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Every Word
Belle and I just re-watched the short and immortal nineteen-episode run of My So-Called Life. This is the second time I've watched the whole series in order, and the fourth time I've seen most of the individual episodes, but it's the first time I've seen any of them in several years, and the first time I've seen them on DVD, and the first time I've watched the whole series in company. Belle, not being a cataloguer like I am by nature, knew the show as a mood rather than an arc, so part of the joy was sharing the story with her. Another part was seeing pieces of her and my relationship and our bonds and our differences in Angela and Brian and their friends and school and parents and doubts. And large parts, of course, were just the joys of being once again, for a few hours, immersed in this world's poignantly dignified confusion and yearning, in the feeling of wanting so badly for life to mean something that it eventually capitulates and does.
With time, unsurprisingly, come emotional distance and detachment, however reluctant or fractional. I can much more easily recognize the show's flaws and limitations and failures, now, than I could when it still hurt that the story had been so unjustly truncated. Watching in company, as a sort of default apologist to Belle's periodic sensible objections, I was frequently bemused by cheats that didn't register when I was watching by myself, like the endemic plot-movement over-reliance on people conducting charged conversations in conveniently unenclosed spaces, and Belle picked up on others, like Rayanne's unrealistically high-fashion version of a DIY wardrobe and Angela's apparently erratic ability to teleport from place to place when the plot neglects to provide anybody to give her a ride. The acting is not as uniformly remarkable as I'd rather remember, and a few episodes are seriously undermined by particularly substandard support parts, perhaps quintessentially a glazed Juliana Hatfield's hapless rendition of an angel who appears to be attempting to use her own halo as a makeshift teleprompter. I don't think any of the dream sequences work, and Our Town is a complete cop-out.
But it's still the greatest television show I've ever seen. Claire is unstoppable, and Winnie Holzman gave her a real person to inhabit, and surrounded her with other people who were just real and unstoppable enough. It's hard to be too outraged that the ratings weren't that great; realism is exhausting. But after four times through I have now internalized the story so thoroughly that it now feels to me like it had to end there, and thus its demise can hardly be tragic. But even if it didn't have to, it did. It is our job, as the audience, to account for anything we can't change, which as usual is mostly everything. We watch, and spin our own stories off of the ones we're given.
Watching all nineteen episodes takes about fifteen hours. If I've watched them about four times each, that's sixty hours of my life. I'm guessing I might one day watch the whole thing one more time, but probably not twice more. There are levels of obsessiveness, and for movies and TV I will happily watch most things I enjoy twice, the most important three or even four times, but almost nothing more than that. So even if this doesn't turn out to be my last time through this story, for the rest of my life I will mostly carry it in memory. I will carry it in pieces, in moments, in symbols of what it signifies. I will carry not sixty hours or fifteen or even one, but a few instants to which the rest of them aspire. I will carry these:
1. "Good question." (The Substitute)
Arguably Angela is inherently more impressionable than curious, but the difference isn't always that important. The girl she has the potential to become would have written a better poem to begin with, but as Vic points out, that was yesterday. His genius is making "What are you going to write today?" sound like a normal question to which there ought to be an answer. Angela's genius is in allowing him to have changed her, and it's debatable which of them is likely to turn out to have learned more from the experience. One of Claire's many geniuses is the ability to look like a non-existent confused person unconsciously imitating another non-existent confused person in the process of both of them trying to be sure about something, instead of a TV star with a camera pointed at her.
2. "You think Jordan Catalano will understand one word of The Bicycle Thief?" (Why Jordan Can't Read)
Brian is right, all along, that Jordan is not on Angela's level. He's right all the way to the end, right as he writes the letter he knows Angela deserves and Jordan can't give her, right as she gets into Jordan's car and leaves him there in the street. But if Jordan is not on Angela's level, neither is Angela on Brian's. And vice versa, in both cases. These are kids, their "levels" can change overnight. Angela frightens Jordan because she threatens to hold him to his own standards, which he can otherwise pretend he doesn't have. Angela frustrates Brian because (and as long as) he mistakes her faith in Jordan for surrender.
3. "You mean, part time, or--" (Why Jordan Can't Read)
And then one of the most helplessly human first kisses ever filmed. Real moments aren't augured with orchestra swells and a sudden graceful descent into soft-focus slow-motion. They happen in a clash of confused thoughts, when we're only half paying attention, in the middle of stupid questions about something you never intended to remember.
4. "I know what to do." (Other People's Mothers)
More accurately, Angela has no idea at all what to do, and if she stopped and thought about it, she'd probably conclude that her mother would be even less prepared to cope with Rayanne's overdose. But Angela's sudden epiphany is not about medical knowledge, it's about understanding that there are moments for the fight for independence and identity, and moments for calling on your support system. There are nights for trying to grow up, and nights for letting yourself be terrified and rescued.
