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Series / My So-Called Life

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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 dramedy thirtysomething. 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-aware teenagers. 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 kid Jordan 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, another beloved coming-of-age series that faced a premature cancellation.


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. late Gen Xer (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.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst
  • The Alcoholic: Rayanne's mother, Amber Vallon. And Rayanne herself.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: One of television's quintessential examples. Angela pines for the troubled, brooding hunk Jordan while oblivious to the the sensitive, intelligent Brian's infatuation with her.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Well, almost all. See also Love Dodecahedron, below.
  • All of the Other Reindeer:
    • 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.
  • Ambiguously Gay:
    • 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.)
  • Angst
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Brian's Love Letter Lunacy to Angela.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling:
    • Danielle, as far as Angela is concerned.
    • 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.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults
  • 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).
  • Beta Couple:
    • Sharon Cherski and Kyle Vinnovich.
    • Patty and Graham (Angela's parents).
    • Potentially Graham and his "annoying" classmate Hallie Lowenthal.
  • Betty and Veronica:
    • Most notably, Brian (as Betty) and Jordan Catalano (as Veronica). Not a standard example, in that Angela (as Archie) no longer has much tolerance for Brian, even as a friend. See What Could Have Been / Word of God, below.
    • To some extent, Sharon (as Betty) and Rayanne (as Veronica) are vying to be the Heterosexual Life-Partners version.
    • In Life of Brian Delia (as Betty) and Angela (as Veronica) are Brian's choices. He chooses…poorly.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Book Dumb: To use one of the episode titles, "Why Can't Jordan Read?" (He probably has dyslexia or some related learning disorder.)
  • Bratty Halfpint: Danielle, Angela's kid sister — at least as far as Angela is concerned.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Angela certainly has her moments.
  • Breather Episode: The sitcommy Weekend.
  • Broken Bird: Rayanne.
  • 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.
  • Camp Gay: Rickie Vasquez is a borderline example — not quite Straight Gay, not quite Camp Gay.
  • Catchphrase: 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.
  • Chained to a Bed: In the penultimate episode Weekend. Hilarity Ensues. Twice.
  • Character Development: An astonishing amount for just nineteen episodes.
  • Chick Magnet:
    • Jordan Catalano.
    • 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.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience:
  • Control Freak:
    • Brian. His parents are even worse, allegedly.
    • Patty (Angela's mother).
    • Sharon Cherski, at least to her clueless boyfriend, Kyle.
  • Cool Big Sis:
    • Played with. Danielle both admires and resents Angela, but Angela finds Danielle annoying.
    • Sometimes Angela's friends (and former friends) take on this role with Danielle — during which times, Angela quietly simmers with a jealousy she can't explain to herself.
    • This is also Angela's initial reaction toward Rayanne's mother.
  • Cool Teacher: "Vic Racine," the titular character in the episode The Substitute, was able to out-cool even Jordan Catalano.
  • Covert Pervert: Sharon's mother, Camille Cherski.
  • Cut Short: It received a season finale, but then it was canceled.
  • A Day in the Limelight: A few, but most clearly the episode Life of Brian.
    • The other episode narrated by someone other than Angela is the penultimate episode Weekend, narrated by Danielle.
    • Christmas episode So-Called Angels maintains its central focus on Angela, but for the first time Rickie gets A Day in the Limelight, of sorts. He gets a few more before the end of the series.
  • Dead All Along: A minor character in the Do They Know It's Christmas Time? episode.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Teen Drama genre.
  • Dialogue Reversal
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Rayanne's.
    • Rickie's biological father.
    • Angela's mother Patty was adopted; she's never met her biological parents.
  • The Ditz: A mild example: Kyle, Sharon's perpetually clueless boyfriend.
    • A less mild — and far more grating — example: Cheryl Fleck.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Brian. Subverted, in that Angela winds up with Jordan Catalano.
  • Do They Know It's Christmas 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.
  • Dramedy
  • The Dulcinea Effect: It is High School, after all.
  • Dyeing for Your Art: Claire Danes, as Angela Chase. Both the actress and the character naturally had dark blonde hair, but in the first episode Angela dyes hers "crimson glow."
    • In-universe example: When Angela's little sister Danielle dresses up as Angela for Halloween, she dyes her hair the same color.
  • The Eeyore: Brian.
  • Extreme Doormat:
  • Fake Video Camera View: Brian being yearbook photographer gives us a few instances of this...including the one mentioned in Male Gaze, below.
  • Favouritism Flip Flop:
    • 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.)
    • Angela did this a lot, too.
  • Female Gaze: Most notably, how Angela views Jordan Catalano.
  • Fiery Redhead
    • 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."
  • Five-Man Band
  • Flashback: Used occasionally, usually to time periods years before the series takes place.
  • Foil:
    • 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.
  • Genki Girl
    • 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.


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