If you were a teenager in the 1990s, My So-Called Life was a revelation. Its storylines were real, its dialogue was unaffected in a way teen dramas never got to be, and its cast looked like average people—or at least as average as Claire Danes and Jared Leto can look. It was supposed to be about one suburban Pittsburgh kid’s crummy life, but yet somehow everyone wanted to be (or maybe date?) Angela Chase.
Why it only got one season, we’ll never know. MSCL was game-changing because it treated teenagers like people, not just stereotypes of people. Angela (Danes) fought with her parents, but was never overly condescending or shrill about it. Rayanne (A.J. Langer) had a substance abuse problem, but it wasn’t only during the “very special episode”—it was a real struggle. And Rickie (Wilson Cruz) was a gay kid who didn’t just swing in to help with make-up snafus—he experienced real dramas and did things besides just, y’know, be queer. (Every gay best friend on TV since him could’ve taken a cue.)
But even though the show didn’t get the long life it deserved—it barely got out of sophomore year, let alone graduation—My So-Called Life packed more into 19 episodes than The O.C. worked into four seasons. So if you haven’t already, it’s time to binge-watch your way through My So-Called Life. Go, now. Go!
My So-Called Life
Number of Seasons: 1 (19 episodes)
Time Requirements: There’s about 15 hours of TV here. Back in the ’90s, MTV used to run My So-Called Life weekend marathons, so we recommend you replicate that magic with streaming services and knock this out over a Saturday and Sunday.
Where to Get Your Fix: Amazon Prime, Hulu
Best Character to Follow:
Angela Chase. You kind of have to since in addition to being the main protagonist she’s also the show’s narrator. Rickie is a good one to keep an eye on, too. Also, if you are (or were) a tortured loner type, watching Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) is a good way to remember the more gruesome years of your life.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
With only 19 episodes, do yourself a favor and burn through each of them. Even if you skip ahead you’ll be dying for more and going back to the ones you moved past in no time anyway, so go ahead and watch them all in order. But if you really want to get straight to the blood and guts of this show…
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Pilot” Meet Angela Chase. She’s a sophomore, her breasts have come between her and her dad (not in a creepy way), she just quit yearbook and dyed her hair wine red, and she’s starting to hang out with alterna-teens Rickie and Rayanne. Oh, and she’s in love with Jordan Catalano (future Oscar winner—god, that’s weird—Leto). Fun fact: Leto is nearly eight years older than Danes, who was actually 15 when this show started airing. Let that sink in.
Season 1: Episode 3, “Guns and Gossip” Not everyone loves this episode. But while the “guns in school” storyline has its pitfalls—and clichés—it’s still remarkably poignant. But really the whole point of this episode is the moment that Rickie and Angela realize they’re truly friends and not just people who are, like, “around.” (See below.) It just feels like the genesis of every real high school friendship ever. (Also, you note that we skipped Episode 2, where Jordan gets Angela a fake ID. It’s not terrible, but the best part by far is when Angela utters the peak-romance-at-15 phrase, “You’re so beautiful, it hurts to look at you.”)
Season 1: Episode 6, “The Substitute” For those of us who spent many of our high school days in creative writing classes feeling our feelings, this episode is a cornerstone. For those who have seen Dead Poets Society, it’s also a little predictable. Whatever. “The Substitute” makes you want to email every great teacher you ever had. It’s also the one where you find out Jordan is illiterate.
Season 1: Episode 8, “Strangers in the House” Sharon (Devon Odessa) and Angela reconcile their on-the-rocks best friendship after Sharon’s dad has a heart attack and she moves in with the Chases. Sometimes just saying “you can have the first shower” is all it takes to start thawing a cold friendship.
Season 1: Episode 9, “Halloween” This episode is kind of a mess, and not just because Angela starts seeing clichéd 1950s greaser ghosts. But Rayanne’s vampire costume is seriously on-point.
Season 1: Episode 10, “Other People’s Mothers” A turning point in the show, wherein we realize that Rayanne’s “cool mom” is actually more of a “mess mom” who doesn’t realize her daughter is getting blackout drunk in her house. We also see in no uncertain terms how much Rickie saves Rayanne again and again. Also, Angela’s mom (Bess Armstrong) is probably actually the cooler mom.
Season 1: Episode 11, “Life of Brian” The Brian-centered episode you’ve been waiting for. Even though the story is wrapped around one of the hoariest tropes in high-school drama—The Big Dance—it somehow manages to dive into why those things actually seemed so important. They weren’t so much about being popular and having a date; rather, they forced all of us, at one of the most vulnerable times in our lives, to publicly show who we gave a shit about—and to find out who actually gave a shit about us.
Season 1: Episode 12, “Self-Esteem” Remember that thing we said about keeping an (impeccably lined) eye on Rickie? This is where that finally pays off after teacher Mr. Katimski (Jeff Perry, now of Scandal fame) shows up and finally shows Rickie just how valuable he is. Meanwhile, Angela and Jordan are having secret boiler-room trysts and people talk about the band Buffalo Tom a lot (oh, ’90s!).
Season 1: Episode 13, “Pressure” Jordan and Angela negotiate having sex, possibly in the grossest place imaginable. Angela’s dad Graham (Tom Irwin) contemplates opening a restaurant with a woman he met in cooking class, while also contemplating her as a person. (This show really did become a master class in processing.)
Season 1: Episode 14, “On the Wagon” Rayanne and Angela might be drifting apart, so Rayanne—now sober—does the most logical thing she can think of (with the help of her margarita-mixing mom): joins Jordan’s band.
Season 1: Episode 16, “Resolutions” The emotional crescendo of this episode, where now-homeless Rickie goes to stay with Mr. Katimski, is everything. A hug has never felt more cathartic.
Season 1: Episode 17, “Betrayal” Rayanne bones Jordan. And accidental-super-creep Brian videotapes it. (On actual tape! Not a phone!) None of this goes over well. But! Rayanne also gets a part in the school play. [Eds. note: This episode is still the only reason I remember any lines from Our Town .]
Season 1: Episode 18, “Weekend” Half of this one is a bottle episode where the gang ends up stuck at Angela’s house for two days after Rayanne handcuffs herself to Angela’s parents’ bed. (It’s a long story.) The other half is about a not-as-romantic-as-promised couples’ weekend Graham and Patty spend wishing Patty had brought those handcuffs. (Not such a long story.)
Season 1: Episode 19, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” Brian reaches a low/high point as a character and writes a love letter to Angela … to help Jordan. (Is anything more singularly crushing than watching a kid in the throes of high school love help another guy get the girl? This is also the end of the show. SOB!
Why You Should Binge:
Because sometimes reliving the trauma that is high school can be an enlightening experience—and if you’re going to go through it with anyone, it might as well be Angela Chase.
Best Scene—Angela and Rickie and the Gun:
There are better moments than this in My So-Called Life (the one above from the finale is fantastic), but this was the moment where the show really, truly clicked for the first time. MSCL is about finding yourself and finding your people and that moment when the air between you raises a few degrees and you realize you’re having an interaction you’ll be nostalgic for one day. It may have been spawned by Rickie’s unfortunate encounter with a gun, but this was that moment for him and Angela.
“People are always saying you should be yourself, like ‘yourself’ is this definite thing, like a toaster.”—Angela Chase
If You Liked My So-Called Life You’ll Love:
If you’re looking for girls as smart as Angela Chase but proactive: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you want more high schoolers who feel like actual teenagers you might have been or known: Freaks and Geeks. If you want to know what Claire Danes has been up to: Homeland.