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 2: “Dancing in the Dark”
Original airdate: Sept. 1, 1994
In this episode of “I wish I could’ve pulled off flannel dresses as well as Claire Danes did in 1994,” we followed Patty and Graham to ballroom dance class for a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. We saw Graham give up on his affair before it started, even though it sure looked started in the pilot episode. We also showed up uninvited at Brian’s house to wait for a fake ID from Jordan Catalano under the guise of working on an extra credit science project.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
EMMA: It’s interesting that they made it so Graham wasn’t completely the bad guy with his almost affair and that despite the temptations and the promise of some seedy motel sex he called it off at the last minute. To have one of the main parental figures having a full-blown affair by the second episode would definitely taint how Graham would be seen for the rest of the season and even though it might seem like they are bottling it by having it essentially be an affair of the mind, it actually seems more realistic and not the easy option. We know that their relationship has become strained now that Patty is his boss and that he might feel emasculated, so the first woman to show a sexual interest in him would be an intriguing prospect. In the most base sense it would make him feel like a man again. They work through their problems and acknowledge that there is an issue because they have been together for so long.
JULIE: The whole Graham non-affair affair reeked to me of “Producer Meddling.” I mean, we saw him kissing his adultery partner in the first episode in front of the house, like they were already quite familiar with each other. I wonder if that whole storyline did not test well with audiences/executives in the pilot, and the Powers That Be suggested they nix the affair in Episode 2. I also wonder (again, not having seen the rest of the series) if this was not a conscious choice to make Graham seem more sympathetic since Patty is going to become more unsympathetic. I am basing this almost exclusively on the fact that Forever Young Adult pretty much hates Patty Chase and she doesn’t seem so horrible to me so far.
Personally, I think it would’ve been an interesting dynamic to have one parent (the “cool” parent) engage in an extramarital affair (that Angela knows about) while the other parent (the “mean” one) is in the dark. She’d have to reconcile both of those truths within herself (Did I really just type that sentence?). Hey, didn’t that scenario actually happen on Felicity? Maybe JJ Abrams had my same reservations about the Graham Chase Non-Affair Affair storyline. I always knew JJ and I were simpatico.
EMMA: The conflict between Patty and Graham is because they are stuck in a rut that isn’t helped by working together and Patty’s attempts at mixing things up fail pretty miserably at first; the dance class that shows that they aren’t good at dancing together, the attempts to be sexy in the red dress and Graham’s response to the drastic hair cut. His “it shows off your ears more” is really the worst thing that you can hear when you change your hair (I have a friend who always calls me Peppermint Patty when I get mine cut; and yes, I always punch him for it). It makes me feel really sad for Patty when she tries to get opinions before and after she gets it done, and it isn’t helped that Hillary Clinton’s name is invoked as someone with short hair—I’m pretty sure that Michelle Obama would not be used in the same way relating to her style in a negative way. It’s also depressing that Hillary Clinton is still getting shit for her style even though she holds a high political position rather than being First Lady. Angela’s reaction to her mother’s hair cut is wonderful in that she seems perplexed and in that true teen way brings it back to her and her own recent hair change.
Patty rages about women’s magazines and all of their advice and then wears red anyway, but I know that I have also probably been indignant about these things and then also tried out certain things from magazines. The introduction of Camille, Sharon’s mother in this scene is also important in that it shows that Camille has a different relationship with her daughter as Sharon had given her a play by play of the bathroom incident in the pilot, something that Patty knows nothing about. I like that neither of them get mad at the other for the falling out between Sharon and Angela and it is reinforced several times in the scene how long they have known each other and they have had their own brief issues with each other when they were teenagers.
Patty is perceptive enough to know that Angela likes someone, but she is very far off the mark when it comes to which boy it is and I love that Angela overhears them thinking it is Brian. The awkward father/daughter chat that this leads to at the end of the episode is wonderful, it hits all the right marks of being uncomfortable but then Graham is allowed to give some pearls of wisdom about how “It’s really hard to figure out how to be a man.” There is really nice familiarity to these scenes and even though there is now distance between Angela and her parents, there can also be this closeness once in a while and food is something that helps bring a family together. How the phone call that Angela overheard her father having at the end of the episode will impact their relationship will be intriguing (and something I can’t remember). Once again it is good to see that this show focuses just as much on the parents and their Real Issues as it does on the teenagers.
One further thing and almost certainly because of watching it when I was younger but the Patty/Graham breakfast kiss and post-coital conversation still skeeze me out and make me feel super awkward as if I was watching with 14-year old eyes again. Now when seeing parental characters having moments it obviously doesn’t bother me in the slightest but Patty and Graham do.
JULIE: I agree with you, though I felt the moments between Patty and Graham felt very realistic and poignant. I kind of wish they had held off on the whole potential affair thing until later in the season, perhaps, because I have a hard time believing that Graham and Patty’s troubles are over now after one night of boning-by-candlelight-when-your-teenage-children-are-wandering-around-the-house-willy-nilly. Everything involving Patty and Graham and sex and touching is very, very wrong and awkward.
