top of page
  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

My So-Called Life - Labor Day Review

Everyone must have had some memorable experiences throughout high school, haven’t they? This trial-and-error period in their lives came with all kinds of heartbreak, ecstasies, and muddled confusions as everyone attempted average studiousness while also sneaking in opportunities to make a name for themselves. At the same time, of course, you have the quieter kind who prefers not to indulge in the glamorous activities and shallow-minded pursuits that others desperately crave. Either way, it’s all about everyone looking for someplace to feel like they belong, where they are finally seen for who they want to be and how they want others to see them.

This mindset is explored deeply in the short-lived ABC drama My So-Called Life. So much so that for what it managed to leave behind during its one-season run, it raised the bar and soared its way into the hearts of those who saw it after its premiere in 1994.

The story, when you look at it, is relatively simple. It is about a teenage girl named Angela Chase and her adventures and misadventures throughout Liberty High School in Pittsburgh. She constantly tried to navigate around high school and think hard about her choice of social circles. For instance, she hung out more with bisexual Ricky Vasquez and the nearly out-of-control Rayanne Graff. But Angela’s affiliations alienated some of her closest buddies, including the boy next door/grade-A student Brian Krakow and longtime BFF Sharon Cherski. But the most critical pursuit throughout the show? Angela’s biggest pursuit is the boy of her dreams, Jordan Catalano. Angela tried devising some effective methods necessary to speak with him and know him more, hoping to sweep him off his feet with every chance she got.

Meanwhile, when Angela was not busy with school, she also dealt with hurdles regarding family life back home. She constantly put up with her annoying younger sister, Danielle, her always-doting father, Graham, who expressed culinary aspirations, and her always cautious, concerned, and stressed-out mother, Patty. She always got on Angela’s nerves because of her assumptions of Angela continually doing what she would otherwise never have done regularly, even though parts of it were untrue. However, as they wrapped their heads around every issue they confronted together, little did Angela and Patty consider that they shared far more in common than they’d have thought.

Before shows like Freaks and Geeks and especially Euphoria came along – and during the height of the Beverly Hills 90210 craze – this show took a radically different approach with the high school narrative. Around that time, most shows revolving around high school or its students took a comedic canvas or a melodramatic lens to extract fiery situations to heighten their emotional stakes. By contrast, this show decided to portray high school life in a more realistic light. All it did was chronicle the inner turmoil of a teenager contemplating where she stood in life, either in school or amongst her family, and just tell it as it is. No heightened emotional stakes are necessary: just a simple, clear-cut demonstration of the lives of the everyday American teenager and their role in the collective passage of life.

At first, it focused on Angela since she is the show’s main protagonist. However, as the show continued, it took the refreshing liberty of peeking into her cohorts’ and close friends’ lives and dilemmas. As I dug deeper into Angela’s inner and outer turmoil, I slowly came to accept and appreciate how, for all her issues and problems with what went on in her life, Angela wasn’t the only one going through such struggles. Many of her high school friends had struggles that they had to work through, and yes, even her relatives back home tried to work their way out of whatever issue may have thrown them a curveball. I love shows that decide to portray the characters through more complex and multifaceted angles. That way, it’d demonstrate how there’s always more than one side to everyone’s personal story than meets the eye.

Speaking of which, let’s start by diving into each character. Beginning with Angela Chase, she is the borderline embodiment of your everyday American teenage girl with uncertain dreams and a generally confused handling of the minor life problems that either hounded her or were potentially created by her. Some of her actions unveiled a slight recklessness to her that highlighted her more insecure side. In the first episode, it was Angela’s idea to hang out with Rickie and Rayanne, even though these people were met with raised eyebrows by her closest friends and family. Plus, as a firsthand act of personal independence, and with the help of her new friends, Angela dyed her hair red, or, as she described it, a ‘crimson glow.’ It caught her friends and family off-guard, especially Patty, because she was not used to seeing her daughter looking as different as she had just become. From there, Angela continually went out with Rickie and Rayanne and participated in questionable activities, sending her other friends and her family into a frenzy. Because she was usually so private about it and everything that she felt we could hear in her monologues, we, as the audience, were clued in as to how Angela felt. At the same time, Angela preferred to keep her feelings about things and people private, or rather, private enough not to spill out everything, least of all to Patty. At first, I looked at her like she was just generic as a character. But altogether, her quirks, trials, misdemeanors, and personal growth elevated her character into an emblematic archetype that eerily reflected the general image of what every American teenager, especially back in the mid-1990s, faced or dealt with. Honestly, Angela felt a bit like a female Holden Caulfield. She always griped about the real world in all its confusing elements, yet part of her wanted to acknowledge the good things in life, take advantage of those that promise something for her or others, and remain open-minded about things that most people wouldn’t even think of accepting or trying to understand.

When I say Angela tried to find her footing in life, I don’t mean just within her family’s social circle. Angela admitted that she hung out with generally unorthodox people like Rayanne and Rickie - for reasons I’ll lay out soon - because she felt like they helped her feel more free and in control of her destiny. They helped her feel active, vocal, and willing to be more expressive about her feelings and herself. As far as Jordan was concerned, of course, that’s where her courage and self-confidence were sent into flurries. She always saw him as a hunk with an indescribable disposition, something that made her feel like something was hiding beneath his image that craved attention, companionship, and someone to call a dear friend. Angela felt it from Jordan, besides his looks, and wanted to make a solid impression on him in any way possible. However, every attempt she made helped make her peek more into Jordan for who he was, and she came to realize that he was far from the perfect dream guy she expected him to be while still adhering to the concept that some aspects of him were too good and sensible to brush away. Yes, there’s been an occasion where they broke up, and even Angela didn’t want to waste her time thinking about Jordan Catalano when she had many other things to worry about. Regardless, this all tied into the show’s message of all the inner struggles many people in school and at home must assess and how the attempts to comprehend the twists and turns that life would’ve thrown were far from limited to Angela.

