My So-Called Life


Created by Winnie Holzman

Written by Winnie Holzman and others

Starring Clare Danes, Jared Leto, Bess Armstrong, Tom Irwin, A J Langer, Wilson Cruz, Devon Gummersall and Devon Odessa

‘My So Called Life’ ran for a total of nineteen episodes on the ABC network between 25 August 1994 and 26 January 1995. The pilot episode had been filmed in January 1993 and screened for executives at ABC in April of that year. Although a full season was commissioned it was more than a year after that before a transmission slot was found for it. The show was created by Winnie Holzman, who wrote six of the nineteen episodes. She had previously written nine episodes of ‘thirtysomething’. In 2004 she received a Tony Award nomination for ‘Wicked’, her Broadway adaptation of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

‘My So Called Life’ was greeted with ecstatic reviews by critics. They were particularly impressed by the performance of Claire Danes. Its small fanbase has remained loyal, even though the show was cancelled over twelve years ago and never went to syndication. The show was briefly released on DVD in America in December 2002, but there were complaints about the absence of extras and the poor picture quality. This is the version available in the UK. The picture quality is on a par with the first two seasons of ‘Buffy’. It was issued again in America in October 2007. There is still an active forum dedicated to the show that includes sub-sections for French, German and Swedish fans.

The decision to cancel ‘MSCL’, although determined by low viewer numbers, was influenced by the alleged reluctance of Claire Danes to sign on for a second season – she had been hospitalised with exhaustion for four days during the production of the first season. Danes was tipped to become a major film star, but that level of success has largely failed to materialise. She took time off to attend Yale University and a certain amount of controversy has dogged her over the years.

Despite its short run, ‘MSCL’ has continued to exert an obvious influence on many shows that followed in its wake, including ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (the ‘MSCL’ episode ‘Halloween’ is replayed in ‘Buffy’ as ‘Halloween’, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and ‘Fear Itself’), ‘Dawson’s Creek’, ‘Freaks and Geeks’, ‘Dead Like Me’, ‘The O.C.’ and ‘One Tree Hill’. ‘Mean Girls’ also owes it a debt.

The show is a teen soap opera – with lashings of teenage angst. It does not include comedy in the mix or attempt post-modern pop-culture irony. However, it constantly subverts expectations within the various themes dealt with inside the ongoing narrative. These themes include adultery, censorship, child abuse, drug use, guns, homelessness, homophobia, illiteracy, same-sex parenting, school violence, sex and teenage alcoholism. Tidy resolutions are never forthcoming and there are inevitably more questions and answers.

Main characters and cast:

Angela Chase is a 15-year-old sophomore at Liberty High in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In search of her “true identity”, she drops her old best friend, dyes her hair red and begins to hang out with two new friends, both of whom on the surface appear to be very flaky. She idolises Anne Frank and writes poetry. She likes Porno For Pyros, Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against The Machine, but hates the Grateful Dead. The series revolves around her self-involvement and constant unanswered questions about her life and the world around her.

Claire Danes, who plays Angela, was 13-years-old when the pilot episode was filmed. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an EMMY for her performance in the show. Her subsequent film roles have included ‘Romeo & Juliet’, ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Terminator 3’ and ‘Stardust’.

Patricia Wood Chase is Angela’s mother. She was Prom Queen at high school. She now runs her own company. Patty is played by Bess Armstrong, who received top billing and is a recognisable face from appearances in numerous American television shows.

Graham Chase is Angela’s father. He is a Deadhead who actively supported various liberal causes as a teenager in the 1960s. His relationship with Angela becomes more distant as she enters adolescence. Graham is played by Tom Irwin, another recognisable face from American television.

Danielle Chase is Angela’s ten-year-old sister. She goes constantly unnoticed in the Chase household, not least by her older sister. She is scarily perceptive for her age. She is played by Lisa Wilhoit, who continues to work in American television and provides voices for various recurring characters in the animated show ‘Family Guy’.

