It pains me to split these two episodes into one review, as one of them is, possibly, one of the best episodes of the first half of the season, and the other is one that is seems just okay on memory, but is actually kind of great and worthy of a full analysis. But for time’s sake, I want to make sure that I keep on schedule. I mean, I don’t want to be the Rayanne Graff of My So-Called Life anniversary reviewing, just showing up when I feel like it and vanishing when it counts (more on this ongoing phenomenon to come, my friends). I want to be the Sharon Cherski, the one who somehow balances both the being on time stuff, and letting loose when the time is right.
And here I thought I’d never say that I’d want to be Sharon “Global Endowments” Cherski.
Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the first episode of these two–Episode 103 in the official run–otherwise known as…
I’ll admit that “Father Figures” is one of my least rewatched episodes of My So-Called Life, perhaps because it’s a bit too real, in between the audit storyline and the ongoing tackling of the “daddy issues” trope. But when I actually do get around to watching it again, I see its power, particularly in how it explains some of Angela’s and Patty’s current issues with men and with themselves.
Often times, blaming, or even just relating, some flaw in a female character to her father is a cop out, some sort of gateway to another overdone storyline, including (but not limited to) the abusive relationship (she’s giving in because her dad taught her she didn’t deserve to stand up for herself!) or the slut complex (she’s looking for love in all the wrong places because the dude who was supposed to give her that unconditionally couldn’t give shit!). But in the case of “Father Figures,” this situation has some actual, relateable weight.
While other episodes have given us direct insight into Patty’s up and down relationship with her husband, the current constant male figure in her life, this episode gives us a peek into her relationship with the first man she gave her heart to blindly: her father, Chuck. Through the plot device of the family business needing to suffer through a tax investigation, Patty is forced to confront her dad (a perfectly curmudgeonly Paul Dooley) on both a personal and professional level. Although everything starts out as a partnership to try and avoid having to pay extra money to the government, it slowly becomes a battle of insecure daughter vs. stubborn father, as the two fight over everything from what to tell the IRS rep who comes to their house to lunch. The more time she spends with Chuck, the more Patty starts to feel less like herself, or at least the self she’d like to be in the presence of her father. At one point she goes against her balanced meal-loving ways and gorges on the calorie-filled deliciousness that is pie just to stop him from complaining about her worrying about his health and her contrary feelings on the matter. It’s in moments like that one between Patty and Chuck at the diner, and a later one with the pair arguing at the printing press office, that make you realize why Bess Armstrong is the perfect Patty. She really is able to pull off the strange mixture of vulnerability and confidence that defines Patty, knowing only to give way to the former side when the time is right (because Patty and her Type A personality wouldn’t just let it flow naturally).
What is even more interesting about Patty’s storyline this episode, however, is how it relates to Angela’s own struggle to relate to her father figure. As Patty fights with Chuck, she suddenly feels a new affinity to Graham, even going as far to say that the reason she got together with him in the first place is because she knew he’d “be a good father.” The question is, is Graham really that? Not as far as Angela is concerned. At least right now.
The other major plot point of this episode revolves around Angela not being able to accept her dad as more than just her dad, particularly in terms of his love of the Grateful Dead and, moreover, how that relates to Rayanne. When she’s cooking with Graham and Rayanne in the Chase kitchen early in the episode, she is shocked to find her new best friend doing what she’s been struggling to do with her dad: relate. And that’s why she makes the questionable move to sell the Grateful Dead tickets he offers her and Rayanne instead of just going to the concert. She doesn’t want to believe that there’s a cool, possibly relateable side to her father, especially not if she isn’t going to be a direct part of it. And more than that, she doesn’t want to try to be a part of it, even if it just means having a pretty fun, pretty free night out with her gal pal.
Sure, there’s a part of Angela that uses the Grateful Dead tickets as a way to get in with Jordan again (he can help scalp the tickets via the still-unseen Tino), but the main man on her mind here is Graham. And that’s why she feels more terrible than satisfied when she actually goes through with the illicit–on so many levels–transaction, particularly after Rayanne explains that she’d really love to have a dad that’s around, let alone one that would give up a night with one of his favourite bands to make his daughter happy (and possibly get closer with her by association). And why the last scene of the episode sees her trying to make nice with him as the pair work on the house together while “Althea” (by, yes, the Grateful Dead) plays in the background.
