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Tuesday
May242011

« In Which We're Totally Over Jordan Catalano »

Sex or a Conversation

by ELISABETH DONNELLY

When I first saw My So-Called Life, I was a kid. My basketball team practice clashed with the show and I would rush home to catch what I could of the episodes. I wanted to be Angela Chase, to be shy and emotional, to try to grow beyond people's expectations by hanging out with the school's bad girl and dying my hair red. My best friend dyed her hair red. I got a ridiculous crush on Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano, finding him - with his floppy hair, those big blue eyes, and his fraying shirt collar - to be the sexiest thing in the world. I thought about what it would be like to make out in the boiler room, what it would be like to make out with anybody.

By watching and sort of understanding My So-Called Life, I knew what it was going to be like to be a teenager, and it would, hopefully, be awesome. I empathized with Angela Chase. I cried when Claire Danes cried. I knew that Rayanne betrayed her by hooking up with Jordan, that her former best friend Sharon the good girl sort of hated her, and that Jordan was endlessly frustrating. I knew dear, sweet Ricky Vasquez was the sort of friend you wanted to have. The fact that he was gay was mostly theoretical - I didn't really know what it meant. Sometimes I related to Brian Krakow, the severely frustrated brain. Angela's parents were so boring. I got really confused during that Juliana Hatfield-as-Christmas angel episode, but I still bought the official My So-Called Life soundtrack and heard The Afghan Whigs for the first time. "Fountain and Fairfax" reminded me of the desperation and lust that Jordan Catalano had to have somewhere, pulsing inside of him.

It was an intense affair, over too quickly. I was sad when the show died but I got over it by forgetting about it. Angela faded. Like a friend that I had at one point who moved, and we lost touch. But every episode, every scene, was written in my heart. I had an elephant's memory for that show, since it was such a good and absorbing story about a girl.

My So-Called Life should be mentioned in the pantheon of coming-of-age classics next to The Catcher in the Rye and just before Freaks and Geeks. Part of the reason that the show worked is because it was specifically about a girl - as simple as that - just one average 15-year-old girl, feeling so many feelings in a dingy Pittsburgh suburb. The week by week stories on the show dealt with guns in school, a substitute teacher, drugs, alcohol, teen homelessness, and maybe losing your virginity to the hot bad boy, typical 90s hot button subjects, but Winnie Holzman, the creator of the show, was so specific about Angela Chase and her multitude of emotions that the audience was right there with her.

I recently decided to rewatch My So-Called Life with my boyfriend. It felt like I was introducing him to a secret teenage me. I worried about what he would think - because if he hated it, there was a chance that he maybe hated some part of me that existed at some point. But there was no need to worry. Even as a grown-ass woman, My So-Called Life holds up, a work of art that bent and changed with the time and with the ways that I had changed.

What makes it work - even if the clothes are so 90s and dated, plaid on plaid on plaid, even if the tendency for the episode of the week to be about subjects like guns in school or the cool substitute teacher - is the voice. TV shows are rarely so specifically from one character’s idosyncratic perspective. Creator Winnie Holzman wrote Angela as a very particular girl with likes and dislikes, a girl who was a passable student but not extraordinary, occasionally luminous but still awkward, who loved Jordan Catalano even though she was aware that he was a pretty face and a bit of a dolt.

She wasn't imagined as "the smart one" or "the pretty one." Her diary-like constant voice over provided a specific counterpoint to the action, whether quippy or earnest. It’s no coincidence that some of the show’s most quotable lines came from the voice over - "My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying, "How was that drive-by shooting?" You don't care how it *was*, you're lucky to get out alive," The recurring thing in Angela's voiceover, and the dialogue as a whole, is that it was riddled with verbal insecurities, "likes," and "I don't knows" and "or something," and that was accepted as the way they talk. It's never used to point out that the characters are stupid, which a lesser show would do.

My So-Called Life was one of the few teenage girl shows with the luxury to be utterly mundane, plot-wise. The show starts off with Angela Chase, a nice girl, trying on a little bit of rebellion at fifteen years old. She ditched her old, boring best friend Sharon Cherski for the “wild” Rayanne Graff and her sidekick, Ricky Vasquez, and the trio skips class to hang out in the girls’ bathroom.

