An American television Teen Drama, created by Winnie Holzman and produced by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz as a Spiritual Successor to their critically acclaimed dramedyThirtysomething. This show about an angsty high school student, Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes), like, really spoke to those of us who were teenagers when it aired.Originally broadcast on ABC from August 25, 1994, to January 26, 1995, My So-Called Life is set at the fictional Liberty High School, in a suburb of Pittsburgh. It follows the emotional travails of several self-awareteenagers. This critical darling — all of nineteen episodes — ended with a cliffhanger.A typical episode featured an A-plot about Angela and a B-plot about her parents Patty and Graham.The A-plot was usually based on one of two story arcs. One arc was about how Angela is torn between two groups of friends: the goody-two-shoes kids she always used to hang out with (most notably Brian and Sharon), versus the trouble-making girl Rayanne and Rickie, the effeminate Puerto Rican boy who served as her sidekick. The other arc was about Angela's obsession with the hot kidJordan Catalano, who barely knew she was alive. Ironically, Jordan Catalano was originally supposed to only be in the show for one episode, but the producers liked actor Jared Leto so much that they made Angela's crush on him into Story Arc.In addition, Angela's younger sister Danielle served as part comic relief, and part sardonic observer of Angela's angst.One of the most bleakly funny shows ever aired, it showed how much bitterness can result from a completely ordinary day at high school where nothing in particular goes wrong. Often the show took a comic plot (usually A Simple Plan) and subverted it by playing it for drama (and, arguably, realism) rather than for humor — and this was both much funnier and much more painful than it would have been as a comedy.Also notable for dealing with "hot topics" with relatively little melodrama. Rayanne episodes often involved guns, drugs, etc. but didn't have Angela instantly get involved and ruin her life, as would happen on almost any other Teen Drama.Compare Freaks and Geeks.
This show provides examples of:
'80s Hair: Some of the extras in "The Pilot" can be seen sporting mullets.
A-Cup Angst: Angela. One of many things driving her nuts in the episode "The Zit" — not least because her ex-best-friend Sharon was just voted "best hooters" in the sophomore class. (Sharon's not pleased with the situation either.)
Adults Are Useless: Sometimes averted, sometimes played with, sometimes justified. It's not that adults in the series tend to be idiotic or evil or crazy — often they're intelligent and well-meaning — but rather that the adults and teenagers live so much in their own worlds that they are unable to understand much less help one another. For example, in an early episode about a gun brought to school, the teachers and parents are so out of touch about school bullying that any attempts to reach out to their students and children tends to do more damage than good. Definitely Truth in Television, as any victim of severe school bullying can attest.
A lot of the divide is simply Baby Boomer (the adults) vs. early Generation Y'er (the teenagers). Unlike many other teen shows, the adults (refreshingly) are not necessarily portrayed as being "uncool" or "out of touch." However, they grew up in an era where, for example, bullying was simply seen as a "rite of passage" and something the kid was responsible for handling on his own, which is a big part of the reason why they have such a hard time communicating with them about the issue in the gun episode.
In many instances, however, the Chase parents are shown to be surprisingly in tune to what Angela is going through. Patty, despite having forgotten a lot of aspects of her teenage years (she's in her middle ages, after all), often finds herself reminded of the things she did as a teenager when witnessing Angela's behavior. At which she's more able to identify with her.
The school is full of bullies who pick on Brian and Rickie.
On a more abstract level ... everyone is Rudolf and everyone is All of the Other Reindeer. Even the most popular characters are, at some point or another, victims of various sorts of bullying; even Brian and Rickie have their moments as bullies (although generally more out of social awkwardness than cruel intent). The show has neither any all-good nor any all-evil characters; each character we get to know has strengths and weaknesses, moments of moral glory and moments of moral shame. See also Grey and Gray Morality, below.
Rickie Vasquez, in that he doesn't "come out" for most of the series.
One of the teachers, Richard Katimski, when we first meet him. Later, an example of Straight Gay.
