Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “The Zit” and “The Substitute”

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 5 and 6: “The Zit” and “The Substitute”
Original airdates: Sept. 22 and Sept. 29, 1994

Julie: Welcome, all, as Emma and I discuss two consecutive MSCL episodes that just happen to follow a “The (Noun)” naming pattern. And that’s about all they have in common.

“The Zit”
Julie: I think the two episodes we’re exploring this week, “The Zit” and “The Substitute,” represent my favorite and least favorite My So-Called Life episodes of all time so far.

“The Zit,” which seems simple at its core (Angela has a pretty epic pimple on her chin!), is a very nuanced, very honest exploration of women and their relationships with one another and how, until we stop putting these unreasonable expectations on ourselves, none of is every really going to be happy with who we are and how we look.

I loved how masterfully the show looked at this issue from all angles. There’s Angela, a.k.a. the plain one (though, can you ever really call Claire Danes “plain?”). There’s Sharon, the former plain one, who now has two reasons that guys are starting to notice her. Rayanne gets her self worth from people assuming she’s a slut. Patty is still trying to hold on to her days as a high school beauty. Angela’s little sister, Danielle, feels that her mother doesn’t think she’s as pretty as Angela. Even Rickie is concerned that people think he actually wants to be girl. Only Sharon’s mom seems at peace with her body and her place in the world.

MSCL 6 teacher

“The Substitute,” on the other hand, was a Dead Poets Society knockoff that we’ve seen a million times (most recently, and more effectively, in my writing teacher’s novel Princesses of Iowa—plug for Molly Backes). This episode had Robin Colcord of Cheers fame (Roger Rees, sporting a very questionable accent) getting the kids to open up through writing. The whole thing devolved into outside students (like Rayanne and Rickie) auditing the substitute’s class because he was so inspiring. Gag me with a spoon and two butter knives because that would never happen.

I mean, I’m not against the idea of students fighting for free speech (especially considering all the craziness happening in the Middle East right now regarding this issue). I’m just against the cheesy, obvious way in which this episode handled the issue. And it all felt like your typical mid-’90s, “we have no other problems, so we’ll make this our problem” whininess.

One more thing I’m against is the shot where the substitute teacher was walking down the front steps of the school as Angela and her friends caught sight of him from their classroom window. The kids had a lengthy conversation before leaving the room, and then ran out of the building to catch him and he was STILL WALKING DOWN THE STAIRS. How many steps does Angela’s high school have??? Was the school built on top of the Wall in Westeros? (Sorry, I went off on a tangent about “The Substitute” in “The Zit” section. You’ll adjust.)

What say you, Emma?

MSCL zit

Emma: “The Zit” really captured how all your insecurities are polarized as a teen, but also how they can be just as apparent as an adult. Everyone frets about their skin when they are in high school, whether you have a face like an Italian entrée (thanks, Graham, for that description) or just suffer through that one epic spot. I’m pretty sure we all think it’s way worse than it is, too. I was more in the Patty/Angela camp, in that I didn’t have terrible skin but when I did get a zit it felt like it took over my whole face (I also thought in my teenage naivety that blemishes were something that stopped by the age of 20—how wrong I was).

In wonderful Angela-voiceover fashion, she explains that “the zit had become the truth about me,” and it is precisely these grand statements that makes me love her voiceover. One particularly realistic element in this storyline is Angela constantly covering up her chin to hide the zit when really all that does is draw attention to the area; it’s an action that I am more than familiar with. I also think it is a nice bit of direction that Angela only applies concealer to the area when no one else is around, and she’s less than thrilled when anyone (mainly Sharon) walks in on her doing this. The art of concealer is to have people think that you’re not wearing it, but it’s another thing that can act as a highlighter instead.

Everyone has advice when it comes to zits, too.  Rayanne, of course, tells her to just pop it (I’m with Rayanne on this and her lack of control with this kind of situation); Rickie is sensible and tells her that concealer will block it; and Patty offers some good advice about using swabs that Angela rejects and then comes around to. This storyline captures this sensitive issue and at the same time also produces some A+ Angela-and-Patty scenes. The fact that Angela thinks that she isn’t beautiful seems crazy to me, but her look is completely different than Patty’s (who was clearly a conventional beauty in high school). The scene where Angela tells her mother to “face facts” and see she is ugly totally made me tear up (just writing about it is making my eyes go all misty again). Claire Danes once again shows that she is the master of crying scenes. Her reading of the line “You expect me to be beautiful, because you’re beautiful” kills me. Once again, this makes me question my dislike for Patty when I was younger, because she’s pretty great at realizing that she has messed up. She knows that she has lost perspective and her own issues with growing older have eclipsed Angela’s feelings of inadequacy.

