Shout! Factory // 1994 // 930 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // October 30th, 2007
"This life has been a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have received instructions on where to go and what to do." -- Angela Chase
It's a bittersweet thing to remember a show like My So-Called Life that was so good and so important and so true -- and so short. But more than a decade after its broadcast, with the pain of its cancellation somewhat numbed by time, it's a joy to find these 19 episodes about a teenage girl searching for an identity in the '90s just as relatable as they were back then, if not more so. And the gorgeous, thorough presentation of the series in this new release, My So-Called Life: The Complete Series, will fill fans with gratitude and overwhelming nostalgia.
Angela Chase (Claire Danes, Romeo + Juliet) is a fifteen-year-old girl struggling with her identity. She comes from a totally "normal" white, middle-class family with two parents, Graham (Tom Irwin, 21 Grams) and Patty (Bess Armstrong), and a little sister, Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit). She's separating herself from them in search of something more, and from the comfortable friends of her childhood, like best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and neighbor Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall, The L Word). Now she's more interested in people who are new, different, and a little dangerous, like the highly crushable bad boy, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream), kooky party girl Rayanne (A.J. Langer, Escape from L.A.), and semi-closeted fashion pioneer Rickie (Wilson Cruz, All Over Me).
* "The Pilot" (with commentary by Marshall Herskovitz, Winnie Holzman, Scott Winant)
Angela's narration: "I'm in love. His name is Jordan Catalano."
We meet Angela chase and begin to understand her estrangement from her parents and her old friends and her fascination with two high school outsiders, Rayanne and Rickie, and one untouchable heartthrob, Jordan.
* "Dancers in the Dark"
Angela's narration: "What I like completely dread is when people who know you in totally different ways end up in the same spot, and you have to develop this, like, combination you on the spot."
Angela finds an excuse to meet with Jordan and uses Brian's house as a rendezvous point. Patty and Graham take a dance class.
* "Guns and Gossip"
Rayanne: "What's the big deal? It's not like anybody even got a flesh wound. A bottle of soda was shot tragically."
Angela deals with a rumor that she had sex with Jordan. Rickie and Brian get entangled in a scandal when someone fires a gun at school.
* "Father Figures"
Rayanne: "Ignore Angela; she can't help herself. She's the product of a two-parent household!"
Rayanne worships Angela's father for giving them Grateful Dead tickets, but Angela questions him more than ever before. Patty faces off against her own father over their company's tax audit.
* "The Zit"
Angela's narration: "The worst feeling is suddenly realizing that you don't measure up."
A pimple, a mother-daughter fashion show, and a list of the hottest sophomore girls coincide to make Angela feel as self-conscious and insecure as humanly possible.
* "The Substitute"
Angela to parents: "You told me to pick my battles. Well, this is it. It may not be a war protest or a civil rights demonstration but it's all I've got."
Angela "finally" finds an adult she can respect: a substitute English teacher who makes controversial choices about the school's literary magazine.
* "Why Jordan Can't Read"
Angela's narration: "I thought by the age of fifteen I'd have a love life, but I don't even have a like life."
A private note from Angela to Jordan falls into the wrong hands and makes some things actually happen. Brian is disturbed by these developments, but he has his own secret admirer after all...
* "Strangers in the House"
Patty to Graham: "Something has to change...I don't know what you're gonna do. I guess you're finally gonna figure it out."
Sharon's dad has a heart attack, which initiates new bonds among the teens and new fears among the adults.
Angela: "Contact [Nicky Driscoll]? I can't even contact living guys."
On Halloween, Angela becomes fixated on the spirit of Nicky Driscoll, a Liberty High student from the '60s who died mysteriously. Patty and Graham have an unexpected adventure with some rented costumes.
* "Other People's Mothers" (with commentary by Bess Armstrong,
Angela's narration: "Sometimes I think that if my mother wasn't so good at pretending to be happy, she'd be better at actually being happy."
A portrait of two mothers -- Angela's and Rayanne's -- reveals the dynamics of freedom and responsibility at play in the Chase and Graff households.
* "Life of Brian" (with commentary by Devon Gummersall, Todd
Holland, Jason Katims)
Brian's narration: "I became yearbook photographer because I liked the idea that I could sort of watch life without having to be a part of it. But when you're yearbook photographer, you're never in the picture."
