In April 1995, young audiences flocked to their TV sets to catch My So-Called Life on MTV, which had begun airing repeats of the teen drama on weeknights. ABC had placed the beloved but ratings-challenged series on indefinite hiatus, and by the time they officially pulled the plug on it one month later, the basic cable network was playing all 19 episodes on a seemingly infinite loop, including epic, weekend-long marathons (which I devotedly recorded to VHS tape for posterity). The addictive, eminently relatable saga of 15-year-old Angela Chase, exquisitely and gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Claire Danes, and her ragtag circle of friends had become “binge TV” before the term even existed.
Created by Winnie Holzman and produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (all thirtysomething alums), My So-Called Life was, at the time, the most authentic portrayal of teen life ever seen on TV, as typified by nuggets of wisdom like, “What’s really horrible is being a witness while someone else’s parents orders them around. It ruins the conversation.” There were no bad guys or villains—just complicated, sometimes selfish characters making a mess of their relationships. And those messes weren’t always tidied up by the end of each episode, like they often were on other teens shows like Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210.
The relationships between My So-Called Life’s teenage characters and their parents (at least the ones we had the chance to meet) were particularly resonant, homing in on how familial dynamics can be disrupted when children attempt to carve out their own sovereignty. Union rules prevented Danes from working long hours, forcing the writers to get creative, focusing almost as much screen time on Angela’s parents as Angela herself. Rather than ship them off to, say, Hong Kong, Graham and Patty Chase (Tom Irwin and Bess Armstrong) were allowed to slowly redefine their own identities just as their eldest daughter discovered hers.
Though My So-Called Life was short-lived, its influence can still be seen today, even in shows like HBO’s significantly darker Euphoria, which referenced its predecessor in an early episode. Perhaps the show’s biggest legacy, however, was its role in launching the careers of its young cast, including, in addition to Danes, Wilson Cruz in the groundbreaking role of Angela’s semi-openly queer pal Rickie Vasquez, and Jared Leto as perpetual leaner Jordan Catalano, which didn’t require much beyond generous doses of bad-boy charisma and almost childlike innocence.
“When someone dies young, they stay that way, like, forever,” Angela says at one point in the Halloween episode of My So-Called Life, which was still in its own adolescence at the time of its untimely demise. Last month, the cult series got a new lease on life after it was added to Hulu’s streaming library. I recently revisited all 19 episodes to see if they hold up. And they mostly do.
19. “The Zit” (Episode 5)
Patty’s vanity and need for validation as an aging former prom queen clashes with Angela’s insecurities in “The Zit.” With its heavy-handed references to Franz Kafka and Malcolm X, the episode proves to be, to quote Graham, “unbelievably corny” in its handling of issues of self-esteem and the objectification of young girls. But, as most episodes of My So-Called Life, it’s rife with poignant moments, as in a delicately handled scene in which Kyle (Johnny Green), then-boyfriend of Angela’s childhood friend, Sharon Cherski (Devon Odessa), charmingly struggles to describe what he likes about her, and an unexpected nod to RuPaul, who would aptly go on to become the queen of self-love.
18. “Dancing in the Dark” (Episode 2)
An ill-devised plan, orchestrated by Angela’s new best bud, Rayanne (A.J. Langer), to get Angela and Jordan Catalano closer together is overshadowed by this episode’s amusing subplot, in which Patty and Graham attempt to put the romance back in their relationship by taking a ballroom dancing class. Of course, they’re terrible at it, which Patty sees as a metaphor for their marriage. It’s not until the final act that the episode’s two storylines dovetail in a beautiful moment when Graham, who’s on the precipice of having an affair with another woman, warns Angela: “It’s really hard to figure out how to be a man.” The scene plants the seeds of Angela’s thorny relationship with her father, which is further complicated when she overhears him whispering on the phone in the dark.
17. “Weekend” (Episode 18)
The second of two episodes told from the perspective of supporting characters, “Weekend” takes place predominantly inside the Chase house, giving Angela’s little sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit), more screen time than usual. “It’s truly amazing. I have the power to be invisible,” she declares via voiceover in the opening scene. The episode’s twin storylines center around a set of handcuffs lent to Patty by her dear friend Camille Cherski (a superbly wry Mary Kay Place), and a bottle of Dr. Allen’s Ginger-Flavored Brandy, relying on slapstick and sight gags to nudge the conflicts between Angela and Rayanne, and Patty and Graham, forward.
