Friday 15 April 2011

My So-Called Life - Everybody's an act. Including you.

My So-Called Life: 1x01 Pilot
‘Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.’
‘Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.’
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right – I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game. 
J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
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. Things were getting to me. Just how people are. How they always expect you to be a certain way, even your best friend. 
Angela Chase
The first time I ever saw My So-Called Life, I didn’t really keep in mind that Daria and Freaks and Geeks only came years later; that, while this show had its short run on ABC, actors and actresses in their mid-Twenties portrayed rich teenagers in Los Angeles and gained both high ratings and a huge following. I can’t reconstruct the historical context of MSCL, because nostalgia has already shaped the early 1990s into something they probably never were (and I am too young to have witnessed it, apart from born in the wrong place). Regardless, the idea that a show, posing questions about what is real and what is fake when everybody is playing an assigned role while trying to get through the day, would ultimately be too complex to appeal to the big audience it needed to survive, in the context of grunge, failing because it was assimilated, stripped of its edges and meaning, into mainstream, and riot grrrl, not surviving the wrong kind of media attention unharmed, does point towards a greater significance of both the ultimate fate of the show and the time and place it was created in. On the other hand, it’s a deeply personal story about characters, and it would probably be a disservice to treat them as signifiers of their time, or of the demise of the idea that something true and meaningful could survive the demands of a business that only asks about ratings, not quality (and yes, this does sound bitter and cynical, but I’ve seen too many of my beloved shows end prematurely while others that have long outstayed their welcome go into their ninth or twelfth season simply because people won’t stop watching). 
Holden Caulfield uses the word “phoney” as an insult; a person that pretends, that isn’t real and authentic, that hides behind a mask. When we first meet Angela Chase, narrator and main character of My So-Called Life, she has just emerged from an unseen transition, a change, spurred by a heightened perception of her surroundings and the realization that she isn’t really (or anymore) what her old friend and her parents expect her to be. She’s abandoned her best friend Sharon for two new friends, Rickie and Rayanne, and it’s awkward because in school, abandoning a friend isn’t ignoring phone calls or pretending to be busy, it’s seeing that person every day, being awkwardly reminded of your betrayal. Sharon mostly lingers in the background throughout the episode and stares at Angela accusingly (and in disbelief, and sadly), but she is a reminder that Angela’s transformation isn’t without victims. 
Angela: School is a battlefield, for your heart. So when Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. Cause she wasn't just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life.
The bright red hair is the outside sign of how Angela has changed. It’s superficial – like Sam McPherson’s nose piercing – and significant because it can’t be ignored (the upside is, as her parents remark, that they’ll always find her in a crowd). On a more serious note, it is also a sign for her mom that she is losing control over her daughter (“It’s just so hard to look at her. She looks like a stranger.”) even though Angela doesn’t once mention that she dyed her hair to upset her mother, or that the decision had anything to do with her parents at all, just like her decision to quit year book doesn’t really have anything to do with Sharon, even though both things – her interests and her friends – belong to a person that Angela no longer feels she is. What bands you listen to, and which movies you like, who you align yourself with in your choice of clothes – these things are important in high school, they define identity, as shallow as they might seem in retrospect (on the other hand, it’s not like this ever ends, does it). 
The show takes Angela and her friends seriously. This isn’t a cynical look back on the teenage years of the writers or superficial examination of people who basically act like they are already grown-up (ideally played by actual grown-ups), but stuck in this environment – MSCL captures the small moments in which people find and experience things, and meet people, that are shaping their identity and informing who they are. Angela tries to make sense of The Diary of Anne Frank, a book she has to read in English class – and we see how she interprets it, depending on her personal situation (like every examination of a work of fiction is informed by the background of whoever watches and reads…) – and at first, it’s a half-formed idea about how Anne is lucky to have been stuck with the boy she liked (Jordan, after all, is always escaping and never really staying around long enough for her to work up the courage to talk to him) – but by the end of the episode, in the back of the police car, she relates a more complex and articulated idea to a stranger – that Anne, in hiding, was more free because she stopped hiding (Angela is, after all, deeply concerned about how everybody in her surroundings is merely performing a role, and trapped in that performance of friend, or parent, or teacher). 
Angela: 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, but it's not even what really happened, it's what everyone thinks was supposed to happen. Because if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book. You know, in my humble opinion. 
Her mom is troubled by the fact that she has to pretend to be someone she is not (“Did you think I ever dreamed that I would sound like this?”) because she is the responsible parent, but this insight (her teacher is actually deeply surprised by this) comes back even more hauntingly at the end of the episode, when, after a terribly, terribly night and an encounter with a very real situation (“Something was actually happening. But it was too actual.”) that almost escalated, Rayanne and Rickie pretend like it was a great night, telling each other stories about how epic it was (“I am telling you, we had a time. Didn't we? Didn't we have a time?”), completely overlooking the part where Rayanne was sexually molested, because this is the way it’s supposed to be.

