It's 1994, "Love Is All Around" by Wet Wet Wet has been top of the charts for as long as you can remember and a movie about a lion jamming in the jungle with a meerkat and a warthog has just been released. You're spending most of your days coveting this new gaming console everyone's talking about called Playstation and paging your BFF about how unfair life is. It's just starting to dawn on you that everyone you know is a complete moron, and you feel completely alone.
That is until you meet Angela Chase, the 15-year-old sophomore girl who through one season and 19 episodes quickly becomes your guru, your idol, and your style icon. I am, of course, talking about the protagonist of My So Called Life, the teen show that's largely considered to be the truest coming of age story to have ever aired on TV.
#MySoCalledLife launched the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, bagged a bunch of awards (including a Golden Globe for Danes), and spawned (and maintained) a cult following despite being on #TV for a mere 15 hours. But how can a show that was never greenlit for a second season be one of the best teen shows of all time, you ask?
Well, stick on the Violent Femme's "Blister In The Sun" and join me as we dance through the four major reasons why, despite being well over two decades old, MSCL remains firmly up at the top of the teen TV charts. Or whatever.
1. Angela Chase Is A Poetic Role Model For Us All
Like most pubescents, life scared the shit out of Angela Chase. She was confused by pretty much everything, was awkward as hell and totally obsessed with a boy — Jared Leto, ahem — that she perceived to be out of her league. She was a hot mess, basically. But she was relatable. Because, quite frankly, who wasn't a complete nutcase as a teenager?
However, rather than acting out or pulling a total Rayanne and getting wasted on the regs — more on that later — she stuck to her moral guns and internalized her dilemmas and observations, which lead to countless profound, poetic (albeit dramatic) ponderthons about the world around her. Thoughts that you can pretty much apply to your adult life too, despite being spewed by a 15-year-old.
For example, when your college friends meet your high school friends for the first time:
"What I, like, dread is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area. And you have to develop this, like, combination you on the spot."
Or when someone suggests you try a new outfit and all of a sudden your entire existence is up for debate:
"So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. Because she wasn't just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life."
Or like, when you get a pimple:
"It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think about. It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become... the truth about me."
But aside from being bewildered by emotional complexities, Angela was book smart, culturally aware, headstrong, and stuck to her values in the face of peer pressure. Her character bookmarked the arrival of reflective and fierce TV teen heroines who primarily championed intelligence, and for that we should be eternally grateful.
2. It Nails, Without Clichés, Parent-Child Relationships
Unlike so many teen shows that tend to place parent-child relationships within neat little boxes, Angela's bond with her folks heavily depends on the mood she's in, and vice versa. In My So Called Life, no character is perfect; they're all confused and they're all trying to make it work in the face of hormones, handcuffs and Hallie Lowenthals.
Let's take Patty first. Patty Chase isn't a Mean Girls-style "cool mom," nor is she an oppressive mom. She's a mom who's trying to work out how to be close to her teenage daughter while employing authority and setting boundaries. Every move she makes as a mother is to ensure her daughters are safe, while accepting that they're growing up and need to make their own mistakes. Yes, she struggles with stepping back — like when she flew off the handle at Angela dying her hair, for example — but she gets better as the season goes on, probably as a result of her analyzing her own relationship with her father.
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Graham Chase, Angela's father, is the good cop, if you will; so far he's spent fatherhood being more of a friend than a disciplinary figure, someone whom Angela once idolized (which begins to falter from the first episode) and is now left unsure about his role in her life. As Angela put it, "My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us." Throughout the series he tries to rekindle their relationship via various gestures (tickets to a Grateful Dead concert, for example), which fall flat as the pair stagger awkwardly around each other in the midst of their separate, individual, life crises.
