“My So-Called Life” ranks among the most widely discussed single-season shows, and here at This Was TV, we aim to contribute a unique perspective to this ongoing conversation. Pop culture continually recycles and reboots, with the ’90s currently in vogue.
With this in mind, Astha and Kriti, both ’90s high school alumni, are embarking on a bi-monthly examination of MSCL. Given Astha’s initial viewing of MSCL during its original airtime, which left her with a strong affinity for Angela Chase, and Kriti’s first-time viewing, we aim to incorporate this contrasting viewpoint into our discussion.
Additionally, we’ll assess how MSCL fits within the broader landscape of high school-centric television shows and explore the experience of watching the series as adults compared to when we were teenagers.
My So-Called Life
Season 1, Episode 2: “Dancing in the Dark”
Original airdate: Sept. 1, 1994
In this instalment of “I wish I could’ve rocked flannel dresses as effortlessly as Claire Danes did in 1994,” we accompanied Patty and Graham to a ballroom dance class, which they saw as a final attempt to salvage their marriage.
We witnessed Graham’s decision to abort his affair, even though it certainly seemed to be in motion back in the pilot episode. Furthermore, we made an unannounced visit to Brian’s residence, ostensibly to collaborate on an extra credit science project, while secretly awaiting a counterfeit ID from Jordan Catalano.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
Astha: It’s intriguing how they portrayed Graham as not entirely the villain in his near-affair, and despite the allure and the temptation of a questionable motel encounter, he called it off at the eleventh hour.
Having one of the primary parental figures engage in a full-blown affair by the second episode could permanently tarnish how Graham is perceived for the remainder of the season.
Even though it might seem like they’re taking an easy way out by framing it as a mental affair, it actually appears more true to life and less of a convenient solution. We understand that their relationship has become strained now that Patty is his boss, and he might be grappling with feelings of emasculation.
Therefore, the first woman to display a sexual interest in him becomes an intriguing prospect.
In the most basic sense, it could make him feel like a man once more. They confront their issues and acknowledge that there is a problem because of the extensive time they’ve spent together.
Kriti: The whole Graham non-affair situation struck me as if it were a result of “Producer Meddling.” I mean, we witnessed him sharing a kiss with his potential adultery partner right in front of the house in the first episode, as if they were already quite familiar with each other.
I can’t help but wonder if the entire storyline didn’t resonate well with the initial pilot’s audience or with the executives, leading the Powers That Be to suggest scrapping the affair in Episode 2.
I also speculate (bearing in mind that I haven’t seen the rest of the series) if this wasn’t a deliberate choice to paint Graham in a more sympathetic light, considering that Patty is going to become less sympathetic.
My reasoning for this is primarily based on the fact that Forever Young Adult seems to strongly dislike Patty Chase, while she doesn’t come across as that terrible to me, at least not so far.
On a personal note, I believe it could have introduced an intriguing dynamic to have one parent (the “cool” one) involved in an extramarital affair (known to Angela), while the other parent (the “strict” one) remains oblivious.
Angela would then have to grapple with these conflicting truths within herself (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence).
Didn’t a similar scenario happen to Felicity? Maybe JJ Abrams had the same reservations as I did regarding the Graham Chase Non-Affair Affair plotline. I always knew JJ and I were on the same wavelength.
Astha: The conflict between Patty and Graham stems from being stuck in a monotonous routine, exacerbated by working together. Patty’s initial attempts to infuse some excitement into their relationship fall rather flat.
The dance class highlights their inability to dance together, and her efforts to be sexy in the red dress and Graham’s response to her drastic haircut are equally disappointing. His comment, “it shows off your ears more,” is probably the last thing you want to hear after changing your hairstyle (I have a friend who always calls me Peppermint Patty when I get a haircut, and yes, I always give him a playful punch for it).
It’s genuinely disheartening to see Patty seek opinions both before and after the haircut, and it doesn’t help that they reference Hillary Clinton in relation to short hair. I’m fairly certain that Michelle Obama wouldn’t be invoked in a similar way concerning her style negatively.