Angela has a hopeless rush on bad boy Jordan Catalano, and life gives her a chance with him that ends up with some making out in the school's boiler room and one of those frustratingly sexy non-relationships with no definition, like a precursor to "hooking up." She has an annoying relationship with her neighbor and school brain Brian Krakow. Her parents, Patty and Graham, are similarly trying to make something of themselves - Patty cuts her hair, tries to reboot her relationship, and Graham chafes at the bit, maybe starting a restaurant with that horrible Hallie person.

It was funny to see how ten years on, the fairly nuanced nerd with a hopeless crush, Brian Krakow, grew in overall creepiness. His sadsack high school nice guy loser persona had its charms, sort of, in its earnestness when I first watched it, but as a woman, no way. He had a sense of entitlement and treated women (particularly the lovely - and chubby - Delia from the world happiness dance) like crap, with a one-track mind focused on Angela. It didn't make sense, really - why should Krakow be sad? In ten years, every Judd Apatow movie will be about the trials and travails of a Krakow-like character.

Jordan Catalano, well, it was more obvious that he was a pretty face and had his limitations. He's such a sneering boy when Angela refuses to have sex with him (because in the 90s, virginity is tantamount to goodness - which is why Rayanne was "bad" - and being the star of a show, and losing it was the making of a very special episode). His dream to "make snow," like one of those guys in the mountains, is just further proof that he's not really a long-term prospect.

If there had been another season or two, Catalano probably would've become a Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights, a loveable fuck-up, but we didn't have that much time with him. Despite all those 90s clothing choices, Jared Leto, at that point, still radiated some palpable sexual heat. It's the reason why you can say the name Jordan Catalano to a generation of women and elicit a palpable sigh, why My So-Called Life on YouTube is basically a collection of Angela and Jordan moments, namely the one where he finally acknowledges that he likes her, publicly, by grabbing her hand in the hallway:

I was really struck by the way that Ricky and Rayanne, played magnificently by Wilson Cruz and A.J. Langer, stole my heart as an adult. I wonder, sometimes, if both Cruz and Langer so embodied those characters that they had trouble getting other roles of a similar caliber. Ricky's coming out story was a TV milestone, sensitive and lived-in with palpable emotion.

As Raya's sidekick, Ricky appeared confident in himself, wearing eyeliner and hanging out in the girls' bathroom, but when the world struck back at him, his vulnerability just ripped through the screen. It hurt to see Ricky kicked out of his house by his family. To see him homeless, unsure of where he was going to be at night. To know that all of this hate came down on him just because he liked boys. Rayanne was a tricky character as well, the type of manic pixie life force that'd become a caricature in a couple of years. The schtick was hiding serious addiction problems. Angela seemed so privileged in comparison to these two kids, who had a raw deal from the world. (You can see that influence in Friday Night Lights, helmed by former My So-Called Life staffer Jason Katims.)

It was still Angela's show, but the richness of seeing it as an adult comes from the specific details surround Angela's world. The kids went to a crappy looking school that was falling apart. They wore the same clothes over and over again. The episode about a substitute teacher is a fairly uncanny parody of an after-school special that veers left. Angela's parents are people with their own foibles, worries, and insecurities. It's painfully obvious that their marriage is on the fritz because it is filled with passive aggressive sniping. Angela's sister is still a ghost, unjustly - and hilariously - ignored.

The storyline that had Angela ditching her former best friend Sharon Cherski is a minor note, but still sad - and despite the fact that they're not best friends anymore, Sharon's still a fantastic character, an archetypical good girl who enjoys having sex with her lunkhead footballer boyfriend. Sharon and Rayanne end up bonding, even though they don't mean to, over the fact that they both like having sex. It's more nuanced than the white swan-black swan binary, filled with real people mistakes and clumsy grasps, like, when Rayanne has sex with Jordan - a betrayal that was the driving force for the last few episodes, and hinted at the richer show beyond the first season, one that would feature a true ensemble of characters.