Sharon Cherski had been Angela’s best friend since early childhood, but Angela views her as representative of the boredom and convention of the suburban life she is now fighting against. She is voted “Best Hooters” in the sophomore class, something she is very embarrassed by, but unlike the others, she is secretly sexually active. Devon Odessa was 19-years-old at the time of the ‘MSCL’ pilot. She has a packed résumé of supporting roles in numerous films, most of which I’ve never heard of.

Rayanne Marie Graff is Angela’s new best friend. She is wild and unpredictable and allegedly sexually active. She is a teenage alcoholic and likes the Grateful Dead. Voted “Most Slut Potential” in the sophomore class and proud of it. Rayanne is played by A J Langer, who has had regular roles in numerous American television shows I’ve never heard of – ‘Brooklyn South’, ‘It’s Like, You Know’, ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘Eyes’. She was 18-years-old at the time of the ‘MSCL’ pilot.

Enrique (Rickie) Vasquez is Rayanne’s best friend and considers it his duty to keep her from self-destructing. He is half-Hispanic, half-black, openly gay, and physically abused by his uncle, as well as being regularly beaten up by the jocks at school. He spends most of his time hanging out in the girls’ room, but nobody thinks this is strange. He has a crush on Jordan. Wilson Cruz has had roles in American television shows like ‘Party of Five’ and ‘Rick and Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in the World’. He was 19-years-old at the time of the ‘MSCL’ pilot.

Brian Krakow is Angela’s next-door neighbour and is also a sophomore at Liberty High. He is academically intelligent, which makes him a social outcast at school. He has a crush on Angela, but is emotionally repressed and uptight – and constantly judges her. Devon Gummersall is another regular face on American television. He appeared in four episodes of the first season of ‘The L Word’, playing a character called Lisa. He was 14-years-old at the time of the ‘MSCL’ pilot.

Jordan Catalano has been held back two years at school, largely because of the failure of the school system to realise he cannot read. He skips most classes and when he does show up he sleeps through them. He is monosyllabic and carefully hides his intelligence. Angela has a crush on him and they have an on-off relationship. Jared Leto became a huge teen pin-up as a result of this role. He has appeared in numerous films, including ‘Urban Legend’. He was 21-years-old at the time of the ‘MSCL’ pilot.

Camille Cherski is Sharon’s mother. She is also Patty’s best friend. She is played by Mary Kay Place, who has an extensive career in films and television, including playing the role of Loretta Haggers in ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’.

Amber Vallone is Rayanne’s mother. She’s a Tarot reading hippie and Deadhead. She is a “Wharf Rat” and knows about her daughter’s drinking and drug use, but does nothing about it. Amber is played by Patti D’Arbanville, who was the subject of the famous Cat Stevens song ‘Lady D’Arbanville’.


Angela discards her old best friend Sharon for her new best friend Rayanne. This episode introduces the various characters and the basic premise of the show.

Dancing in the Dark
To cement her new “free” outlook, Angela gets a fake ID card from Jordan. Patty and Graham take dance lessons to try to rescue their stagnant marriage.

Guns and Gossip
A gun is fired in the school. Ricky is suspected and pressure is placed on Brian to give up information about the incident to the school’s Principal. Rumours and gossip spread that Angela has had sex with Jordan. Additional security measures are implemented, reducing the freedom of students at Liberty High.

Father Figures
Angela becomes more distant from her father and starts to suspect he is having an affair. The IRS investigates Patty’s business and the Grateful Dead come to town.

The Zit
The jocks produce a list of “hot” sophomore girls that is distributed around the school. Sharon and Rayanne are on it, but Angela is not. She gets a pimple on her chin and becomes morose and difficult when Patty wants to enter the annual Mother-Daughter fashion show. All of this is set to a class about the Franz Kafka story ‘Metamorphosis’.

The Substitute
A substitute English teacher employs unconventional teaching methods to inspire enthusiasm for learning in his students, but they come into conflict with the school’s Principal over the subject of censorship.

Why Jordan Can’t Read
Angela discovers that Jordan can’t read. Patty thinks she is pregnant.

