My So-Called Life: Complete Series on DVD

Directed by: Various Starring: Claire Danes, Tom Irwin, Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, Devon Gummersall, AJ Langer, Jared Leto, Devon Odessa, and Lisa Wilhoit

Synopsis: A beautiful repackaging of the 1994 series, which closely examined the life of a middle-class 15-year-old Pittsburgh teen, and that of her parents and friends. The box itself is very lovely, and comes with a booklet of information, including a forward by Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, on the series’ influence on him and most “teen” television. The picture quality is better tha any previously released. And to top it off, we finally have bonus features: Episode commentaries, Featurettes, Interviews, archival footage… It’s fabulous.

Sample quotes

Episode 1—Pilot:

Rayanne: “I am telling you, we had a time. Didn’t we? Didn’t we have a time?”

Angela: “We did. We had a time.”

Episode 2—Dancing in the Dark:

Angela VO: “Neil is my father’s younger brother. He isn’t married. Every time he comes to dinner my parents give him all these leftovers to take home, like they don’t have food where he lives.”

Episode 3—Guns’n’Gossip:

Angela VO: “Grownups like to tell you where they were when President Kennedy was shot, which they all know to the exact second. Which makes me almost jealous. Like I should have something important enough to know where I was when it happened. But I don’t yet.” (1994, remember)

Episode 4—Father Figures:

Angela VO: “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?”

Episode 5—The Zit:

Angela VO: “It’s good to get really dressed up, once in a while. And admit the truth. That when you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they’re actually…beautiful. Possibly even me.”

Episode 6—The Substitute:

Angela’s poem: “Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a lovely cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always asleep. One morning she woke up.

“She woke up.”

Episode 7—Why Jordan Can’t Read:

Angela: “Something has happened… between Jordan Catalano and me… and I can’t… I can’t explain it, I, I seriously can’t. Don’t even ask me, but… I understand him… in this way… I didn’t even know existed. And it has completely changed everything. Everything.”

Episode 8—Strangers in the House:

Graham : “When they told me, I don’t know, it was like, ah, this moment, because I had to admit that, I didn’t want to land it. Because landing it means that, I’m really doing this. This is my job, this is my life, this is it! This is what I really…”

Episode 9—Halloween

Graham: “Why did you tell Camille we were the Clintons?”
Patty: “I don’t know. It just seemed easier. I mean, what is the deal with Rapunzel anyway? Is she a princess? Is she under a spell? What? I mean, all anyone ever remembers is that, that she has this really long hair and she was locked up in some kind of a…”
Graham: “Prison. She let her hair down, and he climbs, and climbs, and climbs…”
Patty: “This bodice is ripped.”
Graham: “Wow. I did that?”

Episode 10—Other Peoples’ Daughters

Rayanne: “So, who’s into the mustard?”
Angela: “Oh, my dad.”
Rayanne: “Hmmm, well, you know what that’s about….”
Angela VO: “To Rayanne, everything is about…”
Rayanne: “Sex. I mean, All you really need to survive is mild yellow. All this other stuff is purely recreational.”

Episode 11—Life of Brian

Brian VO: “There’s something about my life. It’s just automatically true that nothing actually happens.”

Episode 12—Self Esteem

Angela VO: “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.”

Episode 13—Pressure

Angela VO: “Sometimes someone says something really small, and it just fits right into this empty place in your heart.”

Episode 14—On the Wagon

Rayanne: “I can’t stand these looks anymore.”
Angela: “What looks?”
Rayanne: “You and Rickie looking at me like I’m gonna lose control, like any minute I’m gonna go on some jag or something. I just can’t stand knowing what you’re thinking about me.”
Angela: “What? What am I thinking?”
Rayanne: “I’m messed up. That I’m too messed up for you to be my friend anymore.”
Angela: “Rayanne, that’s not true. I never—I’m still your friend. Nothing’s changed.”
Angela VO: “But that wasn’t completely true either. And we both, like, knew it.”

Episode 15—So-Called Angels

Danielle: “Do we have to keep talking about religion? It’s Christmas!”

Episode 16—Resolutions

Angela VO : “What I was thinking, as like a New Year’s resolution, is to stop getting so caught up in my own thoughts, ‘cause I’m like way too introspective… I think.
“… but what if not thinking turns me into this shallow person? I better rethink this becoming less introspective thing.
“… OK, so I’ll stay introspective. But I do resolve to stop doing Jordan Catalano’s homework.”

Episode 17—Betrayal

Katimski: “Stop acting. There’s really no need for it. You see, Emily is dead. The life she had is over. That’s a pretty big deal. I mean… oh, gee whiz, she is just now realizing how precious every moment of that life really was. And that she never really appreciated what she had. Just imagine… what that must feel like, Rayanne.”