It reminds me, how is Jordan as a character? Well, to put it bluntly… he’s a bit of a dimwit.

He was generally unfocused; he often flunked his classes, especially English, and on the side, he oversaw a band whose members constantly bickered regarding who overplayed, which note was wrong, or any other problems a band would’ve confronted. Rayanne caught on to this when she tried to join Jordan and his bandmates in “On the Wagon.” For all her anticipation over the chance to play in a rock band, she was put off by the general lack of coherence, consistency, and focus Jordan’s band expressed. Some of Jordan and his bandmates’ askew priorities were displayed when they requested for Rayanne to concentrate on keeping up appearances, as well as jumpstarted their first concert at a local diner without a rehearsal or even a name! Besides his lack of consistency with his band, Angela deduced as she spent more time with him together that he may have had dyslexia, meaning he couldn’t read well. That was one of the reasons why he kept flunking such classes as English because he felt like he was asked to do things he would’ve struggled to keep up with. Angela even took the liberty of signing Jordan up to have a tutor to help him with his English, who just happened to be Angela’s neighbor, Brian, even though the two were never that close. Not much was delved into his character regarding his personal life outside of his band routines. Still, his mannerisms and unconcerned attitude only added to his unsuspecting charm. And for what he has established with throughout the show, there’s enough of a hunger-inducing mystery to him that would’ve drawn me towards him the way he drew Angela in.

Speaking of Brian, how’s he like in the show? Usually, he’d have looked like the brainiac of the show, the kind of young man who’d have caught on to whatever situations he confronted, blabbered about specific details, and driven his peers nuts. While he did carry some semblance of that perceived image, he displayed a generally uncertain disposition that, in turn, gave him a more subdued personality. Because of Angela’s varied activities at home or in school, he was left to try desperately to win Angela’s affections, even if she never noticed it or had feelings for someone else, like Jordan Catalano. For what he did display on his own, he was usually more astute about other people’s feelings and how poor or insufficient he felt others were being about it. There’s a sense that he wanted to be the voice of reason to those he cared about or who Brian thought he cared for, but his attempts often gave them the wrong impression. What I think makes him unique is how his general concerns for other people and how he processed his feelings for them were often overshadowed by his lack of competence or enough thorough handling of the situations to assess them properly.

In my opinion, Rayanne felt like the definition of a ‘wild child’. Whenever she confronted Angela, Ricky, Jordan, Sharon, or whoever, she always had a hip and upbeat attitude to elevate the situation. Sometimes, they worked, but other times, they didn’t. Even when she approached Sharon by her locker and attempted to cheer her up with a pep talk as she bemoaned the possibility of her father dying of his heart attack, I could tell there was a difference between bullying and expressing the wrong attitude at the wrong time. Rayanne felt like she knew how to straddle the fine line and went about life like the day or night is still young and should be taken advantage of in any way possible. She even took such a philosophy to heart when she met with many of the male students of Liberty High that as she and all her female classmates were judged for their best attributes, she was awarded as having – and I quote – the “biggest slut potential.” However, there were times when she was too reckless, especially concerning her drinking problems. Because of this, she tried to avoid alcoholic beverages despite temptation rousing her into gulping down a round or two in between periods. In short, Rayanne was an admirably reckless but no less intriguing character who you’d be concerned yet intrigued about regarding the type of company Angela would’ve found herself in with her around.

Sharon, the head of the student body at Liberty High School, felt like a conscientious but conflicted young woman with a lot to uphold within her position. Besides her newfound social circles, she also questioned Angela’s decision to hang out with friends she knew wouldn’t have swum in her gene pool and put up with the unpredictable antics of her boyfriend, Kyle. And about Rayanne being judged by her male colleagues for her best attributes, especially concerning body parts? Sharon wasn’t pleased with how she was judged accordingly, and the fact that her boyfriend Kyle had something to do with it did not help. Because of her and Angela’s social circles, it seemed as if nothing could’ve brought Angela or Sharon back together the way they used to when they were little. However, when her father suffered a nearly fatal heart attack, it made her and even Angela think hard about where their allegiances lay and to what extent they would’ve let them keep them separate. The social restructuring they dealt with left a deep impact on their friendship, and throughout the show, they slowly started reconciling and attempting to patch things up, even if they still felt bound by the social circles to which they were best accustomed. This kind of dynamic was exposed to the nth degree, bringing forth the complexions of a former best friend who still tried to make it through in life and hoped to do so with her own former best friend to help her through it, even if Angela needed just as much help as she did. However, as her continuous run-ins with Rayanne demonstrated, even some social circles that Sharon may have dismissed as unworthy to someone like her would’ve uncovered nuggets of similarities that only manifested and blossomed into potential friendships of equal value.

