This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of ABC's My So-Called Life, which is important in some ways—its impact on culture, on television, on Tavi Gevinson—but not so important in other ways, namely that every piece of media is available to everybody and therefore time no longer has any meaning.
"How old were you the first time you saw My So-Called Life?" is no longer a question about your Gen X shibboleths, a sneaky way of asking your age, because it could literally be last week:"Things Only '90s Kids Understand" is, from here on out, only ever going to be "Things Only People Understand."
So the question isn't "when did you first see My So-Called Life" but in fact, "when did you last see My So-Called Life," because it's faded into the white noise, by virtue of its virtues and by virtue of the fact that it went away twenty years ago, and also never went away. Just drowned out a little. Maybe because it was so intense, maybe because we're busy now. Either way, worth a look.
Presented below, then, is an indisputable and completely objective ranking of the series' 19 episodes, in terms of their overall value.
19. "So-Called Angels" (Episode 15, 22 December 1994)
Acceptable because: Rickie gets beat up and homelessed for being gay, even though he has not yet said that he is gay, which means Patty feels bad for one of Angela's tragic friends for the first time in her life. Turns out Bess Armstrong and Winnie Holzman actually worked out Patty's "Ebenezer Scrooge" arc while developing the episode, which helps put it in perspective; Jordan's role in the episode is one of his strongest and most amazing, as he's shunted into basically being an agent of the divine throughout, which is the only real reason to rewatch as a grownup.
However: Juliana Hatfield is absolutely the worst thing about the 1990s plus she in this story is an angel from Heaven who is also a homeless folk singer. What a fucking Christmas nightmare. Also terrible because it on-the-nose ruins the "trading shoes" metaphor from the pilot, one of the all-time greatest running metaphors in the show, forever. Teen shows are for burgeoning atheists, not for adults making their peace with the world's religions. Still, it's My So-Called Life: Their garbage is still better than most television's precious gold.
In the Clip Above: Brian Krakow calls the suicide helpline, is rewarded with phone sex. It's depressing as hell, but also sweet and more than a little intriguing, since Rayanne and Brian are the only two kids who never quite become the friends they should be. I think it's because if they did, being repelling magnetic poles, the show would be over, but it still hurts to see the opportunities pass by and know they don't even notice. Great scene.
18. "Halloween" (Episode 9, 27 October 1994)
Good because: It addresses head-on that Jordan Catalano is every cliché that has ever existed, and because Patty and Graham get freaky in their Halloween costumes. Danielle dresses up as her big sister Angela, providing laughs at Angela's expense but also introduces a major theme, which is the gnawing existential void within Danielle. The episode also finds the invisible Cousin Tino at his most tantalizing.
Terrible because: Angela meets a fucking ghost and this inspires her to ride Jordan's dick even more than she always already is. A thing you would literally need the aid of supernatural forces to accomplish. The most amazing episode about Rayanne and Brian, but also the most disappointing because they totally fuck up being friends over the course of the episode and will never get back, which is sad. He spots her shaving her legs in the bathroom and it's very fraught, and they spend the whole episode trying to negotiate that:
17. "Guns and Gossip" (Episode 3, 8 September 1994)
Terrible because: Even in 1994, school shootings were a bit topical and easy to trivialize. In this episode, a gunshot in school brings together characters in new combinations, which leads to a lot of fruitful places but doesn't really address the actual issues in play. Dead kids aren't a metaphor, and it's hard to sympathize with anybody who brings a weapon to school regardless of the circumstances. Plus, Rickie's defense of high school concealed-carry basically comes down to "the only thing that can stop a bully with a gun is a gay kid with a gun," which works on a character level but is some bullshit by any other standard.
Good because: Rickie is a plotpoint but also a person, which is rare for him until the show's abortive Act III; Brian and Rickie's complex relationship puts them both on teenage shout; Angela and Rickie form a friendship that is not entirely about Rayanne, deepening the triangulating formation that defines most relationships on the show and honestly, in real life. Brian's antiauthoritarian leanings (in white-bread disguise) explain his bond with Angela to us in a way the characters themselves will continually misapprehend. That clip above is one of his best moments, ever, even before you know he thinks he's covering for Rickie.
