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

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 9: “Halloween”
Original airdate: Oct. 27, 1994

Emma: I would like to preface this discussion by stating how much I love Halloween episodes (and Christmas, Thanksgiving, and any other holiday themed ones—yep, even Labor Day). I think it’s mostly to do with the costume shenanigans, and MSCL delivers in this department. I also like spooky stories, even though I’m a complete wuss. “Halloween” also has a supernatural theme that you might not expect from a teen show, but which represents something I think is very much a teen rite of passage. Halloween isn’t such a big occasion in the UK as it is in the US, so that might be another reason why I like Halloween episodes.

MSCL ep9 Rayanne

The costumes chosen here aren’t extreme, and even though I love when shows play dress-up their costumes always look way better than the versions you’d find in real life (or maybe I’m just terrible at costume-making). Following the theme of being someone you’re not, two characters dress as people in their lives: Danielle does an amazing Angela with red hair, plaid shirt, and awkward body hugging (and yes, the shirt is her friend), while Rickie plays “normal” and dresses as Brian. Both are funny costumes on the surface Danielle’s has a few sad undertones, given the kind of antagonistic relationship with her big sister that you would expect; all she wants is her approval and attention.

For our core characters there are no blatantly costumes (no sexy Gizmo sadly). Sharon’s dressed as a cat, but less as a come-hither feline than as one that everyone thinks is some kind of rodent—which goes to show that having boobs doesn’t necessarily equate to overt sexuality. Rayanne is, of course, leaning towards the Mean Girls-esque sluttier end, but even her vampire costume isn’t too over the top. Rayanne’s legs are rather enticing to Brian, but I’m pretty certain he’s just a horny boy who gets flustered at the sight of any body part in sight. Angela’s 1960s-inspired costume is not on the sexy side, even if Rayanne suggests that she stuffs her bra with toilet roll like they did in the ’60s. Angela really suits the look and the glasses set the whole thing off.

MSCL ep9 Sharon

It’s also fitting, since Angela winds up meeting the ghost of Nicky Driscoll, the 1960s version of Jordan Catalano who met an early and tragic end. This story is somewhat out there for a show that based in a regular, non-supernatural world and while the whole Jordan aspect of it doesn’t interest me that much, I really enjoyed the discussions of urban legends and subjects such as dying young. When the girls are gossiping about how Nicky died in the bathroom (favorite location alert!), and everyone has a different take on the whole thing, and also knows someone who knew Nicky in some roundabout way, this felt very grounded in reality.

As teenagers, sleepovers were all about watching horror movies and then trying to get each other to do scary stuff afterwards, like saying “Candyman” in the mirror. Every culture and every town has its ghost stories and its rumors of people meeting grisly ends. I remember how, as kids, we would try and scare each other with such tales. Even in my late teens and early twenties my friends and I had moments where we told ghost stories and attempted to see such ghosts; the last time was while waiting on a country road by my friend’s house in the middle of nowhere at 3 a.m., waiting for a ghost carriage to ride past. Sadly, it never appeared but we all managed to scare the crap out of each other (alcohol was involved). I think we never probably tire of these kinds of tales because even if you don’t believe in spirits, when you’re in a group others can get you caught up in the moment. Your teen years just present more of these occasions to mess around in this manner. Did you ever do such things?

The episode is creepy in that it plays with the usual horror conventions: eerie music, the electricity going out. Empty school corridors in the dark are scary because it’s a place that you are so used to seeing in the daytime with so many people that it seems completely unnatural at night with no one about. When Angela is by herself and she bumps into the Halloween decoration it made me jump, even though I’ve seen this episode before (like I sai,d I’m a wuss). Buffy used the darkened corridors of Sunnydale High this way to maximum effect. In fact, this episode really reminded me of the season two Buffy episode “I Only Have Eyes For You” thanks to the blast-from-the-past theme.

What did you think?

MSCL ep9 corridor

Julie: I really enjoyed this episode. I’m also a big fan of holiday episodes (oddly, Thanksgiving ones tend to be my favorites; see Friends and Felicity for prime examples), but I’m not a big fan of Halloween in real life. I don’t like holidays that support hooliganism, e.g., the 4th of July, New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day. I am firmly anti-hooligan. But I do love dressing up and I do love seeing my favorite TV characters express themselves through costumes.

I agree that the folks in the MSCL world kept it pretty real and pretty simple. And there weren’t a lot of “sexy” things, because I think there just weren’t a lot of “sexy whatever” costumes, period, back then. I feel like the “sexy whatever” thing is relatively new. Back in the ’90s, we were just way more creative and enlightened (“back in my day” alert!). (Also we wore a lot of flannel, so that’s what passed for sexy on a daily basis.) I loved Danielle dressing as her older sister, but I found Ricky dressing as Brian and Brian offering to let him keep the clothes for as long as he wanted awfully poignant as well. Ricky got a taste of being “normal” for a day, and Brian just assumed he’d want to keep being that way for a while.

I know there were a lot of rumors of hauntings and whatnot back when I was a kid, but I was never into exploring those things. Because I was chicken (still am). I think I heard too many “true stories” from my grandmother back in the day, and I decided I didn’t want to anger any spirits by disturbing them. So I honestly can’t remember going to a graveyard or some other haunted space and waiting for the spirits to arrive. I kept myself company by downing Reese’s peanut butter cups by the fistful.

