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Angela's World

3.1. Pilot Episode: "My So-Called Life"

Original Air Date: August 25, 1994

"When Rayanne said my hair was holding me back, she wasn't just talking about my hair. She was talking about my life." -- Angela

Synopsis

We meet Angela Chase and the principal characters; we see MSCL's principal environs of home and school; we are introduced to the principal themes and symbols of MSCL.

Analysis

If a good first impression is all important, then MSCL succeeded with the pilot episode; many of us became devotees of MSCL because something in that first episode touched us. Each scene introduces a character, plot line or theme which will continue throughout MSCL. Thus, while functioning as a self-contained episode, the pilot also serves as both preview and condensed version of the MSCL story. The elegance of MSCL can be demonstrated by an in-depth analysis of the first four minutes of the pilot, where every word, every nuance, and every camera angle convey meaning.

The First Four Minutes

"Go! Now! Go!" It is Rayanne whispering in Angela's ear, prompting Angela to action even before the first scene. Rayanne is urging Angela to step out and beg change from strangers with a transparently implausible sob story. It is a game so childish the girls can't keep straight faces long enough to make their pitch. The game ends when Rayanne announces that Angela is hypoglycemic, and she must get her some chocolate. But behind the frivolity lives a sober, troubled Angela, who began hanging out with Rayanne Graf "because it seemed like if I didn't, I'd die, or something." Angela then states her complaint: people think of you in a certain way -- even your best friend. As Angela ruminates over her problem, Sharon Cherski enters the picture. As Angela and Sharon walk through the school hallway, Angela continues to ruminate while Sharon talks, her voice fading into the background noise of the hallway.

In the hallway, Angela tries to not notice a boy noticing her. She then notices Brian Krakow being roughed up by some school bullies. She expresses mild irritation at cheerleaders. "Can't people cheer on their own, like, to themselves?" she muses. As Sharon's voice re-enters Angela's consciousness, Angela looks out the window and spots Rayanne and Rickie Vasquez running across the school lawn hand in hand. She watches, perhaps wishing to be with them.

"Who are you looking for?" Sharon asks.

"Nobody," Angela replies curtly.

"School is a battlefield for your heart," Angela muses. "So when Rayanne Graf 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."

As Angela speaks, the scene fades into a shot of Angela rinsing her hair in a bathroom sink. She raises her head and stares apprehensively into the mirror at her hair, which is dripping wet and aggressively red. Behind her, we see Rayanne and Rickie. Rayanne is chewing on something and perusing the medicine cabinet.

The first three minutes of MSCL demonstrate the economy with which the show has been created. Without a single line of meaningful dialogue among the characters, we know that Angela is a girl on the cusp of adolescence who has begun to turn away from that which defined her as a child -- friends and even her own concept of who she is. She is searching for things to define her emerging self. We also know that the catalyst for the upheaval in Angela's life will be her new friend, Rayanne. Thus, before the first commercial break, we have been shown the driving force of MSCL: The progress of Angela's transition from child to young woman. Returning from the commercial break, we are about to hear lines of dialogue which succinctly introduce the essence of the speaking character. First we see Patty holding a bag of groceries. She is looking at something, lips pursed, blinking deliberately.

"So it is you," Patty says finally.

The line states the theme that will guide her throughout the show: Her attempt to know Angela as Angela goes through her metamorphosis. Angela explains the obvious:

"I had my hair dyed", and Patty responds with mild sarcasm.

"Oh, you had it dyed. I thought it had died -- of natural causes."

The mother-daughter relationship apparently has been strained for some time prior to when we meet Angela, just as Angela has been hanging out with Rayanne and distancing herself from Sharon. But there is an interesting subtlety in the exchange between Patty and Angela. Angela constructed her statement to Patty in the passive voice, which grates against the ear ("I had my hair dyed"), leaving the agent of the actual dyeing of the hair unknown, and therefore not accountable. Angela did not say, "I dyed my hair." We know that Angela did not passively sit and allow her hair to be dyed bright red. We know that Angela dyed her hair herself because we have seen her raising her hair from the bathroom sink. We also know that Angela, the 15-year-old, did not consciously choose to phrase her statement to Patty to avert responsibility. Clearly, Angela's statement was constructed by a writer, but we may validly attribute the subtext to Angela: She is being less than forthright with Patty. She is both not yet ready to fully defy her mother and capable of telling less than the whole truth when she senses the need.