Plus, Patty meets Rayanne's mom Amber, one of the most important through-lines for a show that puts the mother/daughter relationship front and center literally every week. When Amber meets Patty for the first time, she manages to foretell the entirety of their relationship, all the way into the heartbreaking future:
"Oh, WOW. Angela? Oh, Rayanne talks about her all the time. She's in love with her! She wants to BE Angela! ...Don't you remember? There'd be, like, this one person who had like, perfect hair or perfect breasts or they were just so funny, and you just wanted to eat them up. Just live in their bed and just ... BE them. It's like everybody else was in black and white, and that person was in color. Well, Rayanne thinks Angela is in color. MAJOR color."
16. "The Substitute" (Episode 6, 29 September 29 1994)
Good because: Any reference to Jordan Catalano's illiteracy is to be treasured, being both funny and key to understanding the show as a whole. Sharon's legitimate sexual maturity is always greatest when it's set against Rayanne's performative, "edgy" propaganda, in the same way that the only good anti-drug PSA was the one where the kid just goes, "No thanks, I'm good right now" and that's sufficient.
Terrible because: Dead Poet's Society storylines literally always end the same way, with the dreamy inspiring teacher turning out to be a pervert or, as here, a deadbeat dad. (Ameliorated here by the particular way the guy sucks, which is that he's a cult-starting Rufus Scrimgeour, but still grating to watch.) Angela enlists her parents in a war to protect free speech, which is maybe the most Angela fucking thing she ever does; it's mortifying, so bright it hurts to look at.
Also: Everybody keeps calling the literary magazine "the lit," as though they are hardened journalists with their own private lingo; for some reason it is unreasonably enraging whenever they do this.
15. "Other People's Mothers" (Episode 10, 3 November 1994)
Good because: Patty interacting with Angela's friends is always excruciating in the short term, but incredibly touching in the long term. In this case she writes them off as a bunch of bisexual heathen Huckleberry Finns, but Angela's steadfast love of Rayanne is just verbal enough that it causes Patty to approach the situation rationally. Probably Patty's best episode by around a million, especially whenever she's forced to confront her conflicting attraction to and repulsion by Rayanne's total trainwreck of a mother.
Terrible because: The heavy-handed Tarot card metaphor, which gets it right—Patty is Strength, Graham is the Magician—but is still irritating in execution. Also because Angela is painful to watch a lot of the time, but especially when she is in open rebellion, and even moreso—somehow—when she is in the right. You are rooting for her and simultaneously mortified for her—the unofficial theme song of this show—which obscurely makes you want her to shut the fuck up or otherwise protect her from herself, while also hoping she never, ever stops yelling until the whole house and the whole suburb of Three Rivers and all of Pennsylvania and all of America and the entire universe comes down around her big ol' adorable ears.
14. "The Zit" (Episode 5, 22 September 1994)
Terrible because: Another trope, the high school sex list rating young women on their secondary sexual characteristics, opens the door to some neat philosophical and feminist discussions, which is always good because Angela's at her best when she is reinventing the wheel. However, it's nasty to watch at any age, and seeing Angela slut-shame Sharon Chersky simply for being desirable is hell on the heart. Finally, terrible because it is too hard to explain how this show, continually and subversively, uses classically "feminine" tropes—shoes, makeup, whatever—to say universal things. A zit cannot mean this much; it's too hard to explain unless you're already in the club.
Good because: Patty's obsessive devotion to being a normal regular person hardly ever cracks enough for her to notice that her daughter is just as weird as she is, so in this episode when she finally sees Angela's self-hatred for the many-tentacled, shadowy force that it is, it breaks her heart. Realizing that her opinion (of Angela's beauty and greatness) means nothing is a bitter pill for control-freak Patty to swallow, and one of her most insightful and powerful moments of growth.
