Better a Witty Fool than a Foolish Wit

Inner Workings of My Twisted Mind.

Didn’t We Have a Time? We Did. We Had a Time.

Okay, so I’m sure you’ve noticed that I usually write these little
rants or whatever we’re calling them and I don’t proofread or edit,
but this subject is just too important for me to leave anything out.
Often when I write these emails, I hit send and I realize that I
forgot to say a bunch of stuff that I really wanted to say, but it’s
too late, so I’ve been working on this one for a while now to try and
curb any potential mistakes.  This, as stupid as this sounds, may be
the most important rant I write, simply for the reason that I credit
this subject, to a large extent, with making me who I am today.  The
subject is a television show.  A television show that lasted only 19
episodes.  It is my favorite television show of all time.  It is the
show that made me love television.  It made me love television so much
that I decided I wanted to write it.  It made me realize the power of
television, of great television.  This show really did change my life.
It is called My So-Called Life.  And I’m aware that I wrote a rant
about the ’90s and didn’t include My So-Called Life, but it just
seemed like the show warranted its own piece of writing.  So here it
is.

Yes, it’s Claire Danes’ first real acting gig.  Yes, it was written by
the same woman who wrote the book for the Wicked Musical.  But to me,
My So-Called Life was so much more than that.  My So-Called Life was
my life on film.  It was the first time I really seriously saw how
right a piece of film could get it.  And really, as I look at it now,
it’s how I first sort of saw how my own writing would be because my
philosophy on writing, for T.V. especially, is that it should be
realistic.  I want what I write to feel real.  If I could write
something that means as much to someone as My So-Called Life means to
me, I’d be a success.

I guess I should start with My So-Called Life’s effect on my life.
Not my life as a writer, but my life as a young person.  The show
aired on ABC in 1994-1995.  I was in the sixth grade.  I, as most of
America, did not watch it then.  I watched it on MTV between
1995-1998.  That’s sort of indicative of my life back then, the fact
that I watched MTV pretty much non-stop. The fact that watching MTV
didn’t rob me of my will to live, as it does now.  But I digress.  I
just remember, in the time before TiVo, waiting the long arduous hours
until 7 pm everyday (when you get home from school at 3 pm, it seems
like an eternity).  By the time 7 rolled around I was bursting to
watch My So-Called Life.  I would record all the episodes onto a video
tape (yes video tape)  so I could watch them over and over and over
again.  In fact, I remember the first episode I ever saw was the
Halloween episode, where Angela dresses up like a girl from the ’50s,
and not like some caricature with a poodle skirt, she dresses like a
real girl from the ’50s.  She meets a ghost named Nicky Driscoll.  I
named the family in the script I’m writing Driscoll after Nicky
Driscoll.  I just remember, in that first viewing, thinking, what is
this?  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.  It was like my
life on the screen.  And from that moment I was hooked.

Claire Danes’ Angela Chase is, in my opinion, the best character that
has ever been on television.  I am always amazed that Claire Danes as
a 13 and 14 year old could be so good.  I mean, she hadn’t experienced
much of what her character was experiencing and yet her performance is
so nuanced.  The slight unease when she is with her mother out in
public…what teenager hasn’t felt that?  The fact that her friends
are the only thing that matter.  I always loved the first line of the
series, ‘So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff.  Just for fun.
Just cause it seemed like if I didn’t, I would die or something.’  I
mean, god, I think the feeling that if you don’t do something you will
die pretty much sums up my rationale for every single thing I did for
approximately a 10 year period.  Maybe I even still am like this.
There’s this certain part of me that thinks I’ll always be Angela
Chase.  That I’ll constantly be partially this total geek who can’t
function normally and partially this cool person that other people
mysteriously want to be around.  Since I seem to be in a truthful
mood, I’ll come out and say it: I’ve never really understood why I
actually have the friends that I do.  I never got why people thought I
was a cool person.  I still don’t get it, and it always amazes me when
people think I’m interesting.  And that’s the part of me that will
always be Angela Chase.  That overly self-analytical, introspective,
person who lives mostly in her head and is thus relatively clueless
about her own life.  What a fucking genius character to write!