Thus, one exchange of dialogue reveals an important facet of Angela's character and an undercurrent of the entire relationship between Angela and Patty. The exchange also signals the viewer that how things are said, and what is not said, may be as important what is said. Shortly thereafter, Rayanne and Rickie enter the kitchen.

"Angela, come on!" Rayanne exclaims. "I'm -- starving."

Rayanne's effusiveness stops short when she sees Patty. While the change in Rayanne's tone of the voice foreshadows the tension that will develop between her and Patty, the line is the first statement by Rayanne about herself, and introduces the food and eating metaphor that will saturate MSCL.

Food, and the act of eating together, symbolize home, security, nurturing, spiritual guidance, and the love of family. Food will be present, discussed, or eaten in virtually every scene which includes Rayanne. Her association and preoccupation with food indicate her craving for the things foods signifies, which are sorely absent from her life. The word "starving" will also be repeated throughout the program. Repetition of words and verbal rituals, (e.g., "hi - hey"), is a technique MSCL will use to create emotional and psychological "undercurrents of connection" between characters who otherwise seem to have little in common.

"Are you Angela's mom?" Rickie asks.

"Yes, I am," Patty answers. "That's true."

Patty speaks with a twinge of irony, which hints at a degree of frustration at being viewed only in terms of her relation to Angela. Patty's growing dissatisfaction with being known only as "Angela's mom" is a possible source of the tension between Patty and Angela. Again, a single exchange of dialogue reveals, or at least hints at, important information. We have already listened to first-person narration by Angela, and we know that Angela is the pivotal character. We are now being told that the story will be told thoroughly from Angela's perspective, and that the surrounding characters will generally be viewed in terms of their relationship to Angela. Therefore, we may validly understand them as extensions of Angela, and we may also validly understand Angela through them.

"I like your house," Rickie says.

Just as the food theme will center on Rayanne, the theme of home and a place of belonging will center on Rickie. His statement is a friendly overture towards Patty, in itself portentous, but it also is the embryonic form of Rickie's struggle to find a place where he belongs.

Patty awkwardly extends some hospitality by offering the kids a package of cheese and noting that there are drinks in the fridge, a line which Rickie must finish for her. Patty is attempting to fill a role to which she is not accustomed, which is disclosed in Patty's exit line, where she announces that she is leaving -- not the house, just the kitchen. Patty belongs in the house, but not in the kitchen. Patty doesn't even call it the kitchen when she leaves; she calls it "the room." If food signifies love and nurturing, we might suspect that Patty does not provide these things readily. Later we will that Patty does not lack love for any of these children, but that the true provider of food, the spiritual provider, is Graham. As Patty leaves, Rickie states that she seems nice. Rayanne remarks that she took Angela's hair "real calm." Again, the statements foreshadow the relationships that will develop between Patty and these two friends of Angela's. Eventually, when Rickie has been turned out and seems to have lost all hope, it will be Patty who finds him and gives him comfort (and, if only temporarily, shelter). Rayanne, however, has sized up Patty as a potential adversary, an accurate assessment, because while Patty represents a childhood past from which Angela is anxious to separate, Rayanne represents a new world of independent self which Angela is anxious to reach. As Patty tends to hinder Angela's progress while Rayanne tends to prod, Rayanne and Patty will naturally be at odds. The relationship will mellow, of course, and this we know by Rayanne's last line:

"Nice cheese."

Thus, in the first four minutes of air time, the creators of MSCL have revealed the direction of the show, the essential nature of the most central characters and their relationships. More importantly, MSCL has challenged its viewers. We have been put on notice that we must pay attention and think about what we are seeing. In the first four minutes, MSCL shouts, "Wake up!" It will be a rare scene in MSCL that does not contain the same, or greater, degree of subtext as the first four minutes. As viewers, we should be aware of this, and be ready to fill in the subtext for ourselves.

