I AM ANGELA CHASE: Remembering "My So-Called Life," 20 Years Later

I can’t get through a single episode without crying, welling up from the opening credits though each scene, emotions coming in waves off a collectively unconscious teenage ocean.
Publish date:
August 25, 2014
television, teen angst, My So-Called Life, the 90s

I don’t actually remember where I got the idea to dye my hair. I was 13, which might have been reason enough.

Regardless, on a weekend visit to my mom’s -- the non-custodial, highly permissive parent in my personal family cocktail growing up -- she not only allowed me to purchase a box of blackest-black box dye, but helped me with the coloring process. I remember sitting on the edge of the bathtub as the fumes burned my eyeballs. Haircolor was tough back then.

When I got home the next day, ecstatic with my new hair, the look on my (custodial, far more protective) father’s face was actually priceless. He wasn’t angry, I don’t think, just completely shocked, shocked in a way I had never seen him shocked before. Mouth agape, struggling for words. I will remember and treasure those teenage moments for the rest of my life.

“What did you DO?” he kept asking, looking from me to my mom, as I sat beaming on the couch. “It’s like -- you look like a witch.”

I beamed harder. Best compliment ever. Eventually he shook his head and chuckled and we said no more about it.

The next week, I walked to my dad’s office after school one day and waved at one of his colleagues through the big glass window of the office, so he could come to the locked doors and let me in. This man, who had known me since childhood, didn’t recognize me. When I was insistent with my window-knocking, he finally figured out who I was. He subsequently asked my father, “Is she trying to be like Darlene from ‘Roseanne’?”

I hadn’t even been thinking of Darlene when I did it, but I appreciated the association. These were the touchstones I had at the time. I was 13, and it was 1990.

Four years later, I was watching the first episode of a new teen drama, and in the beginning moments, the protagonist dyes her hair a color called “Crimson Glow.” Her mother was less immediately accepting of her choice, but the shock of seeing it was the same. My dad and I laughed together in instant recognition -- “Remember when you first came home with the black hair?” “Yes! You were speechless!” My hair was still black. It was 1994.

“My So-Called Life” first aired 20 years ago today, on August 25, 1994. It seems impossible for it to have been that long, but here we are.

When I rewatch episodes of the series now, my perception of it is so different. Angela Chase is nearly unbearable, her halting speech no longer familiar and charming but irritating and insecure. Say what you mean, Angela, I want to shout at her. You’re worth hearing.

She can’t, because she doesn’t know what she means, because part of surviving one’s teenage years is figuring out how to speak your feelings and your mind. Part of suriving one’s adult years too. One’s whole entire life.

As a teenager, I watched the series together with my dad from the debut episode. At the time, I didn’t entirely understand what he could have gotten from it, but now I think I do -- “My So-Called Life” was an anomaly in that it was a show mostly about teenagers, but it did not gloss over the adults in their world in the way that so many teen shows had prior to this. The parents of these kids are real people; even their teachers, usually banal and occasionally bizarre, were fully fleshed out and imperfect individuals.

But more than that, I think watching it together bridged a generation gap that many parents struggle with. It gave my father insight into my weird ’90s-teen world, and it revealed to me the truth that all the adults I knew were, in fact, probably just as confused and stressed out as I was, and were making a lot of the same dumb mistakes as well; they just had more skill at handling it.

But wait -- the truth is I’ve never rewatched the whole series, beginning to end, since it ended. I have watched episodes, here and there, sporadically, over the years since it first became available on DVD, and then later on livestream. I ration these viewings out. I don’t take in too many at one time. I don’t want to run through the whole series again because I know how these things go. As it stands, “My So-Called Life” remains in my memory as a point of reference for a particular time in my life that was difficult in the unique way that teenage life is difficult -- in the way that, at the time, feels so hard that I could not imagine how I could ever face anything more difficult. Being a kid taxes your resources to their very limit; the difference is that as an adult, you’ll face harder stuff, but you also have more resources to draw on.

1994: One weekend, I saw a cute boy I recognized from school at a punk show. I was thrilled and terrified; I didn’t know anyone at my conservative Catholic high school who went to these shows, except for the friends I occasionally dragged with me. And he was very cute, to me, then; tall, slouching, badly worn Dr Martens showing under too-long navy uniform pants, with blonde hair that covered his face.

