and paper it can have a wide impact. This storyline also reminded me of the movie Easy A and how you get treated very differently when people think you will have sex (and in a car no less). Angela seems overly frustrated by the whole thing and mostly disgusted, though it seems that she is a tiny bit intrigued until she gets her own personalized note in class.
Julie: I was so shocked that her mother picked up on Rayanne wanting to be like Angela. I mean, when Angela and Rayanne are together, Rayanne consistently has the upper hand, so it’s hard to believe that she goes home at night and tells her mother about this amazing girl she’s friends with. I’m not saying it’s not true, it just seems out of character—or, more likely, it’s revealing a bit of character we haven’t seen yet. I want to see more of this nuanced, insecure girl.
Emma: Rayanne is all about making jokes about bad things, so when she show insecurities it stands out. That really starts to show in “Father Figures,” when she has the falling out with Angela. Considering what we’ve seen Rayanne be blasé about (almost getting sexually assaulted, for one), it’s understandable that Angela doesn’t get what the big deal is with the concert tickets. We already know that Rickie and Rayanne are from homes that are very different to Angela’s two-parent household, but we find out a little more about Rickie and how his home life is violent on occasion. There’s so much sadness even in a simple sentence from Angela like, “My dad always knocks,” to which Rickie replies “I had a feeling.”
Yes, Angela is selfish in this scenario. Not to defend her too much, but Rayanne is normally less than bothered by stuff (or she’s good at pretending). Maybe because I’m from a two-parent home Angela’s point of view is the one I identify with, so I can see that she is in the wrong. Still, just because your home life looks perfect it doesn’t mean it is. They definitely cover a variety of different family set-ups.
Julie: I actually loved the Angela/Rayanne storyline here. It shows how prone to distrust girls are, even when they’re supposed best friends. I’m positive Rayanne would never go after Jordan, but from Angela’s POV, I get her insecurity. Everything in high school is so volatile. I was sure, just because it would’ve been the worst thing for Angela, that Rayanne would go to the concert with Jordan. Alas, she didn’t and the two of them can continue being friends. And I think you’re right about Rayanne’s flirting with Graham having something to do with her insecurity. Judging by what we’ve seen so far of her mother, Rayanne’s experience with watching her interact with men has probably been mostly sexual or flirtatious
Sitting in Cars With Boys
Emma: The car provides the venue for a first bonding moment with Angela and Rickie (and contrasts nicely to the awkward car scene with Jordan in “Dancing in the Dark” that fuels the Angela sex rumor). It also gives us the age-old “I wish my life was like yours” conversation. Rickie thinks that Angela’s life is perfect, and in a way it is: she has a loving home life and she doesn’t have to face prejudice on a daily basis. Angela thinks that her life is “pathetic,” and even though her problems are so small in comparison to Rickie’s, she’s a teenager, so this self-obsession seems less offensive than, say, when Carrie makes everything about her on Sex and the City.
Brian’s car is used in the next episode as a hiding spot for Angela when she is pretends that she is at the concert. Clearly cars (even stationary ones) are the favored getting-away-from-everyone-place on My So-Called Life.
Julie: And I loved the moment with him and Angela in the car. Nice call comparing it to her scene with Jordan from the previous episode. I’d much rather see Angela and Rickie ride off together into the sunset, or to the MAC counter to try on lipstick. Brian and Rayanne can come too, since apparently they’re now all best friends.
Back to Mr. Catalano, though: he’s gross. I’m sorry. So gross. The whole “if everybody thinks we’re having sex we might as well do it” thing? Skeevy. He is not cute enough to be that skeevy. I don’t think anyone is cute enough for that. Maybe Logan Echolls. Also, he’s kind of an idiot and his hair is stupid and so is his face.
Now that I’ve gotten my feelings out of the way, I think I can talk more rationally about Jordan Catalano and how gross he is. Or maybe not. All I know is that I want to shake some sense into Angela (or have Rickie do it for me).