L to R: AJ Langer as Rayanne Graff and Devon Odessa as Sharon Cherski

Rickie Vasquez was, frankly, a far more progressive character than I anticipated him to be. He’d been a close buddy of Angela and Rayanne for quite some time and was seen to have had oddball quirks about him, as others saw from him. Of course, in the very first episode, Angela rightly deduced, as did Danielle, that Rickie was “bi,” as in “bisexual,” meaning he’s attracted to both girls and boys. So, this displayed him in a compelling light as he attempted to remain firm in who he decided to hang out with, either platonically or even romantically, and put his heart first above everything else. Throughout the show’s first half, I thought Rickie was just a colorful – no pun intended – character with a knack for getting into such oddball antics, including regularly meeting up with Angela or Rayanne in the girls’ bathroom, even though he’s a boy. Early in the show, Ricky even admitted that he was responsible for a bad event in school because then, he believed people would’ve paid more attention to him. But his bisexuality wasn’t the only thing causing him so much grief. It turned out that his parents were nowhere to be found, and as her uncle and aunt watched over him, he was regularly abused by them, thrown out, and eventually abandoned, leaving him homeless. It was highlighted in the show’s Christmas and New Year’s specials, of all episodes, and when this angle of his character was displayed, I completely sympathized and felt sorry for him for his mishaps and dilemmas. Ellen DeGeneres was highly progressive back in the day when she had her character, Ellen, admit to being gay, but I guess I was wrong to say that she was among the first; characters like Ricky might have beaten her to the punch by a couple of years.

In any other show, I’d have been prone to look at Patty, Angela’s mother, like she’d be the stuck-up, humorless mother who was often a thorn in the main protagonist’s side. And while she fits the bill, it’s only on occasion, and what you’d generally assume her of being in this show, only Angela looked at her that way. As for who she really was, she was just a concerned and confused young woman who always tried to assess Angela and her sudden moodiness, not to mention her concerning ways of going out with whom she considered unfamiliar people. As she and her husband, Graham, admitted on more than one occasion, they’ve known each other since high school and only got together after graduating. So, much of what they went through during their high school years, their daughters Angela and Danielle may have faced, too, except on a far more complicated scale. Of course, when she wasn’t dealing with Angela and her issues, she was also worrying about the condition of her printing business, loaned to her by her adoptive father. Yes, I mean it when I say adoptive father. Angela said she never met her biological parents, so Patty only had her adoptive mother and father to look after her. Even then, their methods of looking after her and their activities conflicted with what others believed to be the right thing. So, these angles exposed a great deal of pressure and sympathetic qualities, plus complexity, to Patty, even if some aspects of her felt more uneven than others, as Angela saw of her.

Her husband, Graham, seemed wishy-washy as a character. He always doted on Danielle, Angela, or Patty and tried to reassure or correct them on circumstances beyond their understanding. Although, as far as his career was concerned, only then did he start taking on a generally intriguing angle. Originally, he worked under Patty for her printing business. But, after he landed them a big account, Graham wondered if that’s something he should be proud of, to which Patty respectfully fired him so she could give him a chance at another, more prosperous career. Much like what Angela did for Jordan by signing him up for the English tutoring program, Patty signed Graham up to take a culinary class; being an expert chef was Graham’s dream. However, with the help of his classmate, Hallie, he was unexpectedly nominated to teach the course himself since he established a great deal of culinary knowledge handy to enlighten the rest of his classmates with, mostly since their former cooking teacher was unintelligible. He was off to such a good start that out of admiration and spontaneous brainstorming, Hallie suggested cranking it up a notch by opening a new restaurant with him as her business partner. Graham was concerned about this because, as much as he wanted to open a new restaurant, he wondered what that’d do to either Patty, since she’s his wife, or to his plans for later. So, while a bit on the light side, Graham was not without some personal struggles worth addressing.

Angela’s younger sister, Danielle, seemed like a fill-in to provide some youth-oriented snark to the show with her commentary on either Angela’s or their parents’ ongoing issues. However, throughout the show, she revealed several aspects of her character that detailed how sick she was of being dismissed as some small kid who was too young and inexperienced to understand what happened in front of her. She came too dangerously close to being generic, but thanks to cleverly placed, quirky little details, the writers found ways to revitalize her with some hidden personality.

What I admire so profusely about these characters is that through the nineteen episodes that made up My So-Called Life, they all established intricate personalities that made them feel alive. They all had little quirks, ideologies, and problems that showcased who they were as people or as unique, individual…weirdos, as others would see them. But each character was displayed as such to hit home how Angela was far from the only person in the world who had to work through unprecedented challenges. And My So-Called Life successfully explored these avenues with each character as they expressed so little of it at a time in each episode.

However, this leads to what I consider one of the show’s strengths: the interpersonal relationships sprouting forth between the characters. Outside of the engaging ways in which they interacted with and worked off each other, this demonstrates how some people would find common ground amongst people they wouldn’t have thought to make friends with. Movies like The Breakfast Club and TV shows like Total Drama Island mastered this, and I’m happy to say that this show worked the same magic its own way.

For example…

  • After Angela left Sharon behind once she hung out more with Rickie and Rayanne, Sharon’s constant trips to the bathroom coincidentally had her run into Rayanne, and from there, they started forming a slight friendship, whether it’s over the radio supervising the helpline program at Christmastime, or especially over Angela.

  • Socially awkward kids who never had the best of luck in school society tried to find ways to confront social problems properly. That’s what Brian and Rickie happened to have shared in common, and that’s what drew them together, if out of nothing else but instinct.

  • At one point, while Patty was never fond of Rayanne when she first met her in the Pilot episode, she revealed later in the show that back in college, she had a similar friend to what Angela had in Rayanne, except that friend never had the best of luck, unlike Rayanne. In which case, like mother, like daughter. And with Graham, Rayanne felt most comfortable cooking alongside him, but it wasn’t just for fun. Rayanne admitted to Angela that because her real father went out with countless women after she divorced her mother, Amber, Graham was the closest thing to a father she ever had.