Then there was Rayanne Graff.  I always loved Rayanne and always kind
of wanted to be her (much like Angela seems to sometimes).  She was so
uninhibited, which may have been caused by the fact that she was
always drinking, but still.  I, like Angela, always admired kids like
that.  It was before I realized that those were the kids that often
ended up as raging alcoholics and drug addicts.  Back then they seemed
so cool.  They didn’t have to care about school, it seemed like they
didn’t have parents, and that seemed so great.  I obviously realize
now that it’s not so great, but back then it seemed like the life I
wanted to be living.  No parents asking me about homework or how
school was.  No one saying I couldn’t go out because it was too late.
I so wanted that.  The thing about Rayanne was that A.J. Langer’s
performance of her was so free, and at the same time so full of pain.
I never really noticed all the pain when I was younger, but watching
the show now, you can see how much Rayanne wants to be Angela.
Rayanne’s pain is the pain that you didn’t see in those kids in High
School.  The pain of having absent parents, and not having someone
care if you finished homework or ate a well-balanced meal.  Rayanne
was a total mess, but she cared deeply about her friends so you could
sort of forgive it.  And she was so charismatic that you looked past
her bad behavior and saw a great person.

Then there was Ricky, who rounded out the core three group of friends.
It’s easy to forget now, but Ricky Vasquez was one of the first gay
characters on T.V.  And the way they handled it was super classy.
First off, he was the moral center of the show.  He anchored the other
kids in a sort of moralistic reality, and that was a pretty big step
for a gay kid to be the moral center of the show (seeing as being gay
is considered to be immoral in much of this country, especially 12
years ago).  I mean, this show was before Will and Grace, it was
before Queer Eye, before Ugly Betty, before Ellen, before T.R. Night,
it was before all the gay fashion consultants strolled the red carpets
(I mean, they were still gay, they just weren’t as obvious).  They
rarely talked about Ricky’s actual sexuality.  Angela mentions that
Ricky is Bi in the pilot and then it doesn’t come up again until like
half way through the series.  But Ricky would hang out in the girls
bathroom, fixing his eyeliner, chatting with the girls, and no one
really took any notice.  That doesn’t mean that they completely
ignored it.  I mean, you saw him get pushed around in the halls, you
saw him get beat up once.  It was a non-sugar-coated portrayal of what
it was like to be a gay teen in the ’90s in someplace other than San
Francisco, New York or L.A.  Ricky may have been one of the first gay
series regulars on a t.v. show, but to me, Ricky was what I wanted.  I
always wanted that thing that Angela, Ricky and Rayanne had.  Where
they had such an easiness about them, they were friends and they cared
about her and they trusted each other, and there was none of that
sexual tension between the boy and girls, because the boy didn’t want
them.  Angela and Ricky are by far a better and more realistic Fag Hag
couple than Will and Grace.  And that’s when I realized my true
calling.  I always wanted a Ricky.  And the first boy that ever came
out to me was Ricky Mendez.  Kind of poetic, no?

Of course you can’t possibly talk about My So-Called Life without
mentioning Jordan Catalano.  The moment he appeared on screen all the
girls in my generation took one giant step towards becoming women.  I
realized lately that I’m actually still most attracted to guys that
look like Jordan Catalano.  With the slightly long hair and that
choker he always wore.  Jordan Catalano was that guy that you wanted
that was so mysterious you just couldn’t stand it.  It’s like, you
just found out anything you could about that person and you came up
with all these little facts that amounted to pretty much nothing, but
to you they were everything.  Angela said it best, ‘I just like how
he’s always leaning. Against stuff. He leans great.’  I always thought
that line summed up that feeling perfectly.  It’s like, you take this
stupid insignificant thing and focus all your attention on it because
if you didn’t you wouldn’t be able to function.  I didn’t have my true
Jordan Catalano until I was 19.  He was 26, and his name was Brendan
Brown, and I knew all this random stuff about him.  Like that he loved
‘Queens of the Stone Age’ and he drank Miller High Life…I was too
young to see that as a sign.  And I, much like Angela Chase,
embarrassed myself over and over in front of him before I finally
realized that he just wasn’t worth it.  He was my Jordan Catalano.
And I loved him for that reason alone.  But even still if you talk to
a twentysomething woman about Jordan Catalano, we all get that far
away look, like, ‘oh yeah, he was amazing.’It’s that little girl
obsession coming back, and we’ll always have it. Like Angela says, ‘If
Jordan Catalano is nearby, my whole body knows it. Like one of those
dogs that point. I’ll keep talking and stuff, but my mind won’t even
know what I’m saying. I keep wondering if there’s a term for this.’

