My-So Called Life Re-Watch :: Pilot :: “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.”

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The first time I heard about My-So Called Life I was sitting out on the front porch of the house I grew up in, smoking a Marlboro Light and reading an issue of Entertainment Weekly. I had moved back home with my two year old daughter, after my relationship with her father fell apart, and my attempt to make it on my own hit a big bump in the road. I felt like a failure, more than a little lost, and as close to being a confused adolescent as I had been since being an adolescent. I was twenty-five and definitely in the throes of a self-indulgent crisis (they call them a quarter-century crisis now, don’t they? But they did not have a name for it then), and Angela Chase was just what I needed.

There was an article in the issue I read, an interview with creator Winnie Holzman, if I remember correctly. I recall her talking about the music, about how her teenage daughter helped her with it, and how it was a real look at what its like to be that age, the age of the high school experience, and how even when you are older we all feel connected to that time in our lives, as if we are indelibly marked by it. I was always a sucker for stories about adolescence (still am), perhaps because I felt mine had been so broken, or maybe because its true, that we are forever marked by that time in our lives. Maybe experiencing it vicariously, through fictional characters and plot lines, we get to time travel back, we get a do-over, of sorts, free of any real consequence, or heartbreak.

I waited for the premiere, and even though it ran against a show I enjoyed, I turned it on to watch. I lay on a fold out sofa bed in the room that was once my brother’s (he’d traded up to my parents’ old room, and my mom had taken mine) and was completely taken in by all of it. Angela, Rayanne, the hair dye, the boy who leaned well (oh Jordan Catalano), the inner dialogue, the Let’s Bolt night, the shoe trading, the cab drive home, the moments in the hallways and at the dinner table, and on the sidewalk, I honestly could not get over how it all made me feel.

So, hear I am, twenty-something years later, turning on the pilot again, an episode of a show I have watched so many times. This is the start of a writing project about the show, about the experience of re-watching it, about all the ways it still makes me feel, the memories it unlatches and sets free, about the music and the moments and the dialogue I’ve quoted so much, and about me, and my relationship with the show. This will be self-indulgent. This will be without any set format. This will most likely be random and all over the place, but I think it will be fun, and hopefully an interesting read, or perhaps a complete disaster, much like life, and a lot like being a teenager.

Let’s do this. Let’s “go now go“.

Episode 1: Pilot
Written by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Scott Winant
Originally aired August 25, 1994

German title: “Im Disco-Fieber” (Disco Fever)
French title: “Ma nouvelle Amie” (My New friend)

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The show starts with Angela, sans the red (or, Crimson Glow) hair that she will become known for, and Rayanne running around a downtown area, asking money from strangers, but mostly just laughing and being friends. There is something so intrinsically real about their friendship, about the moments we see of it, about how it seems like they are both almost in love with each other, because new friendships can be like that. I love how true to female friendship this show is from the very start, and how complex Rayanne and Angela’s relationship is.

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.” ~ Angela

My twelve year old daughter came in while I started to watch and sat down next to me to watch, too. She asked if I ever had friends like Rayanne and Rickie, and I said yes, though not at the same time. I definitely had my Rickie, and then later, a Rayanne. They both changed who I was, or helped me to change who I was.

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Angela is trying to be someone else. At times, she seems to be trying too hard. Its funny, because Patty seems to be trying to hard, too. It is an interesting contrast between mother and daughter, and makes for some truly cringe worthy moments, especially Patty’s reaction to Angela’s hair, and to meeting Rickie and Rayanne for the first time. When she stumbles over her words saying that she’s leaving, well not the house, but the room, it is as awkward as when Angela is in the bathroom at school, with Rickie and Rayanne, and the second bell rings, and she tries to excuse herself, but not looked too bothered to do so. Its this moment that shows no matter what age we are, we are all trying hard to be something, and often that trying is awkward and overly-intentional, and clumsy.

Patty, oh how I used to despise her. At twenty-five, living at home again, I wanted someone to blame for my failures. It was easy to blame my mother for things, some of them deserved, some of them not at all. Now, I see Patty with a sympathetic eye. I feel for her, sometimes uncomfortably so, like when Patty stops herself and notices she is saying things she never wanted to say, things her own mother said. I have been there, frozen in shock and horror at the words coming out of my mouth that echo my own mother’s. Moments when I see the dividing line widen between myself and my kids. Its hard. I feel Patty’s marriage issues, too. She’s the breadwinner, something I know only too well, and the resentment is there, right under the surface, and it hurts to look at.

But, back to Angela. Enter Jordan Catalano, leaning against lockers and closing his eyes, well, when he isn’t busy putting eye drops in them. Its funny that we never see Jordan smoke pot, but it is obvious that we are to see him as a stoner. Later we see him popping breath mints, too. I remember when my oldest daughter was in high school and the moment when I noticed she was suddenly never without eye drops and breath mints, a sure sign that she was smoking pot. It was so obvious, and I remember wondering three things – what I should say to her, how it was that my mom never knew when I was doing things like smoking pot, and how on earth did I become the mom who notices her kid is up to stuff, and not the kid who was up to stuff? Its a staggering moment as a parent, and as an adult.

But, back to Jordan, I look at him and I can’t help but remember my own Jordan, and how whether I knew him or not, or even knew what to say to him, or even whether he knew I existed, I did want sex, or a conversation, preferably both, though probably more of the latter. Conversation and kisses, and maybe the rest, too, after awhile. I had so many dreamed up scenarios, so many songs that reminded me of him, so many things that I obsessed over, like his green sweater and the way he smelled, and the way the left side of his mouth went up just a little higher than the right when he smiled. He didn’t lean great, but his smile could knock the wind out of me. He had lockers near mine and I would catch myself staring at him, longingly, more than I would ever admit (though my best friends knew, and noticed).

