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Once again, we're tackling another show in TV Blend's weekly series "___'s Best Episode." Each week a different writer will pick out a different episode of a TV show and argue why it is definitively, absolutely the best thing the show ever did. Arguments will be started, tears may be shed, but we're here to start some conversations and make some arguments for really, really good TV. This week Kelly continues things by examining the beloved but short-lived ‘90s drama My So Called Life. Read below, argue with us in the comments.
19 episodes of My So Called Life aired on ABC between 1994 and 1995 before the network pulled the plug on it, leaving us to forever wonder how things would turn out for Angela and Jordan. Or for Angela and Rayanne. Or Angela and her family. Or Angela and Brian. You see, while the series focused largely on Angela Chase (Claire Danes), Winnie Holzman’s My So Called Life was about so much more than one girl struggling to find her identity. It was about the characters around her also trying to find their identities. With just nineteen episodes to choose from, you might think it would be easy to select the best episode of all, but in truth, this task has proven as tricky as if we were trying to find the shiniest, clearest, most perfect gem among a selection of 19 especially beautiful gems.
?Having rewatched the series in it’s entirety, I’ve come to the conclusion that no episode of this short-lived series was wasted. Each installment contributes to the drama in its own way, delivering character development, humor, drama and enough flannel to loosely drape over a generation of angst-ridden teens. But having to choose one episode above the others, I have to go with “The Zit.” An unfortunately titled episode for an unfortunately titled series, “The Zit” captures the spirit of the show beautifully as it examines the subject of self-perception among teens and adults.
“The worst feeling is suddenly realizing that you don’t measure up, and that in the past when you thought you did, you were a fool.”
Written by Betsy Thomas, “The Zit” has Angela and the rest of the sophomore class obsessing over a list titling some of the female students’ best assets. Rayanne makes the list for “Most Slut Potential,” while Sharon wins for “Best Hooters.” Angela is not included on the list, which should probably be considered a good thing, but it’s clear Angela feels insecure about being left off, and it doesn’t help that she’s battling a pretty nasty chin-pimple.
Angela’s insecurity about her looks trickles over into her mother’s insistence that the two participate in a mother/daughter fashion show. While her friend Camille (Sharon’s mom) admits to finally being happy with how she looks, Patty is focused on her aging skin. We know Angela’s mother was once the most popular girl in school, but Patty admits that even when she was younger, she was too busy being modest to appreciate her beauty.
“It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think about. It blotted out the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like the zit had become... the truth about me.”
The beauty of the episode comes from the way the obsession over appearances and self-perception brings out the issues between some of the characters. For example, Sharon’s embarrassed by the attention she’s receiving over her chest, while Angela can’t get around the pimple on her face to see just how beautiful she really is. All she sees is what she isn’t by comparison to everyone around her. Both girls feel insecure and it leads to a bathroom confrontation where each makes the other feel bad about themselves. This is the kind of brief but impacting battle that can only occur between two people who know each other well enough to know exactly how to hurt the other.
What it comes down to is that Sharon is still hurt that Angela dropped her for Rayanne, and Angela is secretly envious of Sharon for her more-developed body and the fact that she now has a boyfriend. Of course, Sharon can’t appreciate her body or her boyfriend because she now believes the only reason she has one is because she has the other.
Meanwhile, Ricky and Brian are both acknowledging their outsider status. Brian’s focused on the fact that girls and guys are pairing off and he’s sort of being left behind. And Ricky attempts to avoid the girl’s bathroom in an effort to behave more “normal.” Ricky and Brian are two classic examples of beautiful people whose differences don’t allow them to really be themselves and be accepted at this point in their lives. Both of them have only begun to discover who they are. Right now they’re in a social environment that more or less rejects them, or at the very least, doesn’t know where to put them. There’s a parallel here between that and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” which is only loosely explored in the episode as more of a B-story, when Brian explains the story’s sad ending to Jordan. Ricky admits that if he were the lead character, he’d be “outta there so fast.” I like to think someday he did go on to find a more accepting environment that appreciates him for who he is.
Sharon: Why do girls have to tear each other down?
Angela: I guess 'cause they're jealous. I mean, I was. Of you. For having what you have.
Sharon: Do you know how many times this week I wished I had what you had? Angela: But I don't have anything!
While all of this is going on, there’s a poster in the girl’s bathroom at school of a gorgeous, “flawless” model that’s slowly being defaced by markers until her face is barely visible behind the graffiti. Is this a mark of how people reject the idea of perfect beauty? Or that people are trying to cover up the image of a model that makes them feel insecure and physically inferior to the idea of what beautiful is? Or maybe kids just like to draw on stuff. The finished product that is the defaced poster is revealed in the background during a sweet conversation between Angela and Sharon where they sort of apologize to each other by admitting their envy over the other. It’s the start of their reconciliation in some ways as the two will eventually go on to be friends again, more by choice than by default, as it once was.
In “The Zit,” none of the characters can appreciate the beauty of what they are because they’re too focused on how other people see them or the small flaws that, in the end, aren’t really worth obsessing over at all. There’s a realness to it not only as it applies to being an adolescent and growing up, but also as something we probably never fully grow out of, which serves as a perfect example of what made this show work. What’s more, for all the angst and frustration, the episode still manages to end on a happy (albeit, a bit sappy) note. After Angela admits to her mother that she feels ugly, Patty sees that she lost perspective and unintentionally put pressure on her daughter, who was already feeling pressure over her looks. She was too wrapped up in her own insecurities to see how her behavior was affecting her daughter. To make amends, she lets Angela off the hook for the fashion show. In the end, she takes the ever-overlooked Danielle to the show and the episode ends on a high note relieving some of the built up tension and reminding us that these characters do know how to smile.
My So Called Life, for what it was able to be in its brief lifetime, was a realistic glimpse into the mindset of teenagers. It also managed to incorporate the frustrations that come with parenting and growing up from an adult perspective through Patty and Graham Chase’s stories. “The Zit” offers a fair balance of all of that, demonstrating the strength of the series, which unfortunately, never saw a second season. It’s fitting that the episode focuses on beauty as it proves to be the episode that showcases the true beauty of the series.