Each subsequent scene of the pilot introduces a principal character, theme, or plot. Thus, when the episode ends, we have the basic elements of the "novel" that is MSCL.

At Home with the Chases

Rayanne's comment about Patty's cheese fades to a close shot of Angela's fork picking at a plate of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and peas. It is dinnertime in the Chase household. The Chase family eats their meals together, without distractions, and, although later we may infer that others have eaten with the Chases, Graham's brother, Neal, is the only non-member of the Chase household whom we will ever see eating dinner with the Chases. The "dinner scene" extends the food metaphor, signifying the active operation of the concepts which food symbolizes. It is reassuring to know that tensions, conflicts, and troubles cannot diminish the essential love and concern these family members have for one another. Even Angela, the distracted teen who can't give her mother the satisfaction of eating a balanced meal, (and who wants to stab her mother "repeatedly"), can still come home and enjoy the security of family. In later episodes, we will see the Chases at breakfast. Although less leisurely than dinner, the Chases begin each day together.

In voiceover, Angela tells us about her feelings towards Patty, who sits straight-backed in her chair, wielding her fork with calculated precision in contrast to the vacant swirling of Angela's fork. Angela also expresses her discomfort with chewing -- it is a reference to a bodily function. Her discomfort indicates her anxieties concerning her growing awareness of herself and her physical presence.

"Wait," Graham says, "There's something different."

The conversation that follows suggests that Graham is more at ease with the changes in Angela than Patty, but as the family gets ready for bed, we see that Graham is not so comfortable with the changes in Angela, either. Angela realizes her father's discomfort:

"The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us."

In the master bedroom, Patty and Graham reveal their discomfort with Angela.

"Tell her not to walk around in a towel," Graham says. "Or get her a bigger towel."

Patty wishes they could have the kind of surveillance that the government provides for Chelsea Clinton.

"Patty," Graham says, "it could be a lot worse. She could be cutting class, doing drugs, having sex."

(All things, by the way, that Rayanne will do during the course of the story.) Significantly, this is the first time Patty's name is spoken. Until this moment, the only means of reference for this woman has been as Angela's mother. In the adult enclave of the master bedroom, however, Patty is not "mom," but a woman named Patty.

"It's just so hard to look at her," Patty says.

Her words convey her love and concern for Angela. But to grasp their true depth of meaning requires the development of other aspects of the story. Having established one realm of Angela's world, the family, we move to the other significant realm of which we have already had a glimpse: School.

At School with Angela

"I'm in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He's always closing his eyes, like it hurts to look at things."

Angela's voiceover adds a second dimension to Patty's remark. But it is clear that this is love from afar, as Angela stands by herself and watches as Jordan puts drops in his eyes. Jordan is not looking at Angela.

We are briefly reminded of the tension in Angela's life as she is caught between Sharon and Rayanne. Rayanne then calls Angela into the bathroom. The Girls' Bathroom is a place where the girls (and Rickie) can be unselfconsciously concerned with their appearance. It is also a refuge where feelings, sweet and bitter, are revealed and shared, where friendships are built and challenged. Much of Angela's "school" life will be played out in the Girls' Bathroom and it will prove to be the classroom where Angela learns her most enduring lessons. Once inside the Girls' Bathroom, Angela states her feelings for Jordan Catalano:

"Well, either sex or a conversation, ideally both."

Her statement summarizes what she wants both from Jordan and from men generally. Throughout MSCL, Angela's relationships with the male characters will be defined by the yin and yang of "sex or a conversation." As we may well guess that Jordan Catalano represents the "sex" aspect of Angela's desires, we may wonder who represents the aspect of "conversation."

We meet Jordan's "conversation" counterpart in the following scene, at a yearbook meeting. It is Angela's neighbor, Brian Krakow. He is in love with Angela, and we know because we see the room through Brian's camera lens -- Brian's point of view -- and the camera is trained relentlessly on Angela, who is seated beside Sharon.

Suddenly, Angela decides to quit yearbook, yet another act of separating from her childhood. By leaving yearbook, she is also leaving Sharon and Brian, both vestiges of her childhood. As Angela opens the classroom door to leave, she turns to answer a question from the teacher. We see her, again, through Brian's camera. A bright white light from outside the door frames Angela's head like a halo. To Brian, she is an angel.