1.8 Strangers in the House
Sharon’s father suffers a heart attack and her relationship with Angela worsens.

1.9 Halloween
Everyone dresses up for Halloween. When Rayanne and Brian break into the school and become trapped there overnight, they have to face their fears. Angela has visions of a student who died in the school on Halloween.

Other People’s Daughters
Angela is awestruck by Rayanne’s free-spirited mother. Patty receives a visit from her mother.

Life of Brian
Life from Brian’s perspective. The school dance causes conflict.

Angela is upset that Jordan will not make their relationship public. A new gay teacher becomes a kind of father figure to Ricky.

1.13 Pressure
Angela is pressurised to make her mind up if she wants to have sex with Jordan.

1.14 On the Wagon
Rayanne starts to feel left out because of Angela’s relationship with Jordan.

1.15 So-Called Angels
Christmas episode. Ricky becomes homeless. Juliana Hatfield guest stars in this episode as a mysterious homeless girl.

Everyone makes New Year resolutions, but no one resolves to keep them.

Rayanne has sex with Jordan in his car.

1.18 Weekend
Rayanne becomes accidentally handcuffed to Patty and Graham’s bed. This episode, dealing with sex-games, ran into various censorship problems.

1.19 In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
Everyone has weird dreams.

These thumbnail sketches are deliberately vague. To give more of a flavour of what the show is about I will deal with one episode in greater detail. I have chosen ‘Substitute’, not because it is one of my favourite episodes, quite the opposite in fact, but because I feared the worst as I watched it and was constantly taken by surprise by the way the story subverted itself.

A new substitute English teacher arrives at the school. He walks into a scene of chaos in the classroom and announces he has no interest in teaching them and they can do whatever they like. There is confusion amongst the students. Jordan wakes from his slumbers and asks if this means he can go. The teacher says he can and he gets up to leave. The teacher then tells him they will now spend the rest of the lesson time discussing him, immediately retracting that and saying it was a joke. Jordan is unsure how to take it and stays.

Brian asks the teacher to mark some homework papers left behind by the departed teacher so that the class can get credit. The teacher reads them and then dismisses the work as, “Boring. The word boring comes to mind. Fake. False. Synthetic. Bogus… … This is the most god-awful crap I have ever read in my life.” He throws the papers out of the window, but not before he has harried and harassed Jordan in front of the whole class, before whispering to him, “Don’t you dare play dumb with me again.”

Continuing to use these unconventional methods, the teacher begins to engage the students in the subject. Rayanne decides to join the class, fascinated by what Angela has told her. As we will learn later on in the season, Rayanne is not actually enrolled in the school, but just like Jordan, she has been let down by the overly bureaucratic and remote school system.

Mr Racine: “Whatever you feel like saying, write it down. What you never told anyone. What you never even told yourself. And don’t fear exposure. No one is to put his or her name down. This will be completely anonymous.”
Rayanne: “Just how I like sex.”
Mr Racine: “What about you?”
Rayanne: “Uh, I’m not in this class?”
Mr Racine: “You’re not? Where are you? I mean, how can you say you’re not here? You’re here. I see you. Get out your notebook.”
Rayanne: “I never wrote anything for the Lit.”
Mr Racine: “Well, then you have an unfair advantage.”

Once the poems and short essays are written, the teacher hands them back out at random and has students read them out aloud. One is a poem of a highly sexual nature. The class assumes Rayanne must have written it and she is happy to encourage them to think so. She challenges the teacher to publish it in the monthly student magazine.

At the end of one of the early lessons the teacher thrusts a book into Jordan’s hand, saying he had forgotten it. Jordan protests that it isn’t his, but the teacher demands that he take it. Later on, the teacher keeps Jordan back after class. He is angrily telling the student to get out of the classroom when Angela’s father walks in. The teacher continues to rant, this time at Graham.

“You know that kid that just left here… That extremely smart kid? Well, it seems nobody ever bothered to notice that he never quite learned how to read. I mean, it pisses me off.”