The following Monday, I saw him in the hallway between classes and, gathering my courage, walked right up to him and asked (casually, I hoped), “Didn’t I see you at the [band whose name I’ve long since forgotten] show on Saturday night?”

He looked down at me with unconcealed revulsion, like I was a disease. “I guess so?”

“I thought so -- do you have their new CD? I liked it but--” But -- he was already gone. And I thought, Why try to reach out to anyone, ever?

“My So-Called Life” captures my adolescence, like a leaf trapped in amber, forever sepia-toned. It brings me back there like a time machine. I can’t bring myself to squander it. If I watch too much, that memory will disappear, replaced by clearer, more modern ones.

Watching it then meant that somewhere, I had company. I could watch MSCL and be reminded that not all teenagers are self-assured rich kids, football players and cheerleaders; that we were not careful and calculating adults, that some of us, like me, walked around with all our emotions on the outside, wrapped around and around our bodies like raw nerves that screamed at the slightest touch. Our lack of restraint and discretion was annoying, and we didn’t know better. Angela Chase’s perpetual exasperation. Brian Krakow’s bitterness. Rickie Vasquez’s simmering resistance. Rayanne Graff’s finely practiced art of misdirection. It’s out there where everyone can see it. We’re all pretending and doing the worst possible job of fooling anyone.

Later that same day, a jock near me would sneeze into his hand and casually wipe his mucus on the back of my uniform jacket. As though I literally didn’t matter. I would spend 15 minutes trying to wash it off in a water fountain, resisting the urge to gag.

The other reason I haven’t rewatched this series start-to-finish as an adult is because I can’t get through a single episode without crying, almost continuously -- a base-level weeping grips me from the opening credits though each scene, occasionally arcing into full-on sobs before receding, emotions coming in waves off a collectively unconscious ocean.

I never cried while watching MSCL as a contemporary, not even during the gutwrenching final scene. I actually felt myself pulling away from the story then, when it was too real, too visceral, it was like having my inner parts turned out on display for a television audience, my raw nerves set alight with electric cathode rays. It was too much.

It’s not even that my adolescence was unsually terrible. Nothing happened to me that wasn’t a common experience for untold numbers of middle-class kids in the suburbs. It was just raw, and MSCL makes it feel raw all over again.

A few years ago, I had lunch with the creator of "My So-Called Life," Winnie Holzman.

It all came together in a weird sort of serendipity. I had gotten to know Savannah Dooley, Winnie's daughter, because she and Savannah had co-developed a series together called “Huge,” for which I wrote painstakingly detailed recaps on my now-defunct blog (and since I can be a little oblivious, I didn't even realize they were related at first). I was in Los Angeles, and Savannah and I were going to have lunch. She asked if I minded if her mom came along. MINDED? Um, no, bring your whole damn family of amazing, brilliant, talented people if you want, I won’t complain.

I was pretty starstruck, but by some feat of strength I kept my cool and had a nice lunch like a normal person. That lunch and conversation really underscored for me that it’s possible for committed, thoughtful individuals to create media -- even very mainstream media -- that challenges stereotypes and assumptions about what people want to see. It’s possible to do something different, something that connects with those whose experiences and voices that have been typcast or ignored. It’s difficult, yes, and it might get canceled after one season, but it can be done.

I would not call MSCL a series that defined a generation, because I don’t think that’s true. “My So-Called Life” is not universal, and Angela Chase is not Everygirl. But for those who connected to her, to the world of this series and the people in it, they didn’t have to be.

“My So-Called Life” ends on a cliffhanger, a devastating moment between Angela and Rayanne, an exchange that does nothing so much as it reminds me that in those years, despite our shared obsessions with boys and sex in general, all my greatest and most passionate romances were happening platonically between me and my friends. For many of us, the intensity of the friendships we have in our teen and young adult years will never be matched by any other relationship again. This probably a blessing in disguise.

That cliffhanger broke my heart, and then “My So-Called Life”’s cancellation broke it again, but today, with two decades between me today and the teenager I was watching it, this non-ending feels beautifully apt. Because as a reflection of the lives of some members of a certain generation of kids, there could never be a tidy bow on the end of this story. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes friends break up. Sometimes your heart gets broken. In every case, life still trudges on, becomes something else. You grow up. You keep growing.