Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “Why Jordan Can’t Read” & “Strangers in the House”

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: “Why Can’t Jordan Read” and “Strangers in the House”
Original airdates: Oct. 6 and Oct. 20, 1994

Julie: Welcome, ye who thirst for ’90s nostalgia! This week, Emma and I discover why Jordan can’t read good and whether or not “Strangers in the House” ends up with Claire Danes gagged and in handcuffs.

“Why Jordan Can’t Read”

Emma: So after our last blip of an episode, I’m glad to say that the next two installments are back on form and deal with the grand subjects of love and death. I’m going to start with everyone’s favorite-titled episode, “Why Jordan Can’t Read”—and first of all, I’m pretty sure we don’t find out why, just that he can but not very well. It is this revelation that propels the Jordan/Angela relationship forward as she becomes his confidante in this matter thanks to the letter that she wrote to him… albeit one which she never actually meant for him to read in the first place (bad Rayanne).

MSCL ep7 The Smile

The journey that this episode takes from “I’m so over him so I wrote this epic letter,” to “I’m so into him,” and then all the way around to Angela being heartbroken, nicely demonstrates that all-consuming first crush being realized and then destroyed. We get to see all of Claire Danes’s amazing face parts acting, from her incredible smile (all I could think about is the Homeland season two premiere) to her crying face—which, if there were an award for best crying face, then Danes would win every time. Angela’s hair even gets in on the showing-emotions party, going from bouncy to limp while she is waiting for Jordan to come over to her house. I like that we get to see Angela being super dorky with this stuff, like practicing saying “hi” and dancing outside of her house after a successful kiss in Jordan’s car.

It’s taken some time but Jordan is finally getting fleshed out as a character. I wonder if they wanted us to know only as much about Jordan as Angela did; at the start he was nothing more than the boy who leans, but now that Angela is getting to know him better so are we. He ended up letting Angela down, but he doesn’t really strike me as the meeting-the-parents kind of guy, though that didn’t make the scenes where Angela is all dressed up waiting for him easier to watch. Jordan is the kind of guy who will happily write a love song to his car but who clearly finds it hard to express himself in more than a few words about a person in real life. Yes, I was excited that it was about the car, because you know how much I love the stuff with cars in this show (almost as much as I love the bathroom scenes), and the misunderstanding perfectly sums up Angela and Jordan at this point: she reads too much into things and he doesn’t read enough (not linked to his actual reading skills).

MSCL ep Brian

One person who says too much is Brian, whose inability to filter his thoughts means that conversations with Angela normally end with them yelling at each other. When Angela is dressed up for Jordan, Brian tells her that she looks “like you’re going to a costume party as someone else.” That’s something that only someone socially awkward would say, and Brian is the definition of this. It doesn’t help that he follows this up by saying that he is disgusted, but doesn’t disapprove (of course you don’t, Brian). And Angela talks to Brian like he’s much younger than her, especially when she tells him that he is incapable of understanding how she feels when it comes to the Jordan Catalano of it all. He does understand, but he wears his emotions in a very different way. I think Angela isn’t ready to see that Brian totally digs her.

My favorite crush of the episode comes courtesy of Danielle, who falls in and out of love with Brian over the space of the episode. Once again Danielle provides some of MSCL‘s more lighthearted moments, with her mooning over Brian and demanding sax lessons. When Brian finally offers to give these lessons, Danielle is totally over him, hilariously. (How old is Danielle meant to be? I’m not sure they’ve ever said, but I’m guessing 10 or 11.) Danielle also performs the role of annoying little sister to a T by informing Patty and Graham that Angela is in love.

The out of left-field crush this week comes from Rickie, who is apparently so into Jordan that he knows his entire schedule. It’s not that it isn’t plausible that Rickie has been harboring this secret, but you’d think we would have seen some evidence of it by now. Once again this kind of puts Rickie on the outside of things; he’s living vicariously through Angela, especially when he keeps saying things like “that’s just what I would do.”

Once again we get to deal with reality versus fantasy. How we perceive things doesn’t always match up to how things really are, as best demonstrated by the juxtaposition of two scenes. First, in the bathroom, Rayanne tells Sharon that she feels numb when she is with a guy. Later, Angela calls Rayanne’s amorous relationships real… which they really aren’t.