Episode 18—Weekend

Danielle VO: “My life is different people kicking me out of different rooms.”

Episode 19—In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Jordan Catalano: “It’s like… you think you’re safe, or something. ‘Cause you can just… walk away anytime. Because you don’t, like, need her. You don’t need anyone. But the thing you didn’t realize is… You’re wrong.”

Overall comment

What can I say? It’s My So-Called Life, and it stands up remarkably well, even if the fashions are a little off and it’s odd that no one has a cell phone. Certainly you can pick apart the few moments that don’t quite work—the Angela/Jordan parallel plot in Halloween, the slightly too heavy-handed encounter between Patty and the Homeless Girl in So-Called Angels—but when you’re compensated by a luscious Graham/Patty story—not to mention an awesome scene between Brian and Rayanne—in one case, and a completely haunting Rickie storyline in the other, who cares? The strong moments greatly outweigh the weak, all the way through every single episode.

And I hate the idea that this series is so praised, people are reluctant to even watch it—like it’s now homework, like Citizen Kane, or something. It’s important to know—it was very funny. It was sexy. The characters are terribly flawed, but you’ll love them anyway. Just go for it; you’ll be glad you did.

Rating: **** (out of 4)

Retrospective summary and review of each episode

This was written a while ago…

Pilot—Angela is at a crossroads, growing away from her family and old friends and toward new friends (and maybe lovers).

I’m surprised by how much I remember of this one; I can almost quote the whole thing. It’s darker than subsequent episodes would be. Jordan looks really preppy here; his whole look would change in future episodes. The apology scene between Angela and her Mom always makes me cry.

Dancing in the DarkAngela uses Brian to connect with Jordan, while Patty and Graham try ballroom dancing.

I’d forgotten how beautifully shot this one is. The dream sequence that opens it is just amazing. It’s lighter than the pilot. The voice-overs in this are just great. And Angela is a lot more assertive with Jordan than one would expect. You go, girl!

Guns and GossipA gun goes off in school, but Angela is more concerned about what’s being said about her and Jordan.

It’s all in the point of view, isn’t it? When Jordan propositions Angela (since everyone thinks they did it, why not do it?), it’s kind of slimy. But seen from her point of view, it’s exciting. Similarly, his later recantation is a credit to him, but from her viewpoint? A huge disappointment.

This episode also increases the character development, especially of Brian, who really shows backbone. But what the heck is Rayanne wearing to school at the end? Is there no dress code at all? (God, I’m getting old.)

Father FiguresAngela and Patty deal with their fathers.

By watching the episodes closer together like this, it’s easier to understand Angela’s attitude. But it’s not the last time that darker aspects of various characters are shown, even at risk of losing sympathy for them.

The ZitAngela feels unattractive, while Sharon worries about the undue attention paid to her breasts.

This is a great relationship episode, exploring both the long-standing ties between Patty and Graham, Angela and Sharon, and Angela and Patty, along with the new ones between Rickie and Brian, and even Jordan and Brian.

The Metamorphosis and Malcolm X metaphors both work well to deepen the themes. Angela’s inner monologue at the end is always tear inducing. And this one marks the first supernatural occurrence in the series: the magical appearance of a supermodel in the bathroom.

The Substitute—A substitute English teacher shakes up the school.

It’s a little bit Dead Poet’s Society, but the plot twists are not the ones you’d expect. Great dramatization of the power of writing. I’m not sure what’s up with the socks, however…

Why Jordan Can’t Read—Jordan and Angela start to connect.

Interesting that Angela wants to play the hero. (She’s so a Buffy inspiration.) Again, it’s impressive how assertive she is with Jordan, though it doesn’t stop him from breaking her heart. (Jordan says presciently: “She just makes everything too complicated.”) Rayanne and Sharon’s budding relationship continues to grow. And isn’t great that the “good girl” is such a sexual being?

Strangers in the House—Sharon’s Dad has a heart attack, which only highlights the tension between her and Angela.

Really explores the long-time relationship between Sharon, Angela, and Brian, and what that means. This is mirrored by the adults, who still seem affected by their high school relationships. Graham’s crisis comes to a head.

HalloweenAngela encounters a ghost, while Patty and Graham become their costumes.