As the title implies, this one is all about the boy next door and how a school dance disrupts his painfully invisible existence, complete with Brian's narration replacing Angela's.
* "Self-Esteem" (with commentary by Claire Danes, Winnie Holzman)
Patty: "I refuse to panic just because she's happy...although it's terribly alarming."
Angela has taken to making out with Jordan in the school basement at the expense of her geometry grades. Graham's cooking class doesn't turn out to be what he expected.
Angela's narration: "People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even."
The birds and the bees come calling a little too early when Angela isn't ready to go all the way with Jordan. A new-age sex tape that belongs to Sharon's parents falls into the wrong hands a number of times.
* "On the Wagon"
Angela's narration: "I'll just find any excuse to touch him."
Rayanne auditions to be in Jordan's band and her friends start worrying that she'll screw up her sobriety.
* "So-Called Angels" (one commentary by Wilson Cruz, Winnie
Holzman; one by Scott Winant)
Danielle: "Do we have to talk about religion? It's Christmas."
At the most wonderful time of the year, Rickie gets beaten up and kicked out of his house. While the Chase family tries to figure out how to help him, a mysterious young homeless girl keeps crossing their paths.
Angela's narration: "What I was thinking as like a New Year's resolution is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, 'cause I'm like way too introspective -- I think...but what if not thinking turns me into this really shallow person. I'd better rethink this becoming less introspective thing."
A host of New Year's resolutions are made -- some are kept and other aren't. But Rickie has the most trouble keeping his: to find a place where he really belongs.
Rayanne as Emily from Our Town: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"
Just when Angela thinks she's over Jordan, Rayanne does something that makes her realize she's not. Patty becomes suspicious of Graham's new business partner, Hallie.
* "Weekend" (with commentary by Bess Armstrong, Lisa Whilhoit,
Danielle: "My life is different people kicking me out of different rooms."
Patty and Graham go away on a romantic weekend while the kids get into strange trouble with a pair of handcuffs they find in the Chase parents' bedroom.
* "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"
P: "It's always tempting to lose yourself with someone who's maybe lost themselves. But eventually you want reality."
Brian gets suckered into playing Cyrano for Jordan when the latter needs to write an apology letter. Someone unexpected has a crush on Rickie.
It is particularly apt that Joss Whedon wrote a piece included in My So-Called Life: The Complete Series because, with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and My So-Called Life, he and Winnie Holzman conveyed the universality of teenage suffering more effectively than ever before or ever since. Beyond just conveying it so very well, the revolutionary thing both shows did was make it serious and relatable. Sure, teenagers are the most self-absorbed of people, but when the characters on these shows figure out that every single person around them is dealing with issues that feel just as earth-shattering and all-important as their own, then we get a real lesson in the impossible and impossibly important project of really understanding another human being. Whedon combined horror and melodrama to play with and accentuate the problems of a "normal teenage girl," Buffy Summers. Buffy has to save the world, so of course she has something to be angsty about. But what My So-Called Life does is both simpler and more difficult: it takes a girl who seems to have the "perfect" life and, instead of revealing the secret supernatural problems she actually has, it reveals how difficult a "perfect" life can feel for the person living it. And then it goes a step further, and lets that perfect girl get outside her own head and her own experience and earnestly confront the very different sets of problems that surround her at her public school.
The show is not flawless, but it's surprisingly close. Do too many episodes end with Angela crying and admitting to something deeply personal? Yes. Is it realistic for very different high schoolers like Sharon and Rayanne to secretly bond as much as they do? Probably not. Does Leto really convince us that Jordan is deeply intelligent even though he doesn't have book smarts? Not exactly. And does that shot of angel wings at the end of "So-Called Angels" cheapen a great story? Undoubtedly. But it's hard to come up with many more criticisms than those. In just nineteen episodes there are countless things I could praise, but I'm going to whittle it down to my top ten:
10 Things I Love about My So-Called Life
10. The Theme Song
My girlfriend has huge nostalgia for that very first moment of each episode, when you see the title and hear that whisper, "Go, now, go!" and just feel so excited that another hour of My So-Called Life is just beginning. With this theme song and much of the score for the series, composer W.G. "Snuffy" Walden captures that feeling of discovery Angela describes, of things just starting to actually happen in a life.