I just noticed how much I have written, so I will turn it over to you, Julie. What did you think of the episode?

Julie: Where to start? I guess with the title. I still wish they had called this episode “Y Kant Jordan Read” in honor of Tori Amos’s ill-fated ’80s band, but whatever. My So-Called Life doesn’t have to rename all of its episode titles for my own personal entertainment. And coincidentally, I discovered recently (while looking for books on teaching your kids to read) that there’s an old reading series from the ’70s called “Why Can’t Johnny Read,” so I suppose that’s where the title came from. The more you know.

Getting into Angela’s feelings for Jordan, I, too, loved the trajectory of Angela’s crush this episode. While she has spent the past few episodes barely thinking about Jordan Catalano (too busy with zits and substitutes), she did find time to write him a letter out of nowhere. About all the things she likes about him. Even though she’s so over him. And she made the fatal mistake of showing said letter to Rayanne, which then led to him finding the letter and opening up to Angela and all of a sudden she’s crushing on him again. Hard. It’s a power of suggestion thing, I think. He didn’t like her, but now he’s talking to her and sharing things with her, so maybe he likes her, and maybe she really, definitely likes him! It’s so high school, I love it.

I know I started out this little MSCL journey saying that I never really got the whole Claire Danes thing. Well, now I get it. I should write her a five page letter about how wonderful I think she is. (Coincidentally, I just got into Homeland over the past month or so, so my life has been pretty full of Danes). Her face is so expressive. Her hairs are like tiny follicular Marlon Brandos, method acting their way into our hearts. The woman can even make a little dance up the walkway after a kiss special. She’s a national treasure, that Claire Danes.

MSCL ep7 guitar

I support your theory about Jordan and his personality and how maybe we weren’t supposed to know that much about him. And, going along with that, I wish the camera had not shown us Jordan sitting in the loft, blatantly not going to meet Angela’s parents. I mean, I guess they were probably trying to show that he was torn, that he wanted to do this for Angela, but he’s not good with parents. He can’t even read, for goodness’s sake. What parent would want him taking their impressionable young daughter to a movie? But I would’ve liked it if they had left it open, if he stood up Angela, but we (like she) didn’t know the real reason.

Though, that moment was so underplayed and cryptic, we don’t really know the reason anyway, do we? I suppose I’d just like it if they didn’t make Jordan a point-of-view character. I like not knowing what he’s up to. It really adds to the vicarious high school experience.

As far as my own personal crushes go, I continue to be in love with Brian Krakow. That scene with him and Angela playing ball was so cute. He obviously cares deeply about her, or at least the idea of her. He’s built her up so much in his brain that she’s constantly disappointing him.

If this show had continued on for a few more seasons, we definitely would’ve seen a big Angela/Danielle fight over Brian Krakow. Unless he’s dating Rayanne in the future. I could see the two of them as the teen drama equivalent of Mary Matalin and James Carville. Lots of fighting, then Maker’s Mark, and then probably some sex that nobody wants to know about.

And I certainly agree that the writers should have alluded to Ricky’s crush on Jordan earlier in the season, though maybe it just occurred to them.

But on to things about this episode that I didn’t like: why in the world did they jump to the “old lady pregnancy scare” with Patty so early in the series? They’ve already done the affair story and the fashion show story. And now they’re doing the late period story. It’s just too cheesy. Also, I don’t like thinking about Graham and Patty doing the deed. Though, apparently Angela thinks it’s a laugh. What did you think?

MSCL ep7 Patty & Camille

Emma: Glad that you are now firmly on the Danes train. If you haven’t seen Shopgirl with Claire Danes (and Steve Martin, who also wrote the novel on which the movie’s based) I’d highly recommend it, just to add to your wall-to-wall Claire Danes month. It also has Jason Schwartzman being adorable in it.

The pregnancy scare did feel a tad rushed after everything else, but there were some aspects about it that I really liked. The scenes between Patty and Camille are always a delight as it’s easy to believe that they have been friends for a long time—there’s an ease and a warmth that I think only exists in these types of relationships. Once again Camille is the voice of reason and Patty is the one freaking out. The choice between pregnancy or menopause seems like a lose-lose for Patty, as one means the end of her youth and the other means, well, another child. The Patty/Camille stuff is even better in “Strangers in the House,” but I will get to that in a bit.

