Saturday, 23 July 2011

My So-Called Life - I don't think leaving high school is the answer. I don't think leaving anything is.

My So-Called Life: 1x06 The Substitute.

One of the things that MSCL captures incredibly well is the mutual unease between adolescents and their parents: the parents are concerned that there kids are slowly turning into grown-ups and the can’t always include their parents in that development, and the kids, as they grow more observant and knowledgeable, realize that their parents might have a life of their own too, their very own struggles. Life doesn’t begin with leaving your parents’ house, nor does it stop when having children of your own. 
The little mechanisms established between characters in order to deal with that unease have already been in the centre of previous episodes. Patty and Graham have no idea that their daughter has a crush on Jordan Catalano, has suffered from a rumour circulating that they’ve already had sex, and sometimes ends up in potentially dangerous situations. Angela is mostly unaware of Patty’s constant struggle to be a good and responsible parent. When these walls break down, crisis ensues: Angela finding out about Graham’s almost-affair changed her perception of who her father was entirely, and for a moment there, the question lingered of what would happen if everybody acknowledged that Chase’s (and, probably, many other families as well) also function so well because there are all those unspoken things and secrets. 
The Substitute introduces a character that ignores all these conventional walls, these necessary assumptions about who students are, and at the same time, he furthers Angela’s growing feeling that adults maybe aren’t as comfortably one-dimensional as she imagined them either. 
Angela: Maybe teachers have a hidden life. Where they're actually like human. Where they have, I don't know, dignity. Or maybe not.
MSCL is, in a way, all about those hidden lives, and questioning assumptions about teenagers and parents and, in this episode, teachers. Vic (Roger Rees) comes in as the substitute for a notoriously elusive English teacher, and manages to get the attention of not only Angela’s classmates, but also the rest of the school. The first thing Vic does, in his position as an English teacher, is read the contributions of the class to a literary magazine that Angela’s parents were supposed to print; and he promptly decides that they are “boring, fake, false, synthetic, bogus”. In fact, he reviles them so much that he throws them out the window and dedicates the next lessons to coaxing something authentic and real out of his students, something that adequately expresses the passion and anger looming, confronting all those things that grown-ups tend to ignore when dealing with teenagers. He wants “anger, honesty, nakedness” – not “domesticated animals or greenery”. 

Vic: Write it down. Whatever you feel like saying write it down instead. 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.
Angela reacts to this new situation (and her “Oak tree poem” being thrown out of a window and later delivered to her door step by Brian) with a mixture of fascination and initial doubt: her parents tell her that she needs to stand up for herself and defend her work of art, while another part of herself is fascinated by the idea of an adult questioning everything that she has been taking for granted. 
Angela: Why did you do it?
Vic: Why did I do it? Good question. I did it to clear the slate. I did it to wake you up. I did it to do something. To find you. And now, guess what, here you are. Wide awake. Right in front of me. I mean. Wasn't that worth it? I mean, that, um, ah, poem. That Oak tree poem? That was yesterday. What are you going to write today?
Angela: Good question.
The students start to express their anger creatively, and Angela, finally, expresses the feeling that has been haunting her for the past episodes, ever since finding out about Graham, in a story called The Fable.
Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a lovely little cottage made of ginger bread and candy. She was always asleep. One morning she woke up, and the candy had mold on it.  Her father blew her a kiss and the house fell down. She realized she was lost. She found herself walking down a crowded street.  But the people were made of paper. Like paper dolls. She blew everyone a kiss good bye and watched as they blew away.
It’s the first time that Angela really, properly, expresses how much this has changed her perception of her family, of her life, of all the things that she’s taken for granted. The story is sort of forgotten right away in class, when Brian reads a piece called Haiku for Him – a poem about sex – that immediately catches everyone’s attention, and Rayanne points out that it’s “real – in the sense that it’s true to life” (and the class assumes it’s her poem). 
Patty decides that she isn’t going to print the journal if it includes the contentious poem, until Vic points out to her that it isn’t her job to censor the thoughts of the students, and that she shouldn’t have that kind of power, deciding which thoughts are publishes and which are too terrifying. “It is manure because this journal should be about giving students a voice. Its 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.”
When the journal is printed, it DOES cause an outrage. The students read it obsessively, but the principal decides to censor it, removing it from the public. Meanwhile, Rayanne (and the viewers) realize that Sharon is the one who wrote the poem, and they both decide that it saves their respective reputations if they pretend that Rayanne is the author. 
Sharon: You mean people think you wrote it?
Rayanne: Well yeah, I kinda gave off that impression.
Sharon: So why can't we just  let  them  keep thinking that.
Rayanne: We could.
Sharon: Is this a trick or something?
Rayanne: No, it's not a trick. I mean, I want people to think I wrote it. I wish I had wrote it… written it. I mean, how did you write something that good?
Sharon: I don't know. It just kinda came to me.
Rayanne: My favorite part is when they become the furnace.
Angela is outraged about the censorship, and thinks about ways to fight it – Graham and Patty are stunned when they find their daughter so passionate about something (and sort of taken aback when she states that Vic is “an adult she can look up to. Finally”). She’s angry when she realizes that she doesn’t have her parents’ full support – the same parents who shared stories about the idealism of the Sixties. 
And then comes the surprising twist of the episode. Angela’s (and also, to a lesser degree, Rayanne’s, Rickie’s and Sharon’s) perspectives are changed, and they are willing to stand up for what they think is right, when they see Vic leave. They assume that he was fired over the incident but Angela finds out that he ran away from his responsibility, that Vic deserted his family and when his old life threatened to catch up with him, he decided to go. Graham is the one finding out, actually, but Patty decides that Angela will be able to handle the truth – and she is. She confronts Vic, and suddenly realize that the person who “woke her up” is just as driven by fear and fake as everybody else is, maybe more. He justifies the fact that he deserted his family as an act of freeing himself”, and tells her to leave school because of all the conventions and rules that endanger individuality – and, worse than everything else, he gets her name wrong. 
In the end, Graham tells her that he would never, ever leave her. This is such an essential moment in the show because before, it was about the prisons and walls built by society’s convention, and how important it is to question them – but there are some responsibilities that transcend individual freedom, and Graham realizes that Angela is afraid that he might run away from these responsibilities just like Vic did. The revelation that Vic is, on a personal level, a weak human being, doesn’t disqualify everything he did; Angela decides that fighting against censorship, against the assumption that teenagers should fit into boxes so as to not terrify anybody is something that is worth fighting against, and Brian decides that she is right, despite hating Vic. 
Patty: Do you know what this means? This will go on your record.
Angela: I want it to go on my record.
Patty: You want it to?
Graham: Ok. Let's just stay calm. We're in the principle's office here.
Angela: I mean, what is the point of school if you can't say what you're thinking?
Patty: Do you have to be the personal spokes person for the entire school?
Angela: 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. That's not completely true. There are a couple of truths. 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.
She doesn’t get suspended for it. The principal decides that this is an isolated incident, a small act of misguided activism from a student who’s never actively questioned anything before – and Angela is disappointed, and very, very aware that something has changed in her perception of the world that she lives in. 
Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a ovely cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always sleep. One morning she woke up. She woke up.