In a clever touch, as Jordan leaves the classroom and Graham enters, there is a poster on the wall next to the door featuring a picture of piles of books and the slogan, “A good foundation for your future.”

The monthly student magazine is printed at Patty’s printing works. She goes to see Mr Racine to question the inclusion of the “controversial” poem. He says if she refuses to take on the print job with this item included he will simply do it himself, xeroxing the pages and stapling them. Patty is worried that Angela wrote the poem. The teacher refuses to reveal who it was. It was actually written by Sharon.

“This journal should be about giving students a voice. It’s not about having their thoughts edited. If these kids aren’t afraid of putting their hearts on the page why should we be afraid of them?”

After the magazine has been delivered, all copies are confiscated by the school’s Principal, a distant and authoritarian figure who apparently doesn’t know the names of any of his students. At the dinner table that night Angela is indignant with rage. Her parents try to reason with her, saying she needs to look at the issue from all sides. She tells them,
“I can’t believe this. What about all those boring stories I had to sit through my whole life about how committed you were in the sixties? About how you believed in things… Only now you’re so terrified of causing trouble you can’t even see what it means to me.”

The next day the class learns from Principal Foster that Mr Racine will no longer be teaching at the school and the magazine will not be distributed to students. When Angela sees the teacher leaving the school premises and says to him, “I can’t believe you were fired because of one poem,” he replies:

“Why? You think injustice like that doesn’t happen? It happens every day. Wake up.”

Graham secretly goes to see the Principal to discuss the situation with him, explaining how upset his daughter is about what has happened. The Principal gives no indication that he is aware of who Angela is.
“Let me see, you daughter is… ah- -”

The Principal explains to Graham that the teacher was not sacked. It had been discovered he had assumed a false name and was the subject of an arrest warrant for his failure to pay child support to the family he walked out on and his failure to appear in court on this charge. When this was made known to him he simply walked out of the school.

Graham tells his daughter and she tracks down the teacher.
“It’s so weird that teachers, like, live places.”

Mr Racine: “Look, my struggle for freedom is mine. Get your own. Get out before it’s too late, Amanda.”
Angela: “Get out? Get out of what?”
Mr Racine: “The mind control factory. That warehouse they store you in, because they don’t know what to do with you.”
Angela: “You’re telling me to… drop out of high school?”
Mr Racine: “Good question. Yes. Run for your life. Save your life. Let the walls of the gingerbread house come crashing down. Or not.”

Not only is he giving her appalling advice, suggesting that his earlier apparent commitment to teaching was a sham, he also gets her name wrong, indicating that his interest in these students is less than it night have appeared to be.

Mr Racine drives Angela home, where she bumps into Brian out on the sidewalk.

Brian: “So, is there, like, anyone’s car you won’t get into?”
Angela: “Right! I live my life to annoy you, Krakow. You’re, like, my world.”
Brian: “Shut up. I mean, he’s old. He’s a teacher.”
Angela: “What? You think, like, I did something with him?”
Brian: “I don’t know. How do I know?”
Angela: “Are you demented? Do you just view everything in terms of sex?”

Angela talks about her disappointment with her parents. They explain to her that principles are important but life is about compromise. Patty says,
“You can’t win every fight. You just have to pick your battles.”

The next day at school Angela copies the original handwritten papers for the magazine, stapling them together and handing them out to students in the hallway. She is told to report to the Principal’s office and her parents are called into school. Angela tells her 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. You said I needed to decide what to fight for. I decided. I just think it’s wrong to censor people, and I’m willing to get suspended for it.”

Once inside the Principal’s office, Angela looks perturbed and cheated and disappointed when he tells her,
“I’m not going to suspend you. I think Mr Racine gave you kids very distorted ideas about right and wrong. Angela, this obviously isn’t you. I’m willing to forget about this one isolated incident. It’s over.”

At the end of the episode, Angela is standing in the hallway with students rushing about all around her. She looks confused.

‘The Substitute’ was directed by Ellen S Pressman, who also directed the ‘Buffy’ episodes ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Inca Mummy Girl’.


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