  • Rayanne even dug into Jordan, despite her attempts to help Angela out with him, partially because she fell for the supposed tough-guy demeanor apparent with him. Whenever these two were together, despite Rayanne being turned off by his lack of management within the band, they still spent their time together, just feeling content with one another.

  • Graham had dinner with Hallie and her husband at his house when Jordan stopped by, thinking Angela was home. After the four of them met, Hallie thought of Jordan as a hunk but also more like a lost puppy.

  • Whenever I saw Brian and Sharon together, I got the impression that these two knew each other for a long time, but not on a scale where you would’ve seen these two together all the time. As I mentioned, they both had their own social circles, even if Brian struggled to find his, and portrayed them more as different people who shared a deep friendship.

  • The connections that Patty and then Angela formed with Rayanne’s mother, Amber, demonstrated what some of them may have shared in common. Amber casually expressed concern for Rayanne, just like Patty did with her concerns for Angela. And to Angela, Amber felt like the more carefree, understanding mother that Angela thought she was and empathized with her over that, while some of her tricks drew Angela in, too.

  • At one point, the new English teacher, Mr. Katimsky, took an interest in Rickie because of his theatrical talents and compelled him to join the drama club. Later in the show, it turned out that one other reason he wanted to help Rickie was because he was gay himself, since he lived back home with a male partner.

And the acting?

What can I say? There wasn’t a single, solitary performance that felt like it had gone to waste. It was just exquisite across the board!

Everyone who played their characters in this show had done so with finesse and an innate sensibility that helped highlight their flaws while never shying away from their more humane moments. Whether it’s the adolescent actors on the adolescent characters or the adult actors on the adult characters, not one side of the cast felt like it was stealing someone else’s thunder or overshadowing anybody else. All the actors displayed the characters with equal variation to demonstrate why these characters are so worth investing time in, in or out of school.

Sometimes, the performances alone can tell the story to its viewers without the exact wording needed to play a part. There’s one instance in “So-Called Angels” where Angela and Patty fought about having Rickie and a homeless girl, who was Rickie’s acquaintance, over to their house for Christmas Eve dinner, primarily because they were homeless. The confrontation was intense, and what followed from there was a crescendo of events and turnovers that highlighted each character’s insecurities and desperation as Angela attempted to give Rickie and potentially the homeless girl some semblance of refuge. Part of that may be because of how Rickie, one of her best friends from high school, turned out to have had no home to go to. Plus, the homeless girl she met after she wandered into high school was in the same predicament as Rickie, so Angela felt nothing but empathy for her for the same reasons as she did towards Rickie. The acting surrounding these events felt real, genuine, and engaging since this all centered on a generally controversial issue.

In another episode, “Betrayal,” Rayanne, while under the influence and with Jordan, got too into the moment, and they both made out in the back of his car. Eventually, Angela caught on to this and gradually submitted to her disappointment towards Rayanne for stabbing her in the back the way she did. Later, by the end of the episode, Rayanne was asked by Mr. Katimsky to recite her lines as the character Emily Webb from the play “Our Town.” As she and Angela both participated in expressing their lines to each other, Claire Danes’ and AJ Langer’s expressions told me that everything they said, as well as to each other, highlighted how much it correlated with what they went through from Angela’s deep pain and frustration to Rayanne’s pure remorse and heartache—that moment alone stunned me into silence. You can tell that Rayanne was haunted by what she had done to her best friend by making out with her biggest flame, while Angela had a hard time forgiving Rayanne for that.

The innateness was apparent from arguably all the actors who participated in this show. They gave their best efforts here, and it played a part in shaping My So-Called Life’s credibility and reputation as a high-quality high-school drama.

I could go on forever about what a great job each actor had done in bringing their characters to life, from AJ Langer as Rayanne to Bess Armstrong as Patty, Tom Irwin as Graham, Devon Gummersall as Brian, Devon Odessa as Sharon, Wilson Cruz as Rickie, and Lisa Wilhoit as Danielle. But two actors stood out to me, not just because of how famous they would eventually become, but also because of how well they tackled their characters.

First up is Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano. Long before he reached levels of infamy with his portrayal of Joker in Suicide Squad, Leto conveyed the uncertain hunk with grace. Every time you see him, you see a young man who could easily have swept any girl off her feet, as he did with Angela. Leto honed a generally ‘chillax’ demeanor out of him whenever Jordan did his own thing within or away from the school grounds and also sounded committed when Jordan attempted to get his band back on its feet. In contrast, he sounded generally disinterested in everything else. When it came to Angela, of course, he still carried the same neutral yet nonetheless irresistible charm to him that Angela admired so much about him. As Angela and Jordan got to know each other more, his shell of disinterest started to slowly crack away, unveiling the Jordan that either would’ve touched Angela’s heart more than it already had or confused her into temporary submission. Leto was marvelous in portraying a hunk who also happened to be a total slacker and may have been afraid to confront reality, and it fitted Jordan’s character very nicely.

Next, you have Claire Danes as Angela Chase. Her expressions, her modesty, her teenage mannerisms, her confusion, her desperations, her lovesickness… not only are they all there, but she displayed them all through Angela Chase with pure elegance and conviction. On the surface, I’d have thought she’d have portrayed her in a generally non-progressive, uninteresting light as she bemoaned life’s complications in and out of high school. But once I saw and heard her in action, I became so lost in her trains of thought and how she processed things and the people around her that it hardly mattered. Danes infused her character and the show with the grace necessary to elevate this show into the type where I’d see a little bit or a lot of myself in these situations as I already have in my high school years. Whenever Dane went up to bat as Angela Chase, she displayed a full-on fluctuation of emotions and convictions as Angela tried to get a firm hold on the circumstances she thought she was prepared for but may not have known in terms of how to turn the tide to her favor or those of who she cared about. Danes was even awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and I can see why the more I know Angela Chase. Everything you like, disagree with, or feel uncertain of regarding Angela Chase, Claire Dane brought forth in full measure, and the acclaim bestowed upon her never felt unearned.