By the way, I watched the movie Bachelorette (awful) over the weekend, and the Lizzy Caplan character had a whole routine about Brian Krakows vs. Jordan Catalanos and their sexual prowess post-high school. Her verdict: Date a Brian Krakow, because he never got the ladies in high school and is just grateful to be spending any time at all in “that area.” The more you know.
Emma: I’m sad that Bachelorette is not so good. I was excited (mainly for Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan), and even more so when I heard there was an MSCL debate in it. That conclusion does sound pretty right really, even though Brian is the most awkward and has a habit of saying the worst thing (see when he gives Angela his jumper in “Father Figures,” which is a sweet gesture, and then follows it up with an inappropriate question about Jordan).
Yes, Jordan is most definitely a skeeze in the scene you mentioned, and I want to hand in my “I heart Jordan Catalano” ring binder from back in the day. I find it really interesting in these scenes that Angela always fixates on one part of his clothes. In the car it was his sleeve, and in this moment it was his collar. I guess that’s all about noticing even the most minute things when you are really obsessed with someone.
Yet Angela seems less nervous in the conversations between them. That is, until the next episode, where she inadvertently offers her Grateful Dead tickets for sale. The way she describes this moment—hearing the “last sentence echoing in your brain and it just keeps sounding stupider”—is something I’m sure we can all relate to. That’s why the next thing you say to stop that dumb thing is normally even dumber.
Julie: I may have missed a line in “Father Figures” somewhere, but I thought Angela’s scalping the tickets came out of nowhere. I mean, I guess it gave her something to talk to Jordan about, and it’s so “high school” to bring your coveted tickets to school. “Look at these tickets that are worth lots of dollars. They’ll be in my backpack/locker in case you’d like to steal them.” Anyway, somebody mentions something later about making money, so perhaps that was just what Angela was doing.
Emma: When Angela is talking to Jordan, to wipe clean her dumb remark she mentions that she still owes him $30 as a change of subject. And because she’s flashed the tickets around in the least cool way ever (while attempting to be cool), he suggests the scalping. It’s a brief moment.
Julie: A-ha. I absolutely loved Angela fanning herself with those tickets. So dorky. So true to high school.
But there was yet another car scene in these episodes: A scene between Brian (who can rock some rollerblades, by the way) and Angela in his driveway. This show loves cars.
Emma: I guess when you’re a teenager, if you have a car it’s the only real private space you had. It’s that symbol of independence and freedom, so I like that several pivotal moments have happened in them.
Julie: I like that Angela just hopped into Brian’s car like it was nothing. She seems to be the Patty in the relationship, and he’s the dorky, high school Graham. Maybe someday far in the future, she’ll be changing her name to Angela Chase-Krakow on Facebook.
The husband and I got into a little discussion last night about MSCL and how most of the characters, so far, are falling flat for me. I love Angela, but probably mostly because I get what she’s going through and all of her thoughts are filtered through her voiceover. Inevitably, our conversation turned to Felicity, which is not a huge stretch, considering MSCL has a lot in common with that show. And one thing I’m really missing with MSCL is the love interest that you can get behind. Whether you were on Team Ben or Team Noel, both guys were worthy of Felicity’s attention. So far, Jordan Catalano is a cipher who leans and Brian is kind of a jerk with really bad hair. I want to believe in love again.
Emma: Time for a confession: I’ve only seen the pilot of Felicity. It never aired over here and I’ve got the first season, but I haven’t got around to watching it. I do know what you mean about having a love interest to root for, though. (I pick Scott Speedman by the way, though I don’t know if he is Ben or Noel.) As I’ve said before I was all about Jordan Catalano my first time through MSCL, but now I’m “eh” about the love interests. I’m Team Rickie-and-Everyone. And Angela, I love Angela.
Julie: Haven’t seen Felicity?!? Well, now I know what our next show for this column will be.
Emma: I would totally be down with a Felicity watch next, as I feel like it is a gaping hole in my teen show education.