Revisiting My So-Called Life’s pilot

Twenty years after it first aired in the US, we celebrate My So-Called Life’s brilliantly written, strongly cast pilot…

From its opening shot, My So-Called Life announces itself as distinct from its glossy US teen TV peers. Filmed on location using natural lighting and a hand-held camera, the pre-credits sequence is a world away from candy-coloured sets and Malibu beaches. We see two teenage girls messing around on a street, hanging off one another and periodically breaking into fits of laughter. The girls speak directly to camera, addressing an unseen passer-by with a string of goofy tall stories.

One of the actresses – Claire Danes – breaks the chief rule of playing a teenager on American TV by actually being one. The other – A.J Langer – isn’t long out of her teens. With a face free of make-up and as-yet undyed mousy blonde hair, Danes is and looks fifteen, the age of her character. Stylistically, the intro sets out a stall of realism that runs through the show’s tone and themes: welcome to My So-Called Life, it says, Sweet Valley High this aint.

Then comes My So-Called Life’s most identifiable (and thus parody-able) trait: Dane’s character’s voiceover. “So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff.” Angela Chase tells us, “Just for fun. Just because it seemed like if I didn’t I would like, die, or something”. And so an entire teen lexis, built on exactly that combination of vagueness and hyperbole, was born.

Angela’s voiceover isn’t just an expositional device, it’s My So-Called Life’s whole personality. No-one lives more in the first person than teenage girls, so it’s the perfect mode through which to tell one of their stories. The voiceover transforms the show into Angela’s diary, but instead of the emphatic serially underlined “oh my God, you totally won’t believe what he said!!!” hysteria we’ve been taught to expect from teen girl journals, her voice and cadence is introspective and inquiring. Angela Chase’s punctuation of choice is the question mark. That girl doesn’t have an exclamation point in her entire body.

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Rayanne Graff on the other hand – the character whose new friendship with Angela creates the fallout shown in the pilot – is a walking exclamation mark. Played by A.J Langer, Rayanne colourfully enacts both parts of her wild child persona. She’s impulsive, rebellious and stunted, a kid whose permissive mother treats like a roommate instead of a daughter, and who has a whole zoo of concomitant monkeys on her back.

Rayanne’s the one who instigates Angela’s physical transformation in the opening moments of the pilot by dying her friend’s hair Cadillac red, thus setting in motion the episode’s theme of identity and the roles we play. “When Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen,” Angela tells us, “because she wasn’t just talking about my hair; she was talking about my life”.

You’ll have noticed something else about Angela Chase’s voiceover. Its earnest soberness isn’t only brilliantly observed and wholly familiar to anyone who spent more of their teenage years in their heads than anywhere else, but it’s also deeply funny. Not that writer/creator Winnie Holzman is laughing at Angela’s seriousness – she clearly loves and most probably was her at one point – but listening to the character’s sincerity as an adult, it’s hard not to feel a fond embarrassment for her gaucheness.

Angela’s thoughts continually reach after a way to explain her changing perspective on life, hence her rarely having one that doesn’t end in a simile. Personalities are like toasters. School is like a drive-by-shooting. Sex is like a rash, or a Rottweiler, or something. Buffy The Vampire Slayer may have done wonders with the idea that “School is a battlefield… for your heart”, but that doesn’t make it sound any less cornball. (I mean, it’s true, obviously, but then what cliché isn’t?)

Funnier still is the show’s heartthrob – Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) – a puppy-dog eyed slacker written and played not only with pathos for his home situation which, like that of a lot of My So-Called Life’s kids, leaves a lot to be desired, but also with a sly sense of humour. Angela tells us in voiceover “I’m in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz”. The bathetic combination of love with such an insignificant encounter isn’t only comic, but as anyone who’s harboured a crush will know, it’s also right on the money. That’s the script’s peculiar power: it accurately recreates the introspective holes and obsessions of adolescence whilst gently poking fun at it all.

“So you want to have sex with him?” Rayanne asks Angela in the locus of gossip and tears that is the girls’ bathroom. “Sex or a conversation, ideally both”, Angela wittily replies. By the end of the pilot, she’s achieved the latter, such as it is.

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Angela and Jordan’s first encounter takes place at a teen house party with a band so professionally set-up, it earns the show its first mark against realism. After falling in a muddy puddle, Angela comes across Jordan alone, watching MTV in the dark (the sexy video for Divinyls – I Touch Myself, pop culture pickers). Barely noticing she’s there, the plaid-shirted philosopher comes out of an intense meditation to offer the following insight: “This doesn’t seem like a Friday”. “It’s Thursday” Angela tells him. “Oh. Are you sure?” he says. “Well, yesterday was Wednesday so… That’s how I know” she answers. That’s the extent of the exchange, but it’s a start. Danes plays it beautifully, her face a combination of exhilaration and comic mortification.