I thought the Patty haircut storyline was very interesting. She has seen how a hair transformation has changed her daughter, bought her cooler friends and an edgier attitude. But Patty feels she can only go one way with her hair — short. And short is not sexy. Short is Hillary Clinton, according to this mid-’90s television show. Maybe Patty should’ve just full-on copied Angela and gone for a color change. That dishwater blond is doing nothing for her.
Patty thinking that Angela is into Brian is just so everybody’s mom when they’re in high school. My mom always liked pointing out the “nice” guys to me, i.e. the guys whose mothers she was friends with. They were always boring, usually short, and generally equally as uninterested in me as I was in them. As far as the show goes, it’s funny that Patty is pushing so hard for Brian, when she essentially ended up with the Brian of her high school class. And they can’t even dance together!!!
Crushes: Fantasy vs. Reality
EMMA: This seems like a good time to move onto Angela and the whole fantasy vs reality Jordan Catalano crush. Once again I think the voiceover works in that it totally makes this about Angela and her Feelings. It’s the kind of stream of consciousness that makes this feel like journal entries and why I feel like it’s only slightly dorky that I wrote in my own journal about this show when I first watched it. The montage of first kisses and Angela’s lack of a real boyfriend at this age is probably what had me declaring that “this show gets me” as I hadn’t had a boyfriend at this point and like Angela I wondered if this was normal or not. This constant worry about being experienced and keeping up with the crowd is something that I think MSCL has captured in these first two episodes and is something that remains the same no matter what decade you went to high school in.
The awkwardness and obsessive nature of Angela’s crush is another ‘been there, done that’ moment (not the fake ID/car moment, just the general obsessive quality of it) and the encounter in the car made me once again rethink my own past Jordan Catalano crush. The car scene does ruin the fantasy but despite two mistimed and unreturned kisses, Angela is still rather happy that his shirt is touching her arm. You’re right about parents always wanting you to pick the good nice guy, though really I’m sure we all would pick the guy who was in a band first.
Speaking of bands, Jordan Catalano’s band name is amazing and Frozen Embryos is one of my favorite fake band names (the many names of Andy’s band in Parks and Recreation are also rather special). I’m always pro teen shows having bands, yes it’s a cliche but a cliche that is well earned (I spent a lot of my formative years at ‘Battle of the Bands’ contests and in pubs watching friends playing).
JULIE: Frozen Embryos is a great band name, I’ll agree. Score one for Jordan Catalano! My fake band was called Dumpster, and we would have rocked your world, if any of us girls could play an instrument.
I have to say, though, I thought there was going to be a little Briangela smooching at the end of the episode. I figured that her fantasy bubble of Jordan had been burst and now she’d be running full tilt to the nice, nerdy guy with the extra credit connections. I’m kind of happy that I was wrong, but I’m still mildly on Team Briangela (though I’m predicting a Brian/Rayanne coupling at some point because why not?)
Don’t tell me I’m wrong… yet.
The voiceover coupled with the W.G. Snuffy score gives this show a Felicity-in-high-school feel, or really, maybe Felicity was just “Angela Chase goes to college.” I think it works in the context of the show. Angela is not an outwardly wordy girl, so it’s nice to hear what she’s thinking from time to time.
OBSESSION by Calvin Klein
JULIE: I remember so well that feeling of being overwhelmed by your crush; and though I never wondered it at the time, now I do — did the boys obsess like we did, or did they, like Jordan Catalano, have other things going on? Seriously. Answer us, boys. Think of the children.
EMMA: Did you guys obsess like we did over every tiny detail with the person you had a crush on?
JULIE: Regarding the car scene, I loved those days where every movement, every word was analyzed to death. I know if it were me, I would’ve gotten out of the Jordan Catalano car and immediately run home to call my best friend, who in turn would immediately call another one of our friends on three-way. It was just the way things were done.
I also found that car scene extremely depressing in a very realistic way. When I was in high school, I was a big daydreamer. Still am, really. But back then I would pre-analyze every situation, imagining the perfect moments, the perfect kisses, the perfect guy telling me I was perfect. And it never, ever, ever panned out. Even when it did pan out, it didn’t, just like Jordan kissing Angela. The real thing was never what I wanted it to be. But that probably comes with the territory when the guys you’re obsessing over are either current douchebags or future homosexuals.
EMMA: Expectations were never the same as reality and it is such a sham when shows (particularly teen ones) make moments like first kisses and losing your virginity into these perfect, magical experiences because you’re right in reality that isn’t how it happens. I liked that I could identify with Angela in this way and that they didn’t sugarcoat things and that the dream guy would often turn out to be a dick. I’m guessing that teens will no longer know the meaning of three way phone chats or how much time was spent on the house phone talking to people you had spent all day at school with, it’s weird to think it’s all things like Skype/FaceTime now (and yes I sound incredibly old but I am also so happy that things like Facebook didn’t exist when I was at high school, can you imagine the photos for a start?!).