My favourite scene in this episode is the conversation between Angela and Sharon in the bathroom, when they both finally confront the fact that Angela has been drifting away and avoiding Sharon, because it’s heartbreaking; It’s not like Sharon doesn’t mean anything to Angela anymore, but something has changed. 
Sharon: Tell me what I did, Angela. I mean, I mean, I would really like to know.
Angela: Nothing. It's not something that you…
Sharon: So you just drop your oldest friend for no reason? I mean, just tell me what I did.
Angela: I can't. It's not like one thing, it's not like that.
Sharon: Okay, great. So, just, never speak to me again. Real mature, ngela.
Angela: No, I want to speak to you. I never wanted…
Sharon: No, forget it! God, you and your hair. Did Patty, like, haemorrhage first time she saw it?
Angela: In a sense.
Sharon: Well, I have to say... I hate it.
They are both in tears at the end, because there isn’t anything either of them can do to mend this. Friends drift apart. Angela has found a new identity (one that is still changing), and Sharon doesn’t fit in anymore. I actually regretted that I wasn’t reviewing Freaks and Geeks, because there are some interesting parallels between Angela and Lindsay Weir (whose sudden transformation has a definite trigger, the death of her grandmother). Both characters are trying to deal with the fact that their perception of their surroundings has changed, both try to adapt accordingly, to find a place that they think fits them better, and both hurt other people in the process. 
By the way; I also adore how this conversation starts: “Is there any soap in there? /There’s never soap.” As much as situations and people change, some things never do. 

“At Rayanne’s house, noone was home”.

At the end, after seeing Rayanne spin out of control and getting into a dangerous situation she had no control over, even though she claims she has (reacting violently and defensive because it’s so important to her to be someone that can take care of herself), Angela realizes both that her new friends also play their parts and that the family she sometimes feels is smothering her is something she also cherishes (and something that is fragile – when she sees her father arguing with a woman outside, realizing that maybe, not everything is okay between her parents). 


Brian has an interesting function in the story – as Angela watches everybody else, he observes and criticizes her. He notices how she’s changed, and how she changes herself for her newfound friends (“You looked better before.” he says, when she changes outside to sneak off to a party), he calls her out on something that Angela usually points out in others (“You're not stupid, don't act like it. It's a stupid act.”) – she refutes it by saying “Everybody's an act. Including you.” 
When Angela comes back in a police car, Brian is sitting in a tree, and the cop asks him to take care of her (“Hey, you. You a friend of hers? […] Then act like it). Brian and Angela have a lot in common - as indicated by the fact that they actually have conversations (even though they tend to turn into fights rather quickly) when they meet - but something doesn't really allow them to be friends (Angela mostly regards him as a nuisance and doesn't really see him, they don't really inhabit the same space in school). He knows and cares about the fact that she likes Jordan Catalano, but there is a moment of connection when both acknowledge how ridiculous and tired the “It’s the Year 2000” theme for the yearbook is – a ridiculous theme when everybody is too concerned to figure out who they are now, this very moment (when everything might fall apart any moment – as Angela realizes, when she sees her dad outside), to actually care about what is going to happen seven years into the future. 

Finally, Angela comes home, stares at herself in the mirror, at her new hair, and finds her mother still awake in her bedroom. 
Angela: My mother's adopted. For a while, she was looking for her real parents. I guess that's what everyone's looking for.
They finally connect, when her mother isn’t trying to be the overly protective and reasonable parent, and when she isn’t acting like the rebellious daughter, defining herself over the opposition to her mom. 

Random notes: 

I’ll try to avoid writing about myself in the future but MSCL is such a personal show, it’s really difficult. 