More sophisticated teenagers than I was probably picked up on the script’s ironic humour at the time. Dumb and adoring, I just knew I’d found my TV soul-mate, and so expressed my love in the only way I knew how – by spending months attempting to recreate the precise shade of Angela’s ‘Crimson Glow’ hair and finishing every other sentence with “…or something”.

Another element that passed me by on first watch was how the show’s pilot is almost as much about Angela’s mother, Patty (Bess Armstrong), as it is about Angela. Holzman’s script effortlessly winds threads around the pair, binding them together thematically even if they stand far apart emotionally.

The pilot is bracketed by Angela’s baseless anger at Patty – “Lately, I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her, repeatedly” she confides early on, and the pair’s touching reconciliation towards the end of the episode, in which a crying Claire Danes (that’s the true beginning of that meme) climbs, apologising, into Bess Armstrong’s arms and falls asleep cradled like a baby. As Patty comforts her daughter, telling her that the new hair colour isn’t really that bad, she utters a line we heard earlier from Angela, “…in my humble opinion”. Did Angela pick up the phrase from Patty, or vice versa? Either way, the script’s intent is clear: these two are much more alike than they think.

If Angela spends the episode contemplating the roles that society and our families force us into, then Patty does exactly the same. “Listen to me,” she sighs to Angela, “‘I thought you liked Year Book.’ ‘Your room is a disaster’. Do you think I ever dreamed that I would sound like this?”. Later on, arguing with Angela’s affable dad Graham (Tom Irwin), Patty tells him “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. I can’t believe it. We need a new conversation”. They’re arguing about the roles parenting has forced them reluctantly into: “Why do I always have to be the mean one?” she says. Earlier, Graham tried to broker a peace treaty between his wife and daughter, asking Angela to give her mum a break because the uptight, judgmental woman Angela clashes with “isn’t the real her”.

“The Real Her” would have made a perfect episode title for the pilot, which is all about that most adolescent of themes: identity. In a rare moment when Angela’s inner monologue gets a public airing, she tells her teacher, “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, how do you know if it’s even you?”.

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Earlier, Angela’s neighbour Brian Krakow – a brainy kid we’d seen earlier being picked on in the backdrop of school crowd scenes and the owner of the sole hand in the air whenever a teacher asked a question -, who’d spent the episode observing Angela’s sea change in appearance and attitude under the excuse of recording it for Year Book, told her, “You’re not stupid; don’t act like it. It’s a stupid act”. “Everybody’s an act” she replied, “including you”.

That idea is played out repeatedly in the episode. When lusting after Jordan in the school corridor (big tick in the female gaze box), Angela mirrors his locker-leaning posture, trying on another identity. She lets Rayanne apply the lipstick that gets wiped off when the glamour of a night on the town ends in a sexual assault and a police ride home. The girls drunkenly swap footwear, which later makes Angela stumble as she’s literally walking in someone else’s shoes.

Speaking of which, Angela’s English class is studying The Diary Of Anne Frank – the most famed journal ever written by a teenage girl, thus the perfect way in to this confessional series. It’s a smart intertextual tool that introduces us to Angela’s teen solipsism (she’s asked to stay behind class for judging Anne Frank to be “lucky” because she was trapped for years in an attic with a guy she liked), and themes of hiding who you really are. In the police car driving her home from that ill-fated night out, Angela extols the virtues of the book, “Whatever [Anne] had been like with her friends or her teachers, that was just over. She was hiding, but in this other way she wasn’t, she’d like stopped hiding, she was free”. It’s a callous perspective, but it certainly isn’t a dumb one.

And My So-Called Life was never a dumb show. It was clever, well-acted, funny (we haven’t even touched on the running joke of Angela’s little sister’s determination to get top billing in a show – and a family – in which she’s doomed to be a bit player), affecting (Rickie. Oh poor, wonderful Rickie), and with a streak of cynicism rarely seen in US teen drama (when Angela relays the events of the doomed night out to Brian she tells him, “These guys started hitting on us”, “What, like sexual harassment?” he asks, “Like guys” she shrugs.)

Above all else, it was honest. Jared Leto’s beauty aside, My So-Called Life wasn’t any more glamorous than our own lives. Characters continually let themselves and each other down (by the end of the pilot, even Angela’s warm, loving father reveals that he too has been putting on an act of sorts – one that, if you pay attention to the script, his wife knows more about than she’s letting on). The school’s cheerleaders were as likely to be seen sobbing alone in the hallway as cheering.

The show’s brilliantly constructed pilot bid us inside this smart, shy girl’s head at a time it was exploding with new perspectives and possibilities. It asked us in to a world where the adults were as psychologically real as the teenagers, and the insights rang with sharp truth. Accepting that invitation for the next eighteen episodes was quite simply, a privilege.

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Read more about My So-Called Life’s twentieth anniversary on Den Of Geek, here.

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