And Starring: Tom Irwin as Graham, the only actor who appears out-of-sequence (alphabetical order) in the opening credits (the only other adult, Bess Armstrong as Patty, appears first anyway).
Anger Born of Worry: A mostly-low-key and non-romantic example would be Patty's and Graham's reaction when Angela returns from a night out looking as if she might have been attacked. (In actuality, she just slipped in the mud.)
To some extent inverted in that Angela is often a deliberately-annoying older sister to Danielle. But since the series is told (mostly) through Angela's eyes...
Axes at School: Rickie's cousin brings a gun to school in one episode, where it accidentally goes off. Brian, who's thought to be an eyewitness, ends up seeing a lot of unwanted attention over the incident.
Best Years of Your Life: Subverted all over the place. Angela exemplifies the suckiness of high school life, while Danielle exemplifies the suckiness of childhood. In an ironic twist, their parents probably have more fun and fulfilling lives than either of them (though certainly not without their own sets of problems and issues).
But I Would Really Enjoy It: Angela's deeply ambivalent about having sex with Jordan Catalano. So much so that she can go from one extreme to the other mid-paragraph.
Call Back: Sometimes for dramatic purposes, sometimes comic. An example of the latter: in the episode Betrayal, Rayanne snarks about the play "Our Town" — before auditioning for the part of Emily — "It's just a stupid play. Dead people come back and visit. Like that's really gonna happen." This is two episodes after So-Called Angels.
Catch Phrase: Perhaps the most famous one is "In my humble opinion," tossed around both by Angela and by her mother Patty. Lampshaded late in the series when Rickie uses it and Rayanne tells him not to sound like Angela.
Less conspicuously, Graham (Angela's father), although he was invisible to girls back in high school.
Children Are Innocent: Danielle, Angela's kid sister. For the most part, but played with. With ample justification, she complains, "My life is totally edited": her parents and Angela try as best they can to keep her in the dark about ... well ... anything and everything one would try to keep a kid in the dark about. Yet sometimes Danielle makes offhanded remarks that shock and embarrass her parents — although it's far from clear how much of what she's saying she actually understands.
Cut Short: It received a season finale, but then it was canceled.
Dawson Casting: Averted with Claire Danes as central character Angela and Devon Gummersall as her would-be love interest Brian. Averted (or at least mostly averted) with Lisa Wilhoit as Danielle, Angela's kid sister. But most of the "high school" cast were at least eighteen (and a few considerably older) when the series began shooting. Actually, Claire Danes was thirteenplaying fifteen when shooting began. The DVD Commentary for the pilot episode includes a joke that the show is television's Ur Example of inverted Dawson Casting.
Jordan's Dawson Casting is justified in that Jordan is repeating sophomore year for at least the second time.
Doting Parent: Angela's parents, Patty and Graham. Especially Graham — or at least, he's better at ducking the unpopular, but necessary, role of disciplinarian. (Much to Patty's consternation.) Angela's going through a phase where she finds her doting parents annoying, but her friends, who have more serious family issues, are envious.
Dramatic Pause: The characters often pause mid-sentence, giving the dialogue a lurching and improvisational feel, even if the line is otherwise constructed very elegantly. Lampshaded when Rickie mimicks Mr. Katimski, who is probably the most egregious offender. But all the major characters did this a lot. In the case of Jordan Catalano, it was used to highlight how he was fumbling to come up with something, anything, to say. That lurching sensation, mentioned before ... was further heightened by having the actors ... pause at just the right point in the sentence that the apparent meaning being expressed ... seemed to change after the pause.
Angela-V.O.: I felt like a really shallow person, because I was. (long Dramatic Pause) Hungry.
In the earliest episodes, this was one of Rickie's trademarks — almost but not quite to the point of Hypocritical Humor — as he was always seeking approval and didn't have much confidence in his own opinions (or thoughts or feelings or self-worth or ...) (As the series progressed and Rickie developed more of a backbone, he relied on this less and less.)
Certainly not Angela! Because, first, she's just Dyeing for Your Art; second, her hair is not red, it's "crimson glow," thank you so much for noticing; third ... oh gawwd, how can you say such a thing?