JULIE: Shudder. I don’t even post old high school pictures on Facebook now, that’s how embarrassing they were. Part of me shudders when I think back to those days—poring over last year’s yearbook and this year’s hockey brochure, discussing guys we’d never even talk to, let alone date. But really, what was the harm? Sure, could my time have been better spent rehearsing my music or not getting a D in physics? Probably. But at least I have volumes of horrible poetry dedicated to these unattainable men and, come on, I was never going to be a scientist anyway.
I will have to remind myself of all this once Baby Cookies reaches teenhood and I catch her and her friends circling guys’ pictures in the Fall Sports Catalog. My hope for her future, as well as my own, is that she grows up to be as nerdy as I was. I did so little “wrong” in high school, that I deserve an intelligent, level-headed teenage daughter. Karma, please.
Navigating Social Groups
EMMA: The whole crossing over of friendship groups and not being all that comfortable about them mixing further shows different aspects of Angela’s life; Brian calls her (and Sharon) by their surnames and that she used to spend a lot of time hanging out at his house reinforces how long they have known each other, but they haven’t been close in a long time. Brian and Sharon both know Angela and details of her past, details that might betray her new ‘cool’ edge.
Rayanne is once again like a whirlwind, though it feels like they toned her down and made her less ‘crazy wayward teen’ in this episode (once again perhaps because of a test audience). Rickie is still really sweet and this provides a balance between him and Rayanne, though he can clearly be persuaded by Rayanne and his lack of confidence in his own skin is clear. Brian explaining science and the point of the experiment provides a good comical moment.
Is Rayanne still annoying you? In love with Jordan Catalano yet?
JULIE: Yes. No.
I think they use Ricky just the right amount. If the show had gone on longer, I know Ricky would’ve gotten his Very Special Episode (maybe he does get one later in the season anyway). But I love the little moments with him. He earns the 6th Man Award for me. A great utility player.
But neither Rayanne nor Jordan Catalano is doing it for me yet. But Brian is so cute… I’m a nerd.
Speaking of high school groups, which one were you in?
EMMA: I don’t want to reveal too much with Rickie but yeah he really brings a special voice to any scene (I also had to Google 6th Man Award as my knowledge of US sports is reduced to FNL!) but that is a perfect way to describe him and I think that any show can benefit from having a character like this, particularly when their natural opposite is a character like Rayanne.
Group wise at school, I was a bit of a nerd but also heavily into the band scene, not that I could play an instrument but I was just very big into going to gigs and festivals. I worked in a record store and basically wanted to be in the movie Empire Records. I also flirted briefly with hanging out at the skate park; baggy trousers, with dress over the top and Vans trainers were my look for a year. We also did dorky things like make movies and went through a bit of Jackass phase (but less gross/extreme). I guess I would most happily define myself as having been an indie kid who dabbled in other areas of the arts like school plays (always in the chorus, never a main role). Also because the drinking age over here is 18 we never really had to do the fake ID thing in the same way, though I used to keep my sister’s old credit card in my purse to somehow prove that I was 18, that or I would wear my glasses or smoke a cigarette as I thought that made me look older (though it worked most of the time) and the pun scene was definitely an integral part of the social life from about 16 onwards. How about you?
JULIE: I was in sort of an “undefinable” group. If anything, we were the city kids. (I went to a private high school in the suburbs.) We took the bus home freshman and sophomore year and we hung out with guys from another school, probably due to a combination of lack of female competition and the fact that my cousin went to that school. In fact, I think my cousin attended at least one dance with every one of my friends. He was the “I don’t have a date” date. Had we lived in Kentucky or something, I probably would’ve taken him to a dance or two myself. My friends and I were all into different things (swimming and color guard and music) and we all liked different kinds of guys. We had fun, but mostly pretty innocent fun. I was a gigantic Rule Follower. Like I said earlier, I was Sharon. But hopefully I had a smaller stick up my butt.
EMMA: One thing I found funny and so very 90s about the episode is that there was a reference to satanic cults and I remember this being such a big worry during this time (in terms of pop culture I remember several X-Files episodes and the movie The Craft– which I love). There always has to some danger to the nations youth it would seem.
JULIE: Ha! Parents in the ’90s were so worried about Satan. We were all going straight to H-E-double-hockey-sticks with our dirty music and our Dungeons & Dragons. My aunt even whited out most of the pictures in my cousin’s Guns ‘N’ Roses albums. Because GNR were wicked hard core.
EMMA: While we’re on the subject of music I’m not sure if the episode title is meant to have anything to do with Bruce Springsteen, but I love that song so I’m going to pretend it does. If I’m going to analyze this episode via the song ‘Dancing in the Dark’ (and you know I want to) then I’m going to follow his wise words and say that “You can’t start a fire without a spark” and you can’t have a romantic relationship without this; Patty and Graham prove they still have a spark (ew and cringe at this statement). Patty and Graham’s dancing is sadly not as good as either Bruce Springsteen or Courtney Cox. If only the rest of the episodes had Springsteen song titles.