The teenager as we know it in contemporary pop culture was invented 20 years ago, when My So-Called Life made its debut on August 25, 1994. A show noted for its emotional realism and pinpoint-perfect voice, My So-Called Life introduced us to introspective, average Angela Chase (Claire Danes), a girl growing up in the suburbs. In the midst of a very recognizable teenage reinvention phase, she ditches her familiar friends — “good girl” Sharon Cherski and Brian Krakow, the brainiac boy next door who’s hopelessly in love with Angela — in order to dye her hair red and hang out with “bad girl” Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer), Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), whose coming-out story was quietly revolutionary for the era, and the dreamboat to end all dreamboats, blue-eyed hunk Jordan Catalano (played by future Oscar winner Jared Leto, who is now 42).
Created by Winnie Holzman, the show was striking in its eerie accuracy, as embodied by Angela’s outward awkwardness and her thoughtful, funny, likable voiceover, featuring weird yet resonant realizations like, “Lately, I can’t even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.” Perhaps due in part to the creative team’s past working on the show Thirtysomething, the parents on My So-Called Life, Patty and Graham Chase, were also given room to be real, beautifully messed-up people.
Perhaps the most salient things about My So-Called Life‘s legacy are the way in which Angela Chase will always feel, to those of us who grew up in the ’90s, like a friend from long ago, and the fact that the show’s creative talent have gone on to not only successful careers, but ones characterized by strikingly honest work. One great example is writer’s room album Jason Katims, who went on to create Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, shows with more than a little of My So-Called Life in their DNA.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this seminal show, Flavorwire has put together a worst-to-best ranking of the show’s episodes, from the duff stuff (Rayanne in handcuffs) to the transcendent (the boiler room). Because when you really look closely, this show is so strange and complicated that every episode is beautiful, in its way. Even “Halloween.” If you feel like spending more time with Angela, the whole series is currently available on Hulu.
“Halloween,” Season 1, Episode 9
Remember this one? Where Angela dresses up like a 1960s chick for Halloween and communes with some sexy, doomed boy from ye olde days? No? Because it was the worst. The show may have predated the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, but this episode feels like bad Buffy, with a “problem of the week” and no emotional content.
“Weekend,” Season 1, Episode 18
This is basically a bottle episode in which Rayanne gets handcuffed to the Chases’ parental bed, so it’s too bad that this is the next-to-last episode ever of the show. Rayanne had just slept with Jordan, she and Angela were at odds, and mostly we just get that Rayanne is trouble. Boring.
“Guns and Gossip,” Season 1, Episode 3
A Very Special Episode of My So-Called Life that depicts an American school dealing with a gun threat pre-Columbine, “Guns and Gossip” is duff for the drama that surrounds a gun going off. Where it’s interesting is happening on the sidelines: Angela gets a reputation that she “puts out,” so Jordan Catalano makes the dreamy offer of, “We should just do it since everyone thinks we did.” Then there’s Rickie’s reaction to being a main gun suspect — he wants to be seen as tough, so that he can stop being bullied for being gay.
“The Substitute,” Season 1, Episode 6
Very Special Episode #2 (note that the after-school special was only starting to die at the time when My So-Called Life aired) features guest star Roger Rees as the most inspirational teacher of Angela’s life. Every inspirational teacher cliché ensues — but at least Jordan Catalano has a good, caring teacher for once.
“Father Figures,” Season 1, Episode 4
It’s an episode all about Angela’s shifting relationship with her hot dad! We go deep into the life of Graham Chase, how he’s not connecting with Patty, and how he doesn’t connect with Angela lately either. Builds up the show’s world nicely, but it’s not the most compelling of stories.
“Strangers in the House,” Season 1, Episode 8
It’s the episode where Angela’s good-girl former best friend, Sharon Cherski, has to stay in the Chase house because her dad had a heart attack. The tension between Sharon and Angela is fun, and terrifically realistic when you’ve grown apart from the friend you grew up with, years of affection mixed with real melancholy.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Season 1, Episode 19
The last episode ever! Everyone is having weird dreams, and Brian Krakow and Jordan Catalano have teamed up, both for tutoring and some Cyrano de Bergerac games with Angela. Rickie admits that he’s gay. And Angela drifts back towards Jordan Catalano, but with the new knowledge that it may be Brian Krakow who’s utterly, hopelessly in love with her…
“Dancing in the Dark,” Season 1, Episode 2
It’s our first meaty Jordan Catalano episode. Angela doesn’t know how to get Jordan’s attention, but thank goodness for her friend Rayanne, who comes up with a fake ID scheme that gets the two talking. Notable for the first real Angela-and-Jordan kiss, which was totally lame.
“Resolutions,” Season 1, Episode 16
What’s notable about this episode is that it’s the point where My So-Called Life proves that it works well as an ensemble show. Every character has something they’re trying to fix, and we get interesting combinations: Rayanne and Sharon’s burgeoning friendship, Jordan Catalano starting to learn to read, and the conclusion of Rickie’s search for a home (where he sweetly finds shelter with a caring teacher).
“Pressure,” Season 1, Episode 13
Jordan Catalano totally wants to have sex with Angela. She’s girlish and unsure. Her fear of sex is completely normal and interesting, as she’s in a world where some of her closest friends are blasé, except for sweet Rickie, who wants it to be like a “miracle.” Youthful idealism clashes with sexual experience and the results are sensitive and meaningful.
“So-Called Angels,” Season 1, Episode 15
The much-maligned Christmas episode, this one takes “Halloween’s” soupçon of magic — but it works, for me, in this case. Musician Juliana Hatfield cameos as a winsome homeless waif, and her story parallels Rickie’s desperation, as he’s kicked out of his home because he’s gay, searching for succor and some sort of relief. It’s an emotional episode, and it’s stuck with me over the years.
“On the Wagon,” Season 1, Episode 14
Best known as the episode where Rayanne fronts Frozen Embryos. Tino quits the band, Rayanne’s been sober for 33 days, and it’s a perfect time to start a new hobby. But that’s not the only thing going on here — “On the Wagon” is a note-perfet deconstruction of the cracks and fissures in Angela and Rayanne’s friendship, something that may blow up.
“Self-Esteem,” Season 1, Episode 12
Three words: the boiler room. This is the episode where Angela and Jordan are on, and her life has been broken up into “kissing… and not kissing.” But despite the fact that she is living the dream of the world’s hottest high school relationship, sweet, dumb Jordan won’t even acknowledge her existence. Bonus: this is the episode where Buffalo Tom play (and they are a good band). The drama comes from Angela’s hormones fighting with her heart and her ultimate good sensibility.
“Pilot,” Season 1, Episode 1
Here’s where My So-Called Life nailed it, from the very first second of the show. In the pilot, we are introduced to the note-perfect writing and the inimitable teenage voice (and voiceover) of thoughtful, moody, all-too-realistic teenager Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes as a luminous baby), a good girl who’s going through some changes, and finding out what danger feels like via her brand-new friendship with bad girl Rayanne Graff and their mutual friend, sweet, currently-closeted Rickie Vasquez, a dreamer who wants a lover who says, “You’re so beautiful, it hurts too look at you.” It’s also where we get our first glimpse of the ultimate in high school crushes, Jordan Catalano, who leans so well.
“Life of Brian,” Season 1, Episode 11
We take a break from Angela’s voiceover this week to hear from another character: Brian Krakow. Brian is in love with Angela, totally neurotic and self-obsessed, and he looks past a girl who has a crush on him just for the chance that Angela might hang out with him. It’s a brilliant look at the show’s world from the perspective of one of its minor characters.
“Betrayal,” Season 1, Episode 17
The episode where Rayanne breaks the girl code in the worst way possible, and Brian Krakow is saddled with the weight of the information. There’s a lengthy dance to “Blister in the Sun” by the Violent Femmes. There’s a performance of the play Our Town. There’s the chance for forgiveness and transcendence. Angela learns some tough life lessons.
“Why Jordan Can’t Read,” Season 1, Episode 7
Where Angela and Jordan get their first moment of genuine connection, not just that teen-boy horny thing. Angela writes a letter telling Jordan all about her feelings, and, well, it gets into Jordan’s hands during a field trip at the museum. But since he can’t read, she’s pretty much OK. Jordan writes a song called “Red,” Angela’s convinced that he’s in love, and, well, he’s kind of in like, but it’s sort of complicated. Delicious, oh-so-accurate teen drama that’s sweet and sour in equal measures. With a good kiss and lots of “Tino” references.
“Other People’s Mothers,” Season 1, Episode 10
Rayanne Graff’s mom isn’t like the other moms, she’s a cool mom, and Angela is totally in love, especially considering the fact that Patty is the show’s scold and villain. But when Angela is stuck at a party that gets scary, she comes to some realizations about what it is that makes a mother and parent, and has a new appreciation for awkward, searching Patty.
“The Zit,” Season 1, Episode 5
The reason why “The Zit” is my #1 choice is simple: it is the episode of My So-Called Life I would show to hook newbies and the youth of today. It’s honest about the toll that other people’s expectations take on us. Angela starts with a zit, and to her, the zit is Vesuvius, revealing every one of her imperfections. While this zit takes over, the list rating the sophomore girls at high school gets out into the world, and Angela isn’t even on it (while her ex-best friend Sharon has the best breasts and her new best friend Rayanne has the most slut potential). While she’s absorbing all these self-esteem blows, Patty wants Angela to participate in a mother-daughter fashion show, an event Angela feels entirely beyond. The way every character on the show takes stock of what they think about themselves vs. what the world is telling them is familiar and lovely, like the show peeked into a teenage diary. By the end, we’re all, legitimately, beautiful.