In this scene, you almost feel like there’s a chance for Angela and Graham to be Model Daughter and Model Dad, as they find a mutual connection over Billie Holiday and laugh over the fact that Graham doesn’t know who any of the grunge moppets Angela’s fawning over. But as we’ve seen through Patty’s own experience with Chuck, one prize moment does not make for a prize future. It takes more than one afternoon at each other’s levels to get to the next one. Both parties have a long way to go, with Graham needing to look beyond Angela’s likes (remember when he asked her about Anne Frank and totally failed in “Pilot”?) and into her as a whole person (new and alternative hair and friends included!), and Angela needing to give Graham a chance to prove that he’s not the bad guy she assumed he was the second she saw him with another woman outside their house. That said, it’s never going to be the same as it was back when she was so excited for him to come home, she announced his arrival somewhat obnoxiously (this I blame on little Kaley Cuoco’s brief, but cloying portrayal of “Young Angela” in flashback, not the writing by Winnie Holzman). And that’s something they need to accept.
Although it only features in that one scene, the use of “Althea” as a background track to the Graham/Angela relationship is significant. Although there are many interpretations to be had of the song according to my research, there are many references that make it seem like a song that could be linked to fathers and daughters, most notably the talk of Ophelia, the infamous Hamlet character who kills herself after her father’s death (“You may be the fate of Ophelia, sleeping and perchance to dream. Honest to the point of recklessness, self-centered to the extreme”). Of course, Angela isn’t about to do something drastic as she sees the Graham she knew disintegrate, but she may have to let go of herself–her preconceptions, her new attitude–in the process. At the same time, Graham needs to do as the narrator of the song does and listen to his girl, his Althea, sometimes as she might have something insightful (hell, she is the hyper introspective one of the family) to say. Like many of us fathers and daughters, they’re both “guilty of the same things: thinking a lot about less and less and forgetting the love we [can] bring.”
More slices of Life:
- “Hypnotized by Food” is MY Indian name, Graham dear.
- The Rickie/Graham “bonding” moment was an all too real one that reminded me of every single time my dad is talking to my own gay best friend. Same goes for the
- Overwrought-Yet-True Angela Simile of the Week: “When people compliment your parents, it’s like a stungun to your brain.”
- “I can’t watch this guy. I miss Johnny!” – Patty watches Jay Leno (you and me both, Patts)
- “I like it when you actually need me.” And in one shot, Graham expresses his feelings towards both Angela and Patty. Too bad he did while he was sexing Patty and made it seem all the more messed up.
- And as if you didn’t imagine Rayanne and Amber’s dinners going like the dinners Cher hosted for her kids in Mermaids already: “I can’t believe I’m eating something that’s not in a pouch!”
- “Oh, I’d like to help you, sir, but I’m too busy picturing your daughter naked.” Graham doesn’t know everything, but he does know the truth about Mr. Krakow.
While “Father Figures” might be one that only fully hits home with fathers and daughters, “The Zit” is an episode for all of us. It’s an episode that addresses the elephant in every single room, even the ones you’d like to think you’re alone in. And that’s our fear of ourselves … naked.
I’m not speaking literally necessarily. But in a way, I am, as “The Zit” speaks directly towards body image issues from multiple standpoints. First and foremost, we reflect on society’s expectations of beauty through Angela’s disgust at a ripe pimple on her chin. This isn’t a new tale in TVland or real life, but it’s something we’ve all been through at some point (or more accurately, points) in our lives. With one single rupture of the skin, we suddenly feel like a monster, an abomination to a world that wants to believe everyone can and should be fresh-faced. But as Angela learns, and many of us are still learning, everyone else is often too wrapped up in their own blemishes–on their face, on their soul, or wherever else–to think about yours long enough to really think less of you.
Of course, there are always the people that might mention that one thing that’s “off” about you, either in an attempt to hurt or help you, and that’s something that Angela has to deal with through a couple of characters who are, again, dealing with their own insecurities. The first lowblow to her falling self-esteem comes from Patty’s suggestions for dealing with the chin thing, as Angela considers her mother, the former high school queen bee, a purveyor of beauty and thus, automatically disgusted with her daughter’s sudden lapse in it. There’s a truly heartbreaking scene where Angela breaks into tears and states, with total personal sincerity, that she’s “ugly” as Patty attempts to make her try on the outfits they are supposed to wear in a mother-daughter fashion show. It’s here that Patty also breaks down, realizing that while she had been stressing out about fine lines and getting older, she had been ignoring her daughter’s latest and quite crushing crisis. It’s also here that I often find myself breaking down, remembering my own discussions about my lack of good looks with my mom as a teen and, I’ll admit, even to this day.