I was stunned when I found out that Claire Danes was only 13 when the episode was shot – but it makes the randoms in the school even creepier, since most of them look like they’re in their early 30s.

Angela: I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her. I mean, if you stop to think about, like, chewing - what it really is - how people just do it, like, in public. Lately I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her, repeatedly.

Angela: I’m starting to like Anne Frank. 
Graham: Is she a sophomore too? 
Angela: No. She is dead.

So, let’s talk about Jordan Catalano, because he and how Angela reacts to him are my personal weak points; Angela is a perceptive person, but she is selective, and she is also a teenage girl blindly in love with THAT guy, so she doesn’t notice that he leans against stuff because he is too stoned to stand up, and that he is always closing his eyes because it actually DOES physically hurt to look at things, and that he doesn’t know which day of the week it is not because of some metaphysical philosophical existential dilemma, but because he is too stoned to keep track of time. It’s frustrating to witness this (or at least I find it frustrating), but then, this is a show that takes its protagonists very seriously, even when they occasionally don’t act all that wisely, so I will probably just have to get used to it and GET OVER IT (I do, after all, also overlook some of Brian Krakow’s slightly concerning stalkerish tendencies. As long as he doesn’t build a shrine to Angela in his locker…). 

Angela: I just like how he's always leaning. Against stuff. He leans great. Well, either sex or a conversation. Ideally both.

Jordan finally remembers her and talks to her at the end of the episode and it only took being taken away in the police car!

It’s interesting to note what Angela brings up when she narrates – she never once mentions her feelings about Sharon, and I think the confrontation in the bathroom really is the first time she realizes that this is breaking her heart (and breaking Sharon’s, too), even if it can’t really be avoided. 

Angela: My parents keep asking how school was. It's like saying,"'How was that drive-by shooting?" You don't care how it was.  You're lucky to get out alive.

I think this captures perfectly how school feels while you’re stuck there – regardless of how bad it actually is, because Angela’s school seems reasonably safe compared to some of the actual battlegrounds shows about teenagers visit. I also find it fascinating and incredibly smart how the camera sometimes pans over random students, capturing their conversations (what IS the difference between no fat and fat free?), before it settles on our heroes – because this provides a detailed look on the high school and those who inhabit it, even if they don’t play a bigger part in the stories. It’s also how we are introduced to Brian – first in passing, when he gets bullied by a group of guys on the hallway, and then, when we follow him as he answers every single question in his classes while every body else (including Angela) is in a coma. 

Rayanne: I think lard's my favorite food group.


It’s also brilliantly executed how desperate Angela’s little sister Danielle is to get at least a fraction of the attention Angela gets, but nobody notices her because Angela’s problems are always overbearing (she asks if she can watch a movie about a woman who “gets these obscene phone calls. It's like her job.“, and does a handstand that is only noticed once her sister is out the door)

The “oh by the way Rickie’s bisexual” was also really well-handled. Patty is concerned, but I think that’s more about noticing that her daughter has changed and she didn’t realize it (“Do you hear these terms she's throwing around?”) than homophobia. 

Rayanne: Haven't you ever waiting for anything?
Rickie: Yeah, for my life to start.

Wilson Cruz’ Rickie is impossible not to like immediately (like, just from the way he says “I like your house” to Angela’s mom), and this statement is so painful when you think about it: Angela might struggle with how everybody always acts, and with how she fits in, but he is the bisexual kid in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, with a lack of options, desperately waiting to get out of there. 

Patty: Graham. Grow up. Choose a side.


Anonymous said...

Ha, love the reference to Sophia's locker! Despite the camera perviness, Brian doesn't seem as crazy, but then again, we don't see much of his room...hmmm...

Anonymous said...

My two favorite quotes of the episode:

Angela: These guys started hitting on us.
Brian: What? Like sexual harassment?
Angela: Like guys.


Angela: These aren't my shoes.

flame gun for the cute ones said...

"Brian... what exactly are you doing with an empty box of Crimson Glow?"

DUM DUM DUM, horror movie music, etc.


Regarding the quotes: I wanted to mention the first one, because it seemed revealing to me that Angela would consider this typical guy behaviour, when it seemed like a genuine threat to me that could have easily escalated into something much worse if the cop hadn't been there.

I realized that I didn't really talk much about the Angela/Rayanne relationship - I loved both this quote and the sweet/joking "With your hair like that, it hurts to look at you."