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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 Creator-Driven 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.
  • 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.)
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: 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).
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • Boob-Based Gag: Sharon Cherski, in the episode ("The Zit") wherein an anonymous girl-ranking 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.
  • Book Dumb: To use one of the episode titles, "Why Can't Jordan Read?" (He probably has dyslexia or some related learning disorder.)
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Character Development: An astonishing amount for just nineteen episodes.
  • Chick Magnet: Graham (Angela's father), although he was invisible to girls back in high school.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Dulcinea Effect:
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • The Ghost:
    • 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.
  • Girl Next Door: Angela, as far as Brian is concerned. Literal as well as figurative example. A Subverted Trope, in that Angela winds up with Jordan.
  • High School: Much of the show is set at the fictional Liberty High.
  • High-School Dance: The World Happiness Dance in Life of Brian.
  • Hilarity Ensues:
    • Averted, at least to the extent that such events on the show tend to transpire in a realistic manner rather than follow traditional sitcom logic.
    • An exception: the penultimate episode, "Weekend," which is a low-key farce. The change was deliberate.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Almost everyone caught themselves in this at least once in a while. Usually played in a realistic and self-aware manner.
  • I Have Many Names: Substitute teacher "Vic Racine." Being on the run from the law will do that.
  • 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.
  • Innocent Prodigy: Angela's younger sister Danielle. Bonus points for being one of the few characters who really appreciates Brian as the Lovable Nerd he is.
  • Insufferable Genius:
    • How Rayanne regards Brian. At first.
    • Possibly how just about everyone in school regards Brian. Including at least one of the teachers.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Several examples, none of them ever actually stated out loud. The last and most heartbreaking is when Brian decides to try Playing Cyrano to win Angela back for his rival Jordan Catalano.
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jordan Catalano.
  • Love Dodecahedron:
    • 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 Hurts: A central theme of the show. Even for those few whose love is reciprocated. Even for those in happy marriages — or outwardly happy marriages.
  • Love Letter Lunacy: Twice: first a love letter from Angela "to" Jordon Catalano (but never intended for his eyes); later one from Jordan Catalano (or rather from "Jordan") to Angela. In the first instance, a mortified Angela tries to backpedal and convince Jordan it was simply a Mistaken Message to her ex-boyfriend. Whom she's trying to keep a secret. Because he died. In the second instance, the missive in question also qualifies as an Anguished Declaration of Love. From Brian.
  • 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.
  • Magic Realism: Most notably in the episode Halloween and the Christmas Episode So-Called Angels.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Angela Chase. As in pursuit, of her own identity. Note that she's also running in the opening credits.
    • Brian, aka "Brain," Jordan Catalano's nickname for him.
    • "Vic Racine."
    • Liberty High.
  • Missing Mom: Patty is adopted and has not met her biological parents.
  • Narrator: Usually Angela. Brian in the episode Life of Brian. Danielle in Weekend.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: Sharon. Cherski's. Verbal Tic. Involves. Talking this way. At. Times.
  • Sarcasm Mode: Everyone's favorite mode. Even Brian, although, dork that he is, he often gets confused at the sarcasm of others.
  • School Play: Our Town; drawn out over more than one episode. The actual performance was never seen, due to the show's cancellation.
  • Scout-Out:
    • In the episode, "The Substitute," Angela's younger sister is working to sell her Girl Scout cookies.
    • In the episode, "The Zit," Sharon and Angela recall a quote that they had learned as past Girl Scouts themselves.
  • Sexiness Score: In "The Zit", a bunch of Jerk Jocks make a list of the hottest Sophomore Girls in, rating their best "attributes" like legs, butt, hair and "slut potential". Most of the girls get offended and outraged, but Angela becomes self-concious of not being in the list at all.
  • 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.
  • Stalker with a Crush: How Angela views Brian in her less patient moments. That is, when she's not being utterly oblivious. 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.
  • Sticky Situation: In episode 19, Angela has a dream where she tries to follow Jordan, but finds her feet stuck to the floor.
  • Timeshifted Actor:
    • Kaley Cuoco plays "Young Angela" (around age seven) in a Flashback at the beginning of the episode "Father Figures."
    • A few episodes later, in "Strangers In the House," we see another Young Angela with a Young Sharon. (They're about ten.)
  • Tragic Dream:
    • Angela's father Graham seems to have one about becoming a chef. May not be so tragic after all.
    • The show presents much of life this way, and growing up as learning to recognize this.
  • Transparent Closet: Rickie never comes out and says that he's gay until Delia outs him in the last episode. Most of the kids know that he's weird, and is once described as bisexual.
  • Tsundere
    • Angela, although less in her romantic relationship(s) than in her friendships.
    • Possibly Brian, but he's far more of a Sugar-and-Ice Personality.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The narrator (in most episodes, Angela) is seldom willfully deceptive — just selectively oblivious. 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.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: According to Word of God, there's plenty 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.
  • 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.
  • Very Special Episode: So-Called Angels, guest-starring Juliana Hatfield as the magic homeless angel.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: How some (including Brian and later possibly Angela) see "Vic Racine".
  • Wham Line:
    • Patty's conversation with the homeless girl in So-Called Angels is going fairly normally until she suddenly realizes what's going on and asks "How did you die?"
    • "Okay, but,'re gay, right?"


Video Example(s):


Angela's dream

Angela has a dream where she tries to follow Jordan, but finds her feet stuck to the floor.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / StickySituation

Media sources: