After a Labor Day break (sorry), we've hit a pair of episodes that might as well be called My So-Called After-School Special: "On The Wagon," in which Rayanne struggles to stay sober with mixed results, and "So-Called Angels," in which Juliana Hatfield gives homeless teens a face and a pair of wings (literally). But though both episodes tackle PSA worthy topics–teen drinking/drug use and teen runaways/throw-aways–their approaches couldn't be more different.
"On The Wagon" opens with Rayanne lounging distracted and bored on the couch in her guidance counselor's office. She's been sober for 33 days, the counselor tells her with that patronizing "I'm concerned for you" whine to her voice that all guidance counselors brandish with abandon. (Later on, when Rayanne asks her, "What was that word, you said it last week, for when you feel the need to, like, eat?" The counselor responds, "Hunger?" with that same perfectly patronizing tone.) "This is kind of a dangerous time for you," she reminds Rayanne as she tilts her head slightly with concern. And so begins the struggle to remain sober for Rayanne Graff, teen alcoholic/drug abuser.
The thing is, Rayanne never feels that way. Even though "On The Wagon" is about "an important issue facing teens today," as many a guidance brochure would put it, the issue is secondary to the character having the issue. No one is preachy or heavy-handed about the subject, and the only person who uses AA language is the guidance counselor. "I'm squeaky clean like a rubber ducky," is about as close as Rayanne comes to discussing her problem. And, before she goes to Vertigo to sing with Frozen Embryos (aka "Between Names"), she even mocks that kind of after-school-special brand of melodrama, when, as Angela pleads with her to stop, she pours herself a glass of whiskey, mumbling, "I need it! I've just got to get through tonight," before collapsing into giggles. As we see in the final scene of the episode, it isn't stress or even disappointment that leads Rayanne to drink, it's happiness. Well, that and the good fortune of standing in a movie line near a couple of dudes who don't mind sharing their beers with outgoing high schoolers.
In truth, this episode is more about Rayanne's friendship with Angela than anything else–a relationship complicated by two factors: 1. Rayanne's almost overdose and 2. the friend alienation that often happens whenever someone gets a boyfriend or girlfriend, aka Jordan Catalano. It seems that since the break-up crumple cry felt around the world, Angela has been spending a lot of time ignoring Rayanne and hanging out with Jordan in his car, by her locker, and under the bleachers. What do they do when they hang out? Talk. Well, actually Jordan talks, and Angela mainly talks in her head ("You must have me. As your own. You can't live another second knowing others could possess me.") and listens. This episode is the first appearance of angsty Jordan and most of his angst, and the topic of all of his deep, serious conversations with Angela is the rapid disintegration of his band, Frozen Embryos. How could Tino leave the band? What's everyone going to do now? Should they cancel their open mic gig at Vertigo? It's a subject that Jordan mines for conversation like a natural born worrier–which we know from experience he is not.
After being stood up by Angela after school one day, Rayanne turns to Amber for advice. Amber, in turn, advises her in a way only Amber can: while blending a margarita and offering to defrost frozen baby quiches so her daughter can have something to eat for dinner. Amber tells Rayanne to "become part of it," hang out with Angela and Jordan when they're together, make friends with Jordan's friends, etc. So the next day Rayanne jumps into the backseat of Jordan's car while he and Angela are having their hundredth serious discussion about the state of Frozen Embryos. Jordan, perhaps not wanting to reveal his band angst to all, asks them to leave, and Rayanne decides to audition for the band formerly known as Frozen Embryos. She gets the gig as their lead singer, an event that leads to (in chronological order): Jordan's first phone call to Angela ("Rayanne Graff is here. She's coming on to my drummer. Acting like she's hot."), Rayanne dressing up like a gilded Fraggle version of Boy George, Rayanne's completely disastrous rendition of "I Wanna Be Sedated," and Jordan's triumphantly emo take on the Ramones' classic.
Rayanne retreats to Amber's embrace, Ricky spends a sleepless night worrying about his friend, and the next morning, Angela and Rayanne have an emotional fire-escape hug reunion. But even though they both admit that they miss each other, and they both want to remain friends, their friendship has shifted in a way that can't be remedied: "I'm still your friend. Nothing's changed," Angela says to Rayanne. But while outwardly she's patronizing Rayanne, inwardly Angela is more honest, "But that wasn't true, either. And we both, like, knew it." It's a point that's only underscored when, in the next scene, Rayanne caps off her saucy version of the Sesame Street theme by taking a slo-mo swig from a stranger's beer in the movie line, as Ricky and Angela look on, disappointed. There's no moral or happy ending or even lesson to be learned from this after-school special—it's just another page added to the ongoing characterization of Rayanne Graff, irresponsible friend of Ricky and Angela.
—The contrast between Rayanne's pitiful family dinnertime and the Chases' is so textured, and sad.
—Jordan: We'll do okay. Just wear something tight.
Rayanne: That's your solution, cut off my circulation?
For 30 Seconds to Mars, Jared Leto's solution has evolved into wearing as much eyeliner as possible.
—"So you want to make love? Close your eyes and be very, very brave." Ew, Patty, ew.
If "On The Wagon" puts the character before the issue, "So-Called Angels" does the exact opposite. Though the episode opens with Ricky, beaten, stumbling, and coughing blood on the snow, it quickly shifts to Juliana Hatfield, homeless teen angel with guitar who says at one point "I'm no different than you." Seriously. Need more evidence that the episode is more My So-Called After School Special? There's an actual PSA at the end, voiced by Ricky, for an organization that helps missing and/or homeless teens.
But it's not just the heavy-handed focus on the issue of teen runaways, and the addition of a magical character/walking symbol that makes this episode different. After all, MSCL can be heavy-handed at times, and Angela has previous experience dealing with holiday-related magical characters (see "Halloween"). Also, angels have a long tradition in Christmas-themed shows and movies. But "On The Wagon" just doesn't feel like a My So-Called Life episode. It's a lot darker (figuratively and literally) and bleaker than usual (Ricky spitting up blood on the snow really set the tone), there's no voiceover from either Angela or anyone else, there are several musical interludes, and most of the action takes place in town, at night, in places we've never seen before.
Still, even within all of the depressing, dark, and Juliana Hatfield-related subject matter, there are flashes of the show that we've come to expect. Sharon, Rayanne, and Brian's teen helpline subplot is pure MSCL comic relief, culminating naturally in Rayanne engaging Brian in one of the most awkward sex-line exchanges in recent memory ("What are you wearing?" "Um. I'm wearing my red flannel shirt and brown corduroy pants. Why?"). And Brian's interactions with Angela ("What? You go to one abandoned warehouse and you're like an expert on homeless people?") as well as Graham's interactions with Patty ("You won't believe what the Krakows did." "Yeah. But just the once, to make Brian, right?") crackle with a welcome, familiar tone.
Unfortunately, though, none of those things could save the episode from homeless teen angel Juliana Hatfield, always strumming her guitar, disappearing, re-appearing, and in general hammering home the point that Angela herself could be homeless. By the time she complains about her worn-down boots and eyes Angela's new, already deemed warm Doc Martens, the fact that she's supposed to be a neglected, homeless foil to well-fed, loved Angela has already been made very clear. Then Angela wanders around the abandoned warehouse on Tennessee Ave. looking for Ricky, and gives Juliana her new boots. Then Angela tells Brian that "There's this one girl and when you're like talking to her you forget…that there's any difference between you." Then Angela gets into a fight with Patty about inviting Ricky and The Angel to Christmas Eve dinner, and yells, "This girl…She could be me!" (in case you missed it) at Patty. By the time that Patty goes out looking for Angela, and chases after The Angel, mistaking her for Angela, Juliana might as well be wearing a sign that says, "I'm a magical reminder that homelessness could happen to you, too." The conversation she has with Patty ("I know. Because I'm no different from her…Another toss of the dice, she could be in my shoes I could be in hers.") is so far beyond overkill.
The scene at the end, when Angela and the Chases, and Brian and Ricky all find each other at the church is appropriately sweet and moving in that way that Christmasy things are allowed to be–it's just a shame that it took a singing homeless teen angel/walking reminder that homelessness could happen to you to get them all there.
—Jordan's exchange with Ricky in his car was surprisingly tender, especially for Jordan.
—Graham calls Patty, "Hey, Shortie." And Patty responds, "What's with the Shortie?" Indeed.
—Sharon, all decked out in her Christmas sweater and tartans and ornament earrings and broken Santa pins was a vision of Christmas spirit. She should leave something holiday-related and embarrassing to wear for when she's in her 50s, though. How else will she have fun?