Team-Up Review: My So-Called Life, “Other People’s Mothers”

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 10: “Other People’s Mothers”
Original airdate: Nov. 3, 1994

Julie: Today Emma and I are discussing the compulsory “alcohol and drugs are bad and so are the kids that use them” episode of My So-Called Life.

Emma: That’s right, all teen shows have to include one episode that demonstrates the evils of alcohol and drugs (the only exception I can think of is The Vampire Diaries, which uses whiskey as a positive). It’s hard to make these outings not feel like an After School Special, but I think that MSCL is mostly successful with this story. This is mostly thanks to the groundwork it’s already laid with Rayanne: she got wasted in the pilot, she consistently has a hip flask on her, and we know that her relationship with her dad is a sensitive area. It’s not just booze though; this is the first time we see Rayanne taking harder substance, though this comes as no surprise as she’s definitely the kind of person who gets caught up in the moment.

Wilson Cruz, A.J. LangerWe get to see a bit more of her mother Amber, who we’ve briefly met before, and she continues to play the cool mom (obligatory Mean Girls reference) to Patty’s stricter, more traditional parenting style. The contrasting qualities are immediate, from the decor of their homes to their clothes to how they interact with their daughters. Everything is open in Rayanne’s house and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for Amber to hang out with her daughter’s friends and show them their future with tarot cards (obligatory death card reference). Amber has a relationship with her daughter that is about hugging and sharing; there is a lot of love here. Yet in the moment of crisis it’s responsible Patty who is called upon. I think (and hope) that this is saying more about mother/daughter relationships than it is about single parent families.

The overall theme in fact is all about mothers and daughters (as the title suggests), and to wit, we also learn in this episode that Patty is adopted. Not that you would be able to tell this by looking at Patty and her mother, Vivienne, who bears a resemblance. I really loved the stuff with Vivienne and how she irritated everyone (particularly Graham and his food-related emotions). Danielle gets bonus points for being at that age where you can say what you think without getting into too much trouble; she really is perfecting the Angela style pout.

Angela talks about how Patty is so good at faking happiness and this is one thing that Patty and Rayanne have in common, as Rayanne is the master of the fake smile. When Rayanne comes around from her stomach-pumping experience, she’s going to have a hard time convincing people that they had “a time.” Rickie does his best trying to protect his friend, and his scene with Patty is really touching.

So Patty knows what to do when someone OD’s because of a college roommate who died. It serves as both a convenient plot point and a reminder to Angela that her mom is a person with life experiences of her own. Those experiences also shape Patty’s view of Rayanne, for better or worse.

What did you think?

Julie: I’m taking a sip of my own hip flask at your mention of Mean Girls.

Wilson Cruz, A.J. Langer in My So-Called Life, "Other People's Mothers"In its first and only season, MSCL is really ticking the teen drama boxes. Inspiring English teacher? Check. Illiteracy? Check. Infidelity? Check. And now we’ve hit the drinking/drug use portion of the show. You knew this was coming. Rayanne, who has been drinking since the pilot, was going to have to face the music. She’s the tragic bad girl, and therefore she must almost die (or become sexually assaulted, which almost happened in the pilot, so been there, done that).

And of course Patty had a college roommate who OD’d. We all had that same roommate. I mean, come on. I’m guessing the inclusion of this heretofore unmentioned roommate was to remind Angela that her mom had a life before her children were born, and maybe her strictness comes from experience, not tight-assedness. Which is fine. A little overdone, but fine.

I think my big problem with this episode is that it’s all so expected, and we’ve seen it all before. We all assume Rayanne will be a train wreck. But at the same time, she’s been doing the drinking (and I’ll assume drugs, based on Rickie’s unimpressed reaction to her taking pills) for a long time, so one would assume she’d be better at it. It would’ve been much more tragic and frightening if Angela had been the one to need her stomach pumped. Or if Angela had been holding on to some pills for Rayanne and Danielle accidently took them. But now I’m writing my own show.