Lastly, Rayanne's mom, Amber, initially fits the cool Mean Girls-style mom vibe: She's a charismatic hippy type, free with her love and lax with her rules. She also initially fits the messy, never-there mom type, opting to spend time with her boyfriend over her child, working late shifts and leaving Rayanne to her own devices (and the liquor cabinet). But then, when Rayanne throws a party, she surprised us all by throwing everyone out in a fit of rage, rather than joining in, again in response to Patty's patronizing lecture about Rayanne's whereabouts, when she had in fact been at home the entire time.
3. It Championed Diversity And Tackled Real Issues
Aside from all the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel with just being a teenager, My So Called Life addressed actual issues and packaged them in a digestible, relatable and educational manner by attaching them to characters that weren't so different from ourselves. Via Ricky, the first openly gay teen on network TV and his gay teacher, Mr. Katimski, who felt forced to hide his sexuality from his co-workers, we were given an insight into how devastatingly detrimental the effects of shaming someones sexuality can be. Because Ricky didn't fit the mould of a "normal" high school boy, he was bullied and beaten by his peers. He was also beaten by his father and ran away from home as a result, living on the streets in the middle of winter until taken in, first by the Chases and then by Mr. Katimski.
The importance of standing your ground in the face of peer-pressure is commented on multiple times throughout the series too, and comes in many shapes and sizes. When a gun is set off in the school, Brian Krakow finds himself repeatedly harassed and threatened by the head teacher who's desperate to pin the crime on Ricky to save his own skin. But Brian does not crumble. When Jordan Catalano tries to pressure Angela into sleeping with him, even taking her to some seedy sex warehouse to bang in, she never gives in, even if it means that they break up as a consequence.
Rayanne has a drinking problem. Jordan Catalano has an undiagnosed learning disability and is nearly illiterate. But neither of these characters are vilified for this, their issues are openly discussed and worked on.
4. And Then There Are The Outfits, Obviously
Perhaps this point should have gone first, because for me, it's impossible to think of My So Called Life and its characters without the swaths of plaid in which they tended to be cloaked. Each character had a stellar wardrobe that not only epitomized '90s grunge culture (or, for some — hi, Brian — the rebellion against it), but also announced their personalities without stuffing them down our throats.
Angela, for example, was Kurt Cobain meets Annie Hall. Her more conservative, mother-approved garbs — like the ones worn by former friend, Sharon Cherski — were paired with an oversized checkered shirt that mirrored those worn by new BFF Rayanne, and her crush, Jordan Catalano. Her entire aesthetic, most obviously signified by the dying of her hair in the pilot episode, lets you know that we're being introduced to a girl who's entering a new chapter; we're discovering who she is as she does.
Then there's Rayanne, who carried a messy-hair-don't-care kind of vibe; her free-spirited ways reflected in her oddly paired earrings and clashing patterns. And Ricky, the introverted teen who, despite only admitting his sexuality once throughout the whole series, wore his queer identity quite literally on his sleeve. And Jordan Catalano, with his "soft at the back" hair, sheepskin coat and oversized denims, oozed unobtainable-cool despite the fact that he never really says anything. And Brian Krakow's normcore aesthetic, Sharon's floral button-ups, her BF's track jackets — every character's fashion was fun, reflective and, perhaps most importantly, achievable.
In MSCL designer garb was limited, outfits were worn multiple times, they were accessorized and DIY'd and created an on-screen aesthetic that could be easily recreated at home. And they made the show iconic.
If you couldn't tell, I could whittle on for days about how great this show is. We haven't even touched on the everlasting appeal of Jordan Catalano or why his band names — Frozen Embryos and Residue — were actually amazing. Nor have we talked about the fact that Tino was mentioned throughout but never appeared. Or how we followed the parents' storylines as avidly as the kids', a rarity for teen TV, or how hilarious Danielle, Angela's little sister, was. For just one season, there are so many awesome talking points, but then, if you've made it this far, you probably knew that already.
I guess we'll just have to agree that My So Called Life is one of the best TV shows of all time. Or whatever.
Wouldn't you say?