When I watch My So-Called Life now (which I do often), I actually
relate the most to Sharon Cherski, Angela’s former best friend, turned
kind of enemy, turned close friend again.  I went through like three
different groups of friends in High School (for various reasons) and
as I watched Sharon and Angela something about them always stuck with
me.  Again I defer to Angela Chase, ‘There’s the people who you’ve
known forever who know you in this way that other people can’t because
they’ve seen you change. They’ve let you change.’  That’s always the
way I felt about my oldest friends.  Sure I went through a few groups
of auxiliary friends when I was a teenager, but there were a core
group that I’m still friends with today.  They’re the ones that let me
change.  And the thing that was always so great about Sharon Cherski
is that you could tell she was so hurt by the fact that Angela
basically ditched her for Rayanne, but she held it all in.  When I was
13 and 14 watching the show I always related to Angela, and maybe I
was more like Angela back then, but now I’m actually more Sharon than
anyone else.  Sharon was the first to sort of sacrifice herself for
anything.  She was always doing a million things like yearbook and the
school play, but she rarely did anything for herself.  I loved the
scene when her boyfriend hadn’t asked her to the dance yet, and she
says that she has too much to worry about without having to worry
about whether or not her boyfriend is going to ask her to the dance.
It just seems like such an organic and natural problem to have, at
least it seems that way to me.  Just the notion that I’ve got too much
shit to deal with for you, who is supposed to be there for me, to load
more of it on.  The other thing that is totally awesome about Sharon
is that she is the good girl on the surface and underneath she’s got a
little bad girl in her.  Those are the most interesting people, the
ones who try to hide their bad girl tendencies in good girl clothes.

‘I became yearbook photographer because I liked the idea that I could
sort of watch life without having to be part of it. But when you’re
yearbook photographer, you’re, like, never in the picture.’  Brian
Krakow, the nerdy neighbor that was in love with Angela Chase, was the
beating heart of the show.  He was the overachiever kid who always
knew the answer in class but never in life.  Brian was just so
earnest, but at the same time he could be so judgmental.  I think that
was sort of the brilliance of the show, not any character was just one
thing, no one was purely good or purely evil, they were all shades of
grey.  And Brian was one of those kids that always tried to do the
right thing, the right thing that turned out to be the wrong thing,
much to his dismay.  What made Brian so endearing, but at the same
time so annoying, was his unending love for Angela.  She was so
infatuated with Jordan Catalano and barely realized that Brian was
infatuated with her.  Or maybe she did realize it and just didn’t
acknowledge it.  In any case, Brian’s unending devotion to Angela
drove the big thumping heart in the middle of the show.  The
realization, in the final episode of the series, that Brian wrote this
great love letter to Angela, a love letter that Jordan gave to Angela
pretending that he wrote it, makes me mourn for the lost story that we
will never see because ABC didn’t know how to market a show like this
to the public.

It seems like all ‘teen’ shows have one set of parents.  Teen shows
usually center around one family unit and everyone else doesn’t really
have a normal functioning family.  I guess no one really has a normal
functioning family, but if we are looking statistically at television
teen drama and the parental figures, it seems like the main teen
character has parents and the rest of the cast really doesn’t.  Like
90210 had Jim and Cindy Walsh, but all of the other kids parents were
conspicuously absent.  Dawson’s Creek had Mitch and Gail Leery, but
none of the other kids had parents that were around.  My So-Called
Life actually fits into this mold.  Angela has Graham and Patty Chase,
but Ricky, Rayanne and Jordan don’t have parental figures around.
Brian and Sharon allude to their parents and we see Camile Chirski a
few times, but none are series regulars.  Now from a business
standpoint I get this.  There aren’t that many interesting story lines
that involve other peoples parents, seeing as this story revolves
around the Chases, I just think it’s a funny sort of trend.

I also think it’s a good way to transition into talking about Graham,
Patty and Danielle (a.k.a. the Chase family).  Graham and Patty have
to be the most realistic portrayal of parents of teenagers ever, in
the history of television.  They play their relationship as adults
spectacularly, but the true success lies in how they play their
relationship with their children, especially Angela.  I mean, the way
Bess Armstrong plays Patty’s masked hurt at the fact that her teenage
daughter is rejecting her, in the way that teenagers do, is
impeccable.  I’ll admit that I always sided with Angela in that war.
I got that she just wanted to be free of her parents, but was too
young to see that she wasn’t fully ready to be free of them.  Also the
true mother/daughter bond/divide was beautifully portrayed.  Like when
Angela states that, ‘When I was twelve, my mother gave me my sex talk.
I’m not sure either of us has fully recovered.’  I haven’t fully
recovered from mine either Angela.