5. "Kissing, and not kissing." (Self-Esteem)
The schism in Angela's life isn't about kissing, or sex, or even Jordan. It's about experience and analysis. And as with the throwaway New Year's non-resolution about introspection later, her realization is that, for her, analysis is actually integral to experience. This is exactly what Rayanne is pathologically avoiding, and desperately envying. Jordan tries to kiss instead of talking (and later tries to substitute expectation for understanding), but Angela is kissing as a means of communication, and slowly becoming aware that the conversation is one-sided. The problem with the boiler room isn't that she wants her relationship with Jordan to have a mass audience, it's that she wants it to have an attentive audience of at least two. And when he takes her hand in the hallway at the end, and the camera dissolves into slow-motion almost involuntarily, it is one of the great romantic moments in film not because he understands yet, but because for the first time he is admitting that he needs to.
6. "Who are you?" (Resolutions)
The Dead Poets Society approach to creating compelling teachers is the easy way, and the one they used for Vic, although at least they also made him obnoxious and hollow for balance. Katimski's is the harder way, phrasing heroism in far less epigrammatic terms. Compare Vic's smugly self-righteous sermon to Patty about censorship with Katimski's crazed melt-down in the Chases' doorway. Vic is asserting a moral principle, Katimski is looking for a missing child. Patty knows the difference immediately, and repents of a dozen control-freak mistakes in one twisting reversion to the weakness she so methodically otherwise conceals. Graham, who usually has the thankless job of walking around his own house like he's a guest in it, gets a rare chance to perform his unglamorous role as the voice of insistent simplicity.
7. "I can never make any damn headway." (Betrayal)
It's hard, and thankless, and brilliant to give parents a real role in a show about kids. Graham and Patty serve as various contrasts and tangents at various points, but one of the most surprising greatnesses about the final arc is that it finds space to give them resolutions, too. Hallie Lowenthal is almost as insidious as Katimski, and her non-kiss with Graham at the end is a minor tour de force, but Graham's growth is about expanding his loyalties, not contracting them, and Hallie actually understands that better than anybody else. She's right, every conversation with him about the restaurant is like the first one, because he holds his own potential at such a distance that he's forced to rediscover it every time he needs to consider applying it to anything. It is Patty's underlying (and only superficially wavering) support and belief that make the restaurant possible, but Hallie's impetuous zeal and cheerfully groundless confidence that make it happen.
8. "I'll be home tomorrow night for dinner." (Weekend)
It's a testament to Wilson Cruz that Rickie works, since as a character he's badly handicapped by being the only one of the kids whose prison is not primarily of his own making. He deflects, and empathizes, and invokes protection and evokes sympathy, but only really gets beyond issue-cipher at the very end. This moment on the phone at Angela's isn't one of his set-pieces, but his dancing and his coming out are overt performances, and thus in ways just new layers of his defenses. The fleeting unguardedness in his voice, as he calls home as if it's home, betrays that some solidity has actually crept into his barricaded world. He will construct prisons of his own, inevitably, but at least now he has some space in which to build.
9. The look of death. (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities)
All of Sharon's best moments are wordless, culminating in a glare at Jordan that may as well be a blow. It's tempting to think of Sharon as incidental because her function in the finale is essentially selfless, but she is literally the force that keeps the story of Angela's self-discovery centered throughout the entire series. The two key romantic arcs go from our seeing Angela through Brian's camera in the first episode to their conversation on the street at the end of the last one, and from Angela watching Jordan Catalano lean in the pilot to leaving in his car at the end. But the show is about how self-image defines relationships, not vice versa, and the most important arc is from Angela picking new friends in the first episode to Sharon finally completing Rayanne's (not Angela's) metamorphosis in the last one. Sharon is the avatar of loyalty, and eventually the truest loyalty always wins.
10. "How?" (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities)
The best story human beings have told on television comes down to this. "Forget this whole conversation!", Brian flails, a coward not only to the last revelation but beyond it. "How?", Angela asks him. She has pages and volumes and epics for how Jordan has changed her, most of them stories she has decided to tell herself about how she thinks she wants to feel, about ways she wants to have been moved. And then, finally, Brian moves her. After all this time, and all those moments they each mistook for new truths, this is the one they were waiting for. It is spoiled, in two ways or a hundred, and yet perfect. Brian ruins it, because he has to let her have his gift, and he ruins the gift because it's the only way to explain its value. Jordan ruins it by needing her, at first without understanding what she needs, and then despite it. Angela ruins it by getting in the car, but she has to. She has to accept the gift, to let the moment hang in the night air. The hard conversations, for them and everyone else, have to wait for morning. The scene has to end, the chapter has to end, the story we are watching has to end. We have to hold still, and let the characters leave the screen, so that the people we free can begin.
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