Good Quote, a large part of the overarching story:
"...When you really look closely, people are so strange, and so complicated, that they're actually ... beautiful."
13. "Self-Esteem" (Episode 12, 17 November 1994)
Good because: Mr. Katimsky arrives to Stanley Tucci the shit out of Rickie, making him interesting for the first time (Enrique!) as he embarks on a steeply uphill journey of self-discovery that frankly dwarfs anything his peers are experiencing. Neat because of a scene where Brian and Jordan separately and together realize that part of why they are in love with Angela is because she is a 7 and that makes her worthwhile. So, shout-out to my 7s out there! You got this, girl.
Downside: Graham starts cooking classes, and meets Hallie, who is not the ogre people make her out to be but certainly does represent the quality slip in Patty and Grahma's stories that never quite recovers. I like Hallie, although she eats with her mouth open, and I hate that dumb old Graham doesn't even seem to like her for who she is: She's just the Rayanne to Patty's Sharon Chersky, which demeans us all, but especially Hallie.
"So I tried to be invisible. It's surprisingly possible. You just sit in the back and keep quiet and let the boys shout out the answers, which they will, even if they're wrong. Boys are less afraid of being wrong."
12. "Why Jordan Can't Read" (Episode 7, 6 October 1994)
Good because: Why Jordan Can't Read is the same reason Jon Hamm ends up with hooks for hands on 30 Rock. We're headed straight into class conflict, but then it takes a hard left into the fact that Jordan is so sexy that nobody cares if he can read; that each grade starting with kindergarten, his soulful (and confused) eyes and his virile choker necklace seduced and hypnotized teachers that they plain forgot to educate him.
This plays into Angela's absolutely bonkers long-term scheme to use this tragedy to her advantage, but also provides the extended metaphor of Jordan and Angela (well, everybody) negotiating their inability to "read" each other: His illiteracy is, emotionally, less about ignorance or even neglect than it is about the fact that Jordan speaks a different language from everyone else, but so does everyone else. An important lesson the show plays out again and again in different, lovely forms: Once you get that Jordan isn't stupid, and in fact is a pretty fantastic person, which admittedly few of the characters ever do, it throws a lot of this stuff sideways.
Downside: Patty has a pregnancy scare and the end result is the Graham plays catch with Brian Krakow, which is so fucking '90s, but also funny because even though their two kids they already have are both kind of duds, they're still rock stars compared to Brian. Also, mixed in with the usual gems are some of the shittiest lines in the whole series; it seems at times to be doing an impression of itself, without confidence. Here's a fucking great scene, though:
11. "Dancing in the Dark" (Episode 2, 1 September 1994)
Good because: Angela is cooler than Jordan, for the first and last time. Rayanne works selflessly to get her best friend laid, revealing the depths of a love and admiration for Angela that we know must one day lead to apocalypse. Also, the first fifteen seconds of the clip above, which are still startling and hilarious to this day.
Downside: Patty and Graham are funny as parents but not yet interesting as a married couple, so the pacing seems off until you know them better. Brian also drops a few notches here, taking away from his neatness in the pilot by sucking (but just a tad). Mostly this episode feels like a sophomore slump/sequel after "Pilot," because it has to bridge to shit actually happening. On those merits, though, it is still amazing. Like, check out this scene between Angela and her dad, and think about how much you have changed since the last time you saw it:
10. "Father Figures" (Episode 4, 15 September 1994)
Good because: Patty's loving, exasperated relationship with her obnoxious father helps us understand them both a great deal, and adds a lot to the overall Chase family dynamic: Graham's passivity—his greatest weapon—is unfathomable to Patty, who's used to fighting for every inch, which is why even Angela (truly her father's daughter in this regard) wishes she'd pay more attention to her bad-ass younger daughter Danielle. More importantly, Rayanne's fascination with Graham, like Brian's with Jordan and vice versa, is one of the most quietly complicated and moving relationships in the show.
