Join us as we spend the next 25 days writing about some of our favourite Holiday TV specials! Today we look back at My So-Called Life.
What’s it About?
In 1994 Winnie Holzman introduced to the world her critically acclaimed TV series My So-Called Life, a realistic mid-nineties teen drama that takes a look at a 15-year-old girl and her trials and tribulations. From the instant, Angela Chase (Claire Danes) dyed her blonde locks a bright red, this teen angst series earned its place in the annals of television. Audiences were captivated by the rising star’s performance, and teenage girls swooned over the school’s gorgeous rebel-without-a-cause Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). The show gave a voice to millions of young women who otherwise had none on network television, but unfortunately, due to low ratings (and several parental complaints about being too realistic), the series was canceled after one season. My So-Called Life has since been referred to as one of the ten best “one season” TV shows of all time and still lives in the collective minds of its fans.
Synopsis: Christmas arrives in Three Rivers, and it finds Rickie (Wilson Cruz) out on the street running away from his abusive uncle. The family Chases’ Christmas gets complicated when Angela’s anxious search for Rickie, aided by a mysterious homeless girl (Juliana Hatfield), leads her into the seedy underground warehouse inhabited by runaway kids.
My So-Called Life often took a comic plot and subverted it by playing it for realistic drama, rather than just for laughs, but of all the 19 episodes of this short-lived teen drama, “So-Called Angels” is without a doubt the biggest tear-jerker. The episode opens with a whispery voice-over prayer, as Rickie Vasquez stumbles and falls along the cold winter snow – blood dripping from lips, his face battered and bruised. From Rickie, beaten, and alone, it quickly shifts to Juliana Hatfield, a homeless teen hipster with a guitar and the voice of, well, an angel. We’re just over a minute in, and the tone has been set for the upcoming 44 minutes – downright sentimental. The scene fades to white as a guitar plays the single notes of “Silent Night.” Gradually, the single notes of the guitar become the solitary keys of a piano. The camera pans downward and we fade into the Chase home.
If there was ever any evidence that the series played out like an After School Special, “So-Called Angels” would be the ultimate case study, complete with an actual PSA at the end, voiced by Wilson Cruz, for an organization which helps locate missing kids. Aside from existing as a solid stand-alone episode, it also kicked off one of the best subplots of the series: Rickie and his attempts to find a family. The show was notable for dealing with hot topics with relatively little melodrama. Some episodes often involve guns, drugs, sex and so on, but with the fifteenth entry, came the topic of child abuse and runaway teens. The episode remains both strong and current even today due to the then-and-still controversial subject matter and story elements. From the trials and tribulations of an openly gay character to the problems of child abuse and homeless youth, Winnie Holzman’s series doesn’t always paint a bright picture but it does present a truthful view of young America.
While the emotional force of this episode lies with Angela helping Rickie, there’s also a subplot about her two best friends: Rayanne (aiding a Holiday teen helpline) and Brian (dealing with his Holiday loneliness), who accidentally reach out to each other via a 1-800 number. Amidst the depressing, dark subject matter at the core of this sequence, come flashes of unexpected comedy (MSCL-style), culminating in one of the most awkward phone sex exchanges ever.
Note: Fans of the show will notice that a scene that somberly recalls Brian and Rayanne’s Halloween night in the school basement, wherein Rayanne revealed a secret to Brian. Here, Brian unknowingly reveals his feelings to her.
The moral weight of “So-Called Angels“ rests on Patty, Angela’s mother, who struggles to come to terms with her newfound knowledge of Rickie’s situation and then do “the right thing.” Her struggle is made clear by their transformation into one of the most loved Christmas icons, Ebenezer Scrooge. And let’s not forget Juliana Hatfield (the ghost of Christmas Eve), disappearing, reappearing and in general hammering home the message that any teen can end up a runaway, including Angela herself. It’s a heavy-handed focus on the issue no doubt, but somehow the execution works well against the backdrop of the Patty-Dickens storyline.
Note: Fans of the series will remember Angela already bumping into other class holiday-related characters (see the Halloween episode).
Back to Patty’s Christmas transformation: The first challenge comes from Angela, when she asks why the family doesn’t go to church, and whether her parents believe in God. It’s an interesting way to examine how a religious holiday has become a consumer event, even within the household of two self-described spiritual parents. The second test Patty endures comes when she shows little concern that the Krakow family left Brian home alone on Christmas while taking off on a holiday vacation. The third confrontation comes when Rickie arrives at their house looking for comfort and shelter and Patty outright refuses Angela’s request to let him stay the night. Graham then challenges her by asking if it would be any different if it were Brian instead of Rickie. Just as Scrooge is visited by three spirits which challenged his understanding of the world, so has Angela’s mom.
The multi-layered characters in My So-Called Life were easily the highlight of each episode, but the show also offered top of the line production values. Keep in mind the pilot, as well as this episode, was directed by Scott Winant, who would go on to helm episodes of Breaking Bad The direction is disciplined, and the sharp editing deserves special mention, as transitions often appear seamless. Juliana Hatfield’s ghostly sequences drift freely in most cases, creating a dreamlike pace and a smooth story flow. Charlie Lieberman’s photography here tops any of the other series’ entries and composer W.G. Walden crafts a number of organic, poignant music cues that work well with the Holiday spirit. From the percussion-driven moments of heightened drama to quieter, more reflective sequences, the music sets the episode’s tone incredibly well.
Mushy and sentimental, perhaps, but one can’t diminish the overall effect this heartwarming tribute to the true Christmas spirit has. This holiday classic is worth an annual viewing – a truly classic, timeless episode, and one of the few that never grows old.
“Remember, folks: no man is a failure who has friends.”
Overall, “So-Called Angels” is without a doubt one of the all-time great Christmas specials, from what might be considered one of the “best shows ever”.
– Ricky D
How Christmassy is it?
Combine the story, the message, and the take on A Christmas Carol, and it’s easy to see that this is 100% Chrismassy.
Who’s it for
As Patty and Graham converse in their bedroom, the television silently runs It’s a Wonderful Life. Their faces are framed alongside the TV set in such a way that Jimmy Stewart is practically standing in the room with them. The scene from the classic Holiday film is the sequence in which George Bailey out of desperation, prays for help. By setting up this shot, director Scott Winant foreshadows the presence of Angela’s guardian angel – Hatfield. She is to Angela what Clarence is to George Bailey. These juxtapositions continue throughout the episode. A second example comes later in the Chase home when the television is showing the scene from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol where the philanthropists have come to solicit donations from Scrooge. We don’t get to hear Scrooge’s response, but Patty’s reaction speaks volumes when she outright rejects Angela’s invitation to have Rickie and the mysterious girl, over for Christmas dinner. The scene establishes the complete transformation of Patty into Scrooge.