It’s also quite disheartening that Hillary Clinton is still receiving criticism for her style, even though she holds a high political office rather than the position of First Lady.
Angela’s reaction to her mother’s haircut is fascinating because she appears puzzled and, in typical teenage fashion, redirects the focus back to herself and her recent hair change.
Patty vents about women’s magazines and their advice, yet ultimately decides to wear red anyway. I can relate to feeling indignant about such things and then trying out some of the recommendations from magazines.
The introduction of Camille, Sharon’s mother, in this scene, is significant because it highlights Camille’s different relationship with her daughter, as Sharon had given her a detailed account of the bathroom incident in the pilot, something Patty remains unaware of.
What’s commendable is that neither Camille nor Patty harbours resentment for the falling out between Sharon and Angela.
Repeatedly in the scene, they emphasize how long they’ve known each other and the minor disagreements they had when they were teenagers.
Patty realizes that Angela has a crush on someone, but she guesses the wrong boy. It’s funny that Angela overhears them talking and thinks it’s Brian. The awkward father-daughter conversation at the end of the episode is great.
It’s uncomfortable, but then Graham shares some wisdom about how hard it is to figure out how to be a man. These scenes feel familiar, and even though Angela and her parents are now distant, they can still be close sometimes.
Food is a way that bring the family together. It will be interesting to see how Angela overhearing her father’s phone call at the end of the episode impacts their relationship (I don’t remember how that goes).
Once again, it’s good to see that this show focuses on the parents and their real issues just as much as it does on the teenagers.
Kriti: I agree with you, although I found the moments between Patty and Graham to be incredibly genuine and moving.
I do think it might have been more believable if they had postponed the whole potential affair plot until later in the season, as it’s hard to imagine that Graham and Patty’s problems are completely resolved after just one night of intimate candlelit moments, especially with their teenage children wandering around the house freely.
Everything involving Patty and Graham in these situations feels incredibly wrong and awkward.
The storyline with Patty’s haircut fascinated me. She’s observed how a hair transformation has brought about a change in her daughter, granting her cooler friends and a more edgy attitude.
However, Patty feels restricted in the hairstyle department, seemingly limited to one option – short hair. According to this mid-’90s television show, short hair is perceived as not sexy, equated with Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps Patty should have taken a page out of Angela’s book and gone for a change in hair color. That dishwater blond isn’t doing her any favors.
Patty’s assumption that Angela is interested in Brian is such a classic “mom” move when their kids are in high school.
My mom always used to point out the “nice” guys to me, who typically turned out to be boring, often shorter, and usually just as uninterested in me as I was in them.
It’s amusing in the context of the show that Patty is strongly pushing for Brian, given that she essentially ended up with the high school equivalent of Brian herself. And to top it off, they can’t even dance together!
Crushes: Fantasy vs. Reality
Astha: This seems like the perfect moment to delve into Angela and her Jordan Catalano crush, the whole fantasy versus reality aspect. Once again, I find the voiceover to be effective in making this narrative about Angela and her emotions.
It’s a type of stream of consciousness that gives the impression of journal entries, and it’s the reason I only feel slightly nerdy for having written about this show in my own journal when I first watched it.
The montage of first kisses and Angela’s lack of a real boyfriend at this age probably led to my declaration that “this show gets me.” At that point, I hadn’t had a boyfriend either, and like Angela, I wondered if this was normal or not.
This persistent concern about being experienced and keeping up with the crowd is something I believe MSCL has captured in these first two episodes, and it’s a feeling that remains consistent regardless of the decade in which you attended high school.
The awkwardness and the obsessive nature of Angela’s crush are yet another “been there, done that” moment (not the fake ID/car incident, but the general obsessive quality). The car encounter made me, once again, reevaluate my past Jordan Catalano crush.