Downside: The actual father/daughter interactions, between Patty and hers and Angela with Graham, are basically paint-by-numbers, tropes and clichés saved only by their sparkling dialogue. Usually the show finds a weirder way in, but the intense familial psychodrama flying every which way probably just couldn't permit much more ornamentation. Also, Angela suspects her father of cheating in the pilot, which barely ever rates a mention again despite becoming a different non-story down the road. It's most notable here in this episode, where the entire thing is about Angela trying to manipulate her teddybear of a father, in part because she's repressing the entire concept.
9. "Weekend" (Episode 18, 19 January 1995)
Good because: As classic as the pilot and indelible as the Christmas episode, "Weekend" is the way into the future the show was creating for itself. Sharon Chersky and Brian Krakow are, as usual, the most functional members of the bunch, but wholly integrated finally as the show takes stock of itself. The group has begun to treat them as members without even thinking about it, which in the larger metaphor demonstrates Angela's growing maturity as she integrates the parts of herself they all represent.
Best of all is the episode's use of symbolic space: Rayanne chains herself literally into the Chases' bed, her ultimate wish—to rewind, to nestle between Graham and Patty like soft giants, to sleep there like her whole life hasn't happened yet; to root and anchor herself fundamentally in the center of Angela's home and life—is Angela's ultimate fear: That Rayanne is already there, something she can never escape, and probably doesn't want to.
Downside: Patty and Graham get awfully basic while they're out of town, and nobody ever knows what to do with Danielle. This is her best, but nowhere near her greatest possible, story. Generally, this episode is filler and Patty's character arc is notably out of whack throughout.
So if you are into the differing ways Rayanne and Rickie approach Angela's middle-class existence—or how all three of them are constantly banking that she'll be able to somehow save them (and Jordan) with it, even though she hates it—this is a very important one, because Rayanne's need is emotional but Rickie's is like, universal. Sociological. Rayanne is a sweaty, intense person and this is (on-and-off) a sweaty intense episode that often gets overlooked. What's there is good, though.
8. "Pressure" (Episode 13, 1 December 1994)
Good because: On TV when people have sex for the first time, it's best when it's a nightmare scenario, because it's one of those singularities that we only recognize as negligible from the other side; this one's particularly great as it involves a broken-windowed, boarded-over squat that looks like the kind of place Punky Brewster might learn about tetanus. Also, equating/comparing Angela's v-card with Graham's fear of opening his restaurant is spot-on, demonstrating amazing respect and empathy for both characters, in one of the show's most successful attempts to level the emotional playing field in just this way.
Downside: Mike O'Malley's classic Sex Talk on Glee is the gold standard, and Patty could easily have provided this kind of wisdom: Sex isn't bad, but it is important. If you're rewriting the rules of television under everybody's noses, why not go the distance? As it is, the best advice comes from Sharon, Rayanne and Abyssinia in the Ladies', so it gets there, but what a time that would be, to have had.
7. "Resolutions" (Episode 16, 5 January 1995)
Good because: The myelin sheathing on the nerves connecting our brains' left and right hemispheres doesn't finish growing until your mid-twenties, and until then you only have a limited, statutory understanding of what consequences even are. A whole episode exploring the concept of keeping one's word, to oneself or to others, explodes into a million parallels that all circle around to the central themes of the series; essentially the self-respect implied and constructed by our compassion and duty to others. You can't love others until you love yourself, but the opposite is also true, and the show never stops trying to nail that paradox.