16. “Halloween” (Episode 9)
Angela’s preoccupation with the legend of Nicky Driscoll, a Liberty High student who fell to his death from the rafters of the high school auditorium decades earlier and who’s an obvious proxy for Jordan Catalano, might be a little on the nose. But despite its macabre underpinnings—a brief nod to the then-recently deceased Kurt Cobain lends the episode its own bittersweet nostalgia—“Halloween” doesn’t take itself too seriously. And neither should we.
15. “Self-Esteem” (Episode 12)
“Self-Esteem,” in which Jordan Catalano refuses to acknowledge his budding relationship with Angela, is noteworthy mostly for the breadcrumbs it drops in service of future, more pivotal storylines: from new English teacher Mr. Katimski’s (Jeff Perry) attempts to enlist Rickie (whom he insists on calling “Enrique”) in drama club, to Graham’s introduction to a “loud, obnoxious” woman (Lisa Waltz) in his cooking class, to, of course, Angela and Jordan’s obvious incompatibility. The episode also bears one of Angela’s most astute observations: “There’s something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself.”
14. “Guns and Gossip” (Episode 3)
The issue of guns in public schools, though relevant even back in the pre-Columbine days, merely serves as a backdrop for thoughtfully explored themes of perception, truth, and consent in “Guns and Gossip” when rumors spread that Angela had sex with Jordan Catalano in the back of his car. They say a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its Doc Martens, and even Patty catches wind of Angela’s supposed relationship with her new “boyfriend”—from Rayanne’s mother, Amber (a pitch-perfect Patti D’Arbanville), who, to Patty’s horror, is delighted by the prospect of Angela getting it on with Jordan. Of course, Angela is not having sex, “to an embarrassing degree,” making both the rumors and Patty’s attempt to confront her about it all the more humiliating for everyone involved—including us.
13. “Strangers in the House” (Episode 8)
The climax of “Strangers in the House” revolves around a large pizza with extra cheese that everyone is starving to eat—until they’re not. Sharon’s father has had a heart attack, which sends Graham into an existential spiral and forces Angela to share her bedroom with Sharon, who she’s cut out of her life—in typical teen fashion—for reasons even she doesn’t fully grasp. By the end of nearly every scene in this notably mawkish episode, at least one character collapses into tears, as Angela does under the bleachers before Jordan Catalano offers her the briefest of obligatory hugs. (It’s at this point that it gets really hard not to wonder what Angela sees in him.) Of course, she isn’t crying over Sharon’s dad, but because, as she admits via voiceover, she’s “a terrible, terrible person.” No argument here, but the self-absorption of lonely teenagers is a condition as old as time, and at least Angela is self-aware enough to own hers.
12. “Why Jordan Can’t Read” (Episode 7)
Despite the title of this episode, we never do find out why Jordan can’t read. In fact, his illiteracy is only one small thread in this understated episode. Like much of the rest of the series, “Why Can’t Jordan Read” is all about the accumulation of moments: stolen moments of freedom in a museum during a field trip; the moment Patty discovers she might be pregnant; the moment Graham learns that she’s not; and the moment that Jordan Catalano, after he and Angela share their first proper kiss, apologizes for interrupting her—in a nod to his previous, disastrous attempt at making out with her in “Dancing in the Dark.” That Jordan isn’t completely oblivious is put into stark relief by the episode’s final moment, in which Angela, blind to neighbor Brian Krakow’s (Devon Gummersall) obvious adoration of her, tells him that he’s incapable of understanding what love is.
11. “Resolutions” (Episode 16)
In the final shot of “Resolutions,” we see a man (John Prosky), who’s already been revealed to us as Mr. Katimski’s partner, reach his hand out to a homeless Rickie, who’s just arrived at their doorstep drenched in rain and tears. The door closes, and we’re left to wonder how Rickie reacted to the realization that his English teacher is gay. And because the series would go on to end just three episodes later, we’re also left to wonder if Katimski’s fear, of becoming a pariah for taking Rickie in, ever comes to fruition. That My So-Called Life even broached these topics at all, when it could have easily kept its focus trained on the show’s myriad heterosexual dramas, speaks to the writers’ willingness to paint a complete portrait of teen life in the mid-‘90s.
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