9. How Everyone is in Love with Each Other
From the Angela/Jordan/Brian triangle to the intense friendship between Angela and Rayanne to the way Danielle admires Angela, the series really broadens the way we think about being "in love with" another person. Here, we feel that intensity of affection and longing in so many of the relationships between characters, not just the sexual ones. And that broad definition of love is cleverly reflected in the dialogue and in the way the writers talk about the characters. Rayanne's mother describes her daughter as being totally "in love" with Angela, but it's not exactly a queer subtext -- instead it gets at that very teenage feeling of loving someone so much that you're not sure whether you want to be with them or actually be them. The cast and crew describe Angela and Sharon "breaking up" and "getting back together," because that's how intense middle school girls' friendships feel.
8. Its Sense of Humor About Itself
One scene says it all here: Danielle dressing up as Angela for Halloween. As she sways and folds her arms and talks dreamily about her feelings, Wilhoit's performance balances the earnestness of Angela's character with and admission that it's okay to laugh a little at passionate teenage girls, even in a series that has such a deep respect for them.
7. Gross Bathrooms and Limited Wardrobes
These two details represent the groundbreaking realism of the series. Of course public school bathrooms are dirty and covered in graffiti, but before My So-Called Life they were seldom presented that way on TV. And what kinds of middle-class people wear a brand-new outfit every day? Only the kind on TV. In the special features, Devon Odessa describes how each character had a closet on set and they had to just choose an outfit from it to wear "to school" that day, like normal kids. This level of realism baffled studio execs, who would alert the crew to outfit repetitions as if they were incredibly stupid mistakes.
6. Its Reflection of a Cultural Moment
Grunge bands, Paula Abdul videos, The Cranberries, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, references to Bush and Clinton that meant George Sr. and Bill...plaid. This was really an early '90s show and somehow it retains that cultural specificity in a fun way, rather than a cringe-y way that makes you want to stop watching.
5. Its Beautiful Images, especially Brian and Angela in the Street
For a show set mostly in public school hallways and teenagers' bedrooms, My So-Called Life attained a very high level of creativity and beauty in its visuals. The contrast between the warm lighting and earth tones of the Chase house to the dingy fluorescents and metallic color palette of the school was particularly effective.
4. Parents as Real People
Forget gay characters and strong, smart teenage girls; the most shocking step that My So-Called Life takes is that it dares to create parents who are real people with their own problems. And then it actually makes us, like, watch the stuff they do every day and, God, even their creepy sex lives! Parents have sex??? I so don't even want to think about it. Seriously, though, considering how much the show helped teenagers understand themselves and helped parents understand their teenagers, it just might be possible that it also taught teenagers a little something about their parents, too.
3. Its Endless Quotability
So many lines of dialogue in this series are like mini-masterpieces that make you want to say them over and over again. What does Angela want from Jordan? "Either sex or a conversation -- ideally both." How does Brian respond to Jordan and Angela being back together? "Of course, she's still gonna die someday. We're all gonna die." Why does Angela think the yearbook has to be unrealistic? "Because if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book." Someday I'm going to date somebody who I'm sure has never seen the show, and then I'll finally have my chance to use, "You're so beautiful, it hurts to look at you."
2. Rickie's Sexuality
It hardly seems possible to create a character like Rickie Vasquez now, post-Brokeback Mountain, and the fact that My So-Called Life pulled it off in 1994 is pretty amazing. Every young queer person has some TV or film character that made them feel like it was okay to be gay. Mine is Buffy's Willow Rosenberg, but for a lot of people, it's Rickie. In the special features, Cruz asserts, "I can't even tell you how many times I've gotten a letter from somebody who said, 'That show saved my life. That show made me feel like I was not alone.' " Cruz himself had recently come out when the show was in production and even got kicked out of his house for being gay, just like Rickie. When his father watched him perform in "So-Called Angels," he called his son and they began to work through their issues. Cruz says, "This episode is the reason that I have a relationship with my father." Creating a gay character like Rickie -- who is so kind and funny and three-dimensional, and who is so deftly portrayed by Cruz -- back in 1994 may be the series' most important legacy.