MSCL top 40

Elsewhere, Sharon is now getting noticed, but she isn’t happy with all the attention. Her new assets—and the fact that she has a boyfriend also heightens—Angela’s feelings of undesirability. We get another bathroom confrontation between the two, and while I think that Sharon is wrong to ignore Angela’s initial questions about the mother/daughter show, I also understand that Sharon is still upset about their recently-ended friendship. This descends into both girls saying the worst thing that they can think of to the other in that moment. Sharon tells Angela to “go squeeze your zit,” and Angela rebuts by telling Sharon about the list: “you’re on it—they both are.” Neither comment seems that awful in the grand scheme of things, but in this moment those are the respective crises each is most insecure about, and this is the key to girl shit.

The bathroom is also the site (of course) where they call a truce later on. Sharon asks the all-important question: Why do girls tear each other down? The answer from Angela—probably the answer in most cases in life—is jealousy. (I’d add insecurity, too). This is a really nice moment where they try and remember a motto from when they were Girl Scouts, but it’s interrupted when Rayanne enters and once again sets up an old friends vs. new friends dynamic. Rayanne hasn’t been a huge presence in this episode; she seems genuinely pleased to be on the Top 40  list as “Most Potential Slut,” but is dismayed by Angela’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the title. Angela explains that she hasn’t got a problem with who Rayanne sleeps with, but there still feels like the beginning of tension between the pair.

Random observation regarding the girls bathroom: an anti-smoking poster hanging on the wall is brand new at the start of the episode, and it progressively accumulates more and more graffiti on it throughout, ending up with the word “pig” scrawled across it. This is a nice touch from the art department, and it links into girls tearing each other down—we can even do it to random models on posters. Also the girls bathroom seems to be the main smoking area, so this poster is really having little effect.

MSCL band practice

On a more positive note, I’m so glad that Rickie and Brian are friends now, even if Brian is a major wang for his not-so-subtle glancing (okay, staring) at Sharon’s boobs. I think Rickie will be good for Brian and I’m glad we’re getting to see Rickie coming out of his shell more—this includes his wonderful Wizard of Oz inspried goodbyes to the girls bathroom.

I feel like I could harp on about this episode all day. What did you think about the random fantasy sequence with the model from the fake magazine (American Gal, natch)?

Julie: Even models hate themselves. We’re all screwed.

But, oh my gourd, the zits. I was (thankfully) more like Patty and Angela, myself, in high school; but since having kids, my skin has gotten worse. So that’s fun.

You made such a good point about Angela wanting to hide the act of concealing from everybody. I was definitely that secretive girl, who basically didn’t want anyone to see me doing anything more intense beauty-wise than putting on lipstick. I was not comfortable even discussing shaving my legs until college, when my roommates and I used to shave on a special “shaving rug” in our dorm room. (And there’s the bit of TMI for which readers keep showing up to our posts. To be fair to myself and my roommates, those showers were small!) I think my squeamishness about these things comes from 1) being just generally insecure about my body, and 2) not having an older sister to blaze the trail for me.

God, I loved the Patty and Angela scenes. It rang so true, for me. I mean, do we ever really turn out to be the girls our mothers thought we would be? Is there anybody out there who feels like they measure up to all expectations? And Patty dealing with all of these insecurities in middle age shows that we never get over it. We never stop feeling like the teenager with the huge zit.

MSCL 5 dress measuring

I possibly loved the scene between Angela and Danielle even more. We get to see so much from Angela’s and Patty’s perspectives. The two of them often seem lost in their own business. But then there’s poor Danielle, the baby, who really doesn’t feel like she’s special to anyone. And that was heartbreaking. She feels like she’ll never measure up to her older sister who feels like she’ll never measure up to her mother. It’s a vicious cycle.

Or maybe I liked the Angela/Sharon stuff the best! I don’t know! This episode was just epic in its exploration of female relationships and insecurities. I think it touched on almost every possible combination. Angela had a great scene with every single girl in the cast. It was like Mean Girls but condensed and more real. There were truth bombs exploding all over the place. And, like you said, the little details of the defaced poster really drove the message home.

One last thing for now: Patty’s dresses were so much cuter before she frou-froued them up with lace trim. They could’ve won a challenge on last season’s Project Runway. Maybe not this season, but definitely the Anya season.