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Sharon and Angela, oh how that one hurts. At first, Sharon seems so, I don’t know, I want to say annoying, but I’m not sure that’s fair. I suppose we see her the way Angela is starting to see her, through Angela’s lens. Sharon represents that part of Angela that Angela wants to shed, and because of that Sharon is destined to be left behind. I remember doing it. I had these new friends who seemed to get me more, and get what I was into more, and get who I wanted to be more. They were in color and more alive, and they had that undefinable something that I craved. It was never about what my old friends didn’t have, or anything they did. That conversation in the bathroom when Angela tells Sharon that it isn’t any one thing, that was exactly it, it was not one thing, it was not anything, but it was everything, all the same.

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That scene in the bathroom is painful to watch. It is so intimate and real and raw. There is so much pain, and so much unsaid, and this growing gap between two girls who obviously still care deeply, but just as deeply do not understand each other anymore, or completely grasp what is happening. I always wonder who Jody Barsch is, and what happened between Jody and Rayanne. Was Angela part of a Rayanne pattern, or was the insinuation just a way of Sharon throwing hurt at Angela because she is hurting? As I mentioned before, the show is so great at illustrating the complexities of female friendship.

Why couldn’t Angela be friends with Sharon, and with Rickie and Rayanne? Why couldn’t I stay friends with my old group of friends, and the new ones I chose over them when I was in High School? For me, I know I just could not comprehend how I could change with these people who knew this version of me that I wanted rid of. As I grew older though I began to realize that real friends let you change, they change too, and you can weather that together. It isn’t easy, and at that age, when I was fifteen and sixteen, well it seemed impossible.

Things were getting to me. Just how people are. How they always expect you to be a certain way. Even your best friend.” ~ Angela

Were you ever an Angela in that scenario? Were you ever a Sharon?

“…it hurts to look at you.”

The entire Let’s Bolt part of the episode, from Angela’s conversation with Brian before she’s picked up, to the entire waiting for Tino poriton (my favorite moments from the episode) mean so much to me. I love the pieces of conversations, random and inconsequential, yet meaning so much in that moment. Angela and Rayanne comparing feet and trading shoes (the traded shoes working as a pinnacle character moment later when Angela trips in Rayanne’s shoes and tells Brian they aren’t hers, just like Rayanne’s life really isn’t one she fits into either), and the differences in the three of their responses of what to say before having sex with someone, it all is so perfect. Then when everything gets too real. I can feel the knot in my stomach twist and that panicky feeling in my chest, recalling my own moments in life when flirtations at first felt so powerful and free, and then suddenly a shift happening, when things started to turn into more than I thought I could deal with. It is so hard being a teenage girl. There are so many consequences that can come fast and furiously, and that you may not be able to control the outcome of. I want to jump in the screen and defend them both.

I wonder what would have happened if Angela hadn’t been there. What if it had just been Rickie and Rayanne? How many times had she left him to go off with guys? How often had she blacked out? When she says “Rickie don’t mind” it breaks my heart, because its so obvious that he does mind, but feels as powerless as they all are. Wilson Cruz plays this moment so understated. He is brilliant as Rickie. They are all so perfect in these scenes. They are all so beautiful it hurts to look at them.

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Towards the end, after Angela sees her Dad, Graham, with another woman, and after she is dropped off by the Police Officer who doesn’t knock on her door, she has this moment with her Patty that does me in. The Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. playing in the background isn’t even necessary because I hurt while I watch this scene, even more now as a Mother of two daughters, one past the teen years, and one nearing them. Again, there is so much said, and unsaid here, all of it making the scene so powerful. The show also does one hell of a job showing how complicated a Mother and Daughter’s relationship is. The pilot shows so many sides of it, from Angela first saying she can’t look at Patty without wanting to stab her repeatedly, to Angela coming to her for comfort and safety, and falling asleep in her arms. It is so hard to be a teenage girl, and it is so hard to be the Mother of a teenage girl.

Everybody Hurts :: R.E.M.

The end comes along in the form of the day after. They’ve all survived with stories to tell, and change from the experience showing on their skin, and changing who they are in small ways. I love the brief conversation Angela has with Jordan, when he asks if she’s out on bail. Oh, and I forgot to mention before, that moment when Jordan sees Angela being put in the Police car and calls her name out. That smile on Angela’s face, so happy despite what else is happening because you just know she is thinking “HE knows MY name!” I know I’d be thinking that, too.

And then the three are reunited in the halls, Rickie, Rayanne and Angela. Rayanne is of course telling the story with embellished details that she probably doesn’t remember, and painting it in big, bold, colorful strokes that is so much of who she is. She looks to Angela to confirm that they “had a time“, and yes, Angela agrees, they certainly did have a time.

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Details I noticed this time around: Rayanne going through the prescription bottles while Angela is rinsing her hair in the bathroom sink at Angela’s house. How hard Danielle vies for everyone’s attention, and how much they all ignore her (what will her teenage rebellion look like?). How Angela has dirt on her face after falling in the mud. You can see it when she’s sitting in the dark living room talking to Jordan about what day it feels like. I love the detail, that she doesn’t look perfect after falling in the mud, the way she looks like you’d expect her to.

Favorite moment: “Rickie, who has cuter feet?” ~ Rayanne

Least favorite moment: “Oh, look at me, I’m way cool. I’m off with my way cool friends to sniff floor wax.” ~ Brian (oh Brian, why do you say that? Sniff floor wax? Really? It is so cringe worthy it “hurts” to hear).

“We did. We had a time.”