Also Sharon Cherski, at times.
Hallie Lowenthal, although compared with Sharon and especially Angela she's more "feisty" than "fiery."
Flashback: Used occasionally, usually to time periods years before the series takes place.
Rayanne and Sharon each fill this role for Angela. And, in the process, for each other.
In some ways, Rickie and Brian are each the foil for the other.
Two substitute English teachers wind up as foils to each other, in retrospect, although one is gone by the time the other arrives.
Sharon's mother (Camille) and Rayanne's mother (Amber), with each other and especially with Angela's mother (Patty).
Former Friend of Alpha Bitch: Subverted. Angela and Sharon - who were best friends throughout childhood - have a falling out in the first episode, but they simply become estranged after that (in fact, both of them treat their other childhood friend Brian far worse than they treat each other). Partway through the first season they reconcile, and from then on they grow closer again, with Sharon reclaiming her position as Angela's best friend after Rayanne commits the "betrayal" (though Sharon and Rayanne become friends as well).
Full-Name Basis: Jordan Catalano is usually called "Jordan Catalano." Sometimes he's called "Catalano." He's almost never called "Jordan."
Gag Boobs - Sharon Cherski, in the episode ("The Zit") wherein an anonymous poll designates her as having the "best hooters" of all the sophomores in the school. As is typical of the show, it's played for angst as well as humor.
Rayanne Graff and her mother, Amber Vallon; Hallie Lowenthal; Cheryl Fleck; Delia Fisher.
Sharon Cherski is a much calmer instance, as is her mother, Camille.
Getting Crap Past the Radar: As if the science room scene in Life of Brian weren't blatant enough (when Delia brushes Brian's hand, his thoughts to the viewer are "Finally! An erection from actual physical contact!"). However, within the context of the scene, the next line is funnier and much subtler. Delia is having Brian explain paramecia to her, and she's just bent down to look through a microscope, so naturally her next question to him is: "What are the little hairy things around the edges?", and it takes Brian a second or two to break out of his daydream.
Tino, who seems to be barely off-screen in almost every episode — and who often plays an active (if invisible) role in the plot. This became a running joke among the writers, and was referenced in the movie Juno.
To a lesser extent, Andy Cherski, father to Sharon and husband to Camille.
Rickie's cousin — the one who brought the gun to school. He gets mentioned a lot, for someone we never see and whose name we never learn.
The Chases often discuss their pet cat, but we never see it or any traces of its presence in their house. It must be very shy.
Important Haircut - Patty (Angela's mother), in the episode she and Graham (Angela's father) take up ballroom dancing. Leads to a quarrel between them ... or seems to but that may have been just a pretext, as Graham had already been thinking about having an affair with a woman he knew from work.
Incompatible Orientation: Delia Fisher admits to Rickie that she has a huge crush on him despite knowing he's gay in their final scene.
Jerkass: While no one in the series is completely evil, among all the characters, the closest is the principal who tries to expell Brian just to save the school from a PR problem and doesn't even seem to care about catching whoever really brought the gun to school.
Jerk Jock: None of the major characters (Kyle is a classic jock but not a jerk), but several of the bullies.
Lovable Alpha Bitch: Sharon is an early subversion of The Libby trope - although she's popular, good-looking (with the "best hooters" in the sophomore class), a cheerleader, and dating a football player, she's also nice as pie and friendly with virtually the entire student body, including all the outcasts.
Danielle and Delia each have a crush on Brian, who has a crush on Angela, who has a crush on Jordan.
After Delia's crush on Brian crashes and burns, she develops a crush on Rickie, who is gay.
At first Rickie seems to have had a crush on Jordan Catalano — who's interested in Rickie's friend Angela. Later Rickie develops a crush on an Ambiguously Gay classmate named Corey — who's at least ostensibly interested in Rickie's other friend Rayanne.
Love Makes You Dumb: Even if you're a Teen Genius, like Brian. Worse yet, the characters usually fully realize even in the moment that they're being dumb and just can't help themselves.