Graham was the definite foil to Patty.  Patty could be uptight and
domineering, while Graham tried to be the cool dad.  And yes, they
fought about this.  The thing I loved about Graham and Angela’s
relationship was how different it was than Patty and Angela’s
relationship, even in the teenage rebellion/rejection.  When Angela
rejects Graham she says, ‘When you’re not sure you trust a person
anymore — say, a person you really trusted; say your father — you
start wishing they’d do something, like, really wrong, just so you
could be right about them.’  And when she rejects Patty she is a
little more drastic, ‘Lately I can’t even look at my mother without
wanting to stab her… repeatedly.’  I just love that she
rebels/rejects both of her parents in such completely and totally
separate ways.  And I mean, who didn’t feel that way at fifteen?  Like
you just wanted nothing to do with either of your parents, but at the
same time you still needed them desperately.  Maybe that is the whole
basis for teen angst.

In any case, Graham and Patty, though they both can be judgmental and
uptight and catty are great parents.  They are involved and caring,
and the actors give wonderful performances where they, like the kids,
show, even through the masks they wear, the pain that they really
feel.  There’s a scene in the episode where Angela meets Rayanne’s mom
(who is really more of a kid than any of the kids), where Patty sees
Angela hug Rayanne’s mom goodbye and you can see, just under the
surface, that it really deeply hurts her that Angela would be so quick
to let this woman in, when she has been pushing her own mother away.
It’s so subtle and so beautiful that it would, were it real life, slip
right by.  That’s what makes the show believable, the fact that most
of what we see would, were it real life, slip right by.

Of course, the youngest Chase, Danielle is the perfect little sister.
She’s annoying, while at the same time she worships her sister and
wants to hang out with her sister and all of her sisters friends.  She
walks that fine line between being a child and being a teenager.  And
she’s just absolutely perfect.  I think my favorite Danielle moment is
when she dresses up like Angela at Halloween.  She does Angela so
well.  But I also love this moment she has with Sharon Chirski when
they both realize that they’d rather be doing what the other is doing.
Sharon would so much rather be out trick or treating, while Danielle
thinks it’s so cool that Sharon gets to go to a party with her
boyfriend.  That’s so poetic isn’t it?  We always look back at the
past as a better time, but when we’re young we can’t wait to be older.
And this show somehow captures that with nothing more than a longing
look from two different people.

So needless to say, the acting,  in a word, phenomenal.  And of course
Claire Danes and Jared Leto went on to be much acclaimed actors in
their own right.  But really, if we’ve learned anything from these
times of strike, strife, and woe in Hollywood it’s that you can’t have
a great performance without a great script.  I think what really made
the script so wonderful was that a) they really talked like teenagers,
I loved Dawson’s Creek, but really, who talked like that? b) they
thought like teenagers, and c) there were realistic plot lines.  I
mean, I don’t feel like I’m reaching for the stars to ask for a show
where the plot somehow reflects something that may happen to real
people.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the Grey’s Anatomy, but
really, what plotlines on that show resemble anyones real life (with
the exception of Meredith’s daddy issues)?  The writers of My
So-Called Life just had this way of writing that summed up everything
a teenager feels in one sentence.

As I have stated previously, I started watching this show in the
beginning of my teenage years.  So of course that’s when I was at my
most self-conscious, and my most awkward.  I don’t quite remember when
this happened, but I also was one of those kids who always knew there
was more out there.  I wanted more than my small town had to offer.  I
always knew that…it may have been the reason I was so miserable in
high school.  But there was one quote from My So-Called Life that may
sum up everyone’s experience in high school, be it good or bad: “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, I mean, how do you know it’s even you? And, I mean,
this whole thing with yearbook – it’s like, everybody’s in this big
hurry to make this book, to supposedly remember what happened. Because
if you made a book of what really happened, it’d be a really upsetting
book.”  I guess what amazes me so much is that I can’t think of any
show that has ever got it as right as My So-Called Life gets it, and
I’m not just talking about adolescence.  I can’t think of a single
show (except maybe thirtysomething and who wrote that?  the same
people that wrote My So-Called Life) that really just has its finger
on exactly what a certain group/demographic of people are thinking and
feeling.

I have to say, on a personal level as well, My So-Called Life did that
thing that great writing, be it literature, television, newspaper or
otherwise, it made you feel.  It made you feel like you weren’t
totally crazy for the fact that, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The, like, fact that — that people — had sex. That they just had it,
like sex was this thing people — had, like a rash. Or a — a
rottweiler. Everything started to seem like, pornographic or
something. Like, Mrs. Krysanowski has sex. So does Mr. Katimsky. They
both have sex. They could — have sex together. Like right now. I am,
like, the sickest person.”  I mean come on.  I remember when that
realization first dawned on me…and it was exactly like that…that
realization that people have sex.  And sex became this ultimately real
thing that I could one day be partaking in, not just something I saw
in a movie or on t.v. where people make out and then it cuts to them
lying in bed, out of breath.  The show really laid it all out there.
I just can’t say enough about how good the writing is.