The fact that Graham seemed in the “I don’t want another kid” boat and then changed his mind when it came to the test was a little convenient, but I guess there is always that whole living-in-a-house-full-of-women thing to contend with. I should ask my dad really, as he had the pleasure of two daughters, but that seems like an awkward conversation! Plus he made sure that we both got into sports when we were kids, so hopefully the gender thing didn’t matter too much.

Angela’s reaction to the pregnancy scare news was not what I expected. I too would think that she would be more grossed out that her parents still “do it,” but I guess after her Jordan trauma she’s got a new-found sense of humor.

One thing that did work with Patty and Graham in this episode was their response to Angela’s potential dating, especially when Patty had to make her list of rules on the spot. And yeah, I can’t imagine Patty or Graham being too thrilled with Jordan (and Graham saw Jordan’s reading lesson in “The Substitute,” so he’s aware the kid has issues). Also, the offer of being able to eat ice cream straight out of the carton makes me love Patty even more, along with her declaration of not being there to try and cheer Angela up.

Oh, and to add to my love of all things bathrooms and cars, I really appreciated how much time Angela spent lying on her bed. For some reason a lot of my teen memories of being at home revolve around me lying on my bed; whether it was reading, watching TV, or just doing nothing, my bed was definitely my favorite place.

MSCL ep8 rayanne & sharon

I have a theory that I formed while watching these two episodes (and our photo caption in our last entry about Sharon/Rayanne fanfic might have fed into it) that the real love triangle of the series is between Angela, Rayanne, and Sharon, and isn’t so much a love triangle as a friendship one. So many moments find two out of the three having a conversation when the third enters and it becomes super-awkward, like they’ve been caught doing something unseemly, when all they are doing is talking. Some variation on the phrase “it’s okay if you want to be friends with her” has been uttered more times than I can remember, each time the recipient of that permission denies that the friendship is something that should happen… but these ladies should be total besties as they really do like each other.

I really want to get to “Strangers in the House” but fear I will ramble, so before I start I thought I would toss it back. Julie, do you think my friendship triangle theory has legs? Or am I crazy?

Julie: Actually, I have seen and read Shopgirl and I’m a little lukewarm on both. I kind of half-liked the book before seeing the movie, and it probably colored my reaction to it. And I was not in my Claire Danes Love Phase at the time, of course. Perhaps things have changed, and maybe I should give the film a second look.

But back to “Why Jordan Can’t Read,” I loved the scene where Patty had to come up with the dating rules on the spot. As a former teacher and a current parent, I’m always having to come up with rules and reasons why, and I can definitely see myself making up a list of dating rules on the fly and then forgetting them two days later. Except the “we need to meet your date” thing. That seems like a no-brainer. (And for some reason makes me think of Just the 10 of Us—everything makes me think of Just the 10 of Us—when Wendy wanted to date an inappropriate guy, so she invited sweet and dorky Matthew Perry home to meet her parents and went out with the badass guy later. Maybe Angela should’ve had Brian or someone fill in for Jordan to get around the rule?)

Since you brought up the subject of friendship and the triangle among Angela, Rayanne, and Sharon, let’s do it. Let’s move on to “Strangers in the House,” which really, really hit home for me.

Strangers in the House

Julie: I had no idea what this episode would be about when I turned it on. I thought it was going to be a Very Special Episode about someone breaking into the Chase house and holding Angela hostage. But it was so not that. It was the story of Sharon’s dad having a heart attack and the Chase family taking her in during his time in the hospital. And it was about the passage of time and moving on and friendships ending, but never really being over. And it was about how we spend all of this time together as kids and we grow and we change and we leave parts of ourselves behind, but we never really stop needing the people who knew us when.

MSCL ep8 crying

I’m tearing up as I write this, because I actually had this situation happen to me (sort of) and I was the Angela and I did not handle it all that well and I’m kind of feeling terrible about it almost 20 (holy shit) years later. (Cue dramatic music.) My thing involved my “Sharon,” who went to my high school, but with whom I had pretty much stopped hanging around as soon as we got there. All of that was mutual. My Sharon came to me at some point during freshman year to tell me that her dog had died. She wanted to tell me because I knew him and I was a part of her past, and her new friends didn’t have the same emotional ties to him as I did. And I remember just being like, “Yeah,” and kind of distant, kind of a lot like Angela was with Sharon. I didn’t know what to say or what our friendship was. It was all too complex, even to just sit down with her and cry about her dog for a few minutes. And, even though I’m sure she barely remembers this, I still feel like crap about it. Girl friendships are hard!