Brian(right after he uses a lame excuse to dump Delia Fisher): Of all the stupid things I've said — which are, like, countless — I've never wanted to take something back more than that one.
Love Martyr: Angela and Brian are both in the thrall of unhealthy love. For Angela, Jordan is unconsciously her project, someone that she thinks she can change, and her devotion to this hopeless cause leads her to sacrifice her self-respect (and common sense,) on several occasions. Brian is in love with a girl who barely gives him the time of day. While it's true that there is some underlying tension between Angela and Brian, her obsession with Jordan Catalano means that Brian hasn't a hope in hell, and he knows it - but he clings on regardless, even sacrificing a potential girlfriend in the form of Delia Fisher, hoping that Angela will come to her senses and notice him.
Male Gaze: For the most part, averted. (See Female Gaze, above.) When the show uses it, it's nearly always to highlight that the shot is from Brian's point of view.For example, in Betrayal, we get a few POV shots from a camera operated by Brian, and one shot is aimed directly at Sharon's chest.
Manipulative Bastard: No evil examples, but there's a lot of Truth in Television-level manipulation and counter-manipulation, much of it below the level of consciousness. It's a passive-aggressive world.
Meaningful Echo: The phrase "Oh, my God!" gets tossed around from character to character, scene to scene, episode to episode, and it usually is a way of highlighting who is noticing whom. This is most evident in a pivotal scene in the A Day in the Limelight episode Life Of Brian.
Odd Friendship: This is surprisingly common, and perhaps the most optimistic thing about the show. The events of the pilot are set in motion by Angela forming one of these, with Rayanne, but there are several other important ones:
Only Child Syndrome: Of the seven youth regulars, only three have siblings: Brian, whose older sister is mentioned to live in Denver, and Angela and Danielle, who are sisters. The other four are only children. Note that the six teenagers were all born in about 1980, at the beginning of what is known as the "Echo Boom", when many Boomers settled down and had families of their own, and birthrates started rising again (in other words, their having siblings would be more realistic).
The Smart Guy: The series has no shortage of intelligent and almost painfully articulate characters, but Brian seems to be the one to beat. Evidently he takes after his parents, who are both psychiatrists.
Subverted in the final episode, when Brian accidentally confesses to Angela that he's Playing Cyrano behind "Jordan's" beautiful love letter to her.
Stepford Smiler: As mentioned in the DVD Commentary, the episode Other People's Mothers provides us with three generations (and three different versions) of this — first and foremost, Angela's mother Patty; second, Patty's (adopted) mother Vivian; third, Angela herself, who is just beginning to shift into this mode, although it's hardly her default setting.
Story Arcs: A few for Angela and her friends, a few for her parents, with some crisscrossing.
Sometimes played for nearly simultaneous humor and pathos, as when Angela, feeling self-conscious about all the guys staring at her, narrates about how easy high school life is for guys ... only for the camera to pan to Brian being bullied by his classmates.
According to Word of God, there's also plenty of Unresolved Sexual Tension between Angela and Brian. Angela rejects Brian (at least for now) in part because she and Brian know each other too well, and are too similar, with too much history — and he's therefore a threat. By contrast, Jordan Catalano is a mystery and not much of an intellectual challenge — and thus, on some level, he's less threatening as a teen crush. See also Word of God / What Could Have Been, below.
Verbal Tic: Not unusual expressions, but rather exaggerations, by the show's creators, of common speech disfluencies and fillers. Perhaps the two most ubiquitous examples are the interjection "like" and the phrasal suffix "or something," which are sprinkled liberally into the dialogue of nearly all the teenage characters, seemingly as a way to let them to have poetic or philosophical musings without, like, coming across as pretentious. Or something.
Both the teenage characters and the adults frequently say "Hi," (or "Hey," or other variations,) even when they are not actually greeting each other. It's used in this show more or less the same way as it had been used in the television series Thirtysomething (by some of the same creators / producers): as a way for characters to attempt to affirm or to reestablish intimacy (or sometimes just a pretense of intimacy) in the midst of a conversation.