Back in the Girls' Bathroom, Rayanne persuades Angela to go to a party at Tino's, where she will find Jordan. Angela wonders if she is making a fool of herself over Jordan Catalano. Asked for the "male" perspective, Rickie, making himself up in the mirror, sizes up Jordan precisely as Angela has:

"Don't you just love how he leans?"

The primary purpose of this brief scene has been to advance the plot, (Angela will go to Tino's party), but it has also revealed an important side of Rickie. Throughout MSCL, scenes which are necessary to advance the plot will also carry important information about the characters.

Digression: Where's Tino?

Rayanne's mention of Tino's party is the first reference to Tino, a character often spoken of but never seen. Tino is one more example of the brilliance of MSCL. To create a good story, characters must at times respond to events not of their own doing. Such events create complicating situations -- situations the characters might not create of their own volition, for which characters are not yet ready, or which place characters with others with whom they might not naturally interact or associate. Such situations ultimately tell us about the characters. In a sense, outside events are the mutations in the evolution of a story line. However, MSCL has dispensed with the outside, random event factor, and replaced it with Tino, a character who seems to be at the heart of the action. Consistently undependable, he is consistently relied upon. It its Tino who throws the party where Angela first talks to Jordan Catalano. It is Tino whom Rayanne depends on to get into Let's Bolt, then fails to show, leaving Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie in the parking lot. Tino forms Jordan's band. Tino schedules the rehearsal where Angela hears "I Call Her Red," then fails to show up. Tino drives Sharon and Rayanne to the hospital so Sharon can see her father -- an unseen event which allows Sharon and Rayanne to have greater insight to one another. Tino provides Chinese food for Rayanne. Tino arranges a seance on Halloween then fails to show, setting the stage for the break-in at the school. Tino walks out on the band, which leads to Rayanne's disastrous singing debut and drinking relapse. With the exception of a copying machine that eats a geometry exam, (which may arguably be the answer to a prayer), MSCL never relies on a random event to propel the plot. Thus, it rarely strains credibility or reality. Instead, it relies on Tino, a character who creates plausible events that fail to occur as expected. End of Digression.

The following scenes flesh out Angela's school life, where the only willing participant in class discussions is Brian. While Brian may be the victim of shakedowns in the hallway, he is happy, at home, and ready with an answer in the structured environment of a classroom. Angela, on the other hand, is lost in her own thoughts. When the teacher asks for a description of Anne Frank, Angela absently answers, "Lucky." The teacher is not amused:

"Anne Frank perished in a concentration camp. Anne Frank is a tragic figure. How could Anne Frank be lucky?"

Behind her, Jordan Catalano walks into the classroom, late.

"I don't know... Because she was trapped in an attic for three years with this guy she really liked?"

The teacher's expression clearly shows that the answer is incorrect, but Angela's statement introduces a "prison" theme that will recur throughout MSCL. Ironically, while MSCL will demonstrate that everyone is "imprisoned" to some degree, Angela and her friends attend "Liberty" High School.

The scene fades to the same classroom, but at lunch, where the teacher has brought Angela in to talk to her. The teacher expresses concern for Angela, and Angela takes the opportunity to explain her troubles:

"It just seems like, you're agreed 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 if it's even you?

"And I mean this whole thing with yearbook, it's like ... if you made a book of what really happened, it'd be a really upsetting book -- you know, in my humble opinion."

Angela wants to find out who she really is, and not be who people expect her to be. It is also the first use of "in my humble opinion," one of several phrases which assume a life of their own through the course of the show. The second portion of Angela's statement, although revealing Angela's state of mind, may also help to explain MSCL's ratings failure. More so than any other "teen" show on television, MSCL is a "book" of what really happened -- and at times, it is really upsetting.

Angela's statement also serves as a transition to the next scene, with the kind of camera work that is the hallmark of MSCL. Having just said that a book about what really happened would be a really upsetting book, the camera superimposes Angela's face on Anne Frank's face as it appears on the cover of Angela's Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl -- a book about what really happened. As Angela's face becomes Anne Frank's, we see the book in Angela's hand. She is at home, looking into a mirror. From Angela's perspective, the camera moves through the hall to the kitchen, where Graham is fixing dinner.

