It’s rare that you find a TV series that gets you from the first episode, when the characters aren’t even fully formed (at least to us, anyway). It’s especially rare to find a TV series that gets you from the first episode and then holds you through the whole series, that first taste being the first course in a huge, carefully prepared, so well-balanced you don’t want to eat it in front of your mom type of meal.
As a one-off episode, My So-Called Life’s “Pilot” really could function as a TV movie about the dangers of becoming a “bad kid,” but instead, it holds more importance, thanks to some truly genuine performances (namely, Claire Danes as new redhead, wannabe reformed goody two shoes and series lead Angela Chase) and writing that doesn’t feel trite, but seems true to both teenage and adult life. Surely there’s a certainly physical fuzziness to it all, as this was shot in the 1990s, when HD was just a dream of the movies. But even that adds to the episode, as it captures the murkiness that is adolscence and was the so-called grunge period.
What’s great about “Pilot” from its beginnings, with Angela and new pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer) giggling while pretend-panhandling on the street, is that things are far from perfect. Sure, Angela seems all happy with Rayanne, and later, Rickie (Wilson Cruz), but shortly after we see her goofing off with Rayanne and dying her hair “Crimson Glow” (really, dark red) in the sink, she’s bombarded with harsh truths from her mom, Patty (Bess Armstrong). Naturally, Patty, the former cheerleader and high school It girl extraordinaire, isn’t thrilled with her daughter’s alternative choice, both in terms of hair colour and friends, and she makes it known. Although Angela tries to play it cool after Patty leaves her, Rickie and Rayanne in the kitchen, she’s clearly pissed off, and not just because, you know, that’s what a ’90s riot grrrl should be. She’s upset because although she wants to not care what her mom, or anyone else for that matter, thinks, she’s clearly got a long way to go before she gets there. (This is further evidenced by the end of the episode, where she comes home from a night out and collapses in her mom’s arms.)
You could argue that Angela is a tad overemotional for a character just being introduced to us, but as we’ll learn later on, that’s a part of her charm. She really feels everything, even if she doesn’t want to, and she’s not afraid to voice her opinions, whether to actual people–her friends, her parents, her teachers–or herself in her continual voiceovers. In that sense, she’s a bit more mature than her peers, part of the reason why her transition from studious rule follower to class-skipping cool kid is a rocky one. Deep down, she knows that she’s being a bit reckless with her choices, and her feelings about them, but that at this point, the angsty teenage part of her is getting to the surface first. For now.
A prime example of Angela’s adolscent yearnings overtaking her sense of reality is her introduction to her crush, Jordan Catalano (a very young, very cute Jared Leto). She uses “love” to describe her feelings for Jordan, although they’ve only interacted through occasional brushes during pop quizzes. Describing their connection that way, it might seem like I’m trivializing her emotions, but this is how teenage crushes go–you fall hard and fast, even if the person has no idea who you are because your hormones are on high and, hey, it’s easy to love–or really, really, really, like–from afar anyway. That’s an issue that will come up quite a few times in My So-Called‘s life, but we won’t go there yet.
Although Angela gets a sort of special moment with Jordan, as he calls her name from afar while she’s getting put into a cop car after getting caught under the influence with Rayanne and Rickie in the parking lot of nightclub Let’s Bolt, you know from the start that things aren’t going to come super easily in the love department for the girl some people will come to call Angelika. After all, this isn’t a story about the girl getting what she wants. It’s about the girl realizing that it’s kinda okay not to get what you want. In fact, not getting what you want right off the bat may be the key to getting it in the long term.
It’s sad to say, but if Angela hadn’t gone to that party in this episode against her parents’ wishes, or joined R&R at Let’s Bolt, it’s unlikely that Jordan the Great Leaner (he really does lean great, doesn’t he?) would have noticed her. If she hadn’t lived on the edge a little, she wouldn’t have, as she says, “had a time,” or at least the kind of time she hoped to have. The time where it seems like the guy you really like might, someday, call you “so beautiful it hurts,” and the boy next door (in this case, Devon Gummersall’s Brian Krakow) will still cover for you (while liking you from afar).
Although you clearly get the message that this isn’t meant to be a typical coming of age tale, but more of a retelling of actual growing up from the opening moments with Angela and her new ‘do, the part of “Pilot” that most explicitly sends this message is the moment when Angela is running down the hallway to get to class after hearing “the second bell” (one of the only times she really gives in to her old, good girly ways, even as Rickie and Rayanne look at her with definite distain). While she runs towards the brightness of the windows, the focus turns to a cheerleader we saw in an opening montage of pre-Crimson Glow Angela walking the halls with former best friend and the last touchstone to her old way of life, Sharon (Devon Odessa). Having seen more episodes, I can say that we’ll never know exactly what was bothering this blonde bombshell, but her appearance is significant here as it says that sometimes even those who seem to have it perfect–whether that’s in terms of grades, or boyfriends, or whatever else–don’t. But moreover, it says that this show isn’t about the cheerleaders, or the 90210 types with all big hair and seemingly big problems. It’s about the girls running down the hall, trying to decide whether being late for class is cool or not.
More slices of Life:
- Angela: “I’m starting to like Anne Frank.” Angela’s father, Graham: “Is she a sophomore too?” (Note: Angela gets mad at this unknowingly ignorant–Graham is distracted by Angela being in a towel, she says–but later says that Anne was “lucky” because she was stuck in an attic “with this guy she really liked.” And wasn’t she saying that because she too was distracted–by Jordan Catalano??)
- Although I will maintain that the first episode is more about the kids, you have to admit that parents also get some decent screentime from the start of this show. In this episode, we get hints of the problems in Patty and Graham’s marriage, as we, Angela and Brian, see him talking with a mystery woman on the street. Maybe the cheerleader will have it bad after all.
- In other MSCL news, Patty says Graham would have actually cheated in Season 2.
- “It’s like you agreed to have a personality or something. For no reason. To make it easier for everyone. But when you think about it, how do you know it’s even you?” Yeah, Angela! How do you know Crimson Glow is even you? Maybe you’re actually Lavender Lustre!
- IMHO count: 2 (No. 1: Angela, preceding her spot-on remark about yearbooks: “If you made a book of what really happened, it would be a really depressing book,” and No. 2: Patty, giving her final say on Angela’s new look)
- Danielle–a.k.a. Angela’s little sister–Watch: She would never dye her hair red. Also, sometimes Graham tells her to “shut up” and she seems unmoved, which is more than disturbing.
- And this week in Chase-ing the Overwrought Simile with Angela: “My parents keep asking how my day was. It’s like saying, ‘How was that driveby shooting?'”
- Although there are a lot of great shots in this episode, the best one obviously goes to Brian and Angela standing in the darkened street. It’s so great that Cameron Crowe did a tribute to in it Jerry Maguire.
- You gotta love an episode that can use both “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. and “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls to soundtrack poignant moments.
- Rayanne was right. Angela did look “tough” in that crop top that teens today would just die for.
- In case you were wondering, this episode was written by: Scott Winant (who would go on to work on Californication and True Blood) and directed by creator and definite goddess Winnie Holzman.
Head back here next Monday, September 1, for our review of Episode 2, “Dancing in the Dark.”