My son has emerged from his bedroom and wants to play, so I’ll throw it to you, Emma. What are your thoughts on “Strangers in the House”?

Emma: I just got in from work earlier than expected so thought I’d crack open the wine and send some of my thoughts your way on this emotional and wonderful episode. You really hit the spot with the overall themes of this episode: the relationships that we have when we grow up and how this impacts us, even when we least expect it. I have been both the Sharon and the Angela, and while I’ve had no moments like the ones in the show or your own, I know that feeling of being in a house or a bedroom that feels so familiar but also so alien all at once. There’s so much about your bedroom that changes and so much that stays the same (normally the furniture remains and it’s everything else that evolves, like posters and what clothes are lying around. That and the lack of toys), that this one room alone can represent how comfortable you used to be with this person and how awkward it is now.

I really like that Angela wasn’t the perfect person in this, that they allowed her flaws to shine and her attempts to fake her way through it made sense with where their relationship is at. The confrontation between the pair made me super teary, especially the “sometimes I miss you so much” part. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve developed this friendship triangle theory. Basically, older me is way more interested in the friendship stuff than the romantic stuff, and I’m wondering if the friendship stuff felt too close to me when I was younger for me to fully appreciate it.

Rayanne’s attempts to do something nice does involve cutting class, but it did seem like it came from a genuine place. If Rayanne’s mother was correct in her assessment that Rayanne wants to be Angela (in a way), then a connection with Sharon is needed.

We don’t know Sharon’s dad, who we’ve only seen on a monitor in the hospital, but it matters that he is fine because we know everyone who will be affected if he does die. The adults go through the different stages of coping: Camille is calm because it hasn’t hit her yet, Patty is instantly weepy, and Graham is numb and goes through a mini mid-life crisis. It’s been clear from the start that he isn’t happy with how his career has turned out and this really brings this point home. I’m so glad that it is Patty who fires him for his own good. (Seriously, I really can’t understand why I used to hate her so much. I am officially an idiot.) For once there is no bullshit “can a woman have it all?” debate going on here, and it’s so refreshing that it’s the guy in this “what now?” situation. Love, love, love this story.

MSCL ep8 Brian Bra

I still haven’t got to Brian, but I figure I will leave it at this point. Oh, and I had to look up Just the 10 of Us as sadly I was unaware of this show, but that does sound like a smart dating plan.

Julie: The female relationships are really the crux of the show. Angela, Rayanne, and Sharon. Patty and Angela. Angela and Danielle. Patty and Camille. I find all of them vastly more interesting than anything going on with the ladies and the men (including Patty’s problems with Graham). When the show aired back when I was in high school, all anyone talked about was Jordan Catalano, but he’s barely a blip on the radar for me. This show is so much more about being a girl and navigating through life (not just high school) with all the baggage that comes with being a girl. This episode and “The Zit” were two of the most insightful “girl” episodes I’ve ever seen.

Also, regarding Sharon and Rayanne, as “more mature” teenagers, I think the two of them are an even better match for each other than Sharon and Angela or even Angela and Rayanne. They both have more experience with guys, and are no longer in the super-crush, daydreaming phase that Angela is in. They have kind of a Sam and Diane chemistry thing going on, but I think underneath it all, they respect each other and would like to be better friends. But Angela is getting in the way. Maybe once Angela gets a boyfriend, it will open things up for Sharon and Rayanne to consummate their friendship.

The stuff with Brian in this episode was just a little bit of filler, really. I don’t think we got too much new information here. Brian likes it when girls want to talk to him. He’s a creeper in the band room. And he really, really likes Angela.

Also, Emma, you are probably better off for not knowing about Just the 10 of Us.

See you in two weeks when we dive into MSCL‘s Very Special Halloween episode.

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.

4 Responses to “Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “Why Jordan Can’t Read” & “Strangers in the House””

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