rediscovering the unrivaled realness and style of 'my so-called life'
The short-lived 1994 show is still the best teen TV series ever made.
still from 'my so-called life'
Revisit the most relevant moments of pop culture past in our new column "Rediscovering."
When I first saw My So-Called Life on TV in the summer of 1994, I was obsessed. I dyed my hair "crimson glow" and stocked up on flannels. I wore velvet dresses with Dr. Martens and denim overalls with moccasins. I paired plaid with plaid, and then layered it with more plaid. But it wasn't just the style of Angela Chase that I was infatuated with — it was her entire life.
For the first time, I could truly relate to a character on TV. Angela wasn't the most popular girl at West Beverly, and didn't have a Beamer or a nose job. She went to a suburban high school, acted awkward AF in front of her crush, and had frustrating parents. "My parents keep asking how school was," she says in the pilot episode. "It's like asking, 'How was that drive-by shooting?'" She was trying to figure out who she was and where she belonged in the world. When a concerned teacher asked her if she was having problems at home, Angela answered, "It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason — just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know it's even you?"
Through MSCL, I realized that other teenagers were as lost and confused as me — and that was a revelation. In 1994, you couldn't connect with (or even look at or read about) other people your age in an instant. Household computers were still rare, and the internet was still dial-up. (In a mid-90s interview promoting her upcoming film Hackers, a young and pouty Angelina Jolie described the still-fictional reach of the internet with wonder. "You can get on this internet and talk to people all over the place," she said. "It is just — it's amazing.") Few people had cell phones either, and those who did definitely weren't teenagers (which is why, in the opening scene of MSCL, Angela and her hot-mess best friend Rayanne beg strangers for quarters to use a payphone).
Though the show is now dated by technology, MSCL is still as relevant ever. It depicts high school as the emotional and vulnerable experience that it is. No other series before or since has so accurately interpreted the teenage perspective — Freaks and Geeks was too funny to compare. Current series like Pretty Little Liars or Riverdale are so over-the-top that they don't even come close. And even shows that are based on serious teen topics, like 13 Reasons Why, look glossy and feel fake. MSCL's storylines are realistic, the writing is profound, and its characters are relatable (even if one of them was "so beautiful it hurts to look at"). Sure, the show asked more questions than it answered, but in doing so, it responded to one important one: There were, and are, other teens with the same issues and anxieties — and that's more than enough.
Here are the essential characters, moments, and quotes that made the 19-episode show endure for 23 years and counting.
MSCL revolves around the life of the opinionated but vulnerable 15-year-old Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes when she was in her early teens). Her red hair is iconic, but it's her thoughtful and honest take on the world that resonates the most. "So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen," she says in the pilot. "Cause she wasn't just talking about my hair — she was talking about my life." Angela's imperfect life is what makes her so appealing — she often wants to "stab her mother, repeatedly" and her crush barely notices her. "Huge events take place on this earth every day — earthquakes, hurricanes, even glaciers move. So why couldn't he just look at me?" she asks. She's equal parts insight and innocence, self-awareness and self-consciousness, and that's what makes her so relatable. I felt like Angela could be me, and so did the millions of other girls who watched her.
Angela is the main character on the show, but Rickie is the most important in real life. He wears eyeliner, gets hassled for hanging out in the girls' bathroom (a topic that is super relevant today), and comes from an abusive home. And in the final episode, he openly admits that he is gay — a first for a network television series. When promoting the show, Wilson Cruz, the actor who played Rickie, made sure to communicate to the press that he was gay too. "I knew that people's stories and voices were important, and that there needed to be [a role model] especially for LGBT youth," he sad in a 2016 interview with Elle. "Here was my opportunity, and I felt like if I didn't step up, I would regret it. And I've never regretted it, never."
The style of MSCL was a character itself. Even if teenage drama isn't your thing anymore, the show is worth rewatching for the fashion. Its costume designer, Patrick R. Norris, based most of the characters' looks on Seattle grunge (Jordan especially looked very Kurt Cobain) and the movie Annie Hall, and this unusual mix struck a chord with teens. Suddenly, oversized plaid shirts were everywhere, and Dr. Martens went with everything, from babydoll dresses to denim overalls. I wore my corduroy sheepskin jacket every day, à la Jordan Catalano, even though I went to high school in sunny California. All these looks are still pervasive (just walk into any Urban Outfitters), and even Angela's haircut is on trend. Doesn't everyone these days have a pair of ripped jeans and a blunt lob? Angela, Ricky, Rayanne, and the rest look just as cool now as they did 20-something years ago.
One of the best scenes happens in the first episode, when Angela and Rayanne are getting into the back of a cop car, and Jordan (Angela's crush, played by Jared Leto) notices her for the first time. "Hey, I know that girl," he says to a friend. "Angela?" The look on Angela's face says it all.
Guns in schools was a hot topic in the mid-90s (and still is), and the show explores that in the third episode. It missed the mark a bit, but made up for it with the touching scene in which Angela and Rickie realize they're not just friends through Rayanne, but, like, actual friends.
"The Life of Brian" episode focused on Angela's nerdy next-door neighbor, who was also totally in love with her. The episode was weird and didn't really fit in, but maybe that was the point. Regardless, it gave us one of best scenes in the whole series — when Rickie and the-new-girl-at-school Delia absolutely slay at the school dance.
This was the moment. When Jordan grabbed Angela's hand at school, there was nationwide squealing and swooning. I still can't watch this scene without getting goosebumps.
"The Betrayal" is the worst episode, because it's when Rayanne sleeps with Jordan, Brian videotapes it, and then Angela finds out. But it contains one of the most memorable moments of the whole season — when Angela realizes she's over Jordan, and dances to the Violent Femmes's "Blister in the Sun" in her bedroom.
The final episode, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," is everything. It's when Rickie comes out (see above), and when Jordan writes Angela The Letter. "If you want to hate me go ahead," the letter reads. "If you want to burn this letter go ahead, do it. You could burn the whole world down. You could tell me to go to hell. I'd go if you wanted me to. I'd send you a letter from there." The only problem is that Brian wrote the letter for Jordan, and when Angela finds out, there is a palpable moment between the two. It's as if she's seeing Brian for the very first time, and it almost seems like there might be a kiss. But before that can happen, Jordan interrupts, and Angela leaves Brian. She exits our lives too.
The writing in MSCL is unrivaled, and here are just a few of the quotes that are as pertinent as ever.
"I thought, at least, by the age of 15 I would have a love life. But I don't even have a, like, life." — Angela
"People always say you should be yourself. Like yourself is a definite thing, like a toaster or something." — Angela
"Everything leaves a scar." — Rayanne
"Haven't you ever waited for anything?" Rayanne asks. Rickie answers, "Yeah, for my life to start."
"There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself." — Angela
"Sometimes it feels like we're all living in some kind of prison. And the crime is how much we hate ourselves." — Angela
"It's good to get really dressed up once in awhile, and admit the truth — that when you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they're actually… beautiful. Possibly even me." — Angela
Text Zio Baritaux