I like this one much better than I did the first time, maybe because it seems to have inspired two great Buffy episodes, “Halloween” and “I Only Have Eyes for You.” (Buffy did them better, but don’t forget who did them first.) What still doesn’t quite work is the Angela/Jordan/Nicky Driscoll plot—maybe because there isn’t quite enough between Angela and Jordan yet. But everything else works very well:

  • Patty and Graham’s great, sexy transformation into their costumes. (They seem to have a great sex life for a long-married couple. Funny they encounter so many problems later.)
  • Brian may be a nerd, but he sure gets to cuddle with a lot of cute chicks Sharon last episode, Rayanne in this one. And the sympathy-meter on him grows. (He’ll need that for Life of Brian.)
  • Jordan’s essential decency is once again revealed by his interaction with Rickie. He’s never freaked out by this obviously gay kid; in fact, he’s even protective of him.
  • Danielle actually gets a moment, in her great imitation of big sis!

Other People’s Mothers—Rayanne gets a little too wild with her Dad’s money, but Patty comes through.

Why do 40something women on TV always have trouble getting along with their mothers? Is that the norm, or just a cliche? I can’t believe I never noticed before than neither Jordan nor Brian even appear in this one. And once again, food is a major theme.

Life of Brian—The World Happiness Dance is anything but happy for most involved.

Ah, Brian, Brian. No matter how many times you see it, it’s not easy to watch Brian hurt Delia and embarrass himself for a chance with the “great wallpaper” that is Angela. Of course, Angela has to be held accountable too (as Jean’s repeated “bitch” comments attest. Does every guy relate to Brian Krakow?). I love Patty’s evil little laugh after she witnesses their predicament.

Self Esteem—Angel is making out with Jordan in the boiler room; but why all the secrecy?

Ah, “Self Esteem.” Most people’s favourite episode (at least most female people). I’m not an exception. This episode definitely stands up to repeated viewing, as most everyone deals with their own insecurities. What I particularly noticed this time? That Graham looks really good in this one. (Definitely getting older. Sigh.)

Pressure—Jordan wants to take the relationship to the next level, but Angela isn’t sure she’s ready.

This is the one where no one will tell Angela what she wants to hear: that it’s OK not to have sex yet. Well, except Rickie, but by then she’s already made her decision. And just when I was beginning to think I had been hallucinating Patty and Graham’s problems, a-ha! Here their troubles begin. Graham’s new life is not going to be easy, even though Patty is really supportive. (Patty becomes much more sympathetic with repeated viewing.)

On the Wagon—Rayanne tries to get more involved with Angela by joining Jordan’s band.

Having failed at the “sex” part of the relationship, Angela at least succeeds in the “conversation”—talking more to Jordan in this episode than in any other. He even calls her at home. But of course, this is really about Angela and Rayanne, and their growing estrangement (as it’s been apparent for some episodes now that Angela is no longer confiding in Rayanne). I wonder where they would have gone with this relationship?

Oh, and Patty and Graham have sex again, in case you were worried.

So-Called Angels—Christmas approaches, and Rickie finds himself with nowhere to live.

OK, so on this viewing, the scene between Patty and the angel did seem a little hokey, maybe because the parallels between Angela and the homeless girl seem a bit forced. No matter, as everything else holds up so well, from the shocking, theme song-free opening of Rickie bleeding into the snow, to the tear-inducing reunion at the end. Several characters look more vulnerable than ever before: Jordan’s past abuse is revealed, and he’s unfailingly sweet to both Rickie and Angela; Brian’s loneliness is never clearer; and Rayanne gives indications that her home life has only worsened with the addition of her mother’s new boyfriend.

That they manage to fit some really funny bits into this one is also a feat. Best one? Patty: “Do you know what the Krakows did?” Graham: “Yeah, but just that once, right? To make Brian?”

Resolutions—It’s a New Year, and the characters resolve to make changes.
I love the opening of this one, where we get into everyone’s heads, not just Angela’s (or Brian’s). And it’s overall an amazingly light-hearted episode, especially considering that it’s still dealing with Rickie’s homeless problem. Note the parallels: just as Patty had earlier signed Graham up for a cooking class, only to have him become the teacher, so does Angela sign Jordan up for English classes, only for him to, in turn, tutor Brian about the opposite sex.

Betrayal—Rayanne and Jordan get drunk and do it. Uh-oh.

The “other woman” episode: Rayanne (Jordan), Hallie Lowenthal (clearly attracted to Graham), and even Patty (with Camille’s ex—in the past, of course). Contains the one scene in the entire series that is so embarrassing I can hardly watch it—Angela imitating Rayanne and coming on to Corey. Neat how the tables have turned; now it’s Jordan who will have to fight to get Angela back.

The Weekend—Patty and Graham leave Angela and Danielle alone for the weekend. Wackiness ensues.