Random notes: 

OH LOOK IT’S LORD JOHN MARBURY. His accent was all over the place. Possibly British, or, occasionally, New York. Hard to pinpoint (Roger Rees is Welsh). Also, something about the beginning sort of painfully reminded me of both Sister Act II and Dangerous Minds. Remember when movies about super-idealistic teachers “saving” inner-city teens were a trend? No? Then you were probably born in the Nineties. 

During the first lesson, Jordan wants to leave, and Vic makes him stay by threatening that “Trashing you in your absence, will help, uh, pass the time.” It’s only fair. I remember that thrashing teachers helped us pass a lot of time too. 

“I can forgive you, but I want to kill your dog.”

“If I drive myself and his car off a bridge, what would be the estimated damages?”

“I'll smile when you want to kill me. I'll throw away your favorite skirt and never admit it. When I'm a mother I'll get revenge. I'll ask questions that miss the entire point.”

We find out that Jordan can’t read – and Vic is the first one to notice, and to put effort into helping him, but this just infuriates Brian more because it draws attention from him and he isn’t used to not being the teacher’s pet. He also has the most reason of all the students to feel bad about Vic leaving because he was the one teacher who actively tried to help him. I suppose the show will eventually return to this?

Patty, trying to figure out which of the stories is Angela’s (worrying that the haiku is hers): “You know what we need? A sample of her handwriting”. 

The conflict Patty finds herself in when she decides whether to print the magazine (with the poem in it) sort of mirrors her issues with parenting: as a parent, she is freaked out by the idea of a teenager writing so frankly about sex, as a publisher, she recognizes the artistic value and the potential danger of censorship. MSCL portrays these conflicts between different roles so incredibly well. 


Anonymous said...

This is probably my least favorite episode of the show. It's still well-written and well-acted, but I found many parts painfully cliche (the revelation of Mr. Racine's flaws was not enough to overcome this), and the montages in the classroom were so...80s?

To say this is the worst episode is a testament to the high quality of this series, since MSCL at its worst demolishes 99% of the tripe on network television. Thank goodness for Netflix!

flame gun for the cute ones said...

I agree, this definitely isn't one of my favourite episodes. The teacher "opening the eyes" of the student is such a tired trope, despite the twist at the end. Also, how would students be able to just skip their own classes and sit in on Mr Racine's? This is high school, not college!
I thought some of the smaller scenes made the episode worthwhile. The stuff between Sharon and Rayanne was hilarious, and it's also the first time that Jordan gets more depth.

tracy said...

thank you so much for the recaps. i was a watcher of this show when it originally aired, and bought the dvd box set a few months ago. i am always looking for new perspectives on the show. i think current reviews, with all the time inbetween when the show was actually on, are always so interesting. it is much different than reading a review done while the show was still airing.

i found your blog randomly while google searching about mscl. thanks for the great recaps, very insightful. please continue to do them.

i also just starting watching popular, just got the season one dvd set. found myself instantly hooked on the show. really great writing. so i will probably be reading your recaps for that show too.

thanks for all the great recaps i need to catch up on. :)


flame gun for the cute ones said...

Thank you for taking the time to comment!
I think one of the things I've enjoyed the most about writing the reviews is comparing MSCL to all the shows that came afterwards - all the things that we sort of take for granted now, after Buffy and Daria (personally, I grew up watching Dawsons's Creek, but I've never really returned to that show - I think MSCL's influence is pretty clear though), without considering that MSCL was such a trailblazer in creating realistic characters and relatable storylines.
And yay, I'm always glad to find out that people watch Popular! It was a bit of a wild pick for the reviews but I remembered really enjoying the show - it just doesn't seem to have the same devoted following Freaks and Geeks and other classics have.