The car scene shatters the fantasy, yet despite two misaligned and unanswered kisses, Angela still finds solace in the fact that his shirt is brushing against her arm.
You’re absolutely right about parents always wanting you to choose the good, nice guy, though, to be honest, I’m pretty sure we’d all pick the guy in a band first.
Speaking of bands, Jordan Catalano’s band name is fantastic, and Frozen Embryos is one of my favorite fictional band names (the various names of Andy’s band in Parks and Recreation are equally special).
I’m always in favor of teen shows featuring bands. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that’s well-earned. I spent a significant portion of my formative years at “Battle of the Bands” contests and in pubs watching friends perform.
Kriti: I have to hand it to Jordan Catalano; “Frozen Embryos” is indeed an excellent band name! As for my own fictional band, we called ourselves Dumpster, and we would have blown your mind if any of us girls had known how to play an instrument.
I must admit that I thought we were going to witness a little Briangela smooching by the end of the episode. I assumed that Angela’s fantasy bubble around Jordan had burst, and she’d be making a beeline for the nice, nerdy guy with the extra credit connections.
I’m actually quite pleased that I was wrong, but I’m still leaning slightly toward Team Briangela (though I’m predicting a future Brian/Rayanne pairing because why not?).
Let’s hold off on telling me I’m wrong…for now.
The voiceover, in combination with the W.G. Snuffy score, gives this show a certain “Felicity-in-high-school” vibe, or maybe Felicity was just “Angela Chase goes to college.”
I believe it works well within the context of the show. Angela isn’t particularly verbose, so it’s nice to get a glimpse of her thoughts from time to time.
OBSESSION by Calvin Klein
Kriti: I remember that feeling of being utterly consumed by a crush all too well. Although it never crossed my mind then, I often wonder now—did boys obsess in the same way we did, or were they, like Jordan Catalano, preoccupied with other matters? Seriously, boys, we need some answers here. Think of the kids.
Astha: Did you guys fixate on every tiny detail with your crushes the way we did?
Kriti: Regarding the car scene, I cherished those days when every movement and every word were subjected to endless analysis. If I were in that Jordan Catalano car, I would have likely hopped out and dashed home to call my best friend, who would, in turn, dial-up another friend for a three-way conversation. That’s just how things were done.
I also found the car scene to be incredibly disheartening in a very true-to-life manner. During high school, I was a big daydreamer, and I still am, to be honest.
But back then, I would pre-visualize every scenario, picturing the perfect moments, the perfect kisses, and the perfect guy telling me I was perfect. And it never, ever, ever unfolded as I had imagined.
Even when things did seem to work out, they ultimately didn’t, just like Jordan kissing Angela. The reality was never what I had hoped for. But I guess that’s par for the course when the guys you’re obsessing over are either current jerks or future gays.
Astha: Expectations rarely align with reality, and it’s quite disheartening when shows, especially teen ones, present moments like first kisses and losing your virginity as perfect, magical experiences.
As you mentioned, in reality, that’s not how it unfolds. I appreciated that I could relate to Angela in this regard, and I’m glad they didn’t sugarcoat things. It’s true that the dream guy often turns out to be a letdown.
I’m guessing today’s teenagers won’t fully grasp the concept of three-way phone chats or how much time we spend on the house phone talking to people we’d already spent the entire day with at school.
It’s strange to think that nowadays, it’s all about Skype and FaceTime (yes, I sound incredibly old, but I’m also quite relieved that things like Facebook didn’t exist when I was in high school. Can you even imagine the photos?!).
Kriti: Oh, shudder. I don’t even dare post old high school pictures on Facebook now; that’s how embarrassing they were. A part of me cringes when I look back on 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 harm did it do? Sure, my time could have been better spent practising music or not getting a D in physics, perhaps. But at least I have volumes of terrible poetry dedicated to those unattainable men, and let’s face it, I was never going to be a scientist, anyway.
