We’ve been looking back all week at the hugely influential 1994–95 network-television season, which found new shows Friends and ER hobnobbing on the same schedule with Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. We’ve counted down the season’s 100 best episodes, presented an oral history of the first season of Party of Five, tested your Friends knowledge with an SAT-style exam, and so much more. But right now we only care about My So-Called Life, and it’s time to hear what Angela Chase thinks.
According to My So-Called Life legend, Winnie Holzman showed up one day early in the writing process with three single-spaced pages. She was trying to write in this voice, the teenage-girl voice, and she gave the pages to Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. It wasn’t much, probably. Except that it was everything. It was Angela Chase. And the entire thing was a voice-over. Angela thinks so hard about everything, and even though being inside the head of a teenager for 19 hours should feel claustrophobic and exhausting, her internal monologue doesn’t wear you out. The writing is so bare and heartfelt and unaffected, and Claire Danes, only 13 years old in the pilot, is already — I don’t know that there’s a real word for it, but she is already so Claire Danes–ian, acting with every square inch of her face, transmitting total humiliation or sorrow or glee with the littlest eyebrow raise, the quickest bite of her lip. Angela is hyperaware and hypersensitive. There is basically nothing that she doesn’t think about: friends, parents, sex, geometry homework, chewing, the 60 Minutes clock, rebellion, death by embarrassment. To celebrate the greatest voice-overs of our time, I’ve collected 20 of Angela’s most beloved, insightful thoughts. Go, now, go …
“When someone compliments your parents, there’s, like, nothing to say. It’s like a stun gun to your brain.”
I remember when I first watched this show feeling like we had an inordinate amount of time with Mr. and Mrs. Chase, who, being adults and all, held zero fascination for me. But as I found out from reading the awesome John Lahr profile of Claire Danes in The New Yorker, there was a legitimate reason we spent all those many hours watching Mr. Chase wonder about his ability to make in the restaurant business and Patti cut her hair: Danes was so freaking good that the writers altered scripts to accommodate her underage-kid-who-has-to-go-to-school schedule, which meant featuring the lives of Angela’s parents more than they had originally planned. In this episode, Rayanne and Rickie meet Angela’s parents; because Angela hasn’t met either of their parents (yet), she has no idea how they could possibly find Mr. and Mrs. Chase so delightful. Rayanne goes so far as to say Angela’s dad is good-looking. Which: yep, total stun-gun to the brain.
“It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think about. It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become … the truth about me.”
I think about this line every single time I get a zit. Literally every time. And I think about Angela, leaning over that bathroom sink, everything else in her life blurring out until the only thing she can see is this red, infuriating spot.
“Hatred can become, like, food. It gives you this energy. You can, like, live off it.”
Not the most sustainable diet ever, but I get where she is coming from. If you were Angela and your ex-boyfriend (if Jordan Catalano was ever really her boyfriend?) and your best friend had drunken sex in the backseat of his car — the car where you had your first kiss, where he tried and mostly failed to teach you to drive — you’d try to live off your hate, too.
“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.”
I think one of the most beautiful but heartbreaking things about Angela Chase is that we have to watch her figure out the painful, shitty realities of high-school life in her version of real time, and there is no diving through the screen and telling her, “Yes! In high school everyone wants to put you in a box, and there is no getting out of the box, and real life is sort of different, but also not.” As usual, she is right: No one would ever make a yearbook of what actually happened. So she quits yearbook, throwing the previously ordered world in total disarray just because she, like, can’t anymore.
“Field trips are so intense. It’s like everybody’s been let out of their cages, or something. And we’re all roaming around … loose.”
Angela Chase predicts the Mean Girls “animals at the watering hole” scene 20 years in advance. This episode is mostly important because we find out that Jordan Catalano can’t read! Except for at a very rudimentary level, I guess, if we’re being technical.
“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever, like a vampire.”
This episode was pretty weird — the “Angela sees and vaguely communicates with a ghost” plot seemed a more than a little out of place on this show — but this is both a totally true and totally teenage thought. The way she says it, it’s not like she’s jealous of the idea of being young forever, exactly. But she’s not not jealous.
“It’s so weird when you see someone you just dreamed about. Like it’s gonna show.”
This scene is so good because right after the odd, cinematic dream sequence Angela has — where she yells at Jordan but he won’t reply, and her parents are there for some reason, and also her great-aunt’s funeral procession — she is in the not-dream version of her high school, and Jordan is trying to talk to her more than she wants to talk to him. It takes all season, but he finally is the one completely fixated on her, and not the other way around.
“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.”
Fun fact: A slightly longer version of this riff was in those first pages Holzman wrote. The original had a line in there about how embarrassing bananas are. It’s so true! Have you ever been a girl and tried to eat a banana in public? Really, it cannot be done. You have to, like, break it into pieces, which is only a moderately less-uncomfortable action to take in front of other people. Anyway, this was the kind of observation that so endeared me to Angela: It’s so small, but so real. Like so many Angela gems, this is from the pilot. She is having the most classic family dinner ever: Angela is slowly moving food around her plate with a fork and her parents are pretending not to freak out about the fact that she’s dyed her hair red — excuse me, I mean, “crimson glow.”
“It’s such a lie that you should do what’s in your heart. If we all did what was in our hearts, the world would grind to a halt.”
Right before she says this, Angela and Jordan have their first real conversation. They are leaning against the lockers — everyone loves the way Jordan leans — and quickly approach peak nervous-pushing-of-hair-behind-the-ears. “In that moment, I would have done anything. I wanted him so much.” These two! Also they are talking about how people think they had sex. (Or, as Rayanne calls it, “Ummed.”) And he’s all, “It’s like we might as well have done it anyway at this point.” I see a future in sales for this kid. What a winning pitch.
“When you call someone’s name, like, kind of loud, and they don’t hear you, it makes you feel really lonely.”
It does! It so does. And the worst part is if other people see you do it, and then the other people see whoever you were trying to talk to ignore you, you are sort of obligated to make some kind of nonchalant facial expression, and the pressure to act like it’s no big deal somehow makes it all a much bigger deal. The context here is so, so awful because Rayanne and Jordan Catalano like, literally just had sex in the backseat of his car, and the car is so heavy with meaning because of that song, “Red,” which Angela thought was about her but turned out to be about the car.
“What I like, dread, is when people who know you in completely different ways end up in the same area … And you have to develop this like, combination you, on the spot.”
Angela is with Rickie and runs into Brian, childhood neighbor and, depending on your loyalties, Angela’s OTP. The whole point of being with Rickie is to be this completely new person, and Brian spends about 90 percent of the series accidentally or intentionally getting in the way of Angela becoming someone new, the way she wants to be. For the rest of us, most dreaded combinations, from least to most dread-inducing: an outside-of-work friend and a colleague; your best friend from high school and your best friend from college; a friend and your boss; a friend (not from childhood) and your parents; an ex and your current significant other.
“You know how sometimes the last sentence you said, like, echoes in your brain, and it just keeps sounding stupider? And you have to say something else, just to make it stop?”
Oh, man. Do I ever. She really did not have a reason to feel stupid here because she and Jordan were diagramming each others’ sentences. And Jordan’s sentences “were really short.” But she just kept going and accidentally wound up talking herself into scalping these Grateful Dead tickets (a dated reference even then, right?) from her dad, just to have a reason to keep talking to Jordan about something. Anything.
“Sometimes someone says something really small, and it just fits right into this empty place in your heart.”
Angela was always in her own head, contemplating and voice-over-ing and obsessing over the weirdest moments. But she wasn’t self-absorbed, not really; she was just observing every single detail around her. And she was grateful for these impossibly tiny kindnesses and the way they could make her feel. This is from her real breakup scene with Jordan. Go ahead and watch it without tearing up, soulless monsters among us.
“Walking into someone’s house for the first time … is like entering another country. Not that I’ve ever been to another country.”
Sometimes it feels like just eating dinner with someone else’s family — like, even at a restaurant or some other neutral location — is like entering another country. And Rayanne’s house is bonkers! I had completely forgotten how spacey this setup was. It’s got beaded curtains to divide up the room, so many chimes and candles. It’s like a little gypsy-hippie, fire-hazard-y haven.
“There’s this dividing line, between girls who’ve had sex and girls who haven’t, and all of a sudden, we both realized that we were looking at each other across it.”
Angela and Sharon are watching that sex/intimacy tape! It’s actually really sweet. Their friendship has really been through the ringer, but when you want to ask someone stuff that is really embarrassing and uncomfortable, you just go back to those people who knew you when.
“There’s something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself, especially if you’ve just been totally made a fool of by the only person you’ll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday, which you still haven’t studied for because you can’t, because Brian Krakow has your textbook, and you’re too embarrassed to even deal with it. And your little sister’s completely finished with *her* homework, which is just — like, so simple and mindless a child could do it. And that creepy 60 Minutes watch that sounds like your whole life ticking away.”
Angela has been cutting all these geometry reviews to make out with Jordan in the boiler room and talk about how his cuticles look like little moons while he refuses to acknowledge her in public. In a rare moment of unity, Sharon and Rayanne both tell Angela she needs more self-respect and shouldn’t waste her time on a guy who doesn’t treat her well. This is easy for them to say; hello, have they not seen the little moons?
“I just think people wanna believe things about people so they decide certain things are true and they don’t even ask. And it’s not fair. ’Cause you have to live with it anyway.”
This is another one of those times I wish I could crawl through the screen and just hug her. She’s right, she’s so right, and there’s almost nothing else to say about it. And this guidance counselor is like, “People won’t believe it if it’s false!” Ugh, this guidance counselor could not be more useless. Other than that, we’re kind of in borderline after-school-special territory here (The One With the Gun at School).
“I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The, like, fact of it. That people had sex. That they just HAD it, that sex was this thing people — had. Like a rash. Or a Rottweiler. Everything started to seem like, pornographic or something. Like, Mrs. Krysanowski has sex. So does Mr. Katimsky. They both have sex. They could have sex together. Like right now. I am, like, the *sickest* person.”
I love that this show wasn’t afraid to have a girl like Angela be both drawn to and wary of sex, that it allowed for her to be curious and scared and excited and skittish all at the same time. And I love that word choice. Of all the dogs in the world, how perfect is Rottweiler? This is the kind of thing Angela thinks to herself while walking down the hallway.
“People always say you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is, even. But every so often, I’ll have like, a moment, where being myself and my life right where I am is, like, enough.”
For maximum feelings, say this to yourself while riding a bicycle down the street with your hands up in the air.
“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 … Like with boys, how they have it so easy. How you have to pretend you don’t notice them … noticing you. Like cheerleaders, can’t people just cheer on their own, like, to themselves? 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.”
First voice-over in the first episode of the first and only season. Perfection.