I will also admit that “The Zit” holds a certain special place in my heart as it puts salt in a lot of my metaphorical self-inflicted wounds in terms of my perception of my looks. I see a lot of myself in Angela here, as she tries her hardest not to compare herself to her friends, her equally beautiful friends, and the superficially appealing she sees in them. I also see a lot of myself in Sharon Cherski here, as she attempts to come to terms with the part of her body that she hates and guys love after it–or, to get Angela with it, they–end up on a Best Of list compiled by Liberty High’s male population. I don’t agree with her attacking Angela’s zit at one point, but I have always been highly self-conscious about my own “global endowments,” both worried that they are the only thing that some people (namely, the opposite sex) see in me sometimes. I am still a bit uncomfortable with them on occasion (i.e. when I wear a lower cut shirt that wouldn’t be too revealing on some people, but feels inappropriate on me), but I have also learned that it’s okay to love them, just as some ladies love on get positive towards their posterior parts (yes, I hear you, Nicki), and that just because someone notices them, or appreciates them, does not mean they don’t feel the same way about other good parts of me–physical and mental–too.
I really appreciate that Sharon realizing just that isn’t simply a result of her interaction with her boyfriend and poll voter Kyle, who tells her that he didn’t just want to go out with her because of the twins (he says he liked her smile and just her general being too). She also has a nice talk with Angela in the bathroom about this situation, during which she shows that despite all her protests in previous episodes, she still sees all sorts of good in her old best friend. It’s too bad that Rayanne has to come in and cut off the compliment party, and also that Rayanne doesn’t get to jump in with her true feelings about being deemed the girl with “Most Slut Potential.” But we’re still early on in the series and so, Rayanne is still functioning as a foil to Sharon and everything she represents on the surface. Later on, however, we’ll see that there’s actually plenty of similarities to be mined between these two “opposites.” Without spoiling anything, Rayanne and Sharon have something in common that Angela can’t share just yet and it involves the thing that Rayanne is supposedly known for. And that’s not to say anything bad about any of them. (I still cringe when Rayanne says, “Do you love it?” after seeing the word “Slut” next to her name, and later when she puts on a name tag reading “My Name is SLUT,” but that’s an entirely other post that I might have to write called “Rayanne Graff and Why Slut-Claiming is Just as Bad as Slut-Shaming”).
Another thing that I wish we got to see more of in “The Zit” is Danielle, Angela’s oft-forgotten sibling, who ends up being Patty’s partner at the aforementioned fashion show after our girl backs out with Mom’s permission. But then again, seeing Danielle fail to get her mother’s attention again and again (see: a scene where she tries to yell over Angela and Patty and fails) is almost tragically truthful in its own way. While some people worry about being noticed too much, some people just want to be seen, flaws and all. And that’s something that needs to be addressed too, if not more. Especially for people like myself who have a hard time grasping that mentality.
It’s certainly an angle that Angela doesn’t find easily, that is until the end of the episode as she watches Danielle flaunt her homemade dress on stage with Patty in her matching one. As she watches over her mother and sister with Rickie and Rayanne by her side, Angela gives perhaps her most touching and truthful monologue yet: “Sometimes it feels like we all live in some sort of prison and the crime is how much we hate ourselves. It’s good to get really dressed up every once and a while and admit the truth; the when you really look closely, people are so strange and complicated, they’re actually beautiful. Possibly even me.”
When I’m having a distorted image day, thanks to a zit or something else inconsequential in the long run, I often watch “The Zit” and ruminate on that one passage. Sometimes this results in tears. Sometimes it just results in a giddy smile of recognition. But every single time I realize that Angela is right. She’s beautiful in so many ways that she can’t even see. And so are Sharon, and Rayanne, and Danielle and Patty. And okay, I probably am too.
Yes, I said probably. And yes, I am working on it.
Come back here later this week for our review of ‘The Substitute,” which originally aired on Sept. 29, 1994.