But we never got that second season. The hints of greatness in My So-Called Life as an ensemble, as a richer canvas than just a very specific story about one girl, feel a little like a loss. Yet on the other hand, it took only one season of TV to get to know Angela Chase, Rayanne Graff, Ricky Vasquez, Jordan Catalano, and their names still resonate. They still feel like friends that I knew once. They were there for me when I was figuring out the ultimate idea: how a person should be in the world. And as an adult, I feel no shame in admitting that a particular part of my worldview was shaped by the story of Angela Chase. She taught me how to feel. She taught me empathy.

Elisabeth Donnelly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Joe Wright's Hanna.

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The new album from the Artic Monkeys, Suck It and See, will be released on June 6th.

 

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Reader Comments (6)

I was fifteen when Angela was fifteen, and I wore the same two plaid shirts every day over high-waisted baggy jeans, I had a crush on the boy with the floppy hair who played guitar outside the coffee shop ... and I could not BEAR to watch MS-CL in the company of my mother because it was TOO EXCRUCIATINGLY close to resembling the way my friends and I talked, thought, emoted, etc. (Not to mention it was based in Pittsburgh, which was sort of but not quite right. E.g. there weren't many Latinos in Pgh in the 90s, and no one had horrible accents.) I would leave the room and go upstairs and watch it in my mom's bedroom with the lights off, sort of hating it and sort of loving it, the way you love/hate seeing a candid video of yourself. And I wanted sooooooo badly to be a bad girl who made out with boys in the boiler room (see also: projector booth/behind the stage in the auditorium) but had fuck-all idea of how to go about doing that ...
O the flannel!!! O the angst!!! O the Manic Panic!!!
I want to watch it again but I might have to do it completely alone, wearing demin overalls and a striped shirt.

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulezyme

(clarification: not many Latinos, but hella yinzer accents in Pgh.)

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulezyme

Truth! But about that ending: what if the "cliff-hanger" ending is actually one of the show's most impressive feats. For all the progress that serial drama TV has made since MSCL, what show since has ended on a stronger note? I totally get how television's indifference to one of the most crucial aspects of story-telling (i.e. when a story ends) is a market necessity, but you can't argue that it hasn't led some rad shows to really disappointing endings. Even if MSCL was a victim of those same market forces, there's something pristine about that one, perfect season.

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerrick

I've been rewatching the show for the first time since it aired and although most of it is like brand new again, there are still moments I can recall from the 13 year old brain that watched it in my family room with my parents in the 90s.

Great write up!

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Thanks to Netflix, this is the first time I've seen My So Called Life since the mid-90s. Parts of it are excruciating and I think "how did my pmother tolerate me?!?!?!" Parts of it are incredibly timeless. Then there are those few parts that make me realize that the parents are done supremely well (a point that was lost on me as a teenager, when all parents sounded like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon).
I died my hair red, I was a "fruit-fly" (what my mother lovingly called me because all of my male high-school friends were gay boys), I exposed my midriff under layers of baggy shirts. Watching this show is a bit like looking at photos of a very awkward phase of adolescence.
The me of today wants to slap Jordan Catelano and give Brian Krakow a flesh-light. Sort them both out.

May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessy

I was a bit younger than Angela when it first aired, and it was immediately my favorite thing to exist, ever. How may of us dyed out hair bright red and heard our every thought in Angela's voice over? The thing is, even then, I aspired to have the life and fantasized about the life that I saw the Chases leading, but knew they were far more class privileged than my close to the poverty line family. I re-watched it recently as an adult and all I could see was middle class people living in a suburb bubble (did you note the moment when Angela realizes that Catalano is probably poor and has second thoughts about him?) and griping about stupid shit. Her thoughts are mundane and irritating to me now. The parents still ring true as self-absorbed ninnies desperate to be good parents and mostly unaware of their own deep flaws and amazing senses of entitlement ( and they treat Ricky with whiffs of homophobia that make me cringe). I know it was the nineties, but yowza, give me Welcome to the Dollhouse or Clueless over My So Called Life for an idiosyncratic girl coming of age in that era anyday.

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterm

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