The funny one—although I found Patty’s drunken ranting more cringe-inducing than funny this time. Patty and Graham really need to talk about the Hallie Lowenthal thing. Kyle looking in on Rayanne and Brian on the bed remains comic gold.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities—Brian supplies Jordan the words he can’t find to apologize to Angela.

Damn if this last one isn’t darn near perfect, making it even more frustrating that it is the last one. Every moment tells; every character gets good scenes. Dreams underlay the whole thing, and you could write essays on that aspect alone. What struck me this time:

  • Graham warns Daniel to unplug the toaster before sticking a fork in it. Now there’s a subtle reference to a previous episode.
  • “Princesses don’t get divorced.” Patty has some concerns. And it’s Danielle’s greatest fear.
  • Graham to Hallie on the innocence of flirting. Uh huh. (They need a “no touching” rule.)
  • Jordan yammering at a silent Angela, just as she used to at him.
  • Brian’s open-eyed decision to use Jordan to reveal his own feelings.
  • The words Jordan manages to come up with on his own (after the yammering). The guy is not without intelligence or sensitivity.
  • Duh squared.

Better stop before I transcribe the whole episode.

The Extras

They are fairly plentiful. First of all, the packaging is gorgeous, and it includes a booklet with items such as:

  • Joss Whedon on My So-Called Life’s influence on Buffy and other television programs.
  • Jeanine Garafollo on what the series meant to her as an artist and person.
  • Winnie Holzmann’s ideas for the season 2 that never happened.
  • Synopses, quotes, and insider notes on each episode.

Several episodes feature commentary tracks with Holzmann, various directors, and actors Devon Gummersall (Brian), Wilson Cruz (Rickie), Bess Armstrong (Patty), Lisa Wilhoit (Danielle), and Claire Danes (Angela). There is also a full disk of extras—looks back, where are they now’s, and excerpts from the session at the Museum of Radio and Television.

I’ve listened to all the commentary tracks, and they are a sobering reminder that fans know the series so much better than those who created it! Still, you do get some good insider information from them. Such as:

  • Jordan Catalano wasn’t originally going to be a regular character, and the creators had a moment of panic after the Pilot when they realized they would need Jared Leto thereafter, and the actor wasn’t yet signed…
  • Cute as Claire Danes is, she’s not perfect. She required air-brushing in Self-Esteem to cover an intense acne breakout. (That was her kissing and kissing and kissing Jordan Catalone episode. Imagine.) And then she had a burst blood vessel in her eye (eww) during So-Called Angels.
  • Speaking of kissing and kissing Jordan Catalano… Claire was so young when cast (13), her first kisses really did occur on the show. (Guess you could do worse than Jared Leto as your first kiss, even if it isn’t, like, for real.)
  • Jared had to explain to Claire some of the finer points of making out. He also really did give Devon (“Brian”) tips on dealing with the opposite sex.
  • AJ Langer (Rayanne) is now a member of the British Royal family (through marriage).
  • AJ’s original take on Rayanne, that she worked on with a coach, was completely not what the directors wanted, and had to be re-directed in about 24 hours on the first episode.
  • AJ came down with chicken pox in the middle of Life of Brian, requiring on-the-spot rewrites of scenes which, normally, never happened on this show.
  • Wilson Cruz went through much the same thing his character did: when he came out to his parents, his father kicked him out of the house.
  • Wilson Cruz’s father watched So-Called Angels, resulting in the two reconciling. Wilson told Winnie Holzmann this for the first time on the commentary track; it’s a great moment!

Since they weren’t all featured on the commentary tracks, it was a thrill to see that all cast members did retrospective interviews on the bonus disk—with the sad exception of Jared Leto (“Jordan Catalano”). They all still look great, really, and all remark on how much the series still seems to mean so much to people—how even someone like Claire Danes, who has gone on to a quite-successful movie career—still finds this first role of hers most affects people. Ms. Danes was quite giving of her time to this box set, appearing in all the featurettes, doing one commentary track, having a conversation with Winnie Holzmann, and another interview on her own. The warmth evident among all the cast and crew was nice to see as well.

The only thing perhaps a bit obvious from its absence is any discussion of the controversial point as to whether Claire Danes’s desire to scale back her involvement with the show to have more time for movies sounded its death-knell. This point was fairly openly discussed on the first, limited-release DVD set. But if that was the “price” to pay for getting so much of her involvement, it was worth it.

Usability

No issues here. Each DVD begins with a little scene and sound bite from an episode on that DVD, which could get tiresome if you rewatch the same one a lot. Best to have a marathon of viewing!