Cast photo of "My So-Called Life"
General Thoughts,  Pop Culture

My So-Called Life: What the show meant to me then and now

Television habits before 1994

I grew up watching TV and movies rented on VHS tapes. As an avid reader, escaping into another world wasn’t uncommon for me, but there was just something about watching it on screen that evoked all my senses. When I was a little kid, I watched mostly cartoons: The Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, The Care Bears, and of course, The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show.

Later, I watched family-friendly shows with my mom, like The Wonder Years, Dr. Quinn, Home Improvement, and the TGIF line-up that included shows like Full House, Family Matters, Boy Meets World, and Step by Step. And I can’t forget the Saturday morning syndicated show, Saved by the Bell, in all its (often shallow) glory.

During the summers, I watched daytime TV reruns like Matlock, Diagnosis Murder, and The Brady Bunch. In the early 90s, I also started watching some shows that were probably too grown up for me like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. I was between 10 and 11 years old, the same age my daughter is now. I can see her appeal to grow up that I felt back then.

The premiere of My So-Called Life

Photo of Claire Danes
Claire Danes as Angela Chase

Prior to its premiere on Thursday, August 25, 1994, I’d seen promos for the new show, My So-Called Life, and was instantly intrigued. I was 13, so watching a show centered around a 15-year-old girl was right up my alley. Within minutes of starting the first episode, I was hooked.

The show’s main character, Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes, a teenager at the time), was refreshing. She was a regular girl who exuded all the awkwardness of being a teenager. I never missed a show during its 19-episode run and recorded them all on VHS so I could rewatch them (which I did repeatedly until the tapes wore out).

What made the show different (spoilers ahead!)

The show was different because Angela’s voiceover gave the show more depth and was unlike anything I’d seen before. Plus, the characters felt so real to me, like they could have been plucked from any high school. They looked like regular kids, not all supermodel gorgeous, but attractive in their own unique ways. Plus, not everything worked out by the end of the episode. The teens weren’t perfect, and neither were their parents. Nothing was sugar-coated.

The characters

The show centered around Angela Chase and also featured her parents, Patty and Graham, and her younger sister, Danielle.

The main friend group included:

Rayanne: A wild girl that Angela had recently befriended.
Jordan: The object of Angela’s affection and obsession.
Brian: Angela’s neighbor who is also secretly (or not so secretly) in love with her.
Sharon: Angela’s former best friend.
Rickie: One of Rayanne’s best friends and the first primetime openly gay teenage character.

There were a handful of regular secondary characters and a few who were only seen once to help round out the cast. Viewers got to see Sharon’s mother and her father (briefly), and Rayanne’s mother. Brian’s parents were heard but not seen. The teachers played their roles well. And of course, I can’t forget the mysterious Tino, who was often talked about but never seen.

The show dealt with real issues (and indulged in some fantasies)

The depictions of friendship in the show were spot-on with the evolution of relationships and all the raw emotions involved. And Angela’s crush on Jordan Catalano was realistic and cringe-worthy at times. And Brian was the definition of awkward.

Sex was discussed at great lengths with depictions of it among the teenage characters and Angela’s parents. Angela’s decision to stay a virgin was a turning point in the show and in her relationship with Jordan. Rayanne had issues with drugs and alcohol. Jordan smoked and drank and spoke about having been knocked around by his old man in the past. Rickie was bullied and later became homeless.

Of course, fantasy played a bit of a role too. There were Halloween and Christmas episodes that touched on spirituality and supernatural elements, but the episodes weren’t over the top.

And the ultimate fantasy or dream come true was when Jordan showed interest in Angela. It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns since he acted like a douche at first. But at the end of the episode, “Self-Esteem,” when he walked over to Angela in the hallway in front of everyone and asked her to go somewhere, my heart skipped a beat. And then he reached for Angela’s hand in front of his friends and led her away. Wow. That was definitely my favorite episode.

How I related

I’d have to say I was a bit of a combination of the Angela and Sharon characters when I was in high school. I was definitely introspective and awkward like Angela, but I tried to be perfect like Sharon, and my feelings were easily hurt. I had a Rayanne-like friend I watched spiral out of control at times and a crush on a guy who would only talk to me when no one else was around. My crush looked nothing like the actor, Jared Leto, who played Jordan—but only Jared Leto is as pretty as Jared Leto.

I don’t know if there was a “Brian” who liked me in high school, but if so, he never made himself known. It’s probably for the best. I wasn’t cut out for a relationship in HS despite how badly I wanted one. The point is, I survived, and watching and rewatching My So-Called Life helped me get through it. (And I may have dyed my hair burgundy at least once when I was a teenager.)

When the show was cancelled after only one season, I was devastated. There was a huge fan campaign to try to keep it going, but looking back, I think it was poetic that it was left on a cliffhanger (sort of). And one of the stories had Graham Chase seeming like he might cheat on his wife, so I would have hated his character had that happened.

Rewatching it as an adult

As an adult, I rewatch the show occasionally for nostalgia’s sake since it’s still my favorite show of all time. Watching it again also helps get me in the right frame of mind to revisit adolescence when I’m writing my novels, kind of how music can take me back in time. Two of my main characters have been 15 (such a pivotal age), one has been 17, and another has been 18. I’m pretty far removed from those ages now, but those feelings I had back then still run deep and still hurt sometimes. Or maybe it’s a mid-life crisis for me. Who knows. I still love the show.

Now, I can relate more to the parents in the show, who were around 40 years old. I’m 42 now and have my own 15- and 11-year-olds. I “get” the rules and restrictions parents give and want to protect my kids from physical and mental harm because I know how hard it is to grow up. But I can’t protect my kids from everything. I’m right there with you, Patty and Graham. Well, mostly with Patty.

I think, in many ways, growing up is harder now. At least my most embarrassing moments aren’t playing on TikTok or other social media platforms; they’re just locked away in my memories and those of others who witnessed them.

So, what’s your favorite show of all time?

Thanks for reading,
-Brandi Easterling Collins

One Comment

  • Sarah Dale

    Childhood, my favorite show was Step by Step mainly because I come from a blended family and I only wish it were like the Fosters (hence the last name of my characters lol). As an adult my favorite shows are Friends, The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess.

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