I’ll need to remind myself of all this when Baby Cookies hits her teenage years, 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
Astha: The whole dynamic of different friendship groups crossing over and Angela feeling somewhat uncomfortable about them mixing further sheds light on various aspects of Angela’s life.
Brian addresses her (and Sharon) by their last names, and the fact that she used to spend a lot of time at his house reinforces how long they’ve known each other. However, they haven’t been close for a long time.
Brian and Sharon both possess knowledge of Angela and her past, details that might betray her new ‘cool’ image.
Rayanne, once again, is like a whirlwind, although it feels like they toned her down and made her less of a ‘crazy wayward teen’ in this episode (possibly due to test audience feedback).
Rickie remains genuinely sweet and provides a balance between him and Rayanne, although it’s clear that he can be influenced by her, and his lack of self-confidence is apparent. Brian explaining science and the purpose of the experiment adds a nice touch of humor.
Is Rayanne still getting on your nerves? Have you fallen for Jordan Catalano yet?
Kriti: Yes. No.
I think they’ve found the right balance with Ricky’s character. If the show had continued, I’m sure Ricky would have had his Very Special Episode (perhaps he gets one later in the season anyway).
But I love the small moments with him. He earned the 6th Man Award in my book. A valuable utility player.
But neither Rayanne nor Jordan Catalano has won me over yet. However, Brian is just so adorable… I’m a nerd.
Speaking of high school groups, which one were you a part of?
Astha: I don’t want to give too much away about Rickie, but yeah, he truly brings a unique voice to any scene (I had to Google the 6th Man Award, as my knowledge of US sports is limited to FNL!).
However, that’s a perfect way to describe him, and I believe any show can benefit from having a character like him, especially when their natural counterpart is a character like Rayanne.
In terms of school groups, I was a bit of a nerd, but I was heavily into the music scene, even though I couldn’t play an instrument. I loved going to gigs and festivals. I worked in a record store and basically wanted to be in the movie “Empire Records.”
I also briefly flirted with hanging out at the skate park, sporting baggy trousers with a dress over the top and Vans trainers for a year. My friends and I did dorky things like making movies and went through a bit of a “Jackass” phase (but less gross/extreme).
I guess I’d most comfortably define myself as an indie kid who dabbled in various other arts like school plays (always in the chorus, never a main role). Also, since the legal drinking age over here is 18, we didn’t have to deal with fake IDs in the same way.
Although, I used to carry my sister’s old credit card in my purse to somehow prove I was 18, or I’d wear my glasses or smoke a cigarette because I thought it made me look older (though it worked most of the time).
The punk scene became a significant part of our social life from about age 16 onwards. How about you?
Kriti: I was part of a somewhat “undefinable” group. If anything, we were the city kids (I attended a private high school in the suburbs).
We took the bus home in freshman and sophomore years and hung out with guys from another school, probably due to a combination of lack of female competition and the fact that my cousin attended that school.
In fact, I think my cousin attended at least one dance with each of my friends. He was the go-to “I don’t have a date” date. If we had 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, color guard, music), and we all had different tastes in guys. We had fun, but it was mostly innocent fun. I was a huge Rule Follower. As I mentioned earlier, I was Sharon. But hopefully, I had a smaller stick up my butt.
Astha: One thing I found funny and very ’90s about the episode is the reference to satanic cults. I remember this being a big concern during that time (in terms of pop culture, I recall several X-Files episodes and the movie “The Craft” – which I love).
It seems there always has to be some danger to the nation’s youth.
Kriti: Ha! Parents in the ’90s were so concerned about Satan. We were all headed straight to H-E-double-hockey-sticks with our dirty music and our Dungeons & Dragons.
My aunt even used whiteout on most of the pictures in my cousin’s Guns ‘N’ Roses albums because GNR was considered wicked hardcore.
Astha: While we’re on the topic 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’ll follow his wise words and say, “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). Sadly, Patty and Graham’s dancing isn’t as good as either Bruce Springsteen’s or Courtney Cox’s. If only the rest of the episodes had Springsteen song titles.