Angela's voiceovers tell us that Graham works for a printing business that Patty took over from her father, making Patty Graham's boss. Angela tells us that Graham was supposed to work at the printing business for a while, then go to "chef" school, but never did. "I'm not sure why," Angela says. But the camera is trained on Angela as she makes the statement in voiceover. It is clear to us that Graham never went to culinary school because he had to help support a family -- a fact to which Angela is clearly oblivious. Thus, while we learn a little about Graham, but we also learn that Angela's world is in ways limited and still childlike. Graham tries to talk to Angela about her strained relations with Patty.

"Just try to be nice to her -- as an experiment."

Angela takes advantage of Patty's absence -- and a lie -- to obtain Graham's permission to go to Tino's party.

Jordan Catalano

 

At the party, Angela gets pushed into a mud puddle. She goes into the house to clean up, where she encounters Jordan, sitting alone, watching a music video.

"This doesn't seem like a Friday," Jordan says.

Angela explains that it is Thursday, which she knows because:

"...yesterday was Wednesday."

Jordan's first line of dialogue shows that Jordan is a person in step with himself, but not necessarily with the world at large -- particularly, not necessarily with the world that Angela occupies. Angela's attempt to connect with Jordan will take work, and may be no easier than trying to explain why it is Thursday. Before either can say anything else, Jordan's friends break in and ask him to go with them. He leaves. The scene establishes the paradigm for much of the relationship between Angela and Jordan. While live music blares outside, Jordan sits alone with his own music. Before anything meaningful can be said, Jordan leaves with his friends. And yet, everything meaningful has been said, or the exchange between Angela and Jordan would not cause us to squirm so as we witness it. The topic of their conversation is trivial, but the conversation brims with the tension and anticipation of Angela's crush. Throughout most of the subsequent episodes, the conversations between Angela and Jordan -- most notably the exchange concerning Angela's pen in "Betrayal" will operate similarly as Angela strives to reach her goal of "a conversation."

Let's Bolt

The party at Tino's having failed to yield the hoped-for connection between Angela and Jordan, Rayanne mentions a "rave" at a club called "Let's Bolt." Their plans are made in MSCL's one and only cafeteria scene, a loud, chaotic mob-scene sharply contrasting to dinner in the Chase home. The plans for Let's Bolt serve as a transition back to the Girls' Bathroom, where Sharon enters and Rayanne leaves. Angela makes overtures to Sharon, who is deeply hurt because Angela is no longer speaking to her. But Angela cannot articulate the changes in her. The rift remains unresolved, but it is clear that both girls do not desire an end to their friendship. The tension is no less eased in the Chase household that evening, where Patty and Angela argue about Angela's plans to stay the night at Rayanne's house. However, on a deeper level, the argument concerns Angela's growing independence and Patty's inability to accept the changes in Angela, which is confirmed by the fact that Patty finally relents. If Patty had truly been concerned about Angela staying the night with a girl whose parents she had not met, or Angela getting rides from strange boys, she wouldn't have given in. Outside, Angela is confronted by another symbol, another leitmotif, of childhood, Brian on his bike. This one, however, Angela can scornfully dismiss. Angela, Rayanne and Rickie are depending on Tino to get them into Let's Bolt, and so naturally, they wait in vain. To pass the time, Rickie asks a question: If you were about to "do it," what would you want the other person to say?

"You're so beautiful, it hurts to look at you," Angela says wistfully.

Soon the trio encounters a pair of older boys, one of whom begins to paw Rayanne.

"Something was actually happening," Angela says in voiceover, "but it was too actual."

Before the excitement turns to real danger, however, it is broken up by a police officer who takes Angela and Rayanne home.

The Return Home

As the drunken Rayanne gets out of the squad car, she tells Angela,

"With your hair like that, it hurts to look at you."

