My So-Called Life makes you remember what it was like to be a teenager, trying to figure out who you are while navigating the social horrors of high school with a zit so huge that even your mother is giving you pimple-popping advice.
by christina kelly
Why aren’t more people watching My So-Called Life? This show is seriously the best thing on TV right now, and someone needs to convince ABC to keep it on the air. My So-Called Life makes you remember what it was like to be a teenager, trying to figure out who you are while navigating the social horrors of high school with a zit so huge that even your mother is giving you pimple-popping advice. Finally, we have a show that depicts teenagers realistically, and nobody seems to know how to market it and give it a decent time slot! I mean, 90210 is escapist fun, but it’s not like anyone will care about Brenda and Kelly and Brandon and Dylan 15 years hence. 90210 is a soap opera, but My So-Called Life is a work of art.
The show is so right-on that it makes you feel exposed, like someone has found your diary from tenth grade and developed a TV show around it. Every line has the ring of truth. When the series starts, Angela Chase (played by newcomer Claire Danes) is struggling for autonomy from her uptight mother. Pushing meat and vegetables around her plate, she says in one of many introspective voice-overs: “I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her.”
Angela is a low-voiced, flannel-dress-wearing, Manic Panic redhead who questions every high school institution, from the yearbook (“If you made a book about what really happened, it would be a really upsetting book”) to cheerleaders (“Can’t people just cheer, on their own, like, to themselves?”). She’s not trying to be difficult, she just really is constantly in the midst of an existential crisis.
When Claire Danes auditioned for the part, she was not yet 14, and the fact that she wasn’t emancipated posed some logistical problems. “We just had to have it be Claire,” says Winnie Holzman, the creator of the show. “She just blew us away. What we figured out was a formula where every one of the four acts of the show had to have two scenes that she wasn’t in.” That’s why the parents’ story was developed, says Holzman, “although we always wanted the parents to be human as well.”
Angela forsakes her dorky best friend to hang out with cool Rayanne Graff and her empathetic gay sidekick, Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz). Rickie wears eyeliner, is coming to terms with his sexuality, and has a tumultuous home life. Cruz had many of the same experiences growing up. “What I love about Rickie,” he says, “is that even though so many assume the worst about him because they are ignorant, he is so willing and capable of seeing the best in everyone.”
Rayanne is played with exquisite nervous energy by A.J. Langer (who first auditioned for the part of Angela). Rayanne has meaningless sex, drinks, and is always running off to meet some mystery guy named Tino. (We haven’t met Tino yet, but I’m sure he’ll show up before long.) Rayanne lives in an apartment with her single mom, Amber. Amber reads tarot cards, always seems to be mixing up a blender cocktail, and serves Rayanne only appetizers and desserts. Amber’s cool, but when Rayanne overdoses, Amber is too focused on meeting up with her boyfriend to notice. “Rayanne’s relationship with her mom is so tragic,” says Langer, “because you see why Rayanne is the way she is.” Angela, meanwhile, lives in a solidly middle-class home with her parents and adoring little sister. Her sensitive neighbor, Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall), is not so secretly in love with her, but Angela is oblivious. Instead, she develops an obsessive crush on the seemingly unattainable Jordan Catalano.
You may notice that I am switching paragraphs now. That is because Jordan Catalano is so hot that he deserves his own paragraph. When we first meet Jordan, in the pilot, he is leaning against a locker dropping Visine into his eyes. Angela informs us that he has been left back. Twice. His sleeves are always too long, which just tugs at your heart for some reason. He smokes under the bleachers. Jordan is in a band called Frozen Embryos and has a red car about which he has written a song so tender that both Rickie and Angela think it is for her. Rayanne schemes to get Jordan to notice Angela. She asks Jordan to procure a fake ID for Angela, and then when Jordan drops it off to Angela he tries to kiss her. She pushes him off, mumbling some nonsense about how “you need to work up to that.” Really? I guess this shows how Angela has self-respect, but who does that when the guy they like actually tries to kiss them? Especially if that guy looks like Jared Leto.
“At first, Jordan Catalano was just going to be in the pilot,” says Winnie Holzman. “But as soon as we got Jared on film, we knew he had to be a continuing character. I remember not being positive that he wanted to do it. I was a little worried that he didn’t want the part that much. He seemed to have ambivalent feelings. Maybe I am projecting.” Maybe. Jared sounds an awful lot like Jordan, who makes out with Angela in the boiler room but ignores her at the Buffalo Tom show.
On her obsession with Jordan, in the third episode, Angela muses: “It keeps me going or something. It’s like I need it, just to get through the day.” I had a line frighteningly close to that in my own diary. I asked Holzman if any of the show has been based on her own experience. “It is emotionally true for me,” she says. “I am tapping into emotions that I recall. It’s not that the facts of the show are my life. I certainly was obsessed with certain guys, but I didn’t have it come to the fulfillment that Angela had.” That’s one of the really satisfying things about the show, I tell Holzman. “That’s one of the really satisfying things about being a writer,” she says. “You can correct those horrible inequities.”
Juliana Hatfield is going to be in the Christmas episode, and she’s written a song for it. I can’t wait to see what happens next season. Will Angela have sex with Jordan? Will Rickie find love? Can Rayanne get her shit together? Will the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion play at Let’s Bolt? So come on, people! Write letters to ABC! We have to convince them to keep this show alive, at least until Jordan Catalano finally graduates.