Downside: Hallie's loomign presence just gets worse and worse, and Angela's obsession with Jordan's literacy, his dick, her own self-esteem, etc., is nasty. Patty makes one of her infrequent HUGE blunders, w/r/t Rickie, that is such a big deal that eventually, literal angels will be sent to fix her wagon (although we do get to learn some crazy things about Mr. Katimsky and gay people, which is that they are regular people and also he is one):
6. "On the Wagon" (Episode 14, 8 December 1994)
Good because: Patty always shines when it's directly about Rayanne, and Graham always shines when he gets to go Graham on Patty, so this episode—in which he gently and Graham-ly talks Patty about of confronting Amber about Rayanne possibly drinking again—is the best of both. (And when she does go, because of course she does, she takes a lot of his quiet wisdom in with her.) Then, too, the only language Patty and Angela manage to create for themselves usually circles around the concept of Rayanne—this sort of shadow version of Angela that they both hate and fiercely love—and so the fact that Patty's the only person Angela can talk to about the growing distance between them comes as a shock to everyone. It is awesome.
Downside: Trite problems have pat solutions, even in Three Rivers; a lot of this is treading familiar ground in service of plot, without really telling us anything new. But this last scene is a fucking monster at the end of the book.
5. "Betrayal" (Episode 17, 12 January 1995)
Good because: Rayanne fucks Jordan in a car, and Brian Krakow films it. This is the best thing that ever happens on the show, because it actually causes things to change (and frankly, it was always going to happen, so gun it). Sabotaging your best friend in the most vicious way possible and thinking you have plausible deniability is a universal, and the show played it out beautifully. (Notably, as it happens Angela isn't wrong for hating Rayanne more than Jordan for it, which is a thing rarely managed on TV.)
Downside: This happens in the antepenultimate episode of the entire show, despite being the fulcrum for the entire show. Had they known they'd get cancelled, this might have happened at the season's midpoint (the one where Rayanne OD's) instead of being the left bookend of a miniscule three-episode arc where Angela realizes she's outgrown Rayanne and remembers Sharon Chersky's awesomeness, which was always going to be her redemption. The show's so tight that you can see the seams, wherever things had to be sped up or tossed out, a lot more clearly. Also, this is amazing/humiliating on many levels:
4. "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" (Episode 19, 26 January 1995)
Good because: The most literary episode of the series, and a serviceable finale, the not-quite-parallel dream worlds each of the characters visit requires each of them to verbalize what the dreams mean to them, rather than having the usual TV "dream sequences" that are absurdly representational, and in doing so gives us multiple new points of entry to every character. Patty's dream in particular is haunting, with those garbage bags floating up into the sky. Meanwhile, Rickie finally figures out his deal, and gets schooled by the wonderful Delia, who could have been just another fag-hag but manages to create real meat, and merit, out of saying so boldly what most adults probably couldn't.
Also great because: The clip above is easily the sexiest moment in the entire series, despite being neither sexual nor even romantic, and even without the context of the intense sexual math flying between all three male leads throughout the episode. TV is still trying to nail the thing that happens in this scene.
Downside: It is the end! And while nearly everyone find a characteristically uncomfortable peace, Graham seems left out of the show's shifting dynamics, obviously traipsing into divorce for bullshit, plot-driven reasons. We don't see it happen, and a second season could easily have made it as powerful and relevant as anything else, but on the surface we never come to a redemptive end of his manchild acting-out, which is a damn shame.
Mostly, though, it provides one of the most incredible, transformative, graceful endings a series could ever wish for, as Angela manages something few of us ever will:
3. "Strangers in the House" (Episode 8, 20 October 1994)
Good because: Angela must verbalize her crazy rejection of Sharon Chersky, and she realizes that friends don't cancel each other and also don't make you anything you weren't already. In the pilot, where we meet Angela having already picked Rayanne over Sharon Chersky for obviously specious reasons that not even Rayanne is buying; at this point Rayanne and Sharon (the two sides of Angela) are having secret conversations, forming a bond that will end up more durable than either of them ever had with her: A perfect parallel to the relationship she's developing with her self.