Emma: It’s funny because in a way I identify with Danielle. I was that annoying little sister—there’s a six year age gap between my sister and I, and I know I was just wanting to be older so I could be like her. I also teased her when she got a zit, so yep, I’m the worst.

I feel like this episode should be mandatory viewing (along with Mean Girls) just to show that we all (men included) have all these horrible insecurities no matter how old we are. The way it shows that even when we are complimented we can turn it in to an insult is so very real. I love that Graham tries his best not to fall into this trap (though he should have thought about this in the pilot when Patty cut her hair). Still, the Graham/Patty marriage is a lot stronger at this point then it was earlier in the season, and I think it’s because we’re seeing them communicate a lot more.

Finally, the mother/daughter fashion show is hilarious as it really highlights some terrible ’90s fashion, though Sharon and Camille kind of had a Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” thing going on (pre-Britney of course).

“The Substitute”
Emma: I’m sad that I’m going to switch episodes and talk about “The Substitute,” which as you’ve said used the whole Dead Poets Society motif and did it in a rather clunky fashion. Of course substitute Vic had his quirks (playing with toothpicks, wearing one white and one black sock), and of course he yelled at everyone to wake up and question everything. While I liked seeing Angela and the others inspired (except Brian of course), Vic just seemed so phony—as, of course, he turned out to be in reality. Writing poetry by candlelight was perhaps where I rolled my eyes the hardest. Yeah, he realized that Jordan couldn’t read (another plot that seems a little cliché now) and he got the class to question what free speech mean. But other than that he was not cool (no matter what Graham thinks).

We got another Angela in a car moment, and yet again Brian reads something sexual into it (this boy has a one track mind). I’m so happy they didn’t go down the “sleeping with a teacher” road though, as that would have been one cliché too far. I was surprised that Patty and Graham were okay with Angela seeing Vic by herself, but I guess that shows they are giving her more freedom.

MSCL 6 R& S bathroom

One thing I did enjoy in the episode was the Sharon/Rayanne scene and how Rayanne is both sad that she didn’t write the poem and amazed that Sharon did. Also, you know how much I love pointing out these important bathroom conversations. It’s another one that gets interrupted prematurely, this time by Angela. I kinda want all three of these girls to be friends, especially now that Rickie and Brian are hanging out.

Also it turns out that Jordan can do more than mumble as he shows with his “best teacher” outburst. Even he looks surprised by this moment.

It’s actually refreshing to discuss two episodes that produce such different reactions.

Julie: “The Substitute” was almost a parody of the rogue teacher meme. And, seriously, thank goodness they didn’t have anybody sleeping with Robin Colcord, because that would’ve been all kinds of gross. And I probably would’ve broken my eyeballs from all the rolling.

This might sound kind of, I don’t know, hypocritical coming from a writer-type person, but I really get annoyed when students “find their voices” through writing. Because it’s lazy on the writer’s part. It always seems obvious to me, like, “Duh, person-writing-this-episode, I get that writing saved your life, but it can’t save everyone’s.” I love to see somebody really find herself through chemistry or field hockey. It’s the same kind of annoyance I feel when watching an independent film where the parents are always professors or writers or artists. Hey artsy-fartsy writer, sometimes parents are cops or lawyers or plumbers. But I digress.

I also think the episode lost something in the fact that Robin Colcord’s character was not that inspiring, really. He was kind of a douche, had a horrible accent, and he was only a “good” teacher because he let the kids do whatever they wanted to do. It didn’t feel like a real writing class or, really, anything special that would’ve compelled kids not enrolled in the class to give up their precious free periods (or skip actual class).

I suppose the “work” this episode did was to set up the “Y Kant Jordan Reed?” storyline that we’ll be exploring next time. Barf. I’m excited.

Julie Hammerle is, according to Klout, an expert in the areas of both Morgan Freeman and glasses. Her writing can be found at 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.

12 Responses to “Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “The Zit” and “The Substitute””

  1. Andrew Daglas

    When I watched this episode I fought so hard not to email you both demanding at least 1,500 words on Rees’s accent alone. It’s truly something to behold.

    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      Video added so we may all get a hint of…whatever accent Rees was aiming for there (Brooklyn with cheese?).

      • Julie Hammerle

        I’ll give Rees the benefit of the doubt that this inscrutable accent was a conscious choice designed to highlight the shiftiness of his character.

        Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  2. Emma Fraser

    I’ve just started watching The West Wing and had just got to his first episode, so his accent seemed even weirder (if that’s possible).

    • Noel Kirkpatrick

      I love Lord John Marbury. So much. And I love how Leo hates him so much. “He thought I was the butler!” “For the first few months, so did I!”


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