1. Angela's Narration
The girl with the "perfect" life is Angela Chase, and while the perfection of her life might have been illusory, as a flawed, real character, Angela was undeniably perfect. We would have loved her even without her trademark narration, but with it, we really came to know her. The strength of the writing and Danes' acting combine to make even the most whistful, naïve thoughts feel just as profound and immediate as they did when I thought them in high school (and yes, I am one of the many girls who thinks that Winnie Holzman snuck inside my brain while writing Angela Chase). It takes real talent to make sentiments like "Love is when you look into someone's eyes and suddenly you go all the way inside, to their soul, and you both know, instantly" seem so totally earnest and unlaughable. There is something so succinctly brilliant about that toaster line that ends "Pressure," something that gets right to the heart of adolescent quests for identity. Angela is always taking apart these kinds of clichés -- "be yourself," "follow your heart" -- in a way that conveys her desperate search for guidance in this process of growing up, and her shrewd skepticism about any person or idea that seems to actually offer it.
There are a million more things to love about My So-Called Life, but the last one I get to talk about is its presentation on this new DVD set. The only technical problems with this set are a certain degree of pixelation on darker scenes and bad balance between the volume levels on music and dialogue. For a '90s television production, it looks and sounds great. Packaged like a teenage girl's scrapbook, complete with lots of photos, scribbled quotations, facts about the episodes, and even a reprinting of Jordan's apology letter, the physical set itself is gorgeous. The 36-page booklet (with a plaid-print cover, of course, includes lots of episode info (including guest stars, quotations, and song lists) and the three essays. An impressive seven commentary tracks employ a wide variety of cast and crew and offer lots of fun little tidbits about the experience on-set, thoughtful discussion of the series' themes, and insight into the stylistic strategies the directors employed. Cruz and Holzman's track about "So-Called Angels" is the most moving, with Cruz discussing his real-life experiences as a gay teen, while Danes and Holzman are particularly thoughtful in their conversation about the feminist aspects of the show. Danes reflects, "When pushed, [Angela] does rally and assert herself...I wish there were more representations of peo -- -- women like that. Especially girls." On the track for "Other People's Mothers," Bess Armstrong identifies the productive tension between watching the show as a teen and as a parent (and I myself am stuck between these two phases of life right now): "I have a mother and I have children, so you understand it from both sides. You remember being a teenager yourself and having those conversations with your mother and the experience with your own [children]." There are also a number of featurettes and interviews, each between 15 and 30 minutes long, which are quite well-produced and manage to bring back a huge percentage of the cast and crew.
In fact, the only regular cast member who didn't return to film these special features is Jared Leto. It's particularly fun to hear all the actors looking back and reading aloud their character descriptions from the start of the series. Perhaps the biggest treat here is just to watch Danes, who is such a marvelous actress and who has gone on to do so many other roles, look back on the series that started her career. We really get the sense that she grew up alongside Angela Chase, even (reportedly) sharing her very first kiss as Angela with Leto's Jordan Catalano. Danes laughs when Holzman says she felt bad about making her do all those make-out scenes: "You made me kiss Jared Leto, you cruel, cruel, corrupt woman!...How lucky was I to be having my imaginary teen romance with Jared, the ultimate heartthrob?" A photo gallery and highlights from a 1995 panel on the series round out the special features. The latter is fun, but also a little bit sad because the cast and crew were all answering questions about the series at a time when they had unknowingly shot their final episode, just before the cancellation.
Marshall Herskovitz speaks to the universal appeal of My So-Called Life with the insight, "Nobody forgets what they were like in high school. That moment in life is always radioactive for everybody." The series' place in TV history and the lives of its fans parallels that experience of being a teenager: it was brief and intense and heart-breaking -- impossibly formative and totally unforgettable. It's been riffed on and ripped off by the next waves of great high-school shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, and Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon best describes our relation to the series now at the close of his essay:
"[It's] the show that...I'll love the way you can only love as a youth: with fierce bewilderment and unembarrassed passion."
Review content copyright © 2007 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 930 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* 36-Page Booklet with Essays by Joss Whedon, Janeane Garofalo, and Michele Byers
* Cast and Crew Commentaries on Six Episodes
* "My So-Called Life Story" Featurette
* A Conversation with Claire Danes and Winnie Holzman
* A Conversation with Marshall Herskovitz and Winnie Holzman
* "The Characters" Featurettes
* "The Music" Featurette
* Interview with Claire Danes
* Highlights from the 1995 Museum of Television and Radio Panel
* Photo Gallery