Downside: Graham's sweet suckiness once again puts Patty at the steering wheel of his life, as she has to fire him from her company so that he can become an architect or a chef or some shit. That way later when he starts trying to detonate their marriage, they both have plausible deniability and get to feel self-righteous. Luckily and meanwhile, thanks to reconciling with Sharon and putting the world back together, Angela's never been wiser, sweeter, or cooler to be around:
1. (TIE) The Series Pilot ("Pilot") And Midpoint ("Life of Brian")
"Life of Brian" (Episode 11, 10 November 1994)
Known as the best episode because: Brian Krakow is a sharp reminder that you could once be so horny that it might make you cry. His mental monologue is pitch-perfect, revealing surprising layers to the kid without contradicting what we already knew and giving us new and loving angles on every other character, even the ones Brian thinks he hates.
Also great for the story itself, in which everybody fucks everybody else over in a complicated rhombus surrounding this school dance: Delia has a crush on Rickie, who's got a crush on this mega-cute dude Cory, who has a crush on Rayanne, who cares about basically nothing—liquor, Angela, pretending to be a grownup—and meanwhile Angela of course is in the prison of her own mind about Jordan, which causes her to burn like, every other person, over the course of the dance, and still get exactly what she wants. It's amazing. As is this little shout-out to the Delias of every generation:
But really because: There are great structural reasons to have this be the Brian voiceover episode. Firstly because even though the show develops along the path of Angela's burgeoning social awareness—how compared to her friends she has infinite cultural capital thanks to her parents, but because she's not a straight white man (like only Brian and Jordan, note) it's always going to be tougher than makes sense—Brian's the only person with a vested interest in the status quo, which makes him (and Sharon) perfect for the Greek Chorus. But it's also the explanation for why they're both so much more plain likeable in this episode than most, even when they're doing outrageously horrible things:
Angela's journey is always going to bring her back home (and she will, in turn, always find a way to make a home for the rest of them; it's her only power and her greatest trait, and she takes the whole series to learn to use it). But Brian—who has no compelling reason to search for a place in the world, since it's been handed to him, but yet still is desperate to connect, because he somehow knows that's not enough—enriches them both, here, with his gaze:
She's the astronaut, he's ground control.
"Pilot" (Episode 1, 25 August 1994)
So I started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, just for fun. Just because it seemed like if I didn't, I would die or something.
The best because: Sharon Chersky and Patty Chase entered our dimension on this date. And because from minute one the show was not fucking around. The advance press was incredible for the show, stoking fires from Sassy to EW, but by the first commercial break you were either convinced or you never, ever would be. Also neat because the first ten minutes are so saturated with meaning and so indicative of what's to come you could probably predict the entire story just on the tiny details we see: Rickie loves Angela's home, Rayanne will always be starving, Angela and Patty are equally irked by Angela's passivity. The whole "it hurts to look at you" theme that echoes through every scene to come. Just pure HBO-level brilliance, leveled at a subject our culture can't wait to demean as often as possible.
But also because of: How fiercely it declared itself, from the jump:
So there it is. The List. I don't want to go on and on about whatever the show meant to me, or how putting this together reminded me of how much of myself becoming myself occurred in proximity, or with gratitude, to this show. Sometimes nostalgia is more than this, with certain kinds of art, but it's always a marker of the things that were happening inside you.
It came at a time when I felt very much like a Rayanne, like an animal looking for a home and starving all the time; and Rickie, filled with foreboding that I would never marry a woman and be a husband-and-father, the life I wanted so badly; and Brian, bursting with chemicals and trying desperately to understand what other people are about; and Sharon, too focused on trying to become a person to notice the things I was losing in the process; and like a Patty, terrified of loving people so hard that it would make them hate me.
I don't think any of that is specific to me, or I wouldn't feel comfortable saying it to you. Certainly not that most of all, looking back, I guess I felt like stupid fucking Angela Chase the whole time: Terrified of men, and terrified of the world, and terrified most of all by the necessity of waking up to an ongoing negotiation with both that will continue for the rest of our lives. Always hating, and still desperately needing, that quiet little voice:
Go, now. Go!
[ Images and video via ABC]