So I’ll talk about the music instead.  A few weeks back I wrote about
the ’90s and how good it was to be a ’90s kid.  I wrote specifically
about music.  Well, My So-Called Life had the best music.  It had
music that was so indicative of the times.  More so than Dawson’s
Creek, more so than The O.C., perhaps even more so than 90210, which,
I’ll admit, had some awesome Color Me Badd – tastic music.  There are
three scenes in particular that really stand out to me.  One was when
Angela is once again sad over something Jordan Catalano related
(specifically, it’s when the rumor that she slept with Jordan gets
spread around), and as her mom walks in to give her a rather awkward
and painful safe sex talk (what other kind of safe sex talk is
there?), she’s blasting the Cranberries’ ‘Dream.’  C’mon, kids of the
90’s, who didn’t blast this song in their room at least once?  I loved
that album, I loved the Cranberries, Dolores O’Riordan was the most
awesome person ever.  I always thought that it was the perfect, ‘I’m
depressed over a boy’ song.

The second scene is one of my favorites.  The song actually plays over
two different scenes, one depressing, one hopeful.  It’s Buffalo Tom’s
Soda Jerk.  The first time the song plays is when Jordan, after they
start dating, totally disses Angela in public.  But then it plays
again in that magical scene in the hallway when Jordan goes up to
Angela (she’s supposed to be in a geometry review) and he holds her
hand, and she forgets all about the geometry review (please, I forgot
about it the instant Jared Leto came on screen).

The Third song was my favorite song for much of the early ’90s (it was
in direct competition with ‘Come As You Are’ by Nirvana), a little
song titled ‘Blister in the Sun’ by The Violent Femmes.  When Angela
thinks (for about 5 minutes) that she’s gotten over Jordan Catalano,
she dances around to it in the morning before school.  Love it.  Love
it.  Love it.  God that was a good show.

Alright, so the music rocked, the acting rocked, the writing rocked,
and the cinematography rocked.  Cinematography is usually not too high
on the list of important elements in a t.v. show.  The DP (Director of
Photography or, as you know them, cinematographer) is in charge of
maintaining the look of the show, and, though I’m sure you all have
better things to do than notice this, most show usually have pretty
simple shots.  First you have the master (that’s the shot where
everyone is in it, it’s usually from far away) then you move in close
and cut between the people in the scene.  If there are two people in
the scene you start with a two shot (the one where you can see both
people) and move in for coverage (in other words get up close and cut
between the two people talking).  Most t.v. shows, especially now,
don’t do oners (that is a one shot, or a longer shot where there is no
cutting).  My So-Called Life employs this over and over and over
again, and that makes the show, a) technically amazing, and b)
visually different, and awesome.  The best shot of the series,
however, occurs in the pilot.    At the end of the pilot when Angela
and Brian meet in the middle of a street.  You might recognize the
shot from a little movie called Jerry Maguire.  Cameron Crowe admits
that he stole the shot from My So-Called Life.  You know the shot when
Renee Zellweger (before we knew who she was) runs into the street to
meet Tom Cruise (pre-crazytown) and there’s this great master shot
with the fabulous backlighting.  Yeah, that’s right folks, my man Cam
stole that from My So-Called Life.  Welcome to Hollywood…that’s how
we do shit here.

And My So-Called Life was a happy accident that slipped through the
cracks for 19 glorious episodes, and much like James Dean or Marilyn
Monroe, it didn’t last long enough to fade or lose any of its
innocence and attractiveness.  And that is both its blessing and its
curse.  And I love it.

Peace, Love, and “You know how sometimes the last sentence you said,
like, echoes in your brain? And it just keeps sounding stupider? And
you have to say something else just to make it stop?”  That’s my whole
life.  Why do you think I keep writing?

Julia

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December 3, 2007 - Posted by | Cameron Crowe, Gay/Lesbian, Grey's Anatomy, High School, Hollywood, Music, My So-Called Life, Sex, Television

2 Comments »

  1. I loved this show! And I didn’t know that about the Wicked musical book. Cool.

    Comment by Sadako | October 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. Sigh. Best show ever!

    WordPress directed me to your blog via one of the “possibly related posts” on my own, and I’m glad. MSCL was a life-changing show for me, too. The fan culture around the show was what made me so interested in stories and writing.

    Comment by Elizabeth | October 6, 2009 | Reply


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