MSCL ep9 glasses

Story-wise, the Nicky Driscoll-as-Jordan Catalano thing was a bit much for me. It’s kind of a stretch that the love of a good woman would’ve saved Nicky Driscoll and now Angela is going to save Jordan by forcing him to go to English class. (Though I loved Angela’s costume and noted that, if this show had been produced today, that’s totally how tragic little hipster Angela Chase would’ve dressed all the time.) I was much more interested in whatever was developing or not between Rayanne and Brian. He’s just so hard up* for some lady love. (But, speaking of people who died too young, I enjoyed that someone in English class was reading a Rolling Stone with Kurt Cobain on the cover.)

*Ed. note: PHRASING!

I almost feel like the less said about Graham and Patty the better (will there ever be an episode where they’re NOT jumping each other’s bones?), so I’ll just ask you this: What was your best ever Halloween costume?

Emma: Yeah the Patty/Graham shenanigans were all kinds of wrong, especially with the encouragement from the costume store lady. Blerg. But hey, at least they’re in a much better place than the last time the Clintons were mentioned (Patty really would make a great Hillary).

One good Graham part was his “Who’s scarier than Madonna?!” comment, which I’m sure would work today.

We never really did Halloween during my teen years, so my best costumes have come from the last few years. And by “costumes,” I mean “costume.” As in, I’m so lazy I pretty much do the same every year! I go as one of the school kids from Battle Royale since all it requires is school uniform (non-sexy version), a homemade collar (tin foil and card), and a weapon. The latter is the only thing I change every year and they’ve ranged from an umbrella to a (fake) gun. How about you?

It made me sad that this is probably the greatest night that Brian has ever had, and Rayanne’s all “whatever” about the whole non-event. I really loved Rayanne’s real reason for being afraid of the dark, especially as Brian expected there to be some deep and horrible reason for her phobia.

MSCL ep 9 Kurt

The Kurt Cobain magazine was indeed a lovely touch and as always I enjoyed Angela’s voiceover with its “deep and meaningful” teen philosophy. It is strange when people die young, especially the rock and roll types who are in the 27 club. Kurt Cobain is one of the first major celebrity deaths of a young person that I can remember, but I’d also add River Phoenix and of course most recently Heath Ledger to the list.

Elsewhere, the awkwardness that has existed since the pilot between Sharon, Rayanne, and Angela has disappeared and the conversation in the bathroom about Nicky Driscoll was really comfortable. No, Sharon didn’t take part in their evening plans, but it does feel like the six of them (including Ricky, Brian, and Jordan) are all friends in some roundabout way.

Also, now all I want is Reese’s peanut butter cups.

Julie: I remember you mentioning the Battle Royale costume, which is a great idea, especially because you can upgrade it to “sexy Battle Royale” so easily. My very favorite costume ever also came after high school, and it was when my husband (John) and I and our friend Wally decided (the day of the party) to dress up as The Royal Tenenbaums. I happened to have a polo-type dress and a faux fur coat and I wrapped my finger in brown construction paper or something. Wally went as Luke Wilson’s character and looked great in a corduroy jacket and tennis whites. John went as Ben Stiller’s character (Chaz) and his track suit wasn’t quite right, but when we arrived at the party, lo and behold, there was another Chaz in attendance, a better Chaz, and we ditched John for him. (We didn’t really ditch him. Most of the night.)

I really felt for Brian, because I think we’ve all had those “wow, I can’t believe this night just happened” moments, and then found out later that the feeling wasn’t mutual. Poor boy’s going to have a hard heart by the time high school is over. But I’m sure he’ll get lots of tail in college. Especially from fellow band geeks.

Both River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain died during my (and Angela’s) freshman year of high school, so those feelings about young dead people were probably still running rampant during sophomore year. Man, I remember some people being just absolutely devastated when Kurt Cobain died. I don’t remember ever having that kind of reaction to a celebrity death.

MSCL ep9 Dangela

I’m glad you brought up Sharon again, because I loved her trick-or-treating with Danielle. I’m sure Danielle misses Sharon coming around, because she definitely seems to have more of a connection with her than with her sister. Despite the fact that Sharon and Angela no longer hang out, Sharon and Danielle will always have a connection. And they’ll probably hang out in their twenties and make fun of Angela over cosmopolitans.

And don’t even talk about Reese’s cups. I’m only buying Almond Joy candies for the house this year because I can trust myself not to touch anything with coconut.

Emma: One thing I’ve realized is that I think I’ve mentioned Mean Girls at least once per every discussion so far, which indicates a) I’ve watched Mean Girls too much, b) I like Tina Fey, c) Mean Girls gets those teen years right, or d) all of the above.

Kudos on the Royal Tenenbaums costumes, I would very much like to do a Moonrise Kingdom affair this year (though I’m pretty sure I can’t make any Halloween parties this year as I’m working).

Hope the toy fight has been resolved (ed. note: It was!). We totally rocked a pub quiz tonight and won a bottle of Jägermeister for our troubles. Knowledge equals booze on this occasion.

Julie: I think Mean Girls should be our Superman-on-Seinfeld and find its way into each and every review. And I think we should definitely team up for the inevitable This Was Television Trivia Bowl. Our team can be The Frozen Embryos.

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.

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