It just seems a little easy for them to be like, “Here’s the good concerned mother who knows what to do in a crisis. And here’s the flaky mother whose daughter is a basket case who almost dies.”

Bess Armstrong as Patty Chase in My So-Called Life, "Other People's Mothers."Also, I thought Patty was pretty much perfect throughout this episode, and I thought Angela was a petulant brat about her grandparents’ party. Patty was so fantastic with Rickie. You wish she’d show a little more compassion with Angela sometimes. Though, it’s kind of amazing that Patty turned out so well as a parent, considering her mother is Lucille Bluth-lite and her dad is kind of a jerk store as well. (And wow, did they look alike for an adoptive mother and daughter. Unrelated, I thought there’d be a big reveal at the end where we learn Patty’s mom adopted Patty from a woman her husband had an affair with 40 years ago. Happy 45th anniversary!)

What else? You want to talk about Graham and his poultry fetish?

Emma: Yeah the Patty/Amber stuff is definitely a bit much, though I totally bought Patty having a cry in the car by herself as she really isn’t one to show her tears in front of a room full of people (though really, who is?!). Patty is fantastic and once again I really don’t know why I didn’t like her before. I’m thinking maybe Teen Me didn’t like her interfering (Teen Me wasn’t all that insightful).

Claire Danes as Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, "Other People's Mothers."Yeah, Angela was totally selfish, but I remember reacting the same way to having to attend family commitments when friends-stuff was going on (Teen Me isn’t scoring many points today). Angela’s clothes for her grandparents party basically looked like Rayanne’s—not her usual style—which kind of felt like a “screw you” to her mother. I also think it was pretty great that all of the adults couldn’t remember which daughter was which, as that’s very true to this kind of extended-family shindig.

I agree so much on the Lucille Bluth comparison, I was trying to think who she reminded me of and you hit it perfectly!

I think it’s great how Graham has developed from the near-affair of the pilot to a much stronger character. His passion for food and cooking is both endearing and hilarious.

Obviously I was more than happy to have a Sharon-and-Rayanne bathroom scene (*drinks shot*). Their interactions have gone from contentious to friendly banter. And yes, Sharon really needed something for her hair. Do people still use mousse?

Did you miss either Brian or Jordan this week?

Julie: I’m seriously starting a Patty Chase Fan Club, because she is rocking. She’s not annoyingly saccharine like stupid Cindy Walsh of Beverly Hills, 90210. She’s been around the block, she knows what’s up, and she’s a kick-ass mom. Someday Angela will realize this. Hopefully before it’s too late. Dun-dun-DUH.

I definitely behaved like Angela back in the day, so I can’t get too down on her. Though I always had this eerie feeling that if I skipped out on a family party, everyone would die immediately afterwards and I would have to bear the burden of being the girl whose insolence killed her entire family. An irrational, but potent, fear. I have problems.

Wilson Cruz, Devon Odessa, A.J. Langer in My So-Called Life, "Other People's Mothers"Thank you for bringing up Sharon. Her little moment in the bathroom was very welcome, and seriously, what was up with her hair? That was messed up. I’m thinking about writing MSCL fan fiction where Sharon and Rayanne go to college together and become roommates. Think of all the bathroom scenes!

You know, what? I didn’t even miss Brian this week. I mean, I never miss Jordan, of course, but it barely registered for me that this episode was completely WITHOUT BRIAN KRAKOW. Hopefully the next episode will compensate for this. I’m getting the shakes. Brian Krakow is my drug.

Emma: I’m surprised that Brian didn’t find an excuse to come over to the Chase house as he tends to whenever anything is going on. Maybe he finally ran out of books to pretend he needs to get back from Angela.

I don’t have much more to add but I would definitely like to be part of the Patty Chase Fan Club. The number of strong female characters on this show makes me so happy. Even when they pull stunts like having the “bad girl” end up in hospital having her stomach pumped.

And remember, kids, don’t drink or take drugs.

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