Rayanne had been almost derisive of Angela, but now adopts the statement as an expression of the feelings she has for Angela. It will take the entire series of episodes to fully explore the depth of Rayanne's feelings for Angela. Angela had thought of her "it hurts to look at you" statement in a romantic context, clearly alluding to her impression of Jordan closing his eyes like it hurt to look at things. But Patty had found it hard to look at Angela. Sharon had told Angela she hated Angela's red hair; in a sense it hurt Sharon to look at Angela. And Rayanne said it hurt to look at Angela. The phrase has become a shorthand for various forms of love, the love a mother has for her daughter, or the love one friend has for another. Angela will learn to appreciate these different kinds of love as time passes.

The squad car arrives in front of Angela's house as Angela is telling the officer about Anne Frank.

"She was hiding, but in this other way she wasn't. She like stopped hiding. She was free."

The police officer remands Angela to Brian.

"Watch out for her," he tells Brian.

As they turn the corner, Angela sees her father talking to a young woman, but nothing is said. Angela and Brian walk together, and we see another side of Angela's relationship with Brian: He loves her, they have bickered like children, he is a part of Angela's childhood that she is trying to leave behind. But Brian provides one aspect of what she seeks in Jordan Catalano: Conversation. As Angela crosses the street home, Brian blurts out:

"It's the year 2000," and Angela turns towards him.

Angela and Brian stand on opposite sides of the street. The tree branches come together above them, the street is bathed in soft lamplight. Clearly, there is something between them that transcends Angela's need to forsake Brian and what he represents. There is an aspect to her relationship with Brian that Angela must take with her. The conversation is about the yearbook theme, but in tone, it is person-to-person. It is the first actual conversation Angela has without the underlying roles of parent-child, teacher-student or crush object-crush possessor. In the house, Angela undresses, sits at her mirror, and wipes off her lipstick, signifying a return from the "frolic" of adulthood. The mood is melancholy, with R.E.M. singing "Everybody Hurts" in the background. Angela seeks out her mother, who sits on her bed balancing her checkbook.

"How'd you get home?" Patty asks.

"Rayanne's mom," Angela lies.

"My mother's adopted," Angela says in a voiceover. "For a while, she was searching for her real parents. I guess that's what everybody's looking for."

In the background, the television shows a scene from It's a Wonderful Life, an allusion to Bedford Falls Productions, which created MSCL. Interestingly, it is the scene where George Bailey's sick daughter, Susan ("Zu-Zu"), has asked him to mend the petals that have fallen off her flower. He tries but cannot, and she is not fooled by his sleight-of-hand as he sticks the petals in his pocket. Indeed, there are some things a parent cannot fix. But that does not mean you cannot ask, or that they cannot try.

Angela apologizes to Patty "for my hair, and everything," and falls into her arms.

"It's not important, it'll grow out," Patty says, consolingly. "It actually looks, not that bad. In my humble opinion."

In one sense, Angela has gone full circle, from child to dabbling in the adult world of relationships and nightlife, to a child in her mother's arms. But in a larger sense, it is the end of a journey, because when Angela goes to her mother, it is with a sense that what she has done may have had an effect on her mother. And Patty, consoling Angela, acknowledges that Angela's new look is "not that bad." Independently, they have reached an accommodation that allows them to accept each other in their new roles, less as mother and daughter and more as individuals. That accommodation foreshadows the entire progress of MSCL. The following Monday at school, Angela passes Jordan.

"Out on bail?" he asks, referring to his glimpse of her as she got into the squad car at Let's Bolt.

"Yeah. So how was your weekend?" Angela asks.

"It sucked," Jordan says, but he doesn't explain.

Instead, he leans back and closes his eyes. A moment later, he leaves.

Angela's contemplation of Jordan is interrupted by Rayanne and a group of followers.

"I'm telling you," Rayanne says, "We had a time. Didn't we? Didn't we have a time?"

Well, let's see: Angela left her house after a fight with her parents, they went to Let's Bolt and waited for an eternity without getting in, a pair of boys attacked them and they were taken away by the police. But along the way, Angela has grown a little older, a little wiser, a little more seasoned.

"We did," Angela says, smiling. "We had a time."

And so have we.

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“Ignore her. She got up on the wrong side of the coffin this morning.”

Enrique (Rickie) Vasquez, Episode 9: "Halloween"