Frankly, there’s something about the music by W.G. Snuffy Walden that I genuinely admire, down to the show’s main theme. Embodied with guitar music and intermingled with some flute tunes, the music gives the show a unique vibe that separates it from many other movies and TV shows within My So-Called Life’s genre. Even the flute music, I’ll admit, made me think back on it as if I sensed some Orientalism apparent within, like it snuck in a dash of spiritual instinct into the music as it played throughout the show.

Even the songs, if they were made for the show, were nicely done. Performed by a variety of artists, including Buffalo Tom, The Lemonheads, and Afghan Whigs, they all conveyed conventional pop themes – with dashes of grunge music into the mix – to modify some of the characters’ dilemmas and the high school experience that comes with it.

But it’s not just the story, the characters, their stories, the acting, or even the music. Getting back to the circumstantial events in this series, they were dwelled on with utmost care, and the issues perpetuated the show with a decent sense of grit and darkness, but never to a point where they reduced My So-Called Life into some overtly severe melodrama. Every issue confronted or talked about in this series felt real and with less of the kind of exposure you’d associate with the type of afterschool special that’d address such issues.

My So-Called Life covered a variety of serious topics, including teenage sex, teenage alcoholism, gun violence, censorship, homelessness, homosexuality, love affairs, etc. But, in the case of this show, whereas most shows would’ve addressed them in just one episode and be done with it, they allowed the consequences of such actions to affect the characters and have them linger throughout the show, to hit home how this was a regular thing for the characters. It added to the confusing, if not hostile, environment of both Liberty High School and Pittsburgh, but the show still showcased those issues with enough tenderness to highlight the insecurities of the characters as they confronted them. What I find so intriguing about how these issues were addressed is that it only added to the challenges that come with both high school and life in general, and that, should the characters confront these issues, would they have been up to the task, or would they have succumbed to the travesties that came with them? High school was not an ideal place for anyone to thrive, but it was not without its more transcendent, wholesome moments, similar to home life or life outside of both. They added to the show’s realism, besides that which the show already started very well with, and the naturality of the experiences concerning them added enough homeliness to make them feel like it’s worth paying close attention to.

The only issues I almost wish was explored more in the show are bullying and, dare I say it, suicide. I understand that not every issue in high school would’ve been addressed in just nineteen episodes of the show, anyway. Still, I can’t help but wonder how a show like My So-Called Life would’ve handled what may considerably be hardcore issues that deserve to be spotlighted with the right type of exposition.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but look back on My So-Called Life and think that the idea of it not sneaking in bullying like that’s a common thing is refreshing and, admittedly, a dodge of a bullet. I’ve seen some movies and shows that displayed the effects of bullying, but I feel like they tend to go too far in showing the harmful results just to milk extra drama out of those circumstances instead of showing why it’s unneeded or how it could be appropriately combated. Frankly, it’s when the bullies involved displayed more angles to their character that I find most interesting, and not bullies whose guts you’re supposed to hate because of their actions. And had it been explored in My So-Called Life, I’ll wager it would’ve been smart enough to highlight this issue from every corner, not just one.

And suicide? Somehow, that issue kept popping up in my head many times. There’s something about someone taking their own life when there’s so much more to life than the potentially temporary pain and suffering may suggest. It’s one of those issues that deserves attention, if for nothing else than to raise awareness.

Also, let me tell you what My So-Called Life intended to do. Creator Winnie Holzman admitted that if the show were to have a second season, it would’ve tackled even more hot issues with the characters. For example, after Graham opened his culinary business with Hallie, it would’ve led to him and Patty divorcing. Then, this would’ve sent Patty into a deep depression and requested Angela to take care of the many household priorities that Graham would usually have taken care of. And Mr. Katimsky, the gay teacher who took Rickie in, would’ve had his sexuality exposed to the entire school, sending everyone into a frenzy and leaving them uncertain about how to accept this. And finally, Sharon would initially have suffered a case of teenage pregnancy and would potentially have become an early mother.

As unpleasant as these new narrative paths would’ve been for the characters, it would’ve ideally continued the ongoing drama that unfolded from engaging in the real-life issues that plagued people either in life or even, in the case of this show, back in the mid-1990s. Plus, it would’ve put the characters on naturally growing paths in life that either made or broke whoever was subjected to them.

But for what we have here in its first and only season, this is one of those shows where it thankfully never ended on a cliffhanger—at least, not on a blatant one.

Before I explain how I feel like it never ended on a cliffhanger, let me list what I consider my top ten favorite episodes so I can demonstrate the values and virtues of the show and its presentations of strife in life in every form.

10. Weekend

Bess Armstrong as Patty Chase

For a show that generally felt serious and tackled hot-button topics well, this penultimate episode demonstrated that the show has a sense of humor every once in a while. Here, Patty and Graham decided to spend a weekend with Graham’s brother, Neil Chase, and his new fiancée at a nearby cabin. Of course, the catalyst of this episode was a pair of handcuffs that Camille, Sharon’s mother, loaned to Patty for her to use with Graham on their trip. However, as Patty hastily packed up her things and lunged out with Graham, she forgot the cuffs but still held onto the key. The rest of their trip took one embarrassing turn after the next as Patty insisted on letting Graham, Neil, and his new fiancée go and have fun with their ice skating while Patty decided to stay behind. And it culminated in them all getting together and drinking one glass too many of ginger whiskey.

Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, Angela was put in charge of the house for the weekend as Rayanne stopped by her house with Rickie to do some things together. Then, Rayanne stumbled into Angela’s parents’ bedroom and noticed the cuffs on the bed. Rayanne, catching on to what they were there for, decided to try them on for herself… and let’s just say the rest of the episode felt like the comedic equivalent of Gerald’s Game.

This episode was very oddball in terms of its tone and storyline, but the acting and general wackiness felt so in sync that it’s hard to dismiss this episode as lesser than the rest of the show. Yes, Graham’s brother’s new girlfriend is too picky, and her laugh might put that of Victoria in Sleepless in Seattle to shame, but even then, it contributed to the parents’ side of the story being as funny as it was. Plus, the hustle-bustle by the main characters as they tried to help Rayanne out of the cuffs and off Angela’s parents’ bed was prone to provide some genuine laughs and some heartfelt moments between them as My So-Called Life did best. Also notable is how, like one episode I’ll mention soon in this countdown, it was not narrated from Angela’s point of view. Instead, it was told from her younger sister Danielle’s point of view, and this was where I felt her character became more engaging than before. Through her monologues, Danielle admitted how frustrated she was about being dismissed because of being looked at as the quote “baby” in the family, even though she understood well enough what was happening in front of her. This episode even confirmed what I suspected about Danielle and that she had a crush on Brian Krakow. I suspected this because she was the first to open the door every time Brian showed up on their doorstep and occasionally begged Brian to teach her some things, like playing the saxophone in one episode. So, with some intriguing character revelations and an unexpectedly refreshing wacky edge, Weekend was a much-needed dose of laughter after so much drama.

9. Why Jordan Can’t Read

After a few episodes of buildup, this was where Angela’s crush on Jordan reached its culmination. Angela gradually took baby steps to get close to Jordan, and in this episode, she and Jordan shared their first real kiss. However, besides the episode relishing in that anticipated moment, it also detailed some extra details that highlighted Jordan’s general insecurities. For example, Rayanne accidentally left behind a letter addressed to Jordan that Angela asked her to watch over in a local museum they went to for a field trip. Before they returned to the school, Jordan picked it up and read bits and pieces of the letter, which Angela was nervous but also thankful would’ve happened. But while Jordan didn’t read the rest of it, it wasn’t out of disinterest. As she did further digging, she caught on to Jordan’s troubles with reading and writing and tried to help him through those issues. And let’s say that because of the kiss, Angela wanted to invite Jordan over to dinner so she could introduce him to her parents. But without giving anything away, it didn’t quite go according to plan, and Jordan’s band may have had something to do with it. I enjoy this episode for its climactic moment with Angela and Jordan’s relationship while also never forgetting to highlight that there are still more trials to be dealt with regarding relationships like what Angela wanted with Jordan. Overall, it is a terrific episode demonstrating how love prevails but can also hurt.

8. Strangers in the House

In what Amelie Gillette of AV Club described as “the weepiest episode of My So-Called Life,” Sharon’s father suffered a major heart attack, leaving him hospitalized for a while. The news troubled Angela, her parents, and her friends at school, and it left Sharon devastated. I also loved how the beginning of this episode established the story. Even with the regular music and activities, and while half of it was because Angela’s class was taking a quiz, the fact that no one spoke when they discovered that something had come up, I could tell that whatever happened, it was serious, and potentially not good.

What I found so memorable about this episode was not only the effects of a loved one having to go through a near-fatal turn of events and the reactions by those who were closely associated with him, but this episode was buoyed by how much of an effect it had on Angela’s friendship with Sharon. In several episodes before this one, Angela and Sharon were always distant, constantly dismissing each other because of the peculiarities concerning their newfound social circles, Sharon with Angela’s and Angela with Sharon’s. And what happened to Sharon’s father in this episode made them wonder...

Do I need her by my side in crises like this? How could I be her friend when so many different things cropped up between us?

This episode detailed their friendship through this devastating event very well. In addition to showing what Angela and Sharon used to be like when they were younger and the best of friends, this episode shows what such devastating events could do to those who caught on to it and how they would’ve reacted to such news. I won’t give away what happens in the end, but I’ll say that it does not diminish the overall impact of what went down the way I expected it to. Weepy for sure but still serious-minded in its thought-processing, Strangers in the House knows how to bring old acquaintances back together.

7. The Substitute

Roger Rees as Vic Racine

What I feared would have been a hammy “mean substitute teacher” episode instead evolved into an engaging episode that took a page out of Dead Poets Society while still throwing in enough spins to keep it riveting and wholly separate from the Robin Williams movie. When the previous English teacher dropped out – Mr. Katimsky came in after this episode – a highly animated teacher named Vic Racine was asked to fill in. At first, he and his classmates got off on the wrong foot when he audaciously threw their paperwork out of the window out of little other reason than aloof criticism of their work. But after a few days had passed, and Racine started expressing himself more with his classmates rather than towards them, he started being seen by his classmates, and soon the rest of the school, as a good influence and role model. It culminated in his classmates being encouraged to write their poems as he encouraged them to do for the school newspaper. However, this collection of poems sparked controversy because of one poem that had lewd subject matter and questionable metaphors. And because Patty and Graham were in the printing business and in charge of printing these poems, they, too, partook in their concerns for this controversial turn of events.

Outside of carrying the same messages and implications that I admire about Dead Poets Society, this episode does a delicate job of highlighting the controversy of questionable subject matter, only to reveal that censorship is a more considerable controversy itself. As someone who’s firmly anti-censorship, I laud this episode for highlighting the pros and cons of censorship and for detailing the arguments that would’ve gone through between students, teachers, and parents regarding the poems borne out of the God-given instincts of freedom of speech, especially as Mr. Racine encouraged through his students. This episode is also helped by the substitute teacher admitting more of his secrets that we wouldn’t have anticipated out of him, the fact that what ultimately happened was done more out of concern than malice, and, of course, the identity of the writer of the otherwise inappropriate poem. One thing I will say is, as I watched this whole episode, I thought it was Rayanne who wrote it. Instead, the poem is the kind that Rayanne turned out to have wished she’d written. These twists and turns, the episode’s themes and arguments, and clever tweaking of the story and characters left me with more than a soft spot for this episode.

6. Guns and Gossip

Taking place after Angela and Jordan’s encounter together in the car parked in front of Brian’s house in the previous episode, it curtailed what followed throughout the following day, with Angela’s peers talking about her so-called ‘affairs’ with Jordan and whether she had sex with him. However, at the same time, as Brian went to the bathroom, he noticed Rickie being picked on by a couple of guys, and after stepping inside the bathroom for a moment, a gun went off in the hallway. It terrified the student body, the school board, and the parents as they tried to navigate this mess and see who carried the gun into the school. I wouldn’t have expected the two subjects of this episode to work well together, but in this episode, they did, and they did so quite seamlessly. The ‘Gossip’ portion stemmed from Angela’s attempts with Jordan in the previous episode. At the same time, the ‘Guns’ encouraged a whole different kind of gossip that uncovered more surprising truths than we may have anticipated. But it may also heap some deep, unneeded shame onto those involved, which may do more harm than good, especially if it concerns keeping the students and teachers safe. It showed how even adults were no strangers to gossip, similar to the teenagers in this show. I’ve seen this type of juxtaposition explored in shows like The Andy Griffith Show with ‘Those Gossipin’ Men,’ and My So-Called Life showcased it with the same curious exposure. This episode strutted between such seemingly conflicting subjects well and raised plenty of intriguing questions about the logistics that gossip, in general, is focused on.

5. Pilot

Never mind that this was the episode that started it all. It laid the groundwork for what was guaranteed to be an amazing, fantastic show. And this episode sure did its job of introducing the core components that made the show so famous: the characters, the thoughtful confrontation of the issues that went on in or out of school and at home, Angela’s need to feel like she’s acknowledged in some way, and of course, her crush on Jordan Catalano as she tried to make a decent first impression on him. This episode introduced all those elements on the show in a riveting fashion, and it also helps that the story was written to a point where it could be seen and appreciated as a stand-alone story. Either way, if this doesn’t hook you into watching the rest of the show, nothing would.

4. Life of Brian

Besides Weekend, this episode was the only one in the show not to be narrated by Angela; this time, the inner monologues were expressed by Brian. In this episode, the ‘World Happiness’ dance was forthcoming, and Brian attempted to work his way through all the fumbles of his everyday life, including his struggles to talk to and woo Angela. However, it seemed like things started to open up for him when Sharon introduced him to a transfer student named Delia, and at first, these two were on their way to becoming lovers. Unfortunately, Brian attempted to gently turn Delia down because of his desperation to woo Angela and ask her out to the dance. In so doing, all he did was destroy what could’ve been a good relationship. Even his idea of having Angela to himself, or so Brian thought, was to propose that they go somewhere where it’s just the two of them and each with their personal space without their friends. It felt so fascinating to learn more about Brian in this episode because before then, I usually looked at him like he was just an average smart kid who’d known Angela for most of his life. But here, we see how he felt about Angela, how desperate he was in his attempt to have her pay attention to him, and how he thought and felt about his friends and studies. Plus, it features some genuinely stunning choreography by Wilson Cruz as Rickie. I was not anticipating this sudden change in narration or focus, but it was most welcomed. It helped fine-tune some of the more underdeveloped characters’ personalities; Weekend did that for Danielle, and this episode did a fine job doing the same thing for Brian.

Devon Gummersall as Brian Krakow

3. Other People’s Mothers

This episode just had a blast with its centralized focus on motherhood, but what cemented it as one of its best for me is what a pivotal turning point this became for Rayanne. What happened was that Rayanne was given a gift by her ex-father, which amounted to over two hundred dollars. That would have amounted to around five hundred dollars in today’s money. So, she decided to splurge it all on a wild party she planned to host at her house while her mother was away. Meanwhile, Angela and Pam tried to get a 45th-anniversary celebration party prepared for Patty’s mother and father, with her mother showing up first. But while she was quick to think of ideas for Patty, the house, and even Graham, it rattled Patty, who believed that her overreaching demands were starting to step on her plans and ways of going about life. It also didn’t help that Patty’s father, who was hospitalized for a bit and then released before the 45th-anniversary celebration, decided not to go, and I mean by choice. But that wasn’t where things got crazy. Instead, that belongs to when Angela left home on the 45th-anniversary celebration in a fit of rage against Patty, only to notice that not only had Rayanne invited tons of people she didn’t know into her house, but she’s also been wolfing down tons of pills and alcoholic beverages to a point where she started feeling woozy and not acting or looking so well. Seeing what was going on, Angela quickly phoned her mother to help, which was perfect timing, considering that she in turn called an ambulance to help Rayanne out. This episode was such a knockout for how it tackled the mother-daughter relationship, whether it’s between Patty’s mother and Patty, Patty and Angela, Rayanne’s mother with Rayanne, or, briefly, even Rayanne’s mother and Angela. And yet, the consequences of Rayanne’s actions potentially led to some of the most harrowing imagery and turns of events you wouldn’t have expected to happen to one of the show’s main characters. Rayanne was such a wild girl and noticeably drank plenty of alcoholic beverages before. But this was where her unhealthy habits took a turn for the worse, and it almost threatened her life. Patty even admitted to Angela that despite her initial misgivings about her from the moment she saw her, Rayanne turned out to have reminded her very much of her college roommate, who also went down the same path that Rayanne did, except Patty didn’t respond quickly enough, and her roommate died because of it. The dynamics were well-played, the frustrating moments provided some juicy drama and frustrations, and the reality of the situations at hand demonstrates what goes on that affects more than just the people involved, whether it’s in school or not. Long story short, Other People’s Mothers is a doozy of an episode!

2. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

In this series finale, Angela, Patty, and Delia had suspicious dreams about someone they knew: Angela with Jordan, Patty with her old flame from high school – who happened to resemble Jordan – and Delia with, of all characters, Rickie. None of them knew what the dreams were about, but they still went on with their lives, anyway. After Jordan took tutoring classes with Brian, they became begrudging friends. This time, after going through so much hardship after he and Rayanne made love, Jordan tried to work up the courage to find the words to apologize to her. So, Jordan tried to tell Brian what he thought of Angela not going out with him because of his and Rayanne’s actions together. However, as Brian helped Jordan with his apology to Angela, he pushed things further by writing a letter admitting what Jordan would’ve admitted to Angela under Jordan’s name. Everything that Brian wrote in the letter, as Jordan would’ve said it, felt more like Brian’s way of confessing his love to Angela. The letter was so well-written that you’d be a bit perplexed that Brian put more of himself into the letter than he did of Jordan, even if Jordan struggled to write or read. The ending of this episode may have guaranteed a promising future for the series and its characters, but the way it wrapped up on its own could also be interpreted as a somewhat conclusive ending with barely any loose ends left unaddressed. At least, those new to the show may walk away with this feeling once they’ve finished it like I was. So, this had many good things to show for a season-finale turned series-finale. Astounding revelations, a well-played resolution, and, in my opinion, a satisfactory conclusion.

And my absolute favorite episode of the show is…

1. So-Called Angels

Who would’ve thought the Christmas special would’ve brought far more to the table than you bargained for? And I mean, the healthy kind? In this punch-filled episode, Ricky was progressively down on his luck once his uncle and aunt – I don’t seem to recall what happened to his biological parents – had beaten him up and eventually left him behind, leaving Ricky without a home. Once Angela caught on to this, she did everything she could to provide Rickie with some shelter. At first, her parents were uncomfortable about the idea, especially since Angela thought about bringing Rickie in, as well as a girl who was a guitarist and whom she saw in high school, just because they were both homeless. After a heated disagreement caused Angela to run to the homeless shelter to help Rickie, she was caught by the cops and relocated to the local church’s refuge since it was Patty and Graham’s idea to relocate the homeless living there to someplace where they’d be safe on Christmas Eve night. It probably felt like the most sobering of the show’s episodes, and the fact that it shed light on homelessness, applied it to Rickie, and had it all occur on what is generally one of the most celebrated holidays ever infused this episode and show with a little more artistic dignity than I expected it to. It shows you that even in joyous times, there will always be someone out there in desperate need of a helping hand.

As grounded as this show is, however, there were a few occasions where it took a practical detour and implemented fantastical elements into the mix, but not so much that they tarnished what the show established. For example, returning to So-Called Angels, the homeless girl turned out to have been an angel herself, for she watched over Rickie and guided him through his troubles, just as she had with Angela and her family at the same time. Given the show’s grounded nature, this seems very out of left field, but in the context of this episode, it fits. It syncs into the episode’s yuletide nature and solidifies its message of peace on earth and goodwill toward men.

That, and the Halloween special seemed like it went all out there with its fantastical elements but was ironically clever about the perceptions that would’ve followed about them. In this episode, Rayanne was ecstatic about speaking to the souls of the dead at the school on Halloween night, so she invited Angela and Brian to join her in their attempt to talk to and see the souls for themselves, including the soul of a fellow student named Nicky Driscoll, who died young in the school back in 1963. What I found so impressive about the fantastical implications is that you can look at this and wonder whether what happened really happened or if it was all just a dream. Without being too specific, the biggest clue that supported this theory was Nicky’s life story carrying parallels to Jordan’s struggles in school, especially in English, and Angela’s so-called ‘experiences’ with Nicky compelled her to help Jordan further since his constant flunking could easily have gotten him kicked out of English. Angela didn’t want that to happen to Jordan, and what she thought she witnessed with Nicky was just the motivation she needed. So, as much as the fantastical elements seemed like they’d have no place in a show like this – at one point, I thought they’d make this show look more like something out of So Weird instead – the show was creative with them and helped them add to each episode’s collective atmosphere and not just their sense of festivity.

For all that this show accomplished during its short run on ABC, it all felt like a genuine breath of fresh air. The stories were refreshingly down-to-earth, the characters were all nuanced, the acting was spotless, and the dilemmas all felt authentic and not modified for comedic or dramatic effect – it was just an entire school year of life as we know it. For those reasons, this might have easily become one of my all-time favorite TV shows alongside Regular Show and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Atticus Finch said you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. And there’s no better way to experience that or understand other people – especially for high schoolers everywhere – than within Angela Chase and her adventures. It’s a classic for a reason.

My Rating


Works Cited

Watkins, G. (2016, November 16). The Agony and the Angst: An Oral History of My So-Called Life. Elle.

Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page