The groundbreaking ABC teen drama lasted for only one season, but what the producers and actors accomplished in those 19 episodes still speaks to what it means to be a teenager in America. The show portrayed confused — and smart — teenagers searching for love and acceptance while working through family troubles, substance abuse, homophobia, unrequited love and dealing with school violence.
“They [ABC] had long been interested in a show with a real depictions of teenagers on TV,” “My So-Called Life” creator Winnie Holzman tells CNN. “They said to me ‘What if you were to write a teenage girl that was really real and that we didn’t try to stereotype or make perfect?’ It was their giving me permission to be honest and that was empowering. They told me ‘We just want you to be honest write it from your heart. When people say that that’s a powerful thing.”
Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut. To mark the event, I re-watched the series and it remains as timely and relevant as it did more than two decades ago. Here are five stand-out episodes, with insight from Holzman into each.
1. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
We meet Angela Chase, who is in her sophomore year at Liberty High, in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. She wears plaid shirts and combat boots with dresses and dyes her hair a dark red. While navigating high school, she tries to shake her childhood best friend, the seemingly goody two-shoes Sharon Cherski, in favor of Rayanne, played by A.J. Langer, and Rickie Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz. Angela narrates most of the episodes and this one establishes her crush on bad boy Jordan Catalano.
“I didn’t come up w this idea myself,” says Holzman. “I was in a collaboration with Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (who produced ‘Thirtysomething’) and they approached me and we all had in mind this old show called ‘Family’ which starred Kristy McNichol as this teenage girl. I had in mind high school being about trying on a new personality. It’s that line in the pilot when Claire goes, ‘How do I know it’s really me?’ But that question of ‘how do I really know who I am? was really at the heart of it. These are things that are part of growing up so it’s not like I invented anything.”
2. “Guns and Gossip” (Season 1, Episode 3)
“Everybody knows there’s like 50 guns in school at any given moment,” says Rayanne in this episode. At the time, it was unheard of for a teen drama on a major network to cover school violence.
A gunshot goes off in a locker at Liberty High, and Rickie is suspected of having brought it to school after being bullied for being gay. Angela comforts Rickie in his car during a storm after witnessing him get shoved around. Angela explains that her life isn’t perfect, the way Rickie sees it, and rumors of her sleeping with Jordan are all over school. “I hate everyone,” she says.
Holzman says she was able to pull off moments like this because producers had faith in her.
“These guys who were mentoring me said ‘Just write what you think,” she recalls. “On an emotional level a lot of the show came from me and my emotions, but it’s not my autobiography. The whole idea of her being fully dimensional, that means that everyone around her also has to be multi-dimensional.”
3. “Why Jordan Can’t Read (Season 1, Episode 7)
Jordan Catalano will break your heart in this episode. On a class field trip to a museum, Jordan starts talking to Angela, saying he drinks his coffee “black, with three or four sugars” and the way she asks him about drinking coffee will make your heart hurt.
Angela goes on to write him a five-page love letter, addressed to him by name. He finds it and returns it, saying he only read “parts” of it because it was boring. Angela lies about a dead boyfriend really being the subject of the love letter, but quickly figures out Jordan can’t read because she’s smart like that.
“You couldn’t read it, that’s it isn’t it?’ Angela asks.
“I never told anyone before,” he says.
Later in the episode, he drives her home in his car and kisses her goodnight. She’s so happy about it she twirls around outside her front door before she goes inside. (Again, cue the viewer tears.)
“They were allowing writers take tiny moments that you’d ordinarily dismiss and allow them the depth they had,” Holzman explains.
4. “Self-Esteem” (Season 1, Episode 12)
“Why are you like this,” is possibly the most famous line from the series. It comes from Angela when Jordan only wants to meet her in private and refuses to acknowledge her around his friends.
“Like what?” Jordan asks
“Like how you are,” she says.
Earlier Jordan had turned his back on her at a pool table, telling her she was crowding him. It hurts Angela so much you feel her pain when she dares him to look at her. She turns and goes home, where she cries on the couch.
In this multi-layered episode we see a lot of Angela’s parents exploring their own lives and identities, a new teacher encourages Rickie to join the drama club and begins to understand he has problems at home, and Angela tries to stand up for herself. In 2009, TV Guide ranked this episode number 44 on its list of the 100 Greatest Episodes of all time.
“I [did get] emotional writing it, sure, sure. I wasn’t sitting there sobbing,” Holzman laughs. “It was more like when I’m writing, if I feel myself getting emotional I know I’m onto something.”
5. “So-Called Angels” (Season 1, Episode 15)
You can actually feel Christmas in Three Rivers in this episode, which focuses on Rickie’s home life. After he is kicked out of his house because he is gay, Angela stands up to her own mom, Patty, in order to help him. He shows up to their house with a black eye, then Patty later finds him at church, where the whole family ends up — along with neighbor Brian Krakow. Rickie goes home with the Chase’s to spend Christmas with them.
“It was allowing the small moments to have their worth,” Holzman says. The teenage girl herself in our culture can be dismissed and looked down on. What the whole show was about for me on some level was, no you can’t dismiss her or her complicated, fascinating qualities.”
The series also dealt with mother-daughter dynamics, along